In a recent conversation regarding the effects of the Cold War, in particular the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the long proxy war that followed, an academic who regularly works on policy regarding South and Central Asia told me that among policymakers in the US any such reference immediately meets with the response: “That’s ancient history”.
This seems regrettably to be the general tenor of reporting on the present global war against terrorism as well, of which the assassination of Benazir Bhutto has now become a part. The inconvenience this poses of course is that the region, say Pakistan and Afghanistan, cannot be understood without appreciating the devastating consequences of the proxy war that was waged from and on their soil for over a decade (1979-1992 for the first proxy war, 1992-2001 for the second, and its most recent and continuing incarnation). Ancient history it is not; it is a fact in the everyday lives of brutalized, impoverished Afghans – over a million injured by landmines, not to mention countless innocent casualties in the continuing devastation of the country — and in the lives of disenfranchised Pakistanis, who first under the US-backed dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, and more recently under the (again) US-backed dictator General Pervez Musharraf, have been systematically denied the rights that the Bush administration claims to be interested in promoting across the Muslim world (democracy, human rights, and so on).
If, indeed, the Cold War were not perceived as ancient history, what might have been done differently across the world as yet another global war was waged?
Perhaps the sole remaining superpower might have taken some residual interest — prior to 9/11 of course — in the tens of thousands of mujahideen whom it trained and armed, with the active participation of Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI, against the Soviets, Muslim men from across the world who came to serve the global jihad against the godless communists, some of whom were celebrated on the White House lawn by President Reagan as no less than “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers”.
Or later, having learned something from this history, the US might not have embraced Musharraf as the saviour of Pakistan, adopting as their own his rhetoric of being an “enlightened” and “moderate” leader, the one thing standing between civilization and the Islamist menace always lurking around the corner. Rather than leaping to the defense of this ally — Musharraf the individual of course, and not Pakistan, the country of 160 million people — the US might have recalled that Islamists have come to power only once in the history of Pakistan, and that too only under Musharraf and that too only in the North West Frontier Province (bordering Afghanistan, during the US invasion) when he had systematically sidelined more powerful secular parties like the PPP. He needed to do this because he has no mass following (not unusual for those who come to power using military force).
Still later, the US might have considered, in its concern for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the fact that the proliferation of nuclear technology has occurred principally under General Musharraf, and the scientist who was responsible, AQ Khan, although since under house arrest, remains protected by the Pakistani military. It is this military that is being bolstered to fight a war now against the very same jihadists who were until very recently its allies and principal combatants in the war in Kashmir (yet another manifestation of proxy war).
And while worrying about the prospects of Pakistan becoming a failed state, the US may have reflected upon the fact that the vast majority of the $10 billion in aid that has been sent to the country since September 11, 2001 has gone to the military (to say nothing of the immense military aid disbursed during the Cold War). Having bolstered the institution to such an extent, is it possible to be puzzled about why or how the military is the strongest institution in the country?
To say nothing of the amnesia necessary to forget that the last US backed dictator, Zia ul-Haq, hanged Benazir Bhutto’s father, and that the military, under whose auspices Musharraf grabbed power in 1999, was likely responsible for killing her brothers as well. It was during Musharraf’s tenure and his fight in the war against terrorism that Pakistan was confronted with the spectacle of jailed lawyers, beaten journalists, and an endless number of disappeared persons (although of course his was not the only military regime to present such a spectacle). This was perhaps not so “enlightened” or “moderate”.
So now Benazir Bhutto, who recently entered into a US-brokered power-sharing agreement with Musharraf, has been assassinated. By whom? According to Pakistan’s information ministry (why is such needed, one might think), she died not from bullet wounds (contrary to the claims of witnesses and the woman responsible for bathing her before her burial) but from hitting her head on a lever as she fell from the impact of the suicide attack explosion. Further still, in an unprecedented show of efficiency and intelligence (something the ill-named intelligence services in the country – not to mention elsewhere — seem conspicuously to lack) the ministry spokesperson revealed that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack, citing a recorded telephone conversation, though for reasons unexplained, the recorded conversation was not played but only a transcript read aloud in Urdu by the same spokesman.
So let us once again not dwell on the fact that Pakistan’s intelligence services and military establishment were involved in fighting the war against the Soviets, arming some of the same people they are now fighting. Let us especially not think too much of the fact that the lines between the military, the intelligence services and Islamist groups (the mujahideen, al-Qaeda, the Taliban), are not as clearly drawn as we might like them to be given this history. Let us instead continue a longstanding tradition and think instead that the case is solved, that the US must continue to bolster Musharraf (or a comparable replacement) and other authoritarian stalwarts in the country, the region, the world, and let us then continue to think that the wars in Iraq and who knows, maybe Iran, will be the best way to make this world more democratic, more peaceful, more secure. And let us finally rest assured that we are thus participating in the creation of the best of all possible worlds.