District in Pakistan's Northwestern Frontier Province - dominated
by the Swat Valley, watered by the River Swat, surrounded by snow-capped
mountains rising as high as 20,000 feet - has been compared to
Switzerland in its breathtaking beauty.
Only 684 square miles in area (two-thirds the size of Rhode Island),
with a population of 1.5 million, it has little commercial agriculture
or industry but is rich in history as well as natural scenery.
Until recently, it has been a mecca for the archeologist and for
the tourist. Both are drawn largely by the presence of Buddhist
artifacts, including great Buddhas carved into the mountainside,
similar to those crafted 1,500 years ago in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
by Alexander the Greek and his Macedonians in the 320s BCE, this
region became part of the Mauryan Empire. Emperor Ashoka in the
mid-third century BCE promoted the spread of Buddhism here and,
in the second century BCE, the local Greek King Menander may have
been a convert. (The Questions of Menander - supposedly a conversation
between the king and a Buddhist monk - is unique among ancient
Buddhist texts in its dialogue form, characteristic of Greek philosophical
texts, and may have actually been composed originally in Greek.)
Later the Kushan Empire centering on the Gandhara region encouraged
the emergence of an Indo-Greek Buddhist style of sculpture. The
Swat Valley was at the cutting edge of one of the most extraordinary
syntheses in art history: Buddhist content and classical realistic
western sculpture. The Buddha, earlier represented symbolically
(as a footprint), came to be depicted as a Greek deity or king,
standing or seated in meditation.
how the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan,
in March 2001? Well, this Buddha in Swat was attacked twice last
September by forces led by a local cleric named Maulana Fazlullah,
who heads the "Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law," aligned
with the Taliban.
On October 8, the Pakistani Talibs succeeded in obliterating its
face with dynamite. This was not widely reported in the U.S. press,
perhaps because it would have so dramatically demonstrated how
Taliban influence far from waning has spread outside Afghanistan,
and is even leading some Pakistanis to attack their national treasures.
law of karma states that willed actions have inevitable consequences.
Evil actions produce more evil. There is a strange karma at work
nowadays, making everything worse everywhere in Southwest Asia.
George Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001, to capture Osama bin
Laden "dead or alive," crush al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime.
He in fact failed to capture bin Laden, and U.S. intelligence
reports conclude that al-Qaeda is stronger now than in 2001.
Meanwhile the Taliban relying on new recruits controls large swathes
of Afghanistan, kills "Coalition" soldiers in record numbers (218
so far this year, including 111 Americans, compared with 191 including
98 Americans in 2006), and expands operations in Pakistan. The
Taliban is rooted in the Pashtun tribes who straddle Afghanistan
and Pakistan and have little use for the border. They are linked
by a common language (Pashto) and culture centering around the
Pashtunwali or traditional code of conduct (preceding even the
arrival of Islam, which is to say dating at least to the Buddhist
period) which more than any other value emphasizes hospitality
to visitors (melmastia).
Bush administration didn't consider this when it drove al-Qaeda
and the Taliban across the border during the Battle of Tora Bora
in December 2001, or when in March 2002 Bush told a White House
press conference in March 2002, "I truly am not that concerned
about" bin Laden.
Since March of this year administration officials have been voicing
mounting alarm over Taliban and al-Qaeda gains in the border area,
even speaking ominously about possible U.S. attacks on Pakistani
soil. These statements have produced immediate denunciations from
the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, partly no doubt to assure the
public that the unpopular regime opposes an U.S. attack, and partly
to dissuade Washington from attacks that would exacerbate the
current anti-American sentiment in the country. This has risen
precipitously in recent years.
of the Northwestern Frontier provinces, including those of Swat,
have plainly extended hospitality and provided sanctuary to many
on the U.S. wanted list, probably including Mullah Mohammed Omar
and Osama bin Laden.
