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Dilip Hiro: Washington's Pakistan Meltdown

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

In 1948, George Orwell published his classic dystopian novel 1984, flipping the numbers in the publication year to speed us into a future that is now, of course, 28 years in our past.  In that book, he imagined a three-superpower world of regularly shifting alliances in which war was a constant but its specific nature eternally forgotten.  As he wrote, "To trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one."

Of course, predicting the future is a perilous thing.  Instead of three squabbling superpowers ruling the globe, we have one (in visible decline), and yet there are some eerie real-world parallels to Orwell's fiction.  By 1984, for instance, the U.S. and the Saudis were funneling huge sums of money and vast quantities of weaponry through Pakistan's intelligence outfit, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorat, to support the most fundamentalist and extreme of the Afghan mujahedeen who were then fighting that other superpower, the Soviet Union, in their country.  These included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (about as extreme as they came) and, as Anand Gopal has pointed out at TomDispatch, Jalaluddin Haqqani who received "millions of dollars, anti-aircraft missiles, and even tanks."  He was, at the time, so beloved by Washington officials "that former congressman Charlie Wilson once called him "goodness personified.'"  Hekmatyar and Haqqani were among those President Ronald Reagan -- shades of Orwell's "Ministry of Truth" -- dubbed "freedom fighters."

Jump forward nearly two decades, and the Haqqani network is perhaps Washington's greatest bugaboo in the present Afghan War, a group regularly denounced by the Obama administration for its attacks on U.S. troops; while Hekmatyar and his group Hizb-i-Islami, like the Haqqani's, are allied with the Taliban.  And let's not forget one more "freedom fighter," a rich young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, who, in 1984, founded the "Services Office" in Peshawar, Pakistan, to recruit, support, and fund those "freedom fighters," and in 1988, formed a group called al-Qaeda ("The Base") to further his vision.

The Soviets, of course, left Afghanistan in 1989 in defeat.  For Washington, the freedom fighters, soon to be at each others' throats in a horrific civil war that left yet more dead Afghans in its wake, became the forgettables.  And in a sense, they are still forgotten.  These days, how often does anyone remember that a number of our present foes, the evil terrorists who must be destroyed, were our former pals and heroes.  (Or that some of the warlords in or allied with the present Afghan government of Hamid Karzai were both mujahedeen and monsters of that civil war era.)  Week in, week out, you can read the latest reports from the Afghan War filled with what should be a remarkably familiar cast of characters, and never find a single word about this past.  All of this has gone down the memory hole no less easily than did the history of Eastasia, Oceania, and Eurasia in Winston Smith's Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain).

If this is commonplace history, isn't it Orwellian, 11 years into our second Afghan War in three decades, how seldom it's ever mentioned?  And given today's post, toss this into the hopper: there's an even stranger part of the story that Orwell didn't imagine, and it concerns neighboring Pakistan, a country that seems eternally to be both ally and enemy (frenemy?), so much so that it's almost impossible to sort out Washington's two Pakistans.  That's why TomDispatch called on Dilip Hiro, South Asia expert and author most recently of Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia, to do the job for us and make some sense of one of the stranger relationships on the face of the Earth.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hiro discusses the embattled Pakistan-U.S. relationship, click here or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom

The Alliance from Hell
How the U.S. and Pakistan Became the Dysfunctional Nuclear Family of International Relations
By Dilip Hiro

The United States and Pakistan are by now a classic example of a dysfunctional nuclear family (with an emphasis on "nuclear"). While the two governments and their peoples become more suspicious and resentful of each other with every passing month, Washington and Islamabad are still locked in an awkward post-9/11 embrace that, at this juncture, neither can afford to let go of.

Washington is keeping Pakistan, with its collapsing economy and bloated military, afloat but also cripplingly dependent on its handouts and U.S.-sanctioned International Monetary Fund loans.  Meanwhile, CIA drones unilaterally strike its tribal borderlands .  Islamabad returns the favor. It holds Washington hostage over its Afghan War from which the Pentagon won't be able to exit in an orderly fashion without its help. By blocking U.S. and NATO supply routes into Afghanistan (after a U.S. cross-border air strike had killed 24 Pakistani soldiers) from November 2011 until last July, Islamabad managed to ratchet up the cost of the war while underscoring its indispensability to the Obama administration.

At the heart of this acerbic relationship, however, is Pakistan's arsenal of 110 nuclear bombs which, if the country were to disintegrate, could fall into the hands of Islamist militants, possibly from inside its own security establishment. As Barack Obama confided to his aides, this remains his worst foreign-policy nightmare, despite the decision of the U.S. Army to train a commando unit to retrieve Pakistan's nukes, should extremists seize some of them or materials to produce a "dirty bomb" themselves.

Two Publics, Differing Opinions

Pakistan's military high command fears the Pentagon's contingency plans to seize its nukes. Following the clandestine strike by U.S. SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011, it loaded elements of its nuclear arsenal onto trucks, which rumbled around the country to frustrate any possible American attempt to grab its most prized possessions. When Senator John Kerry arrived in Islamabad to calm frayed nerves following Bin Laden's assassination, high Pakistani officials insisted on a written U.S. promise not to raid their nuclear arsenal. He snubbed the demand.

Since then mutual distrust between the two nominal allies -- a relationship encapsulated by some in the term "AmPak" -- has only intensified. Last month, for instance, Pakistan became the sole Muslim country to officially call on the Obama administration to ban the anti-Islamic 14-minute video clip Innocence of Muslims, which depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, religious fraud, and pedophile.

While offering a bounty of $100,000 for the killing of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Christian producer of the movie, Pakistan's Railways Minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour called on al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban to be "partners in this noble deed." Prime Minister Raja Ashraf distanced his government from Bilour's incitement to murder, a criminal offense under Pakistani law, but did not dismiss him from the cabinet. The U.S. State Department strongly condemned Bilour's move.

Pakistan also stood out as the only Muslim state whose government declared a public holiday, "Love the Prophet Muhammad Day," to encourage its people to demonstrate against the offending movie. The U.S. Embassy's strategy of disarming criticism with TV and newspaper ads showing President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemning "the content and the message" of the film failed to discourage protesters. In fact, the demonstrations in major Pakistani cities turned so violent that 23 protesters were killed, the highest figure worldwide.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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