The forever war

Published August 5, 2022
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

A YEAR after the ignominious withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the tame reconquest of that country by the Afghan Taliban, the Biden administration has reminded us that the US is still the world’s policeman.

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing through a precision US drone strike in a posh neighbourhood of Kabul is the talk of the town. Did Pakistan facilitate it? If so, what bounties, to borrow from Musharrafian nomenclature, did we earn?

Alas, us ordinary mortals can only speculate — there will be no answers. Beyond tired narratives of good guys versus bad guys we will learn no more than we already know; that Afghans continue to be brutalised as the American Empire and its most trusted lieutenant, Pakistan, play out another iteration of their historical love-hate relationship.

We should not be surprised that Washington continues to rely on Islamabad (read: Rawalpindi) to secure its narrow strategic objectives.

Ayman al-Zawahiri was a ruthless killer at the heart of the global jihadi movement. But I do not celebrate his death, because it does not signal an end to the (selective) patronage of religiously motivated militants by our establishment. Neither should anyone be naïve enough (again) to think that Washington’s military-industrial complex cares a jot about Afghans.

Over the past year, many have tried to appeal to the ‘conscience’ of the ‘civilised world’ about interlocking tragedies unfolding in Afghanistan — a brutally cold winter, poverty and starvation, the plight of women and girls. But this happened in the late 1990s as well, and only brute, strategic interests explained Washington’s decision to come into that country in October 2001. The Pentagon will continue to send unmanned drones to kill whichever ‘enemy’ it chooses. It prosecutes a forever war, one that will never serve the interests of people.

Lest anyone forget, war is a business.

Meanwhile, we in Pakistan can choose not to pay attention to our ‘forever wars’ in militarised ethnic peripheries. But that does not make them go away.

While most obsesses about PTI/PDM disqualifications and minus-one formulas, Waziristan, Kurram and other tribal districts are beset by targeted killings and deliberately stoked sectarian tensions, Gilgit-Baltistan is being subjected to yet another round of Shia-Sunni polarisation and Balochistan continues to burn with no end in sight.

Lest anyone forget, war is a business. The Americans still rule the world because of their military might, because they operate more than 1,000 military bases across the globe, because they have a never-ending supply of private military contractors, and because their ‘democracy’ is hostage in part to the defence industry. Washington’s protégés in Pakistan have developed their very own Military, Inc. and invoke their own indispensability due to a perennially ‘nazuk daur’ (uncertain times), and also deploy selective discourses of ‘terrorism’ to suit their purposes.

Explainer: When is the US war in Afghanistan really over?

The infrastructures of war that these states have cultivated are taking on ever more autonomous form in the nooks and crannies of society. Thousands of religious institutions operate in this country, many with substantial funding. They thrive because there are millions of families who want to be able to get free ‘education’ and board/lodging for their children. Then there are ‘welfare’ set-ups that collect meat, hides and other donations from large numbers of ordinary Pakistanis.

Militant organisations also have a political economy. Many are heavily implicated in illicit trading networks, including drugs and munitions. Their patrons include powerful individuals within our own state apparatus, and others too, most notably the Gulf kingdoms. These are truly international networks: men in suits that we tend to associate with a vague ‘corporate’ sector are just as likely to be part of defence and other war-making industries as they are other cogs in the global capitalist wheel.

In a nutshell, forever wars will continue in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the world at large. They serve profit-making, ideological and so many other purposes. When we engage in unending debates about whether PTI ‘corruption’ is any better or worse than the PDM/PPP corruption, we gloss over the fact that both play second fiddle to establishments, domestic and global.

It is not just the forever wars that major political parties appear unwilling and unable to confront. They are just as unwilling to challenge the many different forms of capitalist ‘development’ that explain the ever-worsening environmental crises. Balochistan and the Seraiki belt have been ravaged by rains, but beyond some token promises of relief by the current government and criticisms of officialdom by those in the opposition, no one is interested in identifying the root causes.

The wretched of the earth are crying out for someone to pay attention. But this is not just about those at the very margins. A viable future for all young populations in the region is at stake.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2022

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