Our dogmatic liberals
The writer is a research fellow at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, and teaches courses on globalization, religion and politics of South Asia.
"Why are Pakistanis so prone to conspiracy theories?" a colleague at Cambridge recently asked. He was referring to recent debates about the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan. A version of this question is echoed by the liberal intelligentsia of Pakistan. The local version emphasises the focus on Blackwater within the rhetoric of a segment of society, notably the Islamists. A common refrain amongst the liberal intelligentsia to the question of Blackwater presence in Pakistan is that we must look inwards, we must critique ourselves and our own creations such as the Taliban before we focus on Blackwater. Through framing any critique of Blackwater as conspiracy theory, there is some congruence between the stance of my colleague at Cambridge, who is largely unfamiliar with Pakistan, and the liberal intelligentsia: they both see this focus on Blackwater as an illogical act, as a hiding behind and of course, as an abdication of our own responsibility.
What this discourse of 'our' responsibility that 'we' need to confront hides in its language of the universal 'we' in Pakistan is the reality of an extremely fractured and polarised Pakistan. There is no unified 'we' who is responsible for the rise of the Taliban, no unanimous 'we' that supported the intrusion of neo-liberal economic policies in everyday life so that about half of Pakistan is now living below the poverty line, no united 'we' that decided to support either militancy or America's war for the last decade. There are many different interest groups and classes within Pakistan and some are more implicated in the destruction of Pakistan than others.
When a handful of advisers decide to sign treaties that sell our environment and our children's future to multinational companies, can we rightfully blame the many millions who were not even informed, much less consulted, about these deals? When a few generals make millions out of fighting an ambiguously defined externally mandated war, can we continue to blame the foot soldier who refuses to kill his own extended family? When some members of the ISI continue to believe that maintaining some link with the Taliban in Afghanistan will allow them 'strategic depth', can we continue to assume that the 15-year-old teenager in Swat must share responsibility and bomb his home with impunity?
Questioning the role of Blackwater and criticising those segments of our society that bear responsibility for the mess that we are in should not be considered to be mutually exclusive. It is naivety of the highest degree to assume that due to some confluence of stars the US interest in the region today coincides with that of progressive Pakistanis. But even if we assume that is the case, how precisely specific activities such as those carried out by Blackwater are to help the building of this democratic, just and secular society remains largely unclear. Are we to believe that the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan should be borne silently because it will conduce to making these ISI officers democracy-loving, committed secularists?
What is Blackwater doing in Pakistan precisely? There is no clear answer to this question forthcoming from our interior minister who has denied their presence as a holding tactic, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. The role of Blackwater in instigating sectarian violence within Iraq is no secret. We are also familiar with their role as a private contractor to the US army allowing it to bypass Geneva Conventions. Just as Gap could buy T-shirts at rock bottom prices from sweatshops claiming that the company does not bear any responsibility for what its sub-contractors do to their workers, similarly, US army officials can deny responsibility for torture, kidnapping and extra-judicial killings because they claim ignorance of, or lack of control over, their subcontractor's operations.
Of course, this separation from the US armed forces and the CIA is a line in the sand. On August 21, 2008, the New York Times reported that Blackwater performed aerial bombing on behalf of the CIA in Pakistan: "At hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan… the company's contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency." In a feature-length interview in Vanity Fair, Erik Prince the founder and owner of Blackwater, now re-branded as Xe Inc., expressed a sense of betrayal: "I don't understand how a programme this sensitive leaks. And to 'out' me on top of it?"
However, when it is expedient Blackwater is not above claiming a close relationship with the US military. When the families of Blackwater contractors killed in Iraq sued the company for failing to protect their loved ones, Blackwater countersued the families for breaching contracts that forbids the men or their estates from filing such lawsuits. More critically, the company claimed that, since it operates as an extension of the military, it cannot be held responsible for deaths in a war zone.
Blackwater activities run the gamut of assassinations, bombings, bribery, kidnapping, torture. None of them truly conducive to building a democratic, peaceful society. It is more than irresponsible to assume that they are here doing the job for the democratic, secular citizen of Pakistan. If we are to get rid of the militants within our midst we have to do it in a sustainable way and in a manner that would ensure that a new generation of family-less children bent upon revenge is not being raised.
What this discourse of 'our' responsibility hides from view is the possibility that there is a continued nexus between the very groups that supported the rise of militancy in Pakistan and now allow the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan. What is precisely the nexus of power and interests that allows Blackwater to operate in Pakistan with impunity? We are not abdicating responsibility by asking that question but taking on the task of critical self-examination. Not all of us are equally implicated in this but some of us are. To take the question of Blackwater in Pakistan seriously is to begin to take the question of responsibility seriously.
When the Islamists raise this issue their slogan resonates with the citizen who has developed a social imaginary of continued US intervention in Pakistani politics through the control and manipulation of a small group of people. Charles Taylor, the well-known political philosopher, has defined social imaginary as distinct from social theory. Social imaginary refers to how people imagine their social surroundings in ways distinct from theoretical frameworks. Social imagination is carried in stories, images and legends. It is also more widespread and thus makes possible common practices and a shared sense of legitimacy.
The Islamists tap into this shared knowledge about the US role in Pakistan politics. The Islamists may have their own agenda but to continuously define themselves in a reactive opposition to their stances would be a fatal mistake for groups that claim a stake in progressive politics. History moves in dynamic and non-linear ways. By remaining stuck in a static definition of progressive and regressive and allying themselves ever more closely with oppressive power, the liberals may ultimately render their cause irrelevant. For those of us committed to a just and democratic Pakistan, these dogmatic liberals are as great a danger as the militants.