July issue 2004

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 18 years ago

Major non-Nato ally. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t? Actually, it sounds about as cosy and intimate as describing someone as your third cousin, twice removed. Or a dependable subordinate rather than a valued colleague.

Yet one could hardly have expected the somewhat embarrassing designation to put a damper on jubilations in official circles. There are those to whom it must seem like a lifetime achievement award, something Pakistan has striven for through much of its existence.

Even so, isn’t it a wee bit awkward that this recognition has come at a time when the United States of America hardly bothers any more to disguise its hegemonistic aims?

Perhaps not. After all, much of the world has reacted to Uncle Sam on viagra with a degree of trepidation, but also by redoubling efforts to curry favour with the world’s only superpower.

Never before in human history has so much power been concentrated in one nation-state. And recent events have left no doubt whatsoever that the US is willing to misuse that power.

Most governments, whatever they may feel privately, have sensed that realpolitik dictates kowtowing to Washington. That appears to be the safest option — which is why Pakistan’s newly acquired MNNA status is generally more likely to be viewed with envy than with suspicion.

The obvious problem with adopting that approach towards bullies is that they begin to consider themselves invincible. It has been left to the people of Iraq to demonstrate the limits of American power. And they haven’t done too badly so far.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, resisting the demands made upon it by the US has hardly ever been a serious option. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto briefly toyed with the idea, and effectively paid for it with his life.

Pakistan in its infancy was of little interest to the Americans — until it adopted the posture of an orphan longing for adoption, pledging lifelong loyalty in return. In the 1950s, we were eager to be acknowledged as a bulwark against communism. Washington played along with this charade. We joined the Baghdad Pact, signed up to SEATO and, a decade or so down the line, were thrilled to bits when Richard Nixon signalled a “tilt towards Pakistan” during the 1971 confrontation with India.

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, India’s role in the creation of Bangladesh was one of only two instances when a credible war of liberation was waged in the latter half of the 20th century. The other was Vietnam’s intervention to end the Pol Pot regime’s genocidal reign in Cambodia eight years later. In both cases, the US took the wrong side.

It wasn’t quite able to overcome this jinx even after it succeeded in luring the Red Army into Afghanistan. The Soviet Union’s stupid action offered its rival the opportunity to take the high moral ground. Instead, the US launched its largest covert operation since Vietnam, whereby it provided all manner of weapons to some of the worst elements in Afghan society while turning a blind eye to their heroin trade. By inviting volunteers from across the Arab world to join the jihad — yes, that is exactly how it was described in American propaganda — against godless communists, it cultivated precisely the sort of killers that haunt it today.

That was also the period when the relationship between Pakistan and the US coalesced into something more symbiotic. General Zia-ul-Haq was a tyrant desperate for a cause in which he could cloak his illegitimacy. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan proved to be a godsend.

There is a profound irony in the fact that the forces the US and Pakistan are combating today are a direct legacy of the last time they collaborated this closely. And the irony is only compounded by the nature of the two governments: Pakistan is effectively under military rule, as it was in the 1980s; and George W. Bush’s government is widely considered the most reactionary American regime in living memory — which, back then, was equally true of the Reagan administration.

Why, General Pervez Musharraf’s government even includes a scion of the previous military — serving as minister of religious affairs, no less, and ever willing to extol the virtues of jihad. Not so long ago, he is even reported to have said that he could envisage himself as a suicide bomber.

Notwithstanding the fact that Musharraf believes himself to be locked in battle with the sort of belligerents that Zia coaxed into being, not once has the president denounced the legacy of his predecessor.

The same charge could be laid against his American counterpart. No member of the Bush administration — let alone the inarticulate incumbent himself — has ever so much as hinted that Ronald Reagan may conceivably have erred in arming and encouraging the mujahideen, whose ranks were swelled back then by the likes of Osama bin Laden.

One could, in the circumstances, be forgiven for concluding that, united in their monumental hypocrisy, Pakistan and the US were made for one another.

It has been argued, not without basis, that in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, it would have been well-nigh impossible for Musharraf to defy Bush’s demand for assistance in the US invasion of Afghanistan. The official line in Islamabad at the time was that while overflights had been agreed upon, the US would not use Pakistani soil for American bases, nor launch strikes from Pakistani territory.

That was about as convincing as Zia’s dogged denials that Pakistan was being used as a conduit for supplying weapons to the mujahideen. In fact, thanks to corruption within the military establishment, a substantial proportion of those weapons ended up on the streets of Pakistan. The violence spawned as a consequence continues to this day.

Musharraf’s value to Washington is reflected in the extraordinarily congenial approach adopted towards his administration. It’s not hard to imagine the stink that would have been raised had it turned out that, say, an Iranian or North Korean nuclear scientist had been vending secrets to the highest bidder — in all likelihood with the connivance of higher authorities. Yet the US was remarkably complacent about the Abdul Qadeer Khan affair.

Neither censure nor sanctions has become the broad approach, and as an MNNA Pakistan can look forward to preferential treatment in the realm of arms sales and the like. Although not everyone is entirely convinced by Musharraf’s protestations of moderation, it is widely feared that his removal from power could usher in an Islamist regime sympathetic to the very forces the US wishes to destroy. Such a regime would presumably have access to Pakistan’s small but far from harmless nuclear arsenal. A nightmare scenario could unfold.

It is not known, of course, whether the MNNA deal includes any sort of nuclear compromise. Chances are, though, that it involves more than barely limited access for American security and intelligence personnel, plus the military operations undertaken in the tribal areas — which have caused scores of deaths, but are yet to yield a “high-value asset.” It is certainly possible that Musharraf, like Bush in Iraq, is fighting the wrong war in the wrong place against the wrong enemy.

It stands to reason that Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements would have sought to cross the border into Pakistan in the wake of the American assault on Afghanistan. But it does not necessarily follow that leading members of either group can still be found in that rugged terrain. After all, the likes of Ramzi bin Al-Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were apprehended in metropolitan centres. And they were captured through police action rather than military operations.

History shows that it is invariably extremely difficult to defeat terrorism militarily. Ultimately, it can only be uprooted when the conditions in which it flourishes cease to exist. That can only happen in the long term, but strategies conducive to such an outcome are nowhere in evidence. To the contrary, the war against Iraq has in fact served as a clarion call for recruits to violent causes. By alienating Pushtoon tribes to please his American allies, Musharraf may well be making the same mistake. Pakistan has lived with terrorism for more than two decades, but of late it has increased in terms of both intensity and frequency.

Over the past half-century, Pakistan’s eagerness to serve American interests has rarely yielded benefits, barring arms sales, credits and loans — all of which are, at best, a mixed blessing. Washington’s strategic interest in Pakistan, which waned following the demise of the Soviet Union, has lately acquired new dimensions. But as collaborators in the so-called war on terror, let us harbour no illusions: that war will be waged in a manner that suits US interests, not those of Pakistan.

Formalities notwithstanding, it’s hard to tell whether MNNA status has been accorded to Pakistan or to its military ruler. It would be folly to look upon the latest stage in US-Pakistan relations as much more than a strategic convenience. No long-term good can seriously be expected to flow from it.

And we shouldn’t be terribly surprised if it all ends in tears.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.