Of judges and drones: U.S. policy alienates the Pakistani people


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There are many faces to Pakistan. Vibrant, joyful, intelligent, compassionate, and calm. Resonant with a lust for life; glowing with a passion for self-fulfillment common to all people; and as human in their joys and in their sorrows as any human can be. If you prick them, they bleed; if you tickle them, they laugh; and if you poison them, they die. There are millions upon millions of such faces but you never see them (though you could if you tried). You never see them because they are never shown, at least not on the bulk of the ‘free’ world’s media, elements of which would cause Orwell to shudder. A ‘free’ media that at times sketches, colors, dehumanizes, objectifies, magnifies, projects, and then damns a vile ‘other,’ an ‘imagined nation’ of barbarians, with scant regard for its diversity, complexity, plurality, and above all, humanity.

As a result, what is repeatedly shown instead are grainy images of some half-crazed cleric crouching against a grey-brown, rock strewn backdrop, muttering doomsday dreams. What gets hardly any attention are the images, dialogues, debates, processes and institutions within a Pakistan that clearly displays cognizance of, apprehension about, and steadily growing defiance against the nemesis of religious radicalism and militancy – a violent menace that Pakistanis increasingly realize they will have to collectively confront, for it threatens the very ethos of a tolerant, pluralistic, and equitable federation. But the rabid faces of radicalism are so much more fascinating to the camera than the travails of a nascent democracy. At the same time, we are hardly ever told of this radicalism’s genesis; the tell-tale story of its creation; and the genealogy of the angst that seems to grip it. Any attempt to discuss the real necromancer behind the forces of militant radicalism finds little coverage. The backdrop of economic and social disempowerment; paucity of education and democratic space; and, above all, the use and abuse of Pakistani turf and many of its people by a coalition of international interests and local undemocratic regimes, in order to fight wars that the Pakistani citizenry was never consulted about, remains unexplored. The bugaboo is here now, we are bluntly told, and Pakistan needs to do more about it, we are scolded. We can bomb it to oblivion, and we can also ‘bomb Pakistan to the stone age,’ is the unveiled threat from paragons of subtle international diplomacy like former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. With such talk, it’s no surprise that there is no romance in the air. No wonder U.S. foreign policy pundits and international observers find few in Pakistan, even amongst the overwhelming majority of its moderate citizens, whose eyes are brimful with tears of relief and gratitude as they talk of the mythical U.S./Pakistan partnership against radicalism. As we know, there is no place for threats in a partnership.

Contrary to the myth, Pakistanis actually have a keen sense of history. They remember persistent U.S. foreign policy support for its authoritarian military regimes of yore, as they do its simultaneous castigation of Pakistanis as a people incapable of self-governance and progress. General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship in the 1960s was supported for Cold War era strategic justifications; and, the pseudo-Islamist veneer of General Zia-ul-Haq’s harsh dictatorship through the 1980s – an era most commentators blame for rapid democratic institutional decline, rights violations, and abuse of religion for political ends – was aided, financed and bolstered for running the Afghan Jehad. General Musharraf was thus only the latest in what is a long tradition. Equally evident to the Pakistanis is the fact that though Islamic political parties have invariably fared miserably in free elections, they were actively nurtured and strengthened under the Zia and Musharraf regimes, both desperate to carve out any legitimacy through manufacturing alternative political constituencies. The coalition partners for Zia and later Musharraf read like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of forces of regression and political absolutism – their links to militant forces well known but strangely unmentioned.

In late 2007, soon after Musharraf launched a second coup against the people of Pakistan, I was in the U.S. to give some talks on his latest. I had left behind a country anguished and uncertain. A hapless regime running rampant, arresting the most ‘odious threats’ to domestic bliss and international peace – i.e., lawyers, university teachers, college students, judges, human rights activists, doctors, engineers, NGO workers etc. Ironically, this was to bring about an iron order to better face the growing menace of the Taliban. This “Taliban” is actually a rather facile catch-all term for what is a complex and convoluted set of radical forces operating in the region in the new ‘Great Game,’ with multiple handlers, agendas, and financiers, but for paucity of space I will reluctantly stick to this term. In the following months members of the diverse, burgeoning and highly vocal Pakistani civil society played hide and seek to evade arrest and intimidation; or, faced Kafkaesque court hearings while over sixty of the country’s top judges had been packed off by Musharraf after his arbitrary and illegal sacking of Chief Justice Chaudhry. And yet, at a time when additional draconian curbs were being introduced on all kinds of constitutional freedoms under Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation,’ Pakistanis still retained their sense of humor. One popular quip was that Musharraf’s new paradoxical strategy is to incarcerate the moderates and vanquish the radicals. But then who will be left for him to lord over, was the logical question.

