A different reality

October 19, 2017

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WHAT do you say to a Pakistani military officer who insists Osama bin Laden died of kidney failure near Tora Bora in 2006 and that the Abbottabad raid was a concocted drama? Is there any way of establishing the truth of the matter?

The orthodox view is that the Americans killed him in Abbottabad. That account is based on the evidence of US and Pakistani officials, Bin Laden’s relatives (some of whom were in the house with him) and former jihadist colleagues. Many authors have written detailed, sourced and footnoted books outlining the evidence. The version believed by many Pakistani officers says the Americans staged Abbottabad to discredit Pakistan.

The well-known American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has lent this theory weight, having argued in the London Review of Books that there was no firefight, no intelligence haul and no Bin Laden corpse. Pakistani officers do not accept all of Hersh’s version, for example rejecting his claims that generals Pasha and Kayani had advance knowledge of the fake raid.

Truth is a function of power.

The orthodox version might seem to have the advantage in this dispute. After all, it relies on tens if not hundreds of interviews with named eyewitnesses. Hersh, by contrast, relies on three unnamed US intelligence officials.

I once interviewed Gen Musharraf towards the end of his time in power. That very morning the papers had an opinion poll showing his unpopularity. I asked him about it. One of his aides looked alarmed and started secretly signalling me to change the subject. I soon discovered why: Musharraf produced his morning briefing papers. They contained a different poll — one that gave him a high rating.

“Look,” he told me. “I am well ahead in the polls.”

“But the poll in the papers shows you behind. It’s on the front page!” The official glared. Musharraf looked momentarily confused. He obviously hadn’t seen the newspapers. But he recovered quickly: “You have your polls and I have mine: who can say which one is right?”

The answer seemed clear: a poll conducted by a reputable organisation using scientifically tested procedures beat one made up by a sycophantic official. But he was not to be persuaded. He had his facts and I had mine.

There was a time — it lasted for many centuries — when people believed in objective truths. Then came post-modern relativism that claimed truth was a construct developed and maintained by power through structuring and controlling public discourse. White males running Western governments could universalise their version of the truth because they had so much power. The competing truths of weak minorities never got heard and so, were never believed. Truth is a function of power.

This idea has had consequences the early postmodernists did not anticipate and would not welcome. Today, the people taking advantage of postmodern relativism are not disempowered minority groups, but the most powerful people on earth, including sophisticated political operatives in Washington and Moscow. During the George W. Bush administration, journalist Ron Suskind quoted a White House official who had an impressively early understanding of this post-truth world. The aide accused Suskind of living in the ‘reality-based community’ which believed that solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the official said. “We create our own reality.”

In Trump’s America there are fundamental disagreements about what is true. Science — eg about whether vaccinations are safe — is no longer enough to settle an argument. Competing tribes, corralled by social media, insist their views are at least as valid as those of others, even if evidence is lacking. Maybe the parents of a child who dies for the lack of a vaccination will regret their foolishness. But they become fringe voices.

Over the years, Pakistani officers have told me not only that the Abbottabad raid was staged but also that the Mumbai attack was carried out by the Indians; that they had no involvement in the Kashmir insurgency; that the Quetta Shura does not exist; and the Pakistani state has no ties with the Haqqani network, etc. Many officers who say these things seem to genuinely believe what they say.

Groupthink is by no means unique to Pakistani. Let’s not forget that 43 per cent of US Republicans thought Barack Obama was a Muslim. But failure to agree on a way of establishing the truth is bad news for both societies. It is striking that Deng Xiaoping ushered China into its new age of prosperity by urging his countrymen to overcome their ideological prism and instead: “seek truth from facts”. It worked for China. And it wouldn’t do any harm in Pakistan or the US. As China’s growing strength demonstrates, there are distinct advantages to being part of the reality-based community.

The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2017