Feb 1, 2010

Negotiations after all

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

It is fitting that the latest phase of the New Great Game in Afghanistan and Pakistan unfolded over the past week in the old imperial capital of London. The British Empire is now a distant memory but Western imperialism is not, and it would not be inaccurate to suggest that the pattern of imperialist intervention in Afghanistan and the wider region today bears more than a passing resemblance to the British imperialist interventions that began almost 200 years ago. And just as the British were forced to accept that Afghanistan could not be subdued by force, the high and mighty of today’s world have concluded that Afghanistan warrants a ‘political solution’.

Perhaps the common hordes should thank Messrs Obama, Brown, and Sarkozy for deciding to seek a ‘political solution’. In general, the Afghan people (and the Iraqi, Haitian, Palestinian, Pakistani, Sudanese and virtually all other peoples of the world) are supposed to be grateful for the largesse of the United States and its friends. We are all trained to treat the world order as perfectly ‘natural’; that securing the patronage of dominant powers and thereby avoid their wrath is our perennial lot.

The liberal imperialism of the current epoch, built around the concepts of ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘reconstruction’, relies on intense propaganda and particularly on the maintenance of a ‘civilised-uncivilised’ binary. Upon close scrutiny it becomes clear that this imperial ideology is scarcely different from the ideology of Victorian Empire. The world may be different but the rhetoric of the powers-that-be has hardly changed.

And rhetoric can only convince for so long. As the saying goes: “You can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time”. And so after almost a decade of incessant speechifying about the ‘medieval’, ‘barbarian’, ‘uncivilised’ Taliban, we are now being told that the only way forward is to negotiate with the bearded beasts.

Of course, many people never believed the rhetoric. Imperialism may claim to represent superior values, but it only represents the basest instincts of those who rule the world. It is, thus, able to clothe itself in whatever garb is necessary to serve its strategic interests. The Americans and their lackeys were never genuinely concerned with the ideology of the Taliban, and the latest pronouncements are conclusive proof of the cynicism and self-interest that informs Washington’s ‘war on terror’.

Nevertheless, for those who did believe that the burdened white man would sweep down on his proverbial stallion to cleanse the region of the Taliban, the London revelations must be deeply disturbing. The quandary is particularly acute for the liberal brigade in Pakistan given the de facto distinction that has been created between the ‘Afghan Taliban’ and the ‘Pakistani Taliban’. While the latter are still sworn enemies of civilisation, the former clearly have some redeeming qualities that permit the possibility of compromise.

The first lesson that Pakistani liberals should learn from what has transpired over the past week is that imperialism never takes it upon itself to clean up messes that it has helped to create. It doesn’t matter that Hilary Clinton has acknowledged that the US was complicit in nurturing the Taliban (and the menace of radical Islamist politics more generally) for the best part of two decades. Hilary Clinton is neither able nor interested in undoing the social conservatism that has beset Pakistani society.

The second and more implicit lesson that liberals (and all other Taliban haters for that matter) must learn from the London conference is that the majority of those who become rabid and violent ideologues of movements like the Taliban are ordinary people from within our own society. It is true that the state has very consciously cultivated radical Islam but simply ranting and raving about the state or its Arab patrons who are fomenting radicalism is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that it is not possible to wipe out all the Talibs in Pakistan (or the world for that matter). A political alternative must be fashioned both to the status quo and to the warped worldview of the Islamists.

Here, again, it is dangerous to look towards the ‘civilised’ beacons of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. With the lawyer’s movement, the term ‘civil society’ has become common currency in Pakistan. On cue, international donors of all kinds — USAID foremost amongst them — are throwing money at ‘civil society’. One of the major claims of the Obama administration has been that it has greatly increased civilian aid to Pakistan; a large chunk of this money is going to ‘civil society’ in the name of ‘democratisation’.

On the face of it the ‘democratisation’ agenda is hardly troubling. But in practice ‘democracy promotion’ has become a catchphrase for Western political interventions, to the point of ‘regime change’. The various coloured revolutions in ex-Soviet states are prime examples. The point is simply that the onus is on us to build a political alternative to the Taliban or even consolidate bourgeois democracy. The United States — or any other foreign power — can not be our saviour, or that of any other nation.

If ever there was evidence of this, it is in Haiti, which has just been stricken down by one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. The US has been at the forefront of relief efforts, but when one reads between the lines it actually becomes clear that the US has been the single biggest contributor to Haiti’s fate. After the US, Haiti was the second country in the Western hemisphere to gain freedom from European colonial rule. Since 1804 when it gained its independence, Haiti has been subject to the full brunt of US imperialism. The US has sponsored various coups throughout Haiti’s modern history, the last in 2004 when the populist president Jean Aristide was ousted for the second time in little over a decade.

Haiti’s earthquake was not man-made, but the extent of the devastation was far greater than it needed to be, in large part because Haiti’s social and economic infrastructure reflects its long-standing subjugation by Empire. In neighbouring Cuba, hurricanes and earthquakes are just as common, but its fierce anti-imperialism has ensured that it has built its capacity to cope with such natural disasters much better than its banana republic neighbours. If only we in Pakistan were able to muster up the courage to do the right things for the right reasons.

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