Choreographing Permanent War


Notwithstanding the renewed public concern about the economy in the wake of the implosion of the global financial architecture, the so-called “war on terror” remains at the forefront of the American presidential election campaign as it heads into its final stretch.  Despite continuing popular opposition to Washington’s blatant empire-building policies both within the US and around the world, both Messrs. Obama and McCain are reiterating their commitment to good, old-fashioned American-style war making.  Indeed, how to take forward the Project for a New American Century will almost certainly be the preeminent issue facing the new occupant of the White House come January.

Yet who would have guessed that in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, Washington’s political establishment and the corporate media alike would relegate Iraq to the third most important front of the “war on terror”?  Meanwhile, Afghanistan, having been thrust back into the spotlight about a year ago, is now supposedly ripe for a peace settlement between “moderate” Taliban and the Washington-backed Karzai regime.  Therefore, remarkably, it is the indispensable ally of the outgoing Bush regime, Pakistan, that has emerged as “terrorism central.”

The well-scripted shift in the geography of the “war on terror” is a reflection of many related factors.  The insurgency in Afghanistan has intensified steadily since 2006, while in the same period the need to decrease public scrutiny of the continuing disaster that is post-Saddam Iraq has become ever more acute.  More generally, there appears to be bipartisan consensus that Afghanistan & Co. will not be “abandoned” as they were after the Soviet pullout in 1988, whereas the Iraqi adventure cannot possibly be salvaged as a “good war” by the Democrats, let alone the Republicans.

That Washington has eyed a long-term presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the central Asian region more generally following the end of the cold war is hardly debatable.  The neocons were always likely to privilege the immediate treasures in Iraq, but sooner or later, the original front of the “war on terror” was bound to be rediscovered.  What was not as clear was the fact that ground would be so systematically prepared for war on the Federally Adminstered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, which is now supposedly the home base of a rejuvenated al-Qaeda.

How this reorganization of al-Qaeda has taken place — and where the Taliban fit into the mix — is of course the question that the corporate media refuses to ask and the political establishment chooses to ignore.  The narrative as it has played out in the mainstream in recent times has posited a well-meaning pro-American administration in Kabul (read: puppet regime) being thwarted by the machinations of Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  Karzai himself has repeatedly asserted that the ISI has been undermining the “war on terror” effort in the nebulous Pak-Afghan border region by reorganizing the “Taliban” on the Pakistani side of this border, namely in FATA.

But this does not tally with the blank check issued by the Bush administration to the Pakistani military regime that was headed by General Pervez Musharraf, which only recently gave way to elected government after almost 9 years in power.  In other words, if, since the beginning of the “war on terror,” the Pakistani military has been assisting al-Qaeda and the Taliban rather than hunting them down, the United States cannot claim to have been kept in the dark.  Washington knew what was going on the whole time.  Indeed, the American strategy in Afghanistan was to chase the remnants of the Taliban regime after its collapse into the FATA areas and then simply turn a blind eye to what happened subsequently.  Meanwhile within Afghanistan the “nation-building” exercise relied on a policy of coopting warlords and Taliban deserters into establishing a working relationship with the Karzai government.

The completely farcical nature of the American “war on terror” in Afghanistan is captured best by the recent “peace overtures” made by Karzai towards the “moderate” Taliban, a policy backed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General Mike Mullen.  The ever suspicious Saudis are said to be behind the peace initiative, and the suggestion is that Mullah Omar and his band of followers have severed their links with “extremist” Taliban and the poisonous al-Qaeda who continue to launch attacks on Afghan soil from their sanctuaries in FATA.

The TV-consuming public is supposed to take at face value this newest trifurcation: the “moderate” Taliban, “extremist” Taliban, and al-Qaeda.  Not that the original bifurcation between the Taliban and al-Qaeda was ever very clear.  Before the latest public relations spin, the Bush administration based its entire engagement in Afghanistan around the notion that al-Qaeda (read: foreigners) was the enemy and the Taliban (read: homegrown Pakhtuns) could be coopted or even ignored.

Thus, Washington actually facilitated the retreat of Taliban affiliated with the Pakistani military into FATA on the condition that an odd al-Qaeda bigwig was caught or killed every few weeks to appease the audience back home.  As it turns out, it is now said, the “extremist” Taliban and al-Qaeda are both alive and well.  But, in the neocon narrative, this is not recognized as an abject failure that should put the whole enterprise in question but spun as “evidence” that Washington must expand its war.

Holy War

It is by now a well-known fact that “jihad” was explicitly cultivated by the ISI with the support of the CIA throughout the original Afghan war.  The policy was considered a success insofar as Afghanistan became the Soviet Vietnam.  When the Geneva Accords were signed in 1988, Washington decided that enough was enough and promptly turned its attention elsewhere, leaving the ISI and the warring remnants of the Afghan mujahideen to fight for the scraps.  After 9/11 and the start of the “war on terror” Hollywood popularized the liberal imperial notion that Washington did not live up to its commitment to the Afghan people through movies like Charlie Wilson’s War but predictably chose to ignore the fact that the ISI continued to be a major player in the brutal internecine conflict that followed the Soviet pullout.

