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Of War and Peace

Violence is an indication of failure

 

Never a dispassionate observer, Robert Young Pelton (RYP) often found himself in dangerous places in his quest to learn the heart of the matter. He shares his perspective on war and its creation, through expeditions like Battle of Qala-i-Jangi in Afghanistan, the siege of Grozny in Chechnya, and even surviving an assassination attempt in Uganda.
RAJLAKSHMI SAIKIA BHIMWAL WITH ADITI SHARMA | Issue Dated: October 10, 2010
Tags : Mullah Omar | Bin Laden | al-Zawahiri | America | Pakistan |
 

 

 Why does RYP find himself in dangerous places?

These places, where people failed to come to an agreement or have had to resort to violence, are the fault lines which have changed history.

 What’s the root cause of violence in the subcontinent?
Change. Conflicts can vary, but people are naturally resistant to change. India is one of the best examples of how change can be good or bad. Pakistan is a bizarre country, which after Partition has created an enemy in India instead of focusing on its own governance.

 Is change a result of religion/culture or the economy?
Social changes take place over many months, especially if you look at Afghanistan in 1995 or Chechnya in 2000. When you put a country’s people under extreme pressure, they resort to extreme ideologies. Consider Pakistan, and the many desperate, young, and unemployed people looking for something to believe in. Even if you sold them Christianity, they’d buy it. This gathering of people from desperate backgrounds and isolating them is what we call Islamic Fundamentalism and Maoism, and I consider it ridiculous.

 Between a Gandhi and an Osama, who should a Kashmir or a Chechnya hire as a consultant?
Growing up in a war-free environment, the idea of a young boy shooting someone just because he was told to was tough to imagine. Violence today is like a currency. If a group doesn’t agree with something, it becomes violent. In Gandhi’s time, there was a need to create an image for people to have faith in you. He believed that if enough people disagreed with the system, they could together affect the government, showing that social protest is more powerful than bombs. COIN in Afghanistan is like Gandhi’s concept where you make people do or not do things based on what you want.

 

Does today’s world need leaders like Ahmad Shah Massoud and Che Guevara?
I’ve spent time with Ahmad Shah Massoud, but was too young to meet Che Guevera. Both crafted their image for the sake of the media. Massoud killed thousands, including civilians, during the Civil War, but carefully crafted his image to look like a Che Guevara. General Dostum did a lot more, but never understood how the media works. We get our news only through the media, but when I meet Shamil Basayev, I realised what an extraordinary person he was. While defending the Russian government in the White House, he realised how toxic the Russians were, and decided, without a thought to his reputation or life, that he’d fight them.

 

How do you see these conflicts panning out?
They’re a measure of social justice, showing how many people are happy or unhappy in society. If your government has no control and you don’t have a job, why wouldn’t you join these groups? When an individual’s threshold is crossed, it justifies all means to get ahead in life, like the child soldiers in Africa.

What about the people with options?
Every revolution has two types of people - the intelligentsia, and the uneducated masses who are exploited for the actual killing. For every Che Guevara, there are a thousand farmhands. Osama is different from Che; he is an angry intellectual who didn’t get the attention he wanted. What attracted people to his cause was the legitimacy it gave them.

What’s your thought on the conspiracy theories around 9/11?
In Adam Curtis’ "The Power of Nightmares", you hear Donald Rumsfeld talk about this "imminent danger". You’d think he’s talking about Osama, but he’s actually referring to the Russians. That scene was picked up by the Bush administration, and they quickly amplified 200 people into a, sort of, global conspiracy (I lived down the street from Osama in 1996).

Did you meet Mullah Omar and Bin Laden?
I set up interviews with Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership in the mid 1990s. Mullah Omar is very conscious about his missing eye; all the members of the Taliban agreed to be interviewed by my cameraman, except him. He said the path to
his heart was through his voice, not his eyes.

Bin Laden, I believe, was always the secondary figure compared to al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri was a true political firebrand, while Osama was the brain.

Do you plan to come to India again?
India is probably the most diverse nation on earth. For every problem in America or Pakistan, there is sure to be a model of reference in India. What I find funny is that the Kashmiris never had an agenda of their own; it was a result of outside instigation. The Indian army looked at them as naughty school children, and the Jihadis kept blowing things up. Other countries, like Israel, should spend more time looking at what happens in India.

What stops you from giving up in these dangerous places?
The people around me; they want me to get out alive and tell their story.

Your advice to the separatists of the world?
We should spend more time training like-minded people and challenging the way the things are done. The more you communicate with people, the smarter you get. Groups who believe in violence typically have instigators who lead them to believe it will solve their problems. The solution lies in soft power; social networking, supporting others, and strongly rejecting violence.

What are the 10 commandments that stop RYP from becoming RIP in dangerous places?
There’s only one - trust and respect people.

 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017