At the end of 2008, Asim Qureshi was in Peshawar in order to investigate the cases of those still detained in Guantanamo Bay, the missing persons of Pakistan and to meet with released GITMO detainees.
During a meeting with former detainee Badr-uz-Zaman, a commander of the Pakistan Taliban entered with his contingent to pay respects to the released detainee, whose Islamic scholarship was well respected in the region.
After the horrific school attack in Peshawar, Asim reflects on that meeting and its implications for the future.
As a new father again for the third time, I’m left mortified at the attacks against children in Peshawar – children who by all right should be spending yet another day trying to better their future. I’m left wondering how we could possibly get to the stage where children’s’ lives have become not just a part of the collateral damage of conflict, but targets in its ever increasing barbarisation.
At the end of 2008, I travelled around one of my favourite cities in Pakistan, Peshawar. A city that is almost unparalleled in its hospitality. I recall previous trips to the city where those with nothing in refugee camps, made me feel like I was the most honoured guest that had ever been to visit with them. On this occasion, it was my investigations into detentions as part of the global War on Terror that led me back to the city. This time, the beauty and hope I had previously encountered, had been replaced with a fear that I was unaccustomed to. Checkpoints had been established throughout the city and there were stories circulating of men, women and children being picked up without any reason or connection to militant groups. The security agencies were using their mandate to carry out enforced disappearances and make some extra money on the side through kidnap for ransom.
It was in this environment that I visited the homes of those who had been affected by the security agencies. I was given the opportunity to sit with Badr-uz-Zaman, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had been detained along with his brother Abdul Rahim Muslim Dhost. They were, however, among the earliest group of individuals to be released from the prison camps, and on their return, as scholars and academics, wrote their memoirs in Pashtu about their time in US custody. Soon after the publication of their book, Abdul Rahim was arbitrarily detained by the Pakistan security agencies and Badr was left to lobby for his brother’s release. At the time of our meeting, the US elections had just been completed and the President-elect Barack Obama had promised to close Guantanamo – which had left those such as Badr sceptical, but hopeful,
“Guantanamo is actually just a place where they run away from their own legal system- the American legal system, so people in detention in Guantanamo have no access to American (civilian) courts. And if they close it, it will be a good sign, but we hope Obama brings more changes in policies regarding Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Muslim Ummah. So we hope they won’t be able to do what they want with us.”
Although critical of the US, Badr-uz-Zaman was equally critical of the role being played in Pakistan,
“The problem is that the Pakistani government is helpless in front of the security agencies, like the ISI and army in general, and they’re playing a double game- that’s what’s going on. From one side, they’re telling the world and their population that they’re allies in the “War on Terror”, and from the other side they have political interests in the Taliban- not religious. And they’ve been arresting people and handing them over to the Americans- they’ve done it in the past. I think they should have a clear policy- if the double game that is going on will create more problems in Pakistan because Mujahideen have also been divided- there have been pro-Pakistani Mujahideen- the local Pakistani Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban, and there has been enmity. The enmity- the Pakistani Taliban are vengeful against what Pakistan has done in the past seven years.”
As he spoke, Badr-uz-Zaman gave the impression of someone not filled with hate for what he and his family had endured, but rather an individual whose great level of learning, could not find an adequate solution to the problems he was witnessing. In many ways, reverting to his Pashtun concepts of pride and honour above all else in repelling foreigners, very much dictated his outlook, and thus would always be the easy and most comfortable position for him to withdraw to.
As our discussions continued into the violations against detainees that he had personally witnessed, and those that he heard of, we were disturbed by the entry of a group of men, equipped with Kalashnikovs. There was a rugged look about these men, almost as if they had descended from the mountains after some long battle. Their clothes were simple shalwar kameez in shades of grey, brown and green, and all sported the traditional afghan cap. They greeted Badr-uz-Zaman fondly and stared at me intently, seemingly with suspicion, only to have their fears allayed as their host explained that I was a researcher who had come to understand the situation of Peshawar better – not exactly correct – but I figured my host who knew my role perfectly well would have divulged that information had he felt it appropriate to do so.
