The Nation, September 17, 2001
On a trip to Pakistan a few years ago I was talking to a former general about the militant Islamist groups in the region. I asked him why these people, who had happily accepted funds and weapons from the United States throughout the cold war, had become violently anti-American overnight. He explained that they were not alone. Many Pakistani officers who had served the United States loyally from 1951 onward felt humiliated by Washington's indifference.
"Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," he said. "We've served our purpose and they think we can be just flushed down the toilet."
The old condom is being fished out for use once again, but will it work? The new "coalition against terrorism" needs the services of the Pakistani Army, but Gen. Pervez Musharraf will have to be extremely cautious.
An overcommitment to Washington could lead to a civil war in Pakistan and split the armed forces. A great deal has changed over the past two decades, but the ironies of history continue to multiply. In Pakistan itself, Islamism derived its strength from state patronage rather than popular support. The ascendancy of religious fundamentalism is the legacy of a previous military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who received solid backing from Washington and London throughout his eleven years as dictator. It was during his rule (1977-88) that a network of madrassahs (religious boarding schools), funded by the Saudi regime, were created.
The children, who were later sent to fight as mujahedeen in Afghanistan, were taught to banish all doubt. The only truth was divine truth. Anyone who rebelled against the imam rebelled against Allah. The madrassahs had only one aim: the production of deracinated fanatics in the name of a bleak Islamic cosmopolitanism. The primers taught that the Urdu letter jeem stood for jihad; tay for tope (cannon) , kaaf for Kalashnikovand khay for khoon (blood); 2500 madrassahs produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and die for their faith when asked to do so by their religious leaders, Dispatched across the border by the Pakistani Army, they were hurled into battle against other Muslims they were told were not true Muslims. The Taliban creed is an ultra-sectarian strain, inspired by the Wahhabi sect that rules Saudi Arabia. The severity of the Afghan mullahs has been denounced by Sunni clerics at al-Azhar in Cairo and Shiite theologians in Qom as a disgrace to the Prophet.
The Taliban could not, however, have captured Kabul on their own via an excess of religious zeal. They were armed and commanded by "volunteers" from the Pakistani Army. If Islamabad decided to pull the plug, the Taliban could be dislodged, but not without serious problems. The victory in Kabul counts as the Pakistani Army's only triumph. To this day, former US Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski remains recalcitrant. "What was more important in the world view of history?" he asks with more than a touch of irritation. "The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?"
If Hollywood rules necessitate a short, sharp war against the new enemy, the American Caesar would be best advised not to insist on Pakistani legions. The consequences could be dire: a brutal and vicious civil war creating more bitterness and encouraging more acts of individual terrorism. Islamabad will do everything to prevent a military expedition to Afghanistan. For one thing, there are Pakistani soldiers, pilots and officers present in Kabul, Bagram and other bases. What will be their orders this time, and will they obey them? Much more likely is that Osama bin Laden will be sacrificed in the interests of the greater cause, and his body dead or alive will be handed over to his former employers in Washington. But will that be enough?
The only real solution is a political one. It requires removing the causes that create the discontent. It is despair that feeds fanaticism, and that is a result of Washington's policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. The orthodox casuistry among loyal factotums, columnists and courtiers of the Washington regime is symbolized by Tony Blair's personal assistant for foreign affairs, ex-diplomat Robert Cooper, who writes quite openly, "We need to get used to the idea of double standards." The underlying maxim of this cynicism is, We will punish the crimes of our enemies and reward the crimes of our friends. Isn't that at least preferable to universal impunity?
To this the answer is simple: "Punishment" along these lines does not reduce criminality but breeds it, by those who wield it. The Gulf and Balkan Wars were copybook examples of the moral blank check of a selective vigilantism. Israel can defy UN resolutions with impunity, India can tyrannize Kashmir, Russia can destroy Grozny, but it is Iraq that has to be punished and it is the Palestinians who continue to suffer. Cooper continues: "Advice to postmodern states: accept that intervention in the premodern is going to be a fact of life. Such interventions may not solve problems, but they may salve the conscience. And they are not necessarily the worse for that." Try explaining that to the survivors in New York and Washington. The United States is whipping itself into a frenzy. Its ideologues talk of this as an attack on "civilization," but what kind of civilization is it that thinks in terms of blood revenge?
For the past sixty years and more the United States has toppled democratic leaders, bombed countries in three continents and used nuclear weapons against Japanese civilians, but it never knew what it felt like to have its own cities under attack. Now they know. To the victims of the attack and their relatives one can offer our deep sympathy, as one does to people whom the US government has victimized. But to accept that somehow an American life is worth more than that of a Rwandan, a Yugoslav, a Vietnamese, a Korean, a Japanese, a Palestinian...that is unacceptable.