Pakistan's mercenary elites
M. Shahid Alam explores the paradox of Pakistan's position in the US-led global war on terror
In Pakistan today there is a paradox crying for an explanation; it is a paradox, moreover, whose exploration can bring some clarity to the predicament of the Islamicate today.
In January 2002, when President George Bush defined his agenda for waging wars, he fixed his sights on Iraq, Iran and North Korea: the "axis of evil" marked for regime change. These countries were targeted -- we were told -- because they were developing "weapons of mass destruction." In the case of Iraq and Iran, this was only a cover. More likely, the two countries were targeted because they opposed Israeli hegemony. Perhaps, too, the US wanted their oil.
Oddly, Pakistan was not targeted for regime change. Yes, Pakistan has no oil. But the US-Israel axis could find her culpable on several other counts, each quite damnable. Pakistan is the only Islamicate country to possess nuclear weapons; she was guilty of nuclear proliferation; she was the chief patron of the Taliban regime; she has been accused by India of supporting cross-border terrorism in Kashmir; and, on the first two counts, Israel could tag Pakistan as the most serious threat to her security.
Why was Pakistan not being targeted?
This question has gathered even greater force over the past two years; and for two reasons. After being stalled for a while by the ferocity of the Iraqi resistance, US plans for war against Iran are once again gathering steam. In the past few months, Israelis, neo-cons, Christian Zionists, and assorted hawks, have again been baying for Iranian blood. Now, the US Senate, too, has joined the chorus. On September 26, with an overwhelming vote, it virtually handed President Bush the license to wage war against Iran.
At the same time, there is little doubt now that Pakistan is "hosting" both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Now rejuvenated, both organisations are operating from "liberated" territories in Pakistan's Waziristan. More ominously, last July, Pakistani allies of the Taliban dared to challenge the authority of the state in Pakistan's capital. And, since their rout there, they have continued to mount deadly attacks on the Pakistan army.Yet, even today, there is no talk of adding Pakistan to the "axis of evil." Why is there no clamour in the United States or Israel to invade Waziristan, to attack Pakistan's nuclear facilities, to punish her for Nuclear proliferation, or to launch covert operations to seize Pakistan's nuclear assets before they fall into the hands of Pakistani nationalists, the Taliban or al-Qaeda? This is the Pakistani paradox.
This paradox has a simple explanation: simple but also indicative of the malaise that afflicts nearly all the Islamicate world. In Pakistan, the US effected regime change without a change of regime. There was no need for an invasion, no need to fire a shot, no need for covert operations. At the first American touch, almost overnight, a terrible beauty was born. Instantly, the US had drafted the Pakistani military, nay the Pakistani state, to wage war against Islamic "extremists." The US had gained an army: and Pakistan's military dictators had gained longevity.
The ease with which Pakistan's sovereignty was terminated, the speed of this transaction, and, no less, the completeness of the foreign take-over, speaks volumes about Pakistan's history, the nature of her ruling elites, the timbre of her "national" institutions, and the alienation, degradation, and dereliction of Pakistan's middle classes. Within a few years of her birth, the state was privatised by landlords, generals, and bureaucrats: three factions created, nurtured, and guided into positions of leadership by the British.
Instead of mobilising the people, instead of educating them in the values of citizenship, instead of enriching Islamic traditions, instead of building a national economy, instead of developing indigenous technologies, Pakistan's ruling elites built bridges to the United States, to the US military, to foreign corporations, and to US-dominated multilateral institutions to create a technologically weak, debt-ridden, and financially dependent economy controlled from outside through local elites.
For sixty years, Pakistan has been managed by different factions of its ruling elites -- the military, bureaucracy, landlords -- taking turns to plunder the people, competing against each other to serve foreign masters, at first covertly, but of late more openly, more blatantly, more treasonously. So complete now is the alienation of the domestic elites from their own society that their bidding against each other, the domestic competition to sell the institutions of the "state," is now conducted in open view.
In order to stifle resistance, this dependent state methodically creates a weak, alienated, demoralised, and corrupt society. By failing to provide education, skills, and jobs, the state forces people to look outward, to turn to foreign shores for education, for jobs, and cultural inspiration. For every person who leaves for foreign shores, there are ten others, who are forced to stay at home, and whose education, careers, and very lives are organised around the chance of leaving the country. Pakistani society increasingly consists of would-be migrants waiting for their chance to dash out of the country's airports, ports, and border-crossings.
