Column in The Economic Times: When the US dismembered Pakistan, 2009

by Samir Saran
February 27,2009
in: The Economic Times

The formal capitulation of the Pakistani government to the Taliban and the ‘liberation’ of the Swat valley evoked divided responses from within the region and outside. While voices emanating from India are concerned with this dangerous development, the US foreign policy team has predictably hedged its position and has begun testing the ‘Good Taliban-Bad Taliban’ dictum. The division of Pakistan has unfortunately legitimised the rule and role of two institutions in the politics of Pakistan; its religious extremists and its army and can be seen as a consequence of the US engagement with Pakistan post 9/11. To understand this situation and the initial US response, we must deconstruct the ‘war on terror’ policy of the US and analyse one of its key components: the engagement of the US with its ally Gen Pervez Musharraf. This engagement was political as it had the effect of demoralising the democratic presence in Pakistan.

It was also sociological as it redefined the western understanding of Pakistan and altered the space and voice available to the moderates and liberals. This engagement was articulated by the ‘Us vs Them’ foreign policy of the US, a description of the age-old identity discourse between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. The description of the Muslim as the ‘other’ by the west (‘self’) is an area of historical interest. Much of the discussion establishes the act of describing the Muslims, as a means by which the west (and its media) seeks to define, assimilate and control them and is a result of the urge to create the identity of the ‘other’ through its own interpretative prisms.

This process not only fails to comprehend the ‘other’ in their entirety but diminishes their significance in any engagement. This practice is a political tool that has been consistently deployed in the past. The ‘secular wars’ or colonising endeavours of the western world were represented as a ‘solemn duty’, and as a British parliamentarian of yore put it, as a burden of the white man to civilise the east. The boundaries of this orientalist discussion, post 9/11 have been redefined and comprise of two dominant narratives, that of ‘Islamophobia’ on the one hand and the ‘war on terror’ on the other. Islamophobia arises from a lack of understanding and tolerance of the ‘other’. The ‘war on terror’ rhetoric of the US extends the understanding of the ‘other’ to that of ‘evil’ and justifies violence and war as the preferred means of engagement.

In its effort to punish the ‘evildoers’ (al Qaida), the US needed to depend on a Muslim ‘other’. The Pakistan army and Musharraf became its key ally. Their complicity in supporting global terror networks and the fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan were well known. However, strategic compulsions made it necessary to have them on board. The co-option of a Muslim and a dictator – an ‘other’ twice over – was an interesting challenge for the Bush administration. While it required the administration to discount the evil that Musharraf represented, something it has consistently done in its engagement with Muslim despots and royalty, it had to more importantly sell this unholy alliance to its own people, who were reeling under the ferocity of the 9/11 attacks.

Ironically, it was the military credentials of Musharraf that helped the US to achieve this. It was perhaps the only institution in the Islamic state that could be understood by the west from within the “irrational religiosity” the country was imagined to be. The development of the ‘western’ identity for Musharraf involved constructing him as a ‘moderate Muslim’ who shared the aspirations and virtues of the west (‘self’) and thereafter, justifying support for his dictatorial credentials. Co-option was achieved by projecting desirable qualities readily understood as virtues by the US citizens as attributes of Musharraf. Articles in newspapers across the political spectrum constructed the identity of Musharraf as a moderate, secular and progressive leader with zero tolerance for terrorism. Images of Musharraf lovingly playing with his pet dog struck a chord with western audiences.

Alongside this aggrandisement of the dictator, Pakistan, its civil society, their social and religious practices were subject to reductive portrayal by the western media. The description of the political and religious elements of Pakistan society was constructed around terms like corrupt, weak, fanatics, violent and backward. Their protests were irrational and did not deserve considered response. Many times anti-US demonstrations in Pakistan were presented as expressions of religious extremism and barbarism that pervaded the Pakistani society and what the good General was fighting against. The army rule was thus projected as an important component of Pakistan’s stability and Musharraf as the saviour leading his people towards modernity and peace.

By doing so, a dictator with strong extreme Islamist credentials – the stereotypical ‘other’ – was now imagined as the western ‘self’ while his countrymen, including the moderate and liberal citizens, were reduced to an irrationality whose voices and rights could be ignored. This denial of space and voice to the democratic forces allowed the spectacular rise of the Taliban, who now claim to speak for the ‘other’ who do not wear the uniform.

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