With Us or Against Us

It has been more than two weeks since the capturing and killing of Osama bin Laden by American special forces in one of Pakistan’s most fortified garrison towns – home to the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy, no less. One might have been forgiven for thinking that temperatures would have at least partially cooled by now. Instead, official communiques and media reporting in western capitals are becoming more, rather than less, reactionary.


Since the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been under the international spotlight as the major staging ground of the American-led military effort. The conduct of the Pakistani military has been called into question many times over the past decade, but the country’s most powerful institution now clearly stands at a crossroads after the ‘world’s most dangerous man’ was discovered from right under its nose.


The pressure has built on Pakistan’s generals ever so slowly. It is not as if the United States government – first under George W. Bush and now Barack Obama – was not privy to the Pakistani military’s strategic thinking, and its attempts to establish and maintain a dichotomy between ‘good jihadis’ and ‘bad jihadis’. Indeed the Americans are subscribing to a similar binary in Afghanistan where ‘moderate’ Taliban are being wooed to be part of the endgame once American troops begin their ‘withdrawal’.


So is the explanation for the recent tensions between Washington and Pakistan’s generals the fact that Obama is committed to cutting the generals down to size (in comparison to Bush, who seemed to like the cowboy language employed by then army chief and president Pervez Musharraf)?. The fact of the matter is that the Pakistani military continues to receive a bucketload of dollars from Washington even now. And all of the posturing taking place on Capitol Hill aside, it would be a big surprise if the disbursements through the so-called ‘Coalition Support Fund’ were discontinued anytime soon. What really needs to be asked is whether all the arm-twisting and veiled threats will really contribute to the fight for democratization that Pakistani progressives have been waging for decades, in spite of the Empire and its shenanigans.


Since late 2001, the military has defended itself from periodic censure by pointing to a plethora of facts and figures that supposedly indicate its commitment to the anti-terror effort. Thousands of security personnel – military, paramilitary and police – have lost their lives in battles with various militant groups; even more civilian lives have been lost; and the economy has no doubt suffered losses in the billions of dollars due to Pakistan being branded the global ‘epicentre of terrorism’.


The figures notwithstanding, the onus was always on the military to prove that the umbilical cord between itself and its ‘strategic assets’ had been definitely severed. Whether or not Osama bin Laden was being harboured by Pakistani strategists is a moot point – the evidence in the case of groups operating in Indian Kashmir such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba or the Haqqani network in Afghanistan is unambiguous.


But progressives in Pakistan have been questioning the military’s dominance and the cynical use of ‘Islamism’ to achieve stipulated strategic policy goals for years before the onset of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Indeed we have been crying foul since the 1970s when western governments were quite content to support despots in Muslim countries who used religion as a political weapon to demobilize secular, leftist forces. Lest anyone forgets Ronald Reagan’s historic words from 1984: ‘The mujahideen are the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers’. Yes, we were screaming bloody murder then, just as we do today.


The holier-than-thou attitude which is manifest in most western media reports and government pronouncements is therefore to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. On the heels of the Osama debacle have surfaced dozens of ‘analyses’ which concur that that ‘Pakistanis’ are addicted to conspiracies, and hostage to an insular and paranoid worldview. Some take this analysis to its logical conclusion by arguing that Pakistanis are representative of the thinking – or lack thereof – that pervades all Muslim countries. In this narrative, Pakistani (read: Muslims) insist on demonizing the forces of progress and rationality and refuse to look inwards and recognize that their crises are indigenously generated. 


It must be said that – and this is most unfortunate – that this contemptuous narrative is shared by a number of progressives within Pakistan (or in the diaspora) who were once upon a time as committed anti-imperialists as anyone else but whom today see ‘terrorism’, and by extension, a religious worldview, as a much bigger enemy of progress than, say, imperialism, or consumer capitalism.


The irony is that it is this same intelligentsia that has been speaking out against the ideological engineering of an unrepresentative state and the spinelessness of a media that refuses to take on the dominant worldview for years, and definitely long before any western government or media outlet was opining about Pakistanis’ (read: Muslims’) insular and paranoid worldviews.


No one disagrees that Muslim societies, including Pakistan, are beset by myriad social and political quandaries which cannot simply be decried as the handiwork of external powers. But surely the cynical wrangling of western and other regional powers must be factored into any meaningful analysis of what has happened in Pakistan (and other Muslim societies) over the past few decades. This is neither outlandish nor represents an attempt to reflexively blame the ‘other’ for one’s problems while refusing to recognize one’s own shortcomings. In fact, to make the link between the domestic and the foreign is the only reasonable and historically accurate approach to making sense of things as they exist in the here and now.


The moral of the story is that the popular narrative currently doing the rounds in both western capitals and amongst a segment of ‘native intellectuals’ is no less selective than that propagated by the insular and paranoid ‘Pakistanis’. And what is all this about ‘Pakistanis’ as if Pakistan is a monolith? Is there no distinction between Pakistan’s people and its ruling class, or at the very least between the civilian and military elites?


It is worth noting that western governments and media willfully neglect in their analyses of Pakistan the major insurgency that rages in the country’s biggest province of Balochistan, which is secular in nature and attempts to redress the ethnic imbalance in the state. Indeed for most of the sixty-three years since the inception of the Pakistani state, Baloch, Sindhi, Pashtun and other relatively underrepresented ethnic groups have always dissented against the dominant state narrative.


To be sure there is more than a creeping orientalist tinge to the ‘analyses’ doing the rounds – it appears as if the problem with ‘Pakistanis’ is cultural, whereas what is called for is a much more dynamic explanation that understands cultural proclivities as greatly influenced by the state-led project of Islamisation, geo-political rivalries (in which western governments are very much implicated) and the ravages of neo-liberal capitalism.


Admittedly this might be asking too much from journalists and politicians more than content to project simple narratives. But surely it is not beyond the ‘native intellectual’? Or has the latter come to accept that western governments and media are allowed to engage in conspiracy theorizing towards ‘noble’ ends? Is our collective amnesia so great that we have forgotten how only seven years ago a wave of panic was created within all ‘civilised’ societies about the threat of terrorism, Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? By the logic that seems to be doing the rounds at the present time, one could argue in the light of the Iraq debacle that all Americans – alongside all other peoples whose states participated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq – are hostage to an insular and paranoid worldview.


Of course such a claim would not be that wide of the mark. Howard Zinn spent his whole life writing about how Americans have been fed on the ‘myth of exceptionalism’ vis a vis the nature of their society and their unique role in the world. But just like there are many Pakistanis who reject the dominant worldview of exclusive religious nationalism that is championed by the state, many Americans refuse to sit idly by and justify their state’s trampling over the rights and resources of poorer and weaker peoples in the name of freedom and democracy. Surely progressives must try and reach out to more and more Pakistanis who do subscribe to the ‘Pakistan under seige’ worldview and bring them over to the other side? Or should we just give up the struggle to build counter-hegemony, forsake the principles of internationalism, and accept the alarmist ‘with us or against us’ mantra that drives western governments and corporate media outlets?


In the final analysis, it is up to progressives within Pakistan (alongside comrades in the belly of the beast) to make sure that the struggle to cut the country’s powerful and unaccountable state security apparatus down to size is not conflated with the right-wing’s epic battle against the ‘infidel West’. But insofar as the ‘West’ insists on a ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative of its own, it neither does Pakistan’s people any favours in their long-standing struggle nor does it erase from history its complicity in the militarization of the Pakistani state and the politicization of parochial identities within Pakistani society.  

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