PAKISTANIS know how to search for the truth; they also know that it is, in most cases, elusive or just plain unattainable. Americans, on the other hand, genuinely believe, await and expect to know all the facts. This variance in perspective was made obvious yet again when last week a notable American journalist published a story about the holes in the Obama administration’s version of the raid that captured and killed Osama bin Laden.
The story was published in the London Review of Books and in it Seymour Hersh alleged that bin Laden had been living in his compound with full knowledge of Pakistani authorities and that the ensuing raid in May 2011 took place with Pakistani consent and approval.
Given its combination of intrigue and subterfuge, spy agencies, terror organisations and two governments at war, the ‘truth’ of what happened, who knew and who told may never be definitively found. At the same time, the controversy that has erupted following Hersh’s revelations (many of which had been hypothesised by conspiracy theorists long before) does provide insight into just how difficult it is to find unquestionable ‘victories’ in the war on terrorism.
Within the American psyche, the killing of Osama bin Laden has represented a golden moment.
In the American case, the dynamics of this problem were visible in the immediate aftermath. A slew of American journalists, many and most of whom have whetted their careers on the perpetuity of the American war project, jumped to attack Hersh and his revelations. One of them, Max Fisher, said he had debunked Hersh, a tall claim given that Fisher himself could provide no new sources of information. Others tried to interview Hersh, anger him and attack him.
The entire spectacle provided no new information; it did, however, reveal just how close the ‘free’ American press is to its government’s claims regarding war and victory. More troublingly, it revealed just how and why the American war enterprise has continued unchecked: the very people entrusted with questioning it in the public sphere are addicted to its pretext and pretensions. Within the American psyche (and this would include the journalists jumping to their government’s defence), the killing of bin Laden has represented a golden moment, when the narrative of the ‘war on terror’ as morally good and American might as ultimately powerful were all substantiated.
The possibility that it could be a charade, staged precisely for the purpose of providing a media moment, an argument for re-election, a vindication for 9/11, could not but hurt and hurt awfully. The idea that Seal Team Six may have killed an already imprisoned invalid, or that Zero Dark Thirty was just a movie, was one no one wanted to think about. The maintenance of the myth of American heroism required a raid undertaken without Pakistani complicity, imbued with the idea of conquest; the possibility of a staged kill, like the imperial hunts of old, where deliberately wearied animals were shot down for trophies, is simply unacceptable. In the aftermath, Seymour Hersh is bearing the consequences of having suggested it.
At the core of the issue, however, is not the truth or falsity of the account or the quality of the sources he may or may not have used, but rather the more onerous burden of constructing and defining ‘victory’ in the war on terrorism. Using its status as a superpower coupled with its ability to bomb and kill remotely with drones, the United States has created, managed and sustained a narrative of a perpetual war against terrorism. The catch in this creation is that it is difficult if not impossible to conjure victories in a war that is endless and everywhere; the capture of bin Laden was an attempt to supply just such a victory. The fact that it may not have been what it seemed suggests the one truth that no one wants to think about: in a forever war there are never victories.
Pakistan, even with its relative comfort with ambiguity, is not insulated from these conundrums, even as they vary in flavour from American ones. With the numerous brands and labels under which terror groups proliferate in the country and the reality that some align with state interests while others are against them, it has been difficult to create the black-and-white moral binary required to rally against an enemy. The shades of grey (and they are so many), the length of the conflict (now in its second decade) and the constant shadow of a meddling superpower all make Pakistani victories just as difficult to define.
In this sense, both the US and Pakistan have relied on the idea of killing leaders as moments of might. While Pakistanis are somewhat wearied with the proposition, Americans remain addicted to it. In the week after the Hersh story broke, the extremist group Islamic State took the Iraqi city of Ramadi. The headlines in most American newspapers focused on a Delta Force operation that had killed a mid-level IS commander. And so, even with its holes, the dubious assumption that targeted killings are victories against terror endures and continues to be replicated.
The myth of moral binaries is perhaps essential to war propaganda; there must be a good side and a bad side, and support for war relies centrally on convincing watching publics, American and Pakistani, that their governments are on the side of the good and virtuous. Since Pakistanis witness the ‘war on terror’ at close range, live its ravages and vagaries on a daily basis, they can discern the deception that lies in the idea of wholly good and wholly bad. Americans fighting and writing about war from a remote distance may be far more addicted to its facilitating fictions, naively eager to swallow whole its staged and hollow victories.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2015