PBS Frontline/World: 'State of Emergency'

David Montero
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 11:00 AM

Frontline/World producer David Montero was online Wednesday, Feb. 27 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film "State of Emergency," which takes you to the remote and beautiful Swat Valley of Pakistan, where a mysterious Taliban cleric named Maulana Fazlullah has been leading thousands of followers in a guerrilla war against the government.

"State of Emergency" airs Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Montero is a foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and Frontline/World. He has covered religion, politics and extremism in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and has written for the New York Times, the Nation and others.


San Francisco: In the Pakistani elections, the religious parties, which had done so well in the previous elections, lost very badly. I would interpret that as a positive sign. Are most Pakistanis what you might describe as "moderate" and "anti-terrorist," or not? Why did voters turn against the religious parties?

David Montero: I lived in Pakistan for almost two years, traveling widely and without restriction, mostly in the area near Afghanistan. The overwhelming majority of people I met were moderate and against extremism -- they just have a smaller voice and don't tend to make it on the six o'clock news. If you had a chance to see the film last night, you may have seen something striking: men in big white beards blasting the Taliban, saying the Taliban are not real Muslims. Unfortunately, in the West, we've come to equate extremists with men with beards, but here were two guys saying they wanted peace and the Taliban out of Pakistan (if you missed the broadcast last night, please check it out online at www.pbs.org/frontlineworld). I'd say those two men represent the feelings of most Pakistanis, but the extremists get more play, because, again, they have a bigger voice. (Having guns helps.) This election also showed that Pakistanis are fed up both with extremism and with a government that is not doing something about it.


Berkeley, Calif.: Excellent report last night, but very disturbing. Do you think the newly-elected parliament in Pakistan will be more effective than Musharraf in dealing with the rising Taliban threat?

David Montero: Thanks for watching. There is certainly great hope among Pakistanis that the newly elected parliament will do a better job. The key things going for them are popular support and legitimacy, two things Musharraf never has had. That will make it easier for them to broker dialogues with tribal elders, community leaders, politicians and even militants themselves -- something Musharraf could not do or chose not to do. These are large, grassroots parties, where decisions -- at least in theory -- will be made by consensus. That's what you need to tackle extremism -- not unilateral decisions imposed from the top, by the military. The parliament's solutions to extremism will include a range of options -- not just military strikes. That alone should be more effective, but we'll have to wait and see.


Washington: First, thank you for your brave and thorough reporting. Secondly, I lived in Afghanistan some decades ago and understand how terrain and logistics (among many other challenges) can make getting things done very difficult, but who would best have gone after Fazlullah? It seemed that the locals (primarily nonmilitary, correct?) were left to deal with a very vicious ideologue with no help from our forces or others.

David Montero: This is an excellent question. The short answer is, he should have been arrested by a large police force many years ago -- when he was still small in stature and following. He illegally occupied land and started building a religious school two years ago. That was grounds to intervene; the government did not. The provincial government waited for two years, and then sent only a small police force, which easily was outgunned. The provincial government and the federal government should have collaborated on a plan two years ago to arrest Fazlullah and shut down his radio station. They missed this opportunity.


Wheaton, Md.: It appears that the government Pakistan has been trying to have it both ways for too long: Pretending to be a friend to the West, while encouraging, even supporting Islamic terrorism. It should be no surprise that Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, are now the targets of the fanatics they've allowed to prosper.

David Montero: It's certainly true that many in Pakistan -- and now in Washington -- long have accused Musharraf of playing both sides. What we're seeing now -- a new generation of Taliban -- is the outgrowth of that misguided policy. Pakistanis on the ground, who've watched this for years, would say that Musharraf uses extremist flare-ups like controlled fires, dangerous but manageable, so that he can say to the West, "I'm still relevant, I'm still necessary." But things seem to be spiraling out of his control. It's no longer something he can contain.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How did a film crew get into a Taliban operation? What were their expectations on having others see them?

David Montero: Good question. The film crew was local; in some cases they already knew the Taliban quite well, being from that area. But overall, the Taliban, like any upstart organization, welcome media attention. Lots of camera crews filmed them in the midst of their rampage. The Taliban welcomed that, just as they welcomed me when I met with Maulana Fazlullah last May. They want their message to get out. The Taliban have learned the benefits and strategies of our multimedia world, just like everyone else.


Los Angeles: I think that there will be lot of pressure from mainstream Pakistanis to dress down the intelligence services and military after the new government is formed. Do you think that the politicians will have the courage to take the task? How can India address the legitimate security concerns of Pakistan without giving in on their position on Kashmir?

David Montero: I do think the politicians will have the courage to dress down the intelligence services. They already have. I invite you to watch another Frontline/World piece I did, called "Disappeared.". We discuss how politicians and the Supreme Court, for the first time in Pakistan's history, began investigating the intelligence services activities. It sparked a lot of civil unrest. I think we can expect more.