Badr turned to me and said in his perfect English, “If you really want to know about Pakistan from a perspective you have never heard, you should speak to these men – they are with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.” He pointed at one man in particular, whose soft face and demeanour would not have struck anyone as an individual with any particular significance and far too young in the group for any position of authority. “This man is Abdullah, he is the commander of Mohmand Agency for the Pakistani Taliban.” From that moment on, Badr-uz-Zaman turned from being a trauma survivor who I had come to interview, to being an impromptu Pashtu translator.
Without being prompted, Abdullah began to describe to me his role within the Pakistani Taliban. He spoke of how his role was to coordinate efforts within the Mohmand Agency by sending their troops to fight the Americans and those allied to them, but also to train troops to fight against the Pakistan army and security agencies. He said their stated goal, was to, “…bring down the cruel regime of Pakistan and remove the Americans from Afghanistan – God willing.”
The commander proceeded to talk in a very matter of fact way and related to me the world as he saw it. Throughout the conversation he regurgitated some truths and some myths about abuses that were being carried out by Pakistan, US and their Northern Alliance partners in Afghanistan. Through my work I knew much of what he was saying rang true from the experiences of survivors or the families of those who had been abused. Like so many who are drawn to violence, he took particular exception to the treatment of women, and in fact highlighted their abuse as a specific issue they faced,
“We have been working on specific operations to free female prisoners who have been detained by the US military in a base near Bagram as we believe that it is our duty to do so. On a number of our operations, we found the dead bodies of many of these women in mass graves.”
The conversation took a much more macabre tone as we continued to speak about their specific policies and methodologies. Whether the grievances they had were based in reality of myth, they had internalised a narrative about their enemy, the way their enemy operates, and as a consequence, had made policy decisions on how to deal with their threats. Throughout my work, when engaged with those responsible for political violence, the one narrative that remains true to all their experiences, is grievance based on abuse, torture and killings. Whether those stories were verified, made little difference, they became accepted in an environment where there is little accountability.
I did not think Abdullah would open up to me in the way that he was. I couldn’t help but question, and now reflecting back, even become slightly confrontational over the positions they were taking. He explained how common the idea of suicide attacks were by referencing his own family,
“One of my own nieces has told me that she wants to become a suicide bomber and die for the sake of our people and countries, she requests me all the time and weeps when I tell her, ‘No’ as she knows I am the commander. She wants to be a martyr for this cause despite having a young child. If she cannot enter a military camp in Afghanistan or Pakistan, she will take her child with her and blast herself – she is ready to do that in order to get rid of the invaders. This is just one example, there are hundreds of people ready and willing to do the same, hundreds who support the Taliban and are willing to carry out these operations.”
I was taken aback by Commander Abdullah’s statement. It would seem that fighting was not just become a means to an end, it had become an end itself. Less than three months prior to our chance meeting, the Pakistani Taliban had attacked the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, killing 54 people and injuring 266 others. I challenged him about this incident saying that there was little likelihood they achieved any military objectives through such an attack, and furthermore, how could they ever be sure that they were not killing the innocent?
“We are trying our best to teach our martyrs that in the path of their operation, they should not hit innocent people. They should be careful and that they should try and limit any kind of unlawful killing. Unfortunately sometimes mistakes are made and sometimes the person will enter an area where he cannot get out and he will need to continue and we hope that Allah will forgive the person for having taken a life unlawfully as the killing was not intentional. More than that, we don’t want to waste our istishhaadee (martyrdom) by killing those who are innocent. We only want to send our people to very accurate targets and if it happens, then we hope Allah will forgive him. As it is said in the hadeeth (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad): “Everything is forgiven to the martyr except his debts.” The target is always to only get those who are working against the Muslim Ummah.”