And yet when I arrived in the U.S., an equally puzzling paradox encountered me here. Whilst many in the U.S. intelligentsia and academia offered admiration and support for the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan, the U.S. foreign policy position remained staunchly supportive of Musharraf. At least, till the very last moment when the overwhelming tide of the popular movement ensured the General’s unceremonious ousting from his self-created labyrinth. No wonder it makes most Pakistanis smile when there is talk in the U.S. of holding Musharraf accountable for the billions ostensibly sent to fight terrorism during his rule. They were more likely spent on arresting Pakistani professors, students and lawyers. In any event, he was never our creature, they say. Ask him. Not us!

Chief Justice Chaudhry’s historic defiance and the consequent movement first sent the dictator packing and then heralded that the reality of Pakistani politics has changed in many important ways. The movement is not unprecedented. Pakistanis have protested and faced tremendous coercion under previous military dictators as well. Indeed, the very components of civil society which saw off Musharraf, had been similarly opposed to him after he first usurped power in 1999, until an alliance with radical religious political parties and the international political dynamics of 9/11 rescued and consolidated him. What’s special about this movement is not just its resilience, its longevity, and that it emerged at a time when the national spirit was very low; it is also the fact that it cut across class, ethnicity, and gender lines. And what was especially heartening was the role played by the youth. When public speech and assembly was denied, they used technology to get around it, and the protest continued through electronic pulses and in virtual space. They steadfastly resisted regime attempts to distract, dishearten and malign the movement. The power of an independent media, the importance of political parties, and the need to overlook differences in order to hold fast to and bravely advocate a higher principle was also firmly brought home. This foretells exciting new directions and the evolution of a new national ethos, and other than the ubiquitous little coterie of the perpetual cynics and the craven chattering classes, this movement has brought important boons of hope a
nd strategy to its politically mobilized citizens. While the movement was always about much more than the restoration of judges, one can not deny the overwhelming value of a few good men in the right places. Already, Chief Justice Chaudhry’s return portends a revived commitment to the protection of constitutional rights, internal judicial reform, and greater independence in appointment of credible people to the top judicial positions. The judge is back where he belongs and the tame, defeated look worn by Musharraf’s purged judiciary has been firmly cast off. And the Pakistanis know it and they rejoice in it.

And yet this glorious reality continues to be ignored by U.S. foreign policy experts. Take for instance the U.S. Drone attacks on Pakistani soil: these attacks are a clear violation of Pakistan’s airspace; they are inaccurate and cause much more damage than benefit when many innocents are killed; a fragile new democratic government is made to look inept and compromising on territorial sovereignty; and vital areas of bilateral collaboration are compromised. More particularly, I refer to the areas of: institutional reform, strengthening of tolerant, pluralistic, democratic forces; economic opportunity creation; and boosting of Pakistan’s internal capacity to fight terrorism, both socially and militarily. The Drone attacks sunder possible consensus and coalition between U.S. efforts to fight terrorism and the booming Pakistani public opinion against the brutalization of their country at the hands of the radicals. The Drones, however, force a crucible on the Pakistanis that coerces them to overlook the so-called collateral damage. The reality is that most Pakistanis can’t make any morally valid distinction between the killing of children, may it be in urban Lahore or in rural FATA. And for most, that is the very heart of the matter. You can’t come in, push our government aside, and without a modicum of due process and transparency, start killing Pakistanis in Pakistan, they say. It is arbitrary, cruel, an attack on our sense of dignity and a slippery slope.

Some international experts are finally speaking out that the Drone strategy actually helps recruit more suicide bombers and hinders possibilities of further local, regional and national alliances against the radicals. The Drones divide Pakistani opinion to the detriment of all those who want to collectively confront radicalism. Their exclusive and unaccountable operation by the U.S. is popularly seen as being consistent with a lamentable foreign policy tradition of overt and covert meddling in Pakistani affairs and territory, usually in cohorts with military regimes and their agencies. The refusal by the U.S., on the other hand, to hand over the requisite intelligence and technology to their Pakistani political and military counterparts, is popularly seen as inexplicable. The Pakistani people, their political parties, and now their elected governments and armed forces are keen on a larger dialogue and multi-pronged collective strategy to fight extremism. They have the ideas, the will and the capacity but all they hear is the usual drone of ‘do this or else.’ For a dialogue to begin, this drone has to go.

Osama Siddique is an S.J.D. candidate.

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