Sadiq Saleem: Delusions of Strategic Defiance

This article by Sadiq Saleem appeared in The News on November 1, 2009

Pakistan Army is fighting a tough adversary in South Waziristan, who may have been propped up to pose a mortal threat to our country by our traditional enemy. But some politicians, right-wing TV anchors and columnists are doing little to mobilise public support for our troops in the middle of a war. Instead, they remain focused on attacking the elected government, fomenting civil military disagreements, exacerbating anti-Americanism and raising issues that divide the nation instead of uniting it.


The events of the last few days are similar to the circumstances created between 1988 and 1990 when Ziaul Haq era Generals Aslam Beg and Hamid Gul plotted what they considered to be a new strategy for an Islamist ideological Pakistani nationalism. During that period, Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) was born with covert funds meant for national security; Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was called a national security risk and accused of being pro-American; Interior Minister Aitzaz Ahsan was alleged to have given the names of Sikh separatists in India to the Indian government; Foreign Minister Sahibzada Yaqub Khan was described by General Beg as lacking spine to stand up to America; the Pakistani Ambassador to the United States was charged with protecting American rather than Pakistani interests.


If someone wants to understand the similarity of today’s mood with that of the 1988-1990 period, here is an extract from an article by Hendrik Hertzberg, the editor of The New Republic who was one of the international observers of the 1990 election, in the magazine issue dated November 19, 1990.


“I observed a rally. This was two nights before the election in Rawalpindi, a small city near Islamabad, Pakistan’s hideous, sterile capital. It was put on by the Islamic Democratic Alliance, known as the IJI from its Urdu initials, a coalition of rightist and religious parties united by antagonism toward Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party.”


According to Hertzberg, the speakers at the rally said the PPP of old once had great leaders, now it is led by an incompetent woman, who takes instructions from Washington and Moscow! Those who have sold out to India are traitors! (The crowd chanted in response: Traitors! Traitors!) Startlingly, the speaker pronounced names that needed no translation: Salman Rushdie, Mark Siegel, Stephen Solarz. They are friends of Israel, they are friends of India, but are they friends of Pakistan?”


Then, in what has startling echoes of the utterances of the ghairat lobby today, one IJI speaker was quoted as saying, American senators, you can keep your aid! You can keep Benazir Bhutto! You are conspiring against Islam! An Islamic resurgence is sweeping through Central Asia it may not be good for British shopkeepers or American businessmen hungry for the Russian market, but it is good for Muslims!


Of course, twenty years later that Islamic resurgence in Central Asia that was to make that region Pakistan’s backyard has yet to materialise. But that does not prevent our politicians, TV anchors and columnists from continuing in the tone of the IJI and its Strategic Defiance midwives. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) in its report on the 1990 elections also commented on the extreme nationalist jingoism that had been unleashed on Pakistan by the IJI. According to the report, members of the IJI criticised not only Bhutto’s abilities but also her right as a woman to rule a Muslim state. The most contentious element of the election campaign, and perhaps the most successful from the IJI perspective, was the IJI’s strategy of tying Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto to the United States and the so-called Indo-Zionist lobby in the US. The lobby was portrayed as having close ties to India and Israel and opposing Pakistan’s development of a nuclear capability.


The report further pointed out the lies that were fed to the Pakistani public. It said the Bhuttos were accused of selling-out Pakistan’s nuclear programme. The IJI ran a nationalistic campaign and repeatedly accused Bhutto of being unpatriotic. The former prime minister was called the conduit for American influence into Pakistan and her efforts to influence Congress on her behalf were criticised. Articles were also published in the government-controlled papers alleging her links to India and other reportedly anti-Pakistan groups. One of these articles was based on what was evidently a forged letter from Bhutto to a staff member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.


As similar language about the Kerry-Lugar legislation amounting to surrender of national interests is currently being used and patriotic Pakistanis are being called traitors for supporting closer ties between Pakistan and the US in Pakistan’s interest, it is important to recall the painful tragedy of the 1988 to 1990 period. Like now, in the 1988-1990 period too rumours and whispers found their way into news stories and were amplified by journalists claiming to speak for the establishment. What did Pakistan get out of the Beg-Gul philosophy of strategic defiance and exaggerated anti-Americanism? Ten years of very weak civilian rule with governments changing frequently and often amid allegations of corruption or strategic failure; a disastrous civil war in Afghanistan that resulted in a Taliban victory, which in turn resulted in American military intervention after 9/11; the unmitigated military disaster of the Kargil episode; and finally nine years of General Musharraf’s rule.


The claims of not wanting American aid in 1990 were based on the miscalculation that America needed Pakistan more and would, therefore, overturn its decisions after a few demonstrations, speeches and statements in Pakistan. That did not happen. From 1990 to 2001, Pakistan remained under US aid sanctions. We survived and managed to conduct nuclear tests in 1998 but we did not attain the high economic growth rate that would have been possible if our relations with US had remained steady. And our military’s conventional capability remains severely handicapped because of lack of consistent US inputs. Most importantly, Pakistan is on the periphery of globalization while its rival, India, has gained most over the last 20 years in becoming a key international player. In the current round also, the civilian government and especially President Asif Ali Zardari is being attacked for not taking a harder line against the US. What if after some initial engagement, the US walks away from Afghanistan again and we get left with no Kerry-Lugar and just the slogans given to us by our assorted politicians, TV anchors and columnists? Pakistanis must think long and hard and remember their own recent history before falling into the trap of repeating that sad history.

 Sadiq Saleem is a businessman and part-time analyst based in Toronto, Canada.

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