It is the middle classes now who ape the elites, who, in turn, have been aping their foreign masters for more than a century. As English increasingly becomes the passport to success, they are forsaking their native languages. In the colonial era, the elites sent their children to the grammar schools, the missionary schools, and then they were packed off to Cambridge and Oxford. On succeeding their white masters, these "whitened" natives brandished their command of English as the visible symbol of their new elevation to power. It marked them off from the "natives" over whom they now ruled. A new caste had emerged, the native "whites" segregated from their "backward" cousins by their alien language, their affluence, their Western loyalties and dress, their moral turpitude, and their Western vacations and honeymoons.
The most damaging product of this alienation has been a deepening intellectual sterility. Despite the proliferation of degrees, every new generation of Pakistanis is intellectually more sterile than its predecessor. Each new generation has eagerly surrendered the traditional virtues of its predecessor without acquiring the virtues of its masters, their scholarship, their energy, and the humanity which they practice among their own kind. The aping and mimicking of the diseases of foreign masters is far easier than the cultivation of the virtues that distinguish them, that are the sources of their power over their dark subjects.
Yet, resistance survives in some troubled hearts. At some point, this wholesale degradation of a society, this prostitution of national institutions, this miscegenation of foreign and native elites, produces revulsion in a few sensitive hearts. It gives birth to anger, art, struggle, new theories, and hopes for regenerating society.
But this regeneration is arduous. The mongrel elites have raised many barriers, they have strung barbed-wire fences with watch-towers across the country's landscape. They have trained a mercenary military and perfidious police, led by officers schooled in the arts of repressing dissent. However, it is not these overt forces of repression alone that weaken and deflect the resistance.
The resistance can stand up to repression if it resonates with the people, if it can engage, stir, and mobilise them behind the cause of justice. But the alienation in society is so deep, the demoralisation and apathy so complete, that the few sensitive souls who choose to resist are left to twist in the wind, unsupported, unshielded, to be singled out and decapitated by the mercenary military and police. Yet, Pakistan is not without hope. In one corner of Pakistan, that hope comes from the sons and daughters of the mountains, yet uncontaminated by "civilisation," firm in their faith, clear in their conviction, proud of their heritage, and ready to fight for their dignity. Though unschooled, they are as clear-eyed as the eagle of the mountains. Their poverty steels their determination. They stood up against the Soviet marauders and defeated them. Today, they are standing up again to reclaim their dignity and their lands from foreigners and native mercenaries.
In Pakistan now, as in much of the Islamic world, the alienation of the institutions of the state has reached its climax. In Iraq, the United States could not have restored colonialism without planting her boots on the ground. In Iran too, they dare not dream of capturing the state without boots on the ground. In Pakistan, however, the task of regime change has been truly a cake-walk: it was achieved with Pakistani boots on the ground.
A US weekly, Newsweek, has written that the Pentagon "wants [Musharraf] to turn much of Pakistan's military into a counter-insurgency force, trained and equipped to combat al-Qaeda and its extremist supporters along the Afghan border." There, you have it, in clear, bold print. What is this if not a plan for plunging the country into civil war, into a carnage far worse than what the Algerians have gone through?
How is it that the Pentagon dares to make such outlandish demands on the Pakistani army? The answer is simple. They do it because they know for a certainty that Pakistan's elites are eager to deliver; they know that Pakistan's mercenary-generals compete for American patronage; and Pakistan's scavenger-politicians crawl to Washington begging not to be left out of the deals to sell the Pakistani state. Worse, until recently, Pakistanis have watched from the sidelines, or turned away, and let it happen.
For the first time now, a tiny segment of Pakistan's middle classes, the lawyers -- though still outfitted in the ridiculous black attire given them by their erstwhile English masters -- have stuck out their necks against the mercenary-generals, against the mercenary military, against the commodification of their state. It is an auspicious turning point for Pakistan. It is a sign that the Iqbalian spirit stirs a few Pakistanis. And observe what it has already accomplished. A few hundred Iqbalians have put the mercenary-generals on notice. The mercenary-generals postured, they scowled, they threatened, in desperation they turned to their masters for advice, they called up the scavenger-politicians to provide civilian cover. In short, for a brief moment, there was panic in the top ranks of the mercenary military.