As the Taliban resurges in Afghanistan, it abets its progress,
placing Pakistan's dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf in a terrible
bind. He has deployed troops unfamiliar with the region to attack
local Taliban supporters, at Washington's insistence, but they
have fared poorly and his efforts have only produced more local
support for the Islamists and more opposition to his government.
karma is at work: George Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001,
to capture Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," crush al-Qaeda
and topple the Taliban regime. He in fact failed to capture
bin Laden, and U.S. intelligence reports conclude that al-Qaeda
is stronger now than in 2001.
to the New York Times, the U.S. Army's Special Operations Command
plans to" train and equip the Pakistani Frontier Corps, a paramilitary
force that has about 85,000 members coming mostly from border
tribes" and to recruit Pakistani tribal leaders to fight al-Qaeda
and the Taliban. But how will they do this in a region where bin
Laden is even more highly admired than in Pakistan as a whole,
where his approval rating as of September was 46 per cent, compared
with 38 per cent for Musharraf and 9 per cent for Bush?
growing security threat, Musharraf declared a state of emergency
and suspended the Pakistani constitution November 3, prompting
an all-around political crisis in a nuclear-armed close ally of
the U.S. He had apparently planned to do this in August but was
dissuaded by Washington. Now he is taking a big risk.
He may fall, and the Islamist iconoclasts or their backers in
the Pakistani military could move into a power vacuum, as Islamists
gained control over Iran following the overthrow of the hated
Shah. Or power might pass to Benazir Bhutto who would, like Musharraf,
need to steer a careful course between cooperating with the U.S.
in its "war on terror," and posing as a nationalist and defender
of moderate Islam.
In the face of near-universal hatred for the Bush administration
in Pakistan, and suspicions that its war is in fact against Islam
in general, the prospect for a Taliban seizure of power in parts
of Pakistan is very real. The Bush administration, unable to control
the events it has triggered, is in a state of consternation.
How did this
happen? What are the causes and effects behind the Talibanization
of the frontier? One can either trace the bad karma forwards or
backwards. If we do the former, we might start with the first
big U.S. intervention into Southwest Asian history: the CIA-orchestrated
overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammed
Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. (Having nationalized the country's
oil industry, he was falsely declared a "Communist" by U.S. politicians
and media.) But let's proceed backwards towards that point.
and Taliban presence in Pakistan stem from the U.S. invasion of
invasion of Afghanistan stemmed from the al-Qaeda 9-11 attacks
on the U.S.
9-11 attacks stemmed from the establishment of U.S. bases in Saudi
Arabia (more than any other cause).
of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, which were never accepted by the
Saudi people but seen as a travesty in the land of the holy sites
of Mecca and Medina, stemmed from the U.S. decision to go to war
with Iraq in 1990.
President Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq and destroy its
military stemmed from Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.
of Kuwait stemmed mainly from quarrels between Iraq and Kuwait
concerning Iraq's debt to the latter.
to Kuwait stemmed from its heavy borrowing from its neighbor during
the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and Kuwait's refusal (backed by
the U.S.) to forgive the debt after the war.
stemmed from Saddam's supposition that Iran was weak, and that
Iraq could adjust the border between the two countries by military
optimism stemmed in part from his two meetings during the war
with Donald Rumsfeld, who offered and provided him with U.S. military
to assist Saddam stemmed from the policy objective of overthrowing
the Iranian government.
stemmed from the overthrow of the pro-U.S. Shah in 1979 and the
emergence of an anti-U.S. Islamist regime.
of power by the Islamist regime stemmed from the hatred of the
Shah, who had been overthrown in 1979 in the most genuine, mass-based
revolutionary upheaval in the history of the Muslim world.
return to the throne 26 years earlier stemmed from a U.S. imperialist
calculus that he would be the best man to look after U.S. interests
in the Gulf region.
This is of
course a simplified backwards-looking chronology. It leaves out
a lot, including the deep background fact that the whole map of
the Middle East was drawn up by British and French colonialists
after World War I. (This is why Kuwait is separate from Iraq,
why Kurdistan never became a state, why Lebanon's Christians wield
disproportionate political power, etc.)
the Taliban resurges in Afghanistan, it places Pakistan's
dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf in a terrible bind. He has
deployed troops unfamiliar with the region to attack local
Taliban supporters, at Washington's insistence, but they
have fared poorly and his efforts have only produced more
local support for the Islamists and more opposition to his
of course blame me for laying out a "blame America first" perspective
covering the period from the CIA coup in Iran, but what government
deserves more blame for the current crises from Lebanon to Pakistan?