Although we would go on to speak about many other matters, it was those words that stayed with me long after I left Badr-uz-Zaman’s house. What was the criteria they were using to assess whether or not a military objective was being met? Whatever the logic they were resorting to at that time, the Peshawar school massacre on 16 December 2014 is far removed from anything that Commander Abdullah said to me on that day. I return to the soft face and mild spoken manner of the Commander, and saw in his face and words someone who at some point could be reasoned and negotiated with. Even when I put it to him that the President-elect might offer a new way forward, I was taken aback by the openness of Abdullah to such a proposition, insisting that it was only ever foreign intervention and the role of the Pakistan army that was the root cause of their violence.
I wonder, whether we are asking for too much by expecting conflict to simply end by speaking of conflict or negotiations as a solution. Maybe, in the short term, we need to find some form of resolution to the problem of our children being caught in the middle of this madness.
Children on both sides of the divide have suffered atrocities too unbearable to fathom. When the US Senate Report into CIA torture was released last week, it reminded me of the stories that I had read and heard about the torture and abuse of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad’s children. Two of his boys were arrested at the ages of five and seven, and held in detention where they were interrogated, and from sources that I have encountered, were placed inside small boxes with insects dropped inside. I heard these stories many years before reading that insects were used as an instrument of torture by the CIA in the summary report.
Those two children were not alone. Across the world I came across examples such as Hafsa Swaleh Ali, the four-year-old detained and interrogated by the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit for a month – a child that I met who would soil herself at the sight of Kenyan men in uniforms (even if they were cleaners) due to her fear of figures of authority. Then there are the children of Aafia Siddiqui, whose story (or lack thereof) has been perpetuated as a rallying call for those caught up by Pakistan’s programme of enforced disappearances. What then of Abdur Rahman al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike by the US for no reason other than his father was a person of interest to the US.
These stories are often presented as the collateral damage of the way in which terrorism needs to be fought. The logic is so often quoted that it takes the veneer of criminalising those children by virtue of their associations. Collateral damage is indeed a part of war, while we have war, we will never be able to escape this fact. However, when in the cases of Abdur Rahman al-Awlaki and the Army Public School in Peshawar make children the targets, rather than the exception, then we are in a completely different scenario. These are not just crimes, they are a complete affront to how we as human beings understand the right to life, and even how we judge guilt and culpability.
The idea that more violence will be the solution to this problem is nothing short of insanity. When the Pakistani Taliban have established their narrative of killing within the truths and myths of the world they see unfolding around them, there is a need to arrest that narrative. One way of doing so, would be by refusing to add fuel to the fire that gives groups like the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State further ammunition to decry the acts of the West and its allies.
As for those who claim to act in the name of religion, then there is much to learn about the way in which barbarity was met in the past. None of the groups operating today will do a greater service to Muslims than Salah al-Din (Saladin) who wrested control of the Holy Land back from invading crusaders. At that time stories were told of atrocities that had been carried out by the various crusader armies that came to Palestine. Those atrocities formed as part of the narrative of counter-crusading in exactly the same way that the abuses of the West are inserted into narratives of the Pakistani Taliban. Except, unlike any other leader of his time, Salah al-Din chose to permit humanitarian assistance to his enemies, when such courtesies were not standard practice.
At this time, it is telling that Mullah Umar has chosen to distance himself from the TTP, claiming that theschool killing was not within acceptable boundaries of Islamic law. According to a spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, they were , “shocked at the incident and shares the pain of the families of children killed in the attack…The intentional killing of innocent people, women and children goes against the principles of Islam and every Islamic government and movement must adhere to this fundamental essence.”
As someone who considers himself first Muslim, but also as someone conversant in Islamic and western international law, the example of Salah al-Din is one that I hope Muslim communities, whether they are engaged in conflict or not, can learn from. Just because the enemy commits abuses, regardless of who began them, it does not necessitate that we must also do likewise. We must reclaim our children from the horrors conflict, and the only way we can do that is to stop seeing them as collateral damage, and even going further to seeing them as reason enough not to pursue claimed military objectives. We may not be able to end and resolve all the conflict that is currently taking place, but as my three sons grow up in the world, I pray that they never began intentional targets or collateral damage, from any side.