A good conspiracy

Published March 30, 2022
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

IF one thing’s true about human nature, it’s that everyone loves a good conspiracy. The stakes are sensational, the ending is grand, and most of the characters are faceless aliens — impossible to prove, and easy to believe in.

Pakistanis can’t resist a good story either, conspiracy or otherwise: cars run on water, astronauts find their faith on the moon, and Freemasons control children’s movies. By the time the truth wheezes its way to the front, the conversation is already over.

So it was that the prime minister, in his main event rally last week, cried interference: the cost of non-alignment was that a shadowy cabal was coming for him. “Attempts are being made to influence our foreign poli­­cy from abroad,” he said. “We have been aw­­a­­r­­e of this conspiracy for months.” Mr Khan even waved a letter (contents unrevealed) as proof.

To any such claim, two reactions were immediate and expected: the liberal commentariat fainting with anger, and the province of WhatsApp uncles declaring victory.

The PM is mistaken in thinking his biggest problems aren’t domestic.

In fairness, both sides have a point. To start with the first conceit — that the West could care less about Pakistan, and that the global hegemon is actually kind, enlightened, and to be crawled closer to — is a tad innocent.

After all, one doesn’t need to be a conspiracy buff to know that the Beltway has played havoc with this country: ‘diplomats’ murdered two Pakistanis in the street; their convoy crushed a third to death. ‘Vaccine drives’ turned out to be CIA intel ops, worsening violence against actual polio workers. ‘Ambas­sa­dors’ were useful saps who — as the commission under Justice Qazi Faez Isa determined — wrote servile memos to America’s military chief inviting foreign occupation. All of this has happened.

And all of this will happen again: the imperial interest — in a country with nuclear weapons, the world’s fifth-largest population, and geography’s most tragic crossroads — runs broad and deep.

Yet at the same time, none of this is of principal importance. That’s where the logic of the other camp — the kind that says foreign powers are perpetually out to get us — falls apart. Even if conspiracy is to be believed, the prime arbiters of Pakistan’s destiny have always been Pakistanis themselves. To paraphrase another Western conspirator, foreign powers can’t destroy Pakistan. Only Pakistanis can do that.

Those close to Mr Khan say the letter is real; his critics deem it a stage prop. Whatever the case may be, it wasn’t a Western conspiracy that forced Usman Buzdar on Punjab, or that made the same page turn into separate books for Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the two major reasons that have led to this no-confidence crisis.

It likely wasn’t a Western conspiracy in the past either: Mr Khan’s invoking the parallel of Zulfi Bhutto suffers from the exact same issues. By 1977, the FSF was torturing political opponents, police were opening fire on protesters in Karachi, brigadiers were throwing down their weapons in Lahore, and the money the PNA was receiving was from Punjab’s industrial groups — a fact Mr Bhutto himself mentions in If I Am Assassinated.

That Henry Kissinger wanted Mr Bhutto out because of the bomb can easily be believed of that old vampire. But that the Americans then worked to install the Zia regime — which lied and lied all the way to nuclear capability, and to which Jimmy Carter cut off all military aid after the coup — has little link with reality.

As eyewitnesses both sincere to Mr Bhutto (Salmaan Taseer) and disillusioned by him (Rafi Raza) have written in their books, claims of an international conspiracy never landed. It was, wrote the former, “unflattering to Pakistanis” to pretend otherwise: “There is little doubt that right-wing forces did indeed come together in a well-laid plan to remove Bhutto from office, and there is equally little doubt that funds from dispossessed industrialists … were used to fuel the agitation. But neither Bhutto nor his spokesmen were able to prove the charge that it was a foreign conspiracy, and the accusation came full circle when members of the PNA solemnly alleged that the Russians were financing Bhutto’s struggle for political survival after his removal from power.’

To return to the present, and Mr Khan’s address, no foreign conspiracy can succeed if local conditions are favourable. Mr Khan is right to say that a ‘no-camps’ policy is in Pakistan’s interest. Equally, that Western diplomats are chafing under his rhetoric, and would rather that others be running things, isn’t quite beyond imagining.

But the prime minister is mistaken in thinking his foremost problems aren’t domestic. The predecessor whose name he took, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, once said of his own, Ayub, “I would argue with him, pay attention to the working class, but he was terrified only of big power conspiracies. He was always afraid of the CIA or something, and felt he could always handle the people.”

Whether or not Mr Bhutto followed his own advice, Mr Khan still can.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2022

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