AS everyone knows, late 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was a different time: it’s hard to forget Newsweek proudly running ‘Time to think about torture’. It’s harder still to forget the Bush administration’s counter-terror chief saying, “When this is all over, the bad guys are going to have flies walking across their eyeballs.”
It was the dawn of the forever wars back then, and the bloodlust was bipartisan. Per the excellent Pankaj Mishra, liberals rushed ahead of neocons as they “recommended war and condoned torture while advancing America’s mission to bring democracy to the world’s benighted”.
Not that democracy fared any better, used as a gold star for whatever suited the imperial consensus at the time: democrats that made the cut would include sectarian militias (Iraq), narco-states (Karzai’s Afghanistan), and even the commando president, Pervez Musharraf. Magically excluded, of course, were Pax Americana’s elected enemies — from Hamas in Gaza to the Brotherhood in Egypt.
We also learned that, whatever our own rugged ideas of war, the invisible hand of capital soon followed. As one conservative author wrote, it was time for a new American empire whose “grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known”.
The mission to civilise leaves behind plenty of lessons to be learnt.
Thus Dick Cheney’s Haliburton Company started tunnelling deep into Iraq’s oilfields, and highly paid private mercenaries started killing kids in Baghdad.
In many ways, it was the oldest scam in the world: the Rome of the day, motivated by equal parts greed and revenge, leading a mission to civilise. That mission, the exact result Osama bin Laden sought when he sent two planes crashing into the Twin Towers, is just now winding down.
It leaves behind a million dead in Iraq, scores of thousands dead in Afghanistan, and a Pakistan changed forever — with plenty lessons to be learnt.
The first is that military rule, being shorn of legitimacy at home, is more likely to press itself into the service of foreign powers abroad. Gen Musharraf’s rentier regime opened up airbases, waved in drones, and collected bounties for the citizens it handed over to Bush’s black sites.
Doubtless, there can be little sympathy for Al Qaeda affiliates — only, so many weren’t. Saifullah Paracha has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for 17 years. He has never been charged with a crime.
Nor, for that matter, have our countless missing persons, a practice perfected by the Musharraf regime, and one that endures today. That’s the second lesson: of the million and one paths this country took to contain terror — anti-terrorism courts, military courts, model courts – missing persons can never be one of them. It can only ever be a crisis of conscience.
The third lesson is to be wary of empire’s local dupes. A tiny elite, overrepresented in our policy and press, brought out the Beltway bongos. We were told a CIA thug like Raymond Davis was a career diplomat. We were told drones were the last line of defence, even as Petraeus’s aide admitted to Congress that they killed 50 Pakistani civilians per senior militant.
We were told occupation next door, per a recent piece via Brookings, would “maintain the gains made in women’s rights”, even as one in three female soldiers were raped by their male colleagues in the US military. On and on it went — a rain dance for more and more foreign intervention, until the entire project failed and fell over.
The fourth lesson concerns the other end of the spectrum: right-wing apologias. Whatever the sins of empire, existential threats to this country were externalised. We were treated to all kinds of voices claiming this wasn’t our war. Our current prime minister offered the militants office space; our current leader of the opposition kindly requested the bad men to leave Punjab alone.
But the TTP was gifted Swat with ribbons and bows. Their response to peace was floggings and beheadings, and then reaching for Buner.
In the end, ‘our war versus their war’ proved a false premise: whether it was ours or someone else’s, the war was here now, and it had no intention of leaving. It’s also why Aitzaz Hasan and Bilal Omer and Tahira Qazi and Safwat Ghayur lost their lives trying to save our own.
Breathing somewhat easier now, this country must never find itself in that inferno again. The Fata-KP merger was a step forward, yet even this awaits full implementation. The drop in terror attacks is huge, but the factors that enabled Fazlullah’s brutal rise — a broken justice system, weak service delivery, and economic impoverishment — remain. The time to fix them is now.
Twenty years later, Pakistan must have clarity: that when it comes to militancy, military rule, and the imperial agenda today, there is little to be gained, and so much more to be lost.
The writer is a barrister.
Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2021