THE ART OF DECEPTION - Jihadi impulses are not alien to the Pakistani establishment

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By SWAPAN DASGUPTA
  • Published 11.01.08
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In early 2003, a leading American newspaper sought the views of celebrity French intellectuals on the Bush administration’s pursuit of ‘regime change’ in Iraq. The answers were predictable: most Left-Bank celebrities loved maintaining a healthy distance from what they perceived as crude American overkill. One ‘intellectual’ stood apart: Bernard-Henri Lévy, philosopher, polemicist and author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? “They are attacking the wrong country,” he told a slightly bewildered reporter. The real target of President George W. Bush’s cleansing should, Lévy argued, be Pakistan.

Unlike its larger eastern neighbour, which cast a spell on outsiders, first as a spiritual haven and subsequently as a breeding ground for clever nerds, Pakistan has spent the major part of its 60-year existence as an afterthought. It lacked the civilizational draw of India and never quite captured the rugged romance of Afghanistan. It existed as an appendage to both the Moghul inheritance and the noble savagery that defined life along the Khyber Pass. Pakistan was perched somewhere in between. It was neither modernist and secular like Turkey, nor was it defined by medievalism like Saudi Arabia.

Ironically, it was its status as an appendage and afterthought that has kept Pakistan going. Geography has forever smiled on Pakistan. During the Cold War, it stood up as a buffer against a perceived drive by the Soviet Union to secure access to the Persian Gulf. Its slightly ridiculous generals and field marshals were mollycoddled in Washington and London, and held up as modernist antidotes to the sanctimonious socialism of the Nehrus and Nassers. In 1980, it became the springboard for a Vietnam-in-reverse assault on a tottering “evil empire” and was showered with more flattery and funds than its rulers could handle with any degree of responsibility.

Ideally, Pakistan should have either gone to pieces or forced to come to terms with responsible global citizenship after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan’s descent into tribal and faith-inspired anarchy. Instead, it chose to emerge from the protective shadows of global powers by becoming the covert operations centre of an Islamist resurgence its adherents felt would eventually overwhelm a decadent West.

In the 15 years or so between the time the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan became a waiting game and Osama bin Laden’s assault on mainland America on September 11, 2001, Pakistan refashioned itself as the praetorian guard of the Islamic ummah. As the breathtaking investigative study, Deception: Pakistan, The United States And The Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark reveals, Pakistan was no rogue state acting in splendid isolation. Its undercover nuclear programme was financed by a consortium that comprised unsuspecting American taxpayers, greedy European and South African businessmen, the Chinese military establishment, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya. The programme was also undertaken with the tacit approval and logistical facilitation of the authorities in Dubai, Sudan, Syria and Iraq. Its beneficiaries included the worldwide network of jihadis that operated from the strategic depths of Afghanistan. And contrary to the self-serving suggestion that it was only Abdul Qadeer Khan who ran an unofficial nuclear supermarket, all the evidence points to the entire Pakistan military and bureaucratic establishment’s total complicity.

There is absolutely no doubt that Pakistan’s ruling establishment conducted itself with great dexterity and single-minded dedication in pursuance of what it saw as its sovereign interests. Yet, to imagine that Islamabad’s frenzied quest for nuclear weapons was a purposeful response to India’s stubborn refusal to embrace the global non-proliferation regime is to miss the wood for the trees. Pakistan’s nuclear programme was just an aspect, albeit a very important aspect, of the country’s bid to be in the vanguard of the Islamist upsurge against the West.

In an earlier decade, Iran had attempted to occupy that space, but had failed owing to its Shi’ite character and its preoccupation with its bloody war against Iraq. Pakistan attempted to fill that void, complementing its State power with the zealousness and raw energy of the committed in Afghanistan. The taliban regime that controlled Kabul after 1996 was nothing but an extension of Pakistan’s larger strategic design. Kabul’s effectiveness in the global jihad would have been minimal had the commitment of its own fighters and the international brigade stationed in the camps not been supplemented by the expertise of Pakistan’s military and intelligence wings. It is significant, for example, that the trail of many of the 9/11 bombers invariably led back to Pakistan. It is also noteworthy that Osama bin Laden’s dramatic escape from the Tora Bora caves in early 2002 was organized by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ISI’s favourite Afghan warlord.

On the face of it, the jihadi trail to Pakistan led to a few theological seminaries, a handful of extremist groups, some dodgy foundations and a handful of retired Pakistan army officers. Further scrutiny, however, led to the conclusion that almost all these bodies had live connections with the Pakistani intelligence and military, something that was well known in both Washington and Langley. Yet, rather than draw the inevitable conclusion that there was something deeply rotten and duplicitous about the entire Islamic Republic of Pakistan, policy-makers both in the West and India pinpointed the problem on select individuals. The implication was that if a few baddies in key positions were removed and replaced by enlightened souls, Pakistan would reclaim its rightful position as a ‘moderate’ Muslim state and be a useful partner in the war on terror.

It was such a presumption that led the United States of America to attach such a premium on the restoration of democracy and a power-sharing deal involving General Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. Washington somehow imagined that a democratic government would have the autonomy to choke off the terrorists operating on both sides of the Durand Line. It was an assumption based on the spurious understanding that jihadi impulses are alien to the Pakistani establishment.

The equally simplistic conclusion drawn after Benazir’s tragic assassination was that ‘rogue’ elements in either the ISI or the military had once again conspired to destabilize the country. The shoddy cover-up evident in the inquiries into Benazir’s murder must, however, be read alongside two earlier plots to kill her, including the one in 1989 where Lt-General Hamid Gul, then a serving officer, contracted Osama bin Laden to undertake the job.

Since Ayub Khan’s days the Pakistani army has seen itself as the sole guardian of national interests. At that time, national interests were defined both in opposition to India and rag-tag politicians at home. After the Bangladesh debacle and Zia-ul Haq’s social engineering of the officer corps, the Pakistani military became more decisively Islamist in character.

It was, of course, constantly plotting its ultimate revenge on India — hence the Kargil misadventure. But equally, it now increasingly saw itself as an embryonic comintern for upholding Muslim interests throughout the region. Its apparent proximity to the US was governed purely by expediency — and Musharraf admitted as much in his public broadcast after being arm-twisted by the Bush administration. In the event of a frontal clash of interests between the Pakistan army and the US, it was apparent that Islamabad would never succumb completely.

In Islamic statecraft, considerable importance is attached to al takiya, which can be loosely translated as ‘dissimulation’ and includes lying to non-believers for the sake of a larger objective. Pakistan has perfected the art of al takiya to make a monkey of the US for many decades. It’s time liberal societies all over acknowledge their own gullibility.