From the Middle East to South Asia: A Struggle to End Foreign Occupation

On Nov. 27, a handful of Pakistanis armed with guns and grenades landed in Mumbai in small boats and held off Indian police for two days as they carried out a carefully planned rampage that left more than 170 people dead. Exactly one month later, on Dec. 27, Israeli warplanes bombed Gaza City, and killed more than 240 Palestinians before the day was over. The two acts of indiscriminate violence against civilians were seemingly unrelated, but they stemmed from a common source–”resistance to foreign occupation, and efforts by an occupying power to crush it.

Both cases involved groups, one Pakistani and the other Palestinian, that are branded in the West as “terrorist” in the same category as al-Qaeda. In fact they are homegrown and nationalist, and long predate al-Qaeda. Unlike the rootless perpetrators of 9/11, their concerns are local, directed mainly toward ending the occupation of their country by a foreign power.

The resistance can take many forms. As George W. Bush was celebrating the success of his war in Iraq at a press conference in Baghdad in late November, an Iraqi journalist named Muntader al-Zaidi hurled a pair of shoes at him. “This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq!” he shouted. The culprit was seized by police and dragged off to prison, but the rage and contempt he expressed proved to be widely shared. Al-Zaidi became a folk hero.

Crowds in Baghdad came out to cheer him. More than 100 lawyers from around the world offered to defend him. A man in Saudi Arabia offered to buy one of the shoes he threw for $10 million. The daughter of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi awarded al-Zaidi a medal of courage. In Beirut, the incident was the “talk of the city,” according to journalist Ibrahim Mousawi. “Everyone is proud of this man,” Mousawi said, “and they’re saying he did it in our name.” In Damascus a huge banner read, “Oh, heroic journalist, thank you so much for what you have done.” A Syrian shop owner told a reporter, “This is like a holiday. This is just what we needed for revenge.”

Al-Zaidi was responding to the death and destruction caused by the American invasion and occupation of his country. He had twice been jailed and interrogated by the Americans. The Mumbai attackers were seeking revenge for India’s longlasting and often brutal occupation of Muslim Kashmir. One of the attackers asked in a phone call to an Indian TV station, “Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir?”

Although their origins are strictly local, the resistance forces are gaining support from others who share their goal of getting foreign troops out of their country. Intelligence officials concluded that the gunmen in Mumbai were members of a militant group known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which originated in 1989 as a proxy force for the Pakistani government in fighting India in Kashmir. After the American invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, however, Lashkar broadened its scope and now includes cells in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s tribal areas, and even in Iraq. Pankaj Mishra, an expert on the region, wrote in the Dec. 2 issue of The New York Times that the attack in Mumbai “shows how older political conflicts in South Asia have been rendered more noxious by the fallout from the ‘war on terror’ and the rise of international jihadism.”

The jihadists are also products of the Cold War, when the U.S. sought to drive the Soviets out of the region by heavily arming the religious fundamentalists who were fighting them in Afghanistan, and by supporting a right-wing dictatorship in Pakistan that fostered extremists. Today, America, as the invader of two Muslim countries and strong ally of Israel and India, has replaced the Soviet Union as the militants’ enemy.

Robert Dreyfuss writes in the Dec. 22 Nation that military officials have identified at least 14 separate insurgent organizations in Afghanistan that are fighting alongside the Taliban and as many as 50 in Pakistan. Dreyfuss quotes Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now president of the Middle East Policy Council, as saying of the insurgency, “It’s a movement, not an organization. What we have been labeling the ‘Taliban’ is a phenomenon that includes a lot of people simply on the Islamic side.”

Afghanistan has become fertile ground for resistance forces. The government is riddled through with corruption, with officials from the top down demanding bribes for every service. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani described Afghanistan as a “narco-mafia state.” There are virtually no government services outside of Kabul. Farmers struggle with drought and the absence of passable roads, and live at the mercy of local warlords. In some areas, the police force is composed of members of ethnic groups traditionally hostile to the people they were sent to police–and behave accordingly. Militants now operate freely in at least 35 percent of the country.

Contributing to support for the resistance is the popular outrage at U.S. and NATO military operations such as aerial bombings and house raids that in 2008 caused the death of 557 civilians in Afghanistan and more than 220 in Pakistan. Afghans also complain of the arbitrary arrests and longterm detention and abuse of detainees in U.S. military prisons. Photos showing dogs being used to intimidate prisoners at Baghram prison were especially angering. Sending more combat troops to Afghanistan under these conditions, as President Barack Obama says he will do, can only inspire greater resistance and add to the ranks of militants.

Obama intends to accompany the additional troops with a greatly expanded reconstruction and aid program, but U.S. experience in Iraq suggests that prospects of success are dim. A report released in December by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction revealed that reconstruction efforts in Iraq had been undermined by corruption, waste, and poor planning. A major portion of $117 billion disappeared into a spoils system controlled by politicians and tribal chiefs. As a result, electricity output is scarcely higher than under Saddam Hussain, and access to uncontaminated water is still severely limited. The report was aptly titled, “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience.”

Violence in Iraq is down, but could be reignited if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to arrest his political rivals, or if it appears that American troops will remain past the 2011 deadline agreed to by both sides this fall. If U.S. military officials have their way, the occupation could last indefinitely. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked on PBS how many American troops will remain after 2011, he answered, “My guess is you’re looking at several tens of thousands.” Meanwhile, commanders talk of “repurposing” American soldiers, which essentially means calling combat troops “trainers and advisers.”

As the date for local and national elections approaches, Iraqi security forces have arrested scores of followers of Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr, and members of other political parties. Al-Maliki accuses the detainees of planning a coup, but many Iraqis see the arrests as an effort by the prime minister to weaken his rivals. Omar Abdul Sattar, a Sunni member of Parliament, pointed out that several political parties, including the powerful Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, were turning against al-Maliki. What is happening, he said, “is the transformation of a democratic prime minister into a dictator.”

Washington is once again closely tied to an undemocratic government. A recent study by the U.S. Institute of Peace found that “as the threat of state collapse has receded [in Iraq], the risk of an increasingly repressive and authoritarian regime has come to the fore.” That finding became even more credible when Muntader al-Zaidi’s brother reported that the imprisoned journalist had suffered a broken nose, missing teeth, bruises, and cigarette burns at the hands of al-Maliki’s security police, who pressured him to say that al-Maliki’s enemies had ordered him to throw the shoes.

Developments in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq indicate that a policy based on protecting U.S. and Israeli interests in that part of the world is both shortsighted and counterproductive. These countries have endured intervention and domination by the West for more than a century. Their borders were drawn by Europeans and their governments overthrown with the help of Americans. It is time the U.S. withdrew its troops and bases from the region, and changed its priorities from controlling access to oil and defending Israel to bringing about peace.