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behind the bars: guantanamo bay

Pakistan Since Guantánamo

Pakistani journalist and novelist Saba Imtiaz answers a question about the outside world posed by a Guantánamo detainee.
November 10, 2014, 10:00am

A boy in the rain in Dir, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Photo by Oscar Rickett

A lawyer told us that one of his clients inside Guantánamo, a Pakistani citizen who has been there for 12 years, wanted to know how his country has changed since he was detained. We asked the Pakistani journalist and novelist Saba Imtiaz to answer his question. 

Our country has changed a lot in the last 12 years. For simplicity sake I shall divide my answer into sections:

Home-Grown Militants

Mullah Jilani, an ex-Taliban fighter. Photo by Kevin Sites

Contrary to popular belief, 9/11 did not suddenly transform a peaceful state into one that Newsweek would infamously dub the most dangerous place on earth. Or, for that matter, a minefield, illustrated by one T-shirt company that overlaid the Minesweeper game onto a map of the country. The reality is that Pakistan was never a safe place, or one that was free from the very same issues that plague it today—not least home-grown militancy.


Perhaps 9/11 should be seen as a catalyst, but Pakistan was always bound to be caught in a hell of its own (policy) making. In the 1980s and 90s, it supported and trained militant groups as proxy forces to wage war with other countries, particularly India. After 9/11, the remnants of these groups, such as the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, as well as new militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, rose to prominence.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, avowedly anti-state and anti-US, has carried out attacks on churches and military installations alike. As militant groups have grown, cities have boomed with the sounds of violence: bomb blasts have taken out dozens, scattering pieces of flesh and fragments of bones. One registered 1.3 on the Richter scale, quite literally shaking up Karachi and its population of 20 million.

Over the years, cities and neighborhoods have gone from being safe to being hubs for militant groups. Citing threats, one beloved shrine on the outskirts of Karachi has not held its annual celebration for several years now.

This mainstreaming of violence, and the near-legitimacy provided to militant groups, is one of the most significant changes in Pakistan.

US Drone Strikes

An aerial shot of an art protest against US drone strikes in northern Pakistan (Image via

Since 2004, the US has been bombing what it says are "militant hideouts" in Pakistan's tribal areas. At first, the Pakistani military said it was responsible. Then a reporter discovered pieces of a Hellfire missile at one of the strike sites. It turned out the US was behind the attack. There have been [over 350 drone strikes]( since, killing more than 2,500 people. The US claims they take out militants but activists allege those killed are often innocent civilians, including young children.


Which begs the question: If the US claims are to be taken at face value, where did all of these militants come from? That's a question that no one has been able to answer, just as no one knows who allowed Osama bin Laden to live in Pakistan. The convenient answer, often touted by analysts, is that these militants were just those who had escaped the bombing that's taken place in Afghanistan since 2001 and had ended up seeking sanctuary in Pakistan.

Sectarian Conflict

Lady Cadet Wardah Noor prepares to lead a mock attack during field exercises. Photo by Aeyliya Husain

Over the past decade, blasphemy laws have become a convenient tool used to harass and persecute entire communities. It is now not uncommon to see mobs rampaging through neighborhoods, trying—and occasionally succeeding—to publicly lynch someone accused of blasphemy; setting houses on fire and enacting collective punishment on a community. It is hard to find a city where this hasn't happened; or a community that hasn't felt the helplessness of a case filed under the blasphemy laws. People with an ulterior motive often exploit the law: a business dispute, or a plan to take over someone's property. Those with blasphemy allegations often threaten and intimidate the police to bring prosecutions, leaving them with little choice but to detain the suspects.

The cases are nearly impossible to prove since accusers don't repeat the accusation, claiming they would be committing blasphemy themselves. And those leading the riots are sectarian groups that have grown in influence over the years, left virtually untouched by successive governments. These riots and attacks took place before, but now they're often captured live by TV crews, and those inciting the riots face few consequences for their actions. Increased radicalization in society has made blasphemy an issue that can't be debated.