For a brief moment only. The mercenary-generals will not surrender so soon, or so easily. Indeed, it does not matter if one batch of mercenary-generals departs the scene: many more wait in the wings to take their place. If Pakistanis wish to avert civil war -- and a bloody civil war it will be -- then they must steel their hearts, they must gather courage, they must plan, they must organise, they must mobilise to take back their country, their state, and their military: to take it back definitively and with a clear understanding of how to make this nationalist appropriation irrevocable.
The lawyers alone cannot do it for them; when they become too troublesome, the mercenary state will make the lawyers disappear. Nevertheless, change will come to Pakistan: for those who can read the signs, the writing is on the wall. Pakistan's mercenary elites have hitched their wagon to the US "global war on terror." The United States will direct this war, and it will be a dirty war. As in Iraq, American experts in counter-insurgency will not hesitate to turn Pakistan into a Guatemala, or worse.
Will Pakistanis dare to exert to make a stand for the change they want? If they choose to stay unconcerned, unthinking, disengaged, impassive, change will be imposed on them by the mercenary state. They will find themselves being dragged through a dirty war: many will lose their lives. Disappearances, executions, arbitrary arrests, in short, state terror will become common: the order of the day.
If Pakistanis dare to change themselves, they can choose the change they want: to make the state work for them not against them, to reclaim history, to become the historical force that produces change. However, this change demands a price, a price in will, values and sacrifice. Pakistanis must search their hearts to revive the fire they have smothered for too long: the will to struggle, to resist, to live in dignity, connected to their history, drawing on their best traditions to forge a future that they will control. If they fail now, the game is lost. It may be lost forever.
Pakistanis can learn from Latin America, whose oppressed peoples -- in particular, their indigenous people -- after five centuries of oppression are raising their heads everywhere. Together, they are throwing off the shackles of the predatory state, the mercenary state that collaborated with a succession of Empires to destroy their lives, their hopes, their struggles. Today, they are reclaiming the state in Venezuela, in Bolivia, in Ecuador, in Nicaragua, and they are getting ever closer to victory across the entire continent.
The United States today is powerless to roll back these revolutions. It is powerless because the struggles of oppressed peoples are interconnected, interwoven. When the dispossessed resist in Palestine, when Iraqis battle behemoths in their country, when underdogs make a stand in Lebanon, when Afghan peasants run circles around armies of occupation: in short, when the wretched of the earth tie down the Empire in West Asia, they raise hopes of liberation in every quarter of the world, even amongst the oppressed classes in the very centers of power.
The struggles of the past six years in West Asia have quickened the pace of history: they have opened a window for the liberation of the oppressed peoples every where. Just when the Empire was hatching its Project for the New American Century, history decided otherwise. It will be a new century alright, but there is scarce a doubt six years later that it will not be an American century, a reality that Americans should have the courage to accept graciously. Instead, it will be multi-polar century, with many centers of power, scattered across all the continents of the world. Once again, power is being decentralised, and we can hope that this new round of decentralisation will produce more enduring results than the last one. The men and women leading the new decentralisation are a new breed: they have not been chosen by their erstwhile masters.
It is for Pakistanis now to seize this historical moment, to join the forward march of history. The historic changes underway in Latin America, and the new forms of resistance being forged in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Palestine are delivering new hope, new ideas, and new inspiration to oppressed peoples everywhere. Global empires are too costly to be sustained anymore: that is the singular message that Iraqis and Afghans are delivering to the world.
Will Pakistanis dare to join this universal struggle, harness its power, and seize the scales of justice? Will they follow the lead of the brave lawyers so that the streets of every city, every town, every village in Pakistan reverberate with their cries for honour and justice? Or will they choose to lengthen their vegetative séance, embrace ignominious death, and become the litter in the graveyard of history, their epitaph written by the foreign masters the have served for so long and so well?
These questions are historical: they are also urgent. The choice before Pakistanis is clear: it is life or death. If they fail to act now, they will concede the stage to the Taliban and the mercenary elites. May the Pakistanis ponder deeply for an answer: may they choose to walk in the paths of justice: and may their difficult journey be victorious.
M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (2007).