In fact, Pakistan’s security establishment had developed delusions of grandeur vis-à-vis Afghanistan long before the Afghan war of the 1980s.  When the British left the subcontinent in 1947, it left ethnic Pakhtuns divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan, an historical anomaly that has always been considered a potential threat to the territorial integrity of Pakistan by the security establishment.  Various means have been employed to negate this perceived threat; Islamabad actually started to use “jihadis” as a strategic policy tool before the start of the Afghan war in 1978.  As early as 1973, the ISI was supporting individuals such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhannudin Rabbani (both of whom apparently figure heavily in the Saudi-sponsored peace deal between the Taliban and the Karzai government and still retain close ties to the ISI) so as to undermine the nationalist regime of King Daud.  This systematic policy was simply reinforced when the CIA decided to launch a covert war against the Soviets.

Washington was also clearly in the know about Islamabad’s machinations after the fall of the communist Najibullah regime in 1992 and was not at all opposed to the ISI-backed Taliban coming to power in 1996.  Even after the Clinton administration’s relations with the Taliban soured, the Pakistani state continued to eulogize jihadis and supported them openly against India (which responded by playing its own cynical games).  Insofar as there was “pressure” on Pakistan to discontinue its long-established strategic games, it was symbolic rather than substantive.

The massive image-building exercise that the corporate media undertook after Pakistan became a “frontline state” of the “war on terror” was built around the completely oxymoronic depiction of Pervez Musharraf as a liberal military man committed to democracy.  It was conveniently forgotten that Musharraf launched the Kargil war against India shortly before he took over in a coup in 1999 by asking the military’s favored jihadi disciples to infiltrate “enemy lines.”  While Musharraf was subsequently asked to reign in jihadis on the eastern border with India, there was no similar demand made on the Afghan front.  And so when Washington feigns ignorance at the “double-game” waged by the ISI since the beginning of the “war on terror,” it seeks only to camouflage its criminal complicity in allowing the rehabilitation of the very “enemy” that it purported to destroy.  The holy war assembly line is intact and flourishing and only the CIA, ISI and other spymasters are fully aware of exactly what the objective of the “war on terror” really is.

Democracy in Name

Much has been made of the notion that the Bush administration helped usher democracy into Pakistan after yet another prolonged period of dictatorship.  In actual fact, the Bush administration has impeded democratization throughout the past 8 years and only parted with Musharraf when it was no longer possible to prop him up.  The Democratic Party’s presidential campaign has highlighted the need to overhaul the aid portfolio and increase non-military assistance to Pakistan, yet Barack Obama continues to spout a hawkish position vis-à-vis air strikes on Pakistani territory whilst remaining silent about the country’s sacked Chief Justice (presumably because he has championed the case of those who are “disappered” into Pakistan’s equivalent of Guantanamo).

The American military clearly maintains a special relationship with its Pakistani counterpart, and there is little doubt that the latter has been American imperialism’s most dependable client army in the third world since the end of the Second World War.  There is no question of this relationship being fundamentally overhauled given Washington’s inordinate concern with establishing its military dominance in the region, and the Pakistani military’s perennial desire to reinforce its political, economic and strategic dominance within its own country.  It is telling that the man who is now head of the Pakistani army and has been touted as pro-American, General Parvez Kiyani, was previously head of the ISI.

Meanwhile the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government is now coming in for heavy fire for not making any significant departure from the Musharraf regime’s policy vis-à-vis the ‘war on terror’.  In actual fact the PPP has almost no control over the military and is almost clueless about goings-on in FATA.  Despite predictable rhetoric about reinforcing the democratic process in Pakistan, Washington has repeatedly proven that ‘democracy’ is a secondary concern to the choreographing of permanent war in the region.  The PPP is to blame for refusing to take on the nexus of imperialism and the army — Prime Minister Gilani and other high-ups in the civilian government have been quick to defend the ISI against accusations of complicity with the Taliban — but politics and politicians have always suffered Washington’s systematic patronage of the military.  On this occasion, too, the Americans only allowed politicians back into a power-sharing arrangement with the military on the condition that the “war on terror” imperative be recognized and the military effort be allowed to continue unimpeded.

The new president Asif Zardari — widower of Benazir Bhutto — has been vociferous in his proclamations that this is Pakistan’s war.  But the fact of the matter is that the majority of Pakistan’s 170 million people does not see this as Pakistan’s war and instead recognizes it to be a blatantly imperial adventure, in which cynical strategic interests rather than the interests of the people of the region dictate alignments.  It would appear as if Zardari and his PPP are simply hoping that Washington wants a democratic and moderate Pakistan, while ignoring how the American and Pakistani militaries are running this war, doing deals with the “enemy” along the way, and in the process further radicalizing an already deeply fractured region.

