Dr. Joseph Agris – October 3, 2013


For over 30 years Dr. Joseph Agris, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, has participated in medical missions in every continent except Australia and treated over 50,000 children for birth defects, burns, accidents, chemical disfigurements and injuries from violence.  Dr. Agris spoke to us on his experiences on medical missions in Pakistan and provided his views of the social and political situation in Pakistan.

Dr. Agris believes that Pakistan is not a country; large parts are outside the control of the central government; tribal loyalties undermine central control. The West is under the full control of the local tribes and effectively outside the reach of the central government. Illiteracy is widespread, particularly among women; child mortality is very high; vaccinations are few; women are covered and under the fierce control of custom and male dominance. The East includes such cosmopolitan cities as Islamabad and Lahore; women may go uncovered; the central government holds sway; and education and healthcare are more advanced.

Dr. Agris felt safest in the tribal areas, where tribal leaders who realized he was helping the people protected him.  Tribal leaders introduced him to the warlords so that he would have their protection as well. They greeted him with rose petals and gunshots in the air. Dr. Agris grew a beard, traveled in native garb and picked up passable Urdu. Working conditions were primitive, like an old MASH facility. Military hospitals were the best. The Taliban are different from Al Qaeda; they are local and have killed only in local countries. But they do have a strict view of what they considered acceptable Muslim practices and disagree with Muslim regimes that they believe are inadequately orthodox. The Taliban develops a “ghost” political administration in areas that it controls, with mayors, judges, courts and officials that operate more effectively than those supported by the government and where their version of sharia law prevails.

When it comes to treatment of women, the Taliban’s sharia law is simple, said Dr. Agris – be a proper daughter or wife or die. Women considered out of line are all too frequently doused with battery acid, causing horrific disfigurement or death.  In a burn unit where he worked, 90% of the patients were women. Perpetrators are not prosecuted.

According to Dr. Agris, Al Qaeda has put together one of the largest and most sophisticated drug manufacturing and distribution operations in the world, operating out of Pakistan and Afghanistan, producing high quality injectable dope and shipping to the U.S. and Europe. He quotes bin Laden as a saying “If I can’t kill them with bullets, I will kill their youth with narcotics.” U.S. efforts to encourage farmers to grow other crops than poppies have failed.  Bin Laden also sabotaged a U.N. program for polio vaccination by circulating a rumor that the doctors were CIA agents.

Polls show that Pakistanis favor (i) better education, (ii) better health care, (iii) U.S. forces out of Pakistan, and (iv) an end to drone strikes that kill far too many innocents. The Taliban are only a small portion the total. Most just want a better life for their children.

Dr. Agris is highly critical of U.S. government efforts in Pakistan. Efforts to improve health care and education are backed by private groups, not the U.S. government, whose $800 million in supports goes for weapons, political projects and corruption.  

In the Q&A, Dr. Agris noted the following:

  1. Corruption consumes huge portions of aid. The former PM was “Mr. 50%.”
  2. Education of women is key. The Koran does not prohibit education of women.
  3. His experience with U.S. politicians and Hillary Clinton is frustrating because they don’t understand what is going on and don’t listen.
  4. The number of madrassas in Pakistan grew from 5,200 to 27,000 since he started there. Young men learn nothing helpful, only the Koran and other religious texts. Students emerge either as fanatic jihadists or incapable farmers.
  5. The poppy crop could be used to provide medical drugs, where we are encountering shortages.