May 9, 2011


The Americans knew when they made Pakistan into their most precious ally in the ‘war on terror’ that GHQ would not abandon its strategic assets overnight

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

What else could one write about this week than Osama bin Laden (OBL)? As the ‘civilised’ world rejoices, those who consider themselves ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis hang their heads in shame at the fact that the world’s most wanted man was ‘hiding’ only a couple of kilometers from the celebrated Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) at Kakul. I am not sure what all the fuss is about -- indeed, I am not hanging my head in shame. For me this is just the most recent episode of the long, drawn-out televised, globalised serial that is the so-called ‘war on terror’.

In fact, the story starts long before the ‘war on terror’ was even conceptualised. Once upon a time this was the Great Game, eventually morphed into the ‘war against communism’, and only a decade ago took on the name with which we are now all too familiar. It is a story of a garrison state in which militarism is structurally embedded, which was once the ‘sword-arm’ of the British Raj and over the past 63 years has been depicted as a ‘frontline state’ even while it has depicted itself as the proverbial ‘defender of the Ummah’.

The men in khaki have been the primary actors in this story since the late nineteenth century. For the most part, they have been on an elevated plane: endowed with unmatched power by the state and its laws, enjoying unparalleled access to material resources, and considered the cream of society by its subalterns. That the long-maintained charade of this clique’s commitment to the public interest (read: the self defined ‘greater national interest’) is now coming apart at the seams is simply a reflection of the irreconcilable contradictions that have developed between dominant and subordinate social/political groups, the civilian and military elite, and imperial patrons and the militarised state.

It is on this last relationship that I want to dwell. I have been dismayed -- although not surprised -- at the response of certain progressives to OBL’s capture and killing. In short, all of the focus appears to be on the obvious duplicity/incompetence of the men in khaki, whereas as I have already pointed out the story with which we are dealing demands a much more holistic and longer-term analysis.

In particular, I find it deeply disturbing how the shenanigans of our own military establishment are not being linked to the shenanigans of the American military establishment, which, lest one forget, is a big actor in the story as it has played out in the era after the departure of the British from the region. Presumably, this is because the Americans are currently the ‘good guys’ on account of their crusading against the ‘terrorists’, and because Washington has made a concerted effort over the past 12-18 months to distance itself from Pakistan’s security apparatus and the latter’s shady dealings with militant groups.

But this would mean that we take everything that the Americans say at face value, that we have no reason to be skeptical about the spin doctors in the corporate media, and that we have, in fact, internalised the grand narrative that underpins the ‘war on terror’, namely that the world is divided between those committed to the universal values of civilisation and barbarism.

Almost a century ago, the German revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg argued that the world was faced with a choice between two possible futures: socialism or barbarism. Celebrated anti-colonial thinkers such as Aime Cesaire described ‘capitalist civilisation’ as the antithesis of humanity. Have progressives turned the understanding of capitalist modernity of figures such as Luxembourg and Cesaire on its head?

Even if bigger ideological and political questions are put to one side, surely it is time to recognise that Washington’s crying foul about the Pakistani military’s double-games rings hollow in the face of the continuing supply line of dollars that keeps flowing to the latter. Some argue that the Americans are caught between a rock and a hard place and have no option but to go through the Pakistani military, but this is stating the obvious: the American strategy of engagement with the Pakistani state and in the wider region has been motivated by cynical geo-political concerns (in which military force is the primary modus operandi) for more than five decades. It is difficult to take seriously purist claims of a declining empire that maintains 150 military bases around the world and resorts to military action to serve its objectives whenever convenient.

Besides, it boggles the mind that the competence of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated security apparatus is not being called into question alongwith that of Pakistan’s own establishment. It is absolutely ridiculous to argue that the Americans have only just become privy to the ‘double-speak’ of our men in khaki. Let us not forget that the Clinton administration had designated Pakistan a rogue state as long ago as 1998. The events of September 11, 2001 and General Pervez Musharraf’s acquiescence to the new American strategy in the region may have signaled an about-turn in lingo vis-a-vis militancy, but surely everyone and sundry knew that an intelligence community that was hand-in-glove with militant networks for thirty years was not about to disengage with, let alone hunt down, its protégés, just because ‘freedom fighters’ were now designated ‘terrorists’.

In short, the Americans have known exactly what Pakistan’s security apparatus has been doing for the past ten years, just as it has known what General Headquarters (GHQ) has been doing since the early 1950s. Let us not forget that both ‘allies’ have been closely involved with each other for five decades for very different, and often conflicting, reasons. Under the Mutual Assistance Program (MAP) signed in 1954, Washington actually marked weapons given to Pakistan so as to make sure that they were not used against India.

To be sure, the Americans knew when they made Pakistan into their most precious ally in the ‘war on terror’ that GHQ would not abandon its strategic assets overnight. Mainstream analysts like Ahmed Rashid have documented that George W. Bush’s administration was in the know when Pakistan facilitated the retreat of thousands of trained Taliban fighters into Pakistan following the American invasion of Afghanistan. Even now the Obama administration remains true to the Bush doctrine inasmuch as a distinction is made between the ‘indigenous’ Taliban and the ‘foreign’ al-Qaeda.

It matters little who in the Pakistani establishment knew that OBL was lounging in a non-descript Abbotabad neighbourhood. What I am concerned with is the manner in which the history of the American establishment’s patronage of its Pakistani counterpart is being swept under the carpet. Even today, US military aid far exceeds civilian assistance and it is the latter that is always on the chopping block when tempers in Washington fray. Yes, the responsibility of challenging the Pakistani security apparatus is ours but if we think that we can ride the Americans’ coat-tails to political and social transformation we will neither stop the supply-line of OBL wannabe’s nor undo the militarisation of the state.

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