I might add that the very existence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban
stem from the U.S. effort throughout the 1980s into the '90s to
mobilize Islamists for a jihad against the Soviets and their allies
The conscious deployment of jihadis versus secularist "communists"
during the late Cold War era led directly to the emergence of
such groups. The Afghan resistance lionized by Reagan was not
by and large progressive in any sense; it opposed the education
of girls, the establishment of clinics, land reform, curbs on
clerics' powers, lifting of Islamic dress regulations. It was
filled with religious fanatics as opposed to American as Soviet
meddling in their affairs. After the Soviets were driven from
Afghanistan, many wound up attacking the U.S. This is what the
CIA calls "blowback." It's the bad karma of imperialism.
to the Swat Valley and its Buddhist heritage. Mullah Fazlulah,
whose "Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law" dates back
to the early 1990s, reportedly now has some 4,500 militants under
his influence. He inveighs against UNESCO-administered polio inoculations,
CD shops, and girls' schools, and apparently spearheads the effort
to erase Swat's non-Muslim past.
Anyone advocating U.S. strikes against Pakistan (a number of neocons
have done so over the last nine months) will mention all these
things in order to emphasize the enemy's caveman otherness. But
we should ask such people: Why are the Mullah Fazlulahs on a roll
right now? What is the cause, what is the effect?
Why do these
religious fanatics want to target priceless, irreplaceable Buddhist
art? Why have some Muslims in this region, who have lived contentedly
in the shadow of these images for many centuries, only within
recent years started blowing them up? (The last effort to destroy
them was in the 17th century, during the reign of the uncommonly
intolerant Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb.)
According to Peshawar Museum archeologist Zainul Wahab, "the militants
say [the statues] are 'symbols of evil.'" The Swat Islamists are
aware that the Qur'an forbids the depiction of the human or animal
forms in religious art (although some "miniature paintings" showing
these in books has been allowed, notably in Shiite Persia) as
a safeguard against idolatry. (See Qur'an 6:74, 14:35, 22:30,
etc.) But why these actions, now?
episode may hold some clues. In July 1999, Mullah Omar actually
ordered that the Buddhas be preserved. They were not being used
as objects of worship (there being no Buddhists in Afghanistan
in centuries). Moreoever, "The government considers the Bamyan
statues as an example of a potential major source of income for
Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that
Bamyan shall not be destroyed but protected."
But in March 2001 a new decree called for the destruction of all
such images. Mullah Omar explained to a Pakistani journalist in
April 2004, "I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In
fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct
the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged
due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people
have no regard for thousands of living human beings - the Afghans
who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living
objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is
why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian
work, I would have never ordered the Buddhas' destruction."
entirely illogical. The westerners, Omar reasons, were more concerned
with saving a statue than with saving people in a country at war
for 16 years, vying with Ethiopia as the world's most impoverished
state - and so the Bamiyan Buddhas must be destroyed. Totally
irrational. But it indicates a connection between extreme Islamist
actions and global power structures.
Omar would not agree with this interpretation of recent history,
but the fact is the Soviet Union, taken by surprise by the leftist
coup in 1978 in Afghanistan but determined thereafter to support
a secular, progressive modern regime, sent in troops in 1979 to
protect that regime from backward Islamists like Omar. And the
U.S. threw its weight enthusiastically behind the jihadis, half
the CIA money flowing to the notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
now targeted for assassination.
In 1993 the Northern Alliance warlords (principally Tajiks and
Uzbeks) captured the capital, castrated and hung the last secular
ruler who had taken refuge at the UN compound, proclaimed victory
over anti-Islamic forces and set about constructing their new
order. They fell into infighting among themselves and Hekmatyar,
a Pashtun at one point named Prime Minister, laid siege to Kabul.
The chaos ended in 1996 when the Taliban, supported by Pakistani
military intelligence, took the capital and imposed the draconian
regime deposed in the U.S. attack five years later.
In the interim
- between 1993 and 2001 - the U.S. basically ignored Afghanistan.
Washington had relished the opportunity to (as President Jimmy
Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinsky put it)
"bleed the Soviets, the way they bled us in Vietnam." But once
the Soviets were gone, the U.S. lost interest. It recognized the
new Northern Alliance-dominated government, but provided little
aid. Its principal interests in Afghanistan were "drugs and thugs"
- discouragement of opium production, and containment of mujahadeen
who having ousted the Soviets were now venting hostility towards
their former infidel allies.
