Pakistan is one of the most dangerous states in the world today, many observers have postulated, with the spread of militant Islamic radicalism threatening total destabilization in a nation armed with nuclear weapons. The US government has taken the position that it is better to support the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, deemed a “moderate” and regarded as a strong “ally” in the US “war on terrorism”, than to risk the spread of radicalism and perhaps even the possibility that the Taliban or al-Qaeda might get their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Thus, the US government has remained fully committed to its support for Musharraf, even as he has declared a state of emergency and attempted to consolidate his power by suspending the constitution and suppressing his political opposition.
The threat, though perhaps exaggerated, is real. But the choice presented, between supporting a dictator or allowing terrorists and radicals to overrun the country, is a false one. Pakistan is certainly in a state of crisis today, but to present the situation in such a framework, where democracy is necessarily sacrificed for security, is to specifically preclude the possibility for a solution that would both mitigate the threat of terrorism and help foster the growth of democracy. Such a solution is possible, but US policies are decreasing the likelihood that it could ever occur.
The radical and terrorist elements in Pakistan represent a minority, and moderates in favor of democratic reforms are far greater in number. Although members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda fleeing to Pakistan as a result of the US’s war in Afghanistan were initially welcomed by many Pakistanis because of shared opposition to the US war, the growth of strict, Taliban-style interpretation of Islam has resulted in many local populations now being oppressed by those whom were initially regarded as guests. These Pakistanis now long for an end to the radical militancy that has flooded their towns, as well as for an end to a dictatorship that they feel doesn’t represent them or act in their best interests.
So, while the White House is correct to point out that the solution for the present crisis in Pakistan is for the country to make efforts to implement democracy, this is the very solution that is effectively precluded within the existing framework for discussion accepted by government officials and media commentators. The framework consists of a false dichotomy and fails to acknowledge that the US itself is largely responsible for creating the present state of affairs. By accepting a framework which rejects this embarrassing and inconvenient truth, the possibility that we might actually learn from our past actions and their consequences is also precluded. As a result, the options presented for the best way forward are extremely limited and will serve not to precipitate positive change, but only to maintain the status quo.
In order to be able to make an intelligent decision about what direction to take from here, it’s essential to recognize where the present day threat of radicalism and terrorism had its roots—widely known but rarely regarded as remarkable in critical analysis of the present situation.
Al-Qaeda, or “The Base”, was an organization that was created to help foster and support the Afghan mujahedeen, or holy warriors, against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Such groups were sponsored in turn by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, which was working closely with the CIA to finance, arm, and train the mujahedeen.
CIA covert support for the mujahedeen began in 1979 and was designed to destabilize a government which was seeking to reform the system of feudalistic land ownership, to educate the populace, to bring about more equality for women, and other measures which were deemed threatening to regional warlords and radicals with their own uneducated interpretations of Islam and of Sharia, or Islamic law. The sin of the regime was that it was supported by the Soviet Union.
The purpose of this covert aid, according to Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, was to provoke intervention from the Soviet Union in order to give to the USSR “it’s Vietnam War” and thus drain its resources and strengthen US dominance in the so-called “Cold War”.
The strategy was a success. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and US support for the mujahedeen expanded under the Reagan administration and became overt. The mujahedeen, said Reagan, were “freedom fighters”, whom he honored by proclaiming “Afghanistan Day” in the US.
The US provided the mujahedeen with financing (projected in the billions), arms (including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles), and training through their intermediary, the ISI. Islamic schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan were also financed and used to recruit militants to join the mujahedeen.
The result was a decade-long war that devastated Afghanistan. Although the precise numbers will never be known, it is estimated that the war resulted in the deaths of a million Afghans. Three million became refugees, many of whom fled to Pakistan (which still has a sizeable refugee population). The US government had, at best—giving it the full benefit of the doubt—looked the other way while a drugs trade flourished that helped to finance the US effort to destabilize Afghanistan, resulting in the country becoming the supplier for most of the world’s heroin. And following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the US walked away from Afghanistan, leaving it torn between feuding warlords and militants that terrorized and oppressed the population.
In another quid pro quo, the US also turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program, which eventually became successful under the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan, who had long been under the eye of intelligence agencies suspicious of his proliferation activities.
Meanwhile, the madrassas of Pakistan continued to produce radical militants recruited to join others from numerous countries at training camps in Afghanistan that continued to educate militants in the art of guerilla warfare and terrorism.
Osama bin Laden, who hailed from a wealthy Saudi family, had gone to Afghanistan to provide support and training to the mujahedeen, eventually establishing “al-Qaeda” as a means of doing so.
And from the madrassas arose the Taliban, which is the plural of “talib”, which means “student” in Pashto. When the Taliban first rose to power, they were greeted by many Afghans as liberators for freeing the people from the yoke of the oppressive warlords, only to become the oppressors of Afghanistan themselves.
Although the US government had assisted the mujahedeen in the war against the Soviet Union, the US itself became increasingly the object of enmity among radical Islamic militants for its role in the Middle East. Among the grievances against the US were its support for the Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people and its support for dictatorships, such as the Shah’s regime in Iran and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.