The following article was written by the late Christopher Hitchens soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in May 2011. It appeared in Vanity Fairtwo months later but, given the different actors now in control in Pakistan, readers will realise it could have been written last week.
For that reason, Asian Affairs makes no apology for reproducing it, especially in light of President Trump’snew Afghan policy and General Joseph Dunford’s recent comments that the US cannot achieve its national security objectives in Afghanistan as long as Pakistan provides support and sanctuary to militant groups.
Salman Rushdie’s upsettingly brilliant psycho-profile of Pakistan in his 1983 novel Shame rightly laid emphasis on the crucial part played by sexual repression in the Islamic republic. And that was before the Talibanisation of Afghanistan, and of much of Pakistan, too. Let me try to summarise and update the situation like this: Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumour of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame – which is the noble word ‘honour’ – becomes most commonly associated with the word ‘killing’. Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.
If the most elemental of human instincts becomes warped in this bizarre manner, other morbid symptoms will disclose themselves as well. Thus, President Asif Ali Zardari cringes daily in front of the forces who openly murdered his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and who then contemptuously ordered the crime scene cleansed with fire hoses, as if to spit even on the pretence of an investigation. A man so lacking in pride – indeed lacking in manliness – will seek desperately to compensate in other ways. Swelling his puny chest even more, he promises to resist the mighty United States, and to defend Pakistan’s holy ‘sovereignty’. This puffery and posing might perhaps possess a rag of credibility if he and his fellow middlemen were not avidly ingesting $3 billion worth of American subsidies every year.
There’s absolutely no mystery to the ‘Why do they hate us?’ question, at least as it arises in Pakistan. They hate us because they owe us, and are dependent upon us. The two main symbols of Pakistan’s pride – its army and its nuclear programme – are wholly parasitic on American indulgence and patronage. But, as I wrote for Vanity Fair in late 2001, in a long report from this degraded country, that army and those nukes are intended to be reserved for war against the neighboring democracy of India. Our bought-and-paid-for pretence that they have any other true purpose has led to a rancid, resentful official hypocrisy, and to a state policy of revenge, large and petty, on the big, rich, dumb Americans who foot the bill. If Pakistan were a character, it would resemble the one described by Alexander Pope in his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot:
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike:
Alike reserved to blame, or to commend,
A timorous foe, and a suspicious friend…
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the game they dare not bite.
There’s an old cliché in client-state relations, about the tail wagging the dog, but have we really considered what it means when we actually are the tail, and the dog is our lapdog? The lapdog’s surreptitious revenge has consisted in the provision of kennels for attack dogs. Everybody knew that the Taliban was originally an instrument for Pakistani colonisation of Afghanistan. Everybody knew that