Pashtuns of the Swat Valley are angered by the toppling
of the Taliban, and no doubt by US support for Musharraf
and by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And if they are like Muslims
throughout the Middle East, they turn to Islamic extremism
in part due to frustration with poverty and lack of economic
opportunity. These are the results of imperialist globalization.
Taliban took power in 1996, the oil firm UNOCAL through its representative
Zalmay Khalilzad hosted Taliban officials in the U.S. to discuss
pipeline construction. Colin Powell negotiated an aid package
specifically for opium eradication. But while U.S. allies Pakistan,
Saudi Arabia and Oman recognized the Taliban and sent some aid,
the U.S. and the west in general did little to alleviate hunger
in Afghanistan. Hence, perhaps, the mullah's indignation.
no doubt thinks the west doesn't have its priorities right. But
is his thinking about art so distant from that of the architects
of the Iraq War, who failed to protect the Baghdad Museum from
looters, calling the looting "creative chaos"? Or the U.S. military
whose vehicles have crushed artifacts in Babylon dating back to
the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II? Or the U.S. troops who used
the ninth-century Malwiya Minaret in Samarra as a lookout and
sniper post, drawing a bomb attack that damaged its top tier?
I don't sense that preservation of culture looms large among the
priorities of the Bush administration; it's concerned with conquest,
not art and religion. The Pakistani state meanwhile ostensibly
seeks to preserve the Buddhist images of Swat. But as a police
official at the police station closest to the Buddha of Jenanabad
put it, "Due to the precarious law and order situation in the
area we are confined to the police station and could not go to
the place." The state is spread thin and its top priority is to
other Buddhist sites in Swat, including the Butkara stupa and
Takht-i-Bahi Buddhist monastery ruins, remain under threat, at
the mercy not only of religious fanaticism but the absence of
a state apparatus preoccupied elsewhere. Both of these problems
are aggravated by the U.S. invasion of the region.
The current wave of Islamist violence was unleashed by U.S. imperialism,
itself born out of capitalist competition between states dating
way back to the 19th century. That's when the major western powers,
having carved up China into concessions and colonized the Pacific,
divided Africa and South-east Asia. Russia and Britain vied for
control of Afghanistan, with Britain ultimately winning control
over its foreign affairs.
But the British imperialists were unable to obtain colonial control
of Afghanistan despite two bloody wars for that purpose (1839-42
and 1878-80). In May 1919 the Afghan khan Amanullah attacked British
forces, who responded with the first aerial bombardment (on Kabul)
in Afghanistan's history. Fighting ended inconclusively with an
agreement in which Britain acknowledged Afghanistan's self-determination
in its foreign relations. (That was just after revolutionary Russia
had established relations with the country.)
Friedrich Engels described the First Anglo-Afghan War as an "attempt
of the British to set up a prince of their own making in Afghanistan"
that was doomed due to the Afghans' "indomitable hatred of rule,
and their love of independence." This I submit is an issue larger
than any kind of religiosity.
People don't like being invaded. They don't like it when their
close kin across an artificial border created by imperialist mapmakers
are invaded. The Pashtuns of the Swat Valley are angered by the
toppling of the Taliban, and no doubt by U.S. support for Musharraf
and by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And if they are like Muslims
throughout the Middle East, they turn to Islamic extremism in
part due to frustration with poverty and lack of economic opportunity.
These are the results of imperialist globalization; the Swat Valley
is rich in minerals and has significant agricultural potential
but the state has not promoted all-round development, relying
instead on tourism. Outrage at military strikes, the growing civilian
death toll in Afghanistan, and the lack of jobs and income in
Swat combines with religious passion to attract young men into
Now these groups are defying neocon plans for the region, rebelling
against the Pakistani state, and attacking Buddhist images. But
these Pashtun assaults are only the proximate cause of the Jenanabad
Buddha's defacement. The deeper karmic causes lie, in time and
space, far outside the beautiful Swat Valley.
by Gary Leupp:
Bonus Hostage Crisis
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct
Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants,
Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male
Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan;and
Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women,
1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's merciless
chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial
here to order books by Gary Leupp.
can be reached at: [email protected].