Pakistan's religious-political landscape is dominated by sectarian groups such as the virulently anti-Shi'ite Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and religious groups like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, with its roots in the conflict in the disputed territory of Kashmir in the 1990s. (The political arm of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Taiba, was also allegedly responsible for the November 26, 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India that left 164 people dead.) In the past 12 years, these networks have seized the mantle of religious and political agitation; becoming powerful pressure groups. The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan wants to see Shi'ites declared apostates while the Jamaat-ud-Dawa is committed to opposing India and the US. Somewhere, a bomb is ticking, and that's something that has changed about Pakistan in the past 12 years: the fear that you're next.

An Unlikely Cultural Explosion

Photo by Oscar Rickett

It's hard to imagine, then, that as these changes took place, there was an almost astounding revival of pop culture in Pakistan. The music industry had stagnated in the 1990s, but by the mid-2000s there was a new band with a new single wherever you looked.

Teenage boys let their hair grow past their shoulders and took up the guitar, inspired by the success of the pop-rock band Noori. In Karachi, there was a concert almost every night. You could hop from a crowd of people headbanging to metal bands, to a concert teeming with teenagers singing along with Noori and Entity Paradigm, an inherently darker band. "Aadat," the first single from a band from Lahore called Jal, went viral and turned the lead singer Atif Aslam into a star.


The Kara Film Festival, Karachi's first fully-fledged film festival, was full of people jostling to get into a must-see screening or catch a glimpse of the A-list Indian actor who'd flown in for the event. The "garlic-and-mayo kebab roll" by the takeaway joint Hot N Spicy became a staple food, inspiring dozens of copycat versions across the country. Twenty-somethings smoked shisha in dimly-lit cafes and made out at Devil's Point, an isolated beach strip in Karachi. Journalism became a cool career, prompted by the success of TV channels opening up, offering salaries to rival the top banks. Thirty-somethings did lines of coke at elaborate house parties and on Sunday mornings flicked through magazines to see their lives covered in all their glitz and Gucci-layered glory.

But if the rich were once able to insulate themselves from the violence, they can't any more. From 5-star hotels to far-flung towns, everyone has been targeted. Fearful of extortionists and kidnappers, the rich now try to hide their wealth. It's hard to find someone who wants to stay in Pakistan. The 20-something kids are still smoking shisha, but there's now an armed guard at the door and one eye has to be kept on your phone at all times.

Distrust of the State

Uzair Baloch, the head of the criminal syndicate the Peoples' Aman Committee, addresses protesters in the Karachi neighborhood of Lyari in May 2012. Photo by Saba Imtiaz.

But fear doesn't just come from an "unknown known," to borrow a term from Donald Rumsfeld. It comes from the fact that the Pakistani state is effectively at war with itself. There is an insurgency brewing in the Balochistan province, which has long demanded independence from Pakistan, only to be met with brutality for the last 12 years. Hundreds of people have effectively gone "missing," whisked away by the state, a repeat of the post-9/11 years when people were sent to Bagram or Guantánamo Bay, or kept in detention centers in the country, or found dead, their bodies left on the streets.


In the past 12 years, Pakistan has effectively "mainstreamed" ideas that stand against the very basic principles of human rights and justice. It was never a utopian state for law—extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances were just as common in the 1990s—but Pakistan has essentially legitimized these practices, using the fact that it is under attack by militants as an excuse. Pakistan continues to draft and pass legislation that allows for extrajudicial killings and detentions, creating its own version of the PATRIOT Act and homeland security laws.

A couple of years ago, I met a young man whose father had gone missing. His uncles had been implicated in terrorism; one was killed in a drone strike. But his father, he insisted, was innocent and had never been involved. "There's our family, four or five of us," he said. "We do not like or support what the agencies do because of what has happened to our father. The agencies are supposed to protect our country, not pick up people for no reason. Think of how many families there are like ours, who now feel the same way about them."


In Pakistan today, does one fear those threatening to destroy the state or the state itself? The answer is both. In the past 12 years, Pakistan has irrevocably changed. It has become a place where one is constantly glued to a TV set, watching a terrorist attack in real time or reporters giving breathless updates amid a political crisis. It is a country constantly unravelling, where the perpetrators of violence are either in power or jockeying for it.  Perhaps that is the most significant change of all is not the violence, but that we've started to get used to it.

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She is the author of 'Karachi, You're Killing Me!' (Random House India, 2014) and 'No Team of Angels' (First Draft Publishing, forthcoming). She tweets @Saba_Imtiaz and her work is available at