Princeton, N.J.: You sound optimistic, but what do you say about the dismal record of the parties now in power? Corruption is pervasive and leadership is in short supply. I am much more pessimistic.

David Montero: That's certainly true. I don't think corruption is going to go away, but I am optimistic about their will to tackle extremism. They know tackling existential threats is the key to their political and existential survival. If they fail, more people will die -- and if more people die, they'll be voted out. So, yes, I'm corruption will continue, but I am optimistic that the parties will have a more focused effort.


Columbia, Md.: Would you be kind enough to explain to us that why Pakistan is so important to West?

David Montero: Pakistan is important to the West today for the same reason it has been for the past several hundred years: It's the gateway to Asia, the bridge between the Middle East and the Far East. And today it has nuclear weapons, not to mention a resurgent Taliban force with al-Qaeda allies. From Washington's perspective, Pakistan is a crucial geopolitical issue. We simply can't afford an unstable Pakistan; violence there could spread to Afghanistan, Iran, India, and China. I think the West also should realize that Pakistan is a leader among Muslim nations, and therefore a country and an ally we should care about -- its nuclear weapons aside.


San Francisco: Great film. How did you end up reporting in Pakistan? I see you did a lot of reporting based in San Francisco and Berkeley.

David Montero: I moved to Bangladesh three years ago to become a freelance foreign correspondent. I did some writing for the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. When the huge earthquake hit Pakistan in 2005, the Monitor sent me from Bangladesh to cover it. Then they asked me to stay in Pakistan and be their correspondent. I loved Pakistan, and the Monitor, so I said yes.


Washington: I was disheartened to see that Asfandiar Amir Zeb was killed by militants. He seemed very level-headed, the type of person the U.S. should be supporting. Thoughts?

David Montero: It was an unbelievable tragedy that Asfandiar Amir Zeb died. It's a huge blow, a huge setback. It mirrors the tragedy taking place on a larger level in Pakistan: that moderates are dying, gunned down by the Taliban or silenced and locked away by the Musharraf regime. Asfandiar highlights that there are many more moderates whom the U.S. administration could and should be working with -- and I think that's something they increasingly recognize.


tarquinis: NATO will never conquer, or permanently suppress the Pashtun. This is a wasting war that only drains our money and worsens the situation by their desire for revenge. Most do not even know who the Pashtun are, where they live (mostly in Pakistan) what they want, and what they will fight against or for. Near total ignorance. Just blind adherence to slogans like democracy, which --however nice in theory -- do not apply to Afghanistan.

David Montero: I don't think NATO wants or is trying to conquer or permanently suppress the Pashtun. It would be a moral outrage if that were their stated goal, and they've never said this. If you read the excellent reporting on Afghanistan of late, including here at The Washington Post, you'll see the NATO soldiers in the South of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest, are using outreach and development -- and when necessary force -- to undermine the Taliban. I'm not sure why you would say that democracy doesn't apply to Afghanistan.


Ottawa, Canada: Where does the money come from that allows people like Fazlullah to operate? The building that he built appeared to be fairly large and it would have cost, I assume, quite a large amount of money.

David Montero: This a very good question. Nobody knows exactly where all the money comes from. You're certainly right to point out that his base, that madrassah or religious school, was costly -- about $2.5 million, a colossal sum for that area. Part of the money came from donations. Every week, hundreds of men showed up at the school to donate their labor and small tithes. When I was there, 800 men had come from a neighboring village and brought with them $1,000 in donations. Police sources told us that Fazlullah also had the backing of wealthy patrons, and perhaps al-Qaeda. We don't know, but it certainly highlights that this wasn't simply a ragtag militia.


Princeton, N.J.: To take a larger view, Bernard Lewis has written that "there is no place in Islam for a secular state." There has been only one stable Islamic democracy and that is Turkey, which was the result of a genius (Ataturk) with a powerful tool (the Turkish Army). Look at Algeria, where they had a democracy, briefly. Look at Bangladesh and Indonesia, which are democracies in name only. And so on.

David Montero: This is not evidence that somehow, inherently, democracy doesn't work in Islam. There are plenty of failed states elsewhere in the world, states that have no Muslim population. Democracy in Bangladesh has not worked because the two mainstream, secular parties have corrupted that system. Their leaders have chosen to fight a personal battle rather than exercise democracy. But this has nothing to do with Islam -- that's a failure of leadership, as it has been anywhere else in the world. Likewise in Indonesia, where Suharto destroyed the democratic opposition. To suggest this is something inherent to Islam is way off the mark.


David Montero: Thanks to everyone for the great questions, and to washingtonpost.com for hosting. Please feel free to post more comments at www.pbs.org/frontlineworld. Thanks, and have a good day


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