Perhaps what is most startling about the elected government’s posture is its open support of American air strikes within Pakistani territory.  Such a policy serves only to confirm the point of view that it is scarcely more sovereign a regime than that of Pervez Musharraf.  In any case, it has been decisively proven over the past 7 years that “surgical strikes” lead to enormous civilian casualties and only increase the legitimacy of insurgents, whether or not the latter are genuinely anti-imperialist or pro-people.

Now that the American and Pakistani militaries have managed to shift the epicenter of the war to FATA, it is Pakistani society that is starting to feel the fallouts.  Suicide attacks in big cities have increased manifold, and it would not be wrong to suggest that Pakistan has become a time bomb waiting to explode.  As the ISI continues to patronize militancy even while the military conducts “surgical strikes” against militant strongholds to appease international observers, jihad is fast becoming a Frankenstein that is spiraling out of control.  Many jihadis are completely convinced of the righteousness of their cause and would never accept that they are party to a bloody game being waged by spymasters.  As public opinion is radicalized by the excesses of American imperialism, militancy has become more widespread, more and more jihadi groups sprouting up to wage war against the American ‘infidels’ and their Pakistani clients.  It is clear that many of these groups are autonomous of the forces that may have patronized them in the past.

Yet all of the protagonists are linked together by the massive underground heroin and guns economy that has proliferated over the past 30 years.  The CIA’s incredibly cynical history of using drug money to perpetuate war in Central America should not be forgotten when trying to uncover exactly what is happening in FATA and the contiguous territory on the Afghan side of the border.  Similarly the ISI has maintained its strategic commitment to jihad at least partially by taking advantage of the multi-billion dollar drug trade.  As for the jihadis, there is enough evidence to suggest that their preferred version of Islam does not preclude trading in drugs and arms.

What Difference Does It Really Make?

Many within the United States are excited about the prospect of an African-American president, and rightfully so.  The history of the United States is very rarely written by the native peoples and slaves that literally built American capitalism from scratch, and it would indeed be a symbolic change if a black man won the White House.  But, if Barack Obama’s pronouncements and the Democratic Party’s policy commitments are anything to go by, an Obama victory in November will be only symbolic.

In fact, if Obama is serious about bombing Pakistan into the stone ages, things could get a whole lot worse.  In such a scenario, reaction within Pakistan would become even more widespread and further fuel militancy, and, as suggested above, there is little indication that the contradictory posture of supporting Pakistan’s military would cease either.  In short, while some may argue that the neocon war machine would be stopped in its tracks by a Democratic victory, the feeling from the frontline in Afghanistan and Pakistan is quite different.

With the shift in US rhetoric and bombings to the Pakistani side of the border, a host of right-wing zealots within Pakistan have started pointing out that Washington’s plan all along was to deprive Pakistan of its nuclear weapons.  Unfortunately, hawks in thinktank and political circles in the US have reinforced this concern by continually harping on about the danger of Pakistan’s nukes falling into “extremist” hands.  Such rightist rhetoric has been propagated by media in both countries to the effect of convincing many working people that the “war on terror” is a civilizational war.  Ultimately this narrative of history serves the purposes of both the supposed antagonists.

Serious observers of course recognize that the “war on terror,” like all imperialist wars, has nothing to do with Islam per se, even if Muslim societies are suffering the brunt of the military assault.  In actual fact, the United States aims to evolve a long-term military presence in the region at least partially to deter the Chinese from making any claims to regional hegemony.  Then there are the Central Asian states that remain close to Russia, but in which the US has clearly made inroads in recent times.  Most notably American troops were given bases by Uzbekistan and the US is slowly but surely making inroads into Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.

The Central Asian states are not just strategically important for the United States — they are also home to enormous untapped oil and gas reserves in and around the Caspian Sea.  Till now the US has only managed to ink one pipeline project from Baku (in Azerbaijan) to Ceyhan (in Turkey) via Tblisi (in Georgia).  If and when Afghanistan and the turbulent Pakistani province of Balochistan become secure, a new route would also open up for the Caspian resources to be transported to warm water ports.

However, it is not alone in wanting these resources, China in particular offering stiff competition.  The Chinese are the major investors in the new, state-of-the-art Gwadar port city being built on the southwestern tip of Balochistan, and they do enjoy a long-term relationship with Pakistan.  To what extent China, Russia, and even Iran and India are involved in the strategic games taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan is impossible to ascertain.  What is clear is that the Afghan and now the Pakistani people are caught in the middle of a “new Great Game” which is threatening to turn the region into a theatre of permanent war.

Rather than offering relief, the new entrant to the White House come January is likely to simply exacerbate the mayhem.  The unfolding financial meltdown has made clear that American-style capitalist imperialism is in a state of permanent freefall.  Ominously, empires in decline tend to become even more reactionary than at the pinnacle of their powers.  This means death and destruction for many years to come.  It is a tragedy of history that such devastation is necessary before it becomes clear that the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is no more a just war than the war in Iraq.  Because only when working people living in the “belly of the beast” force an end to the imperial adventure in Afghanistan and Pakistan will it be possible for the region to see peace.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is a political activist associated with the People’s Rights Movement (PRM), a confederation of working-class struggles.  He also teaches colonial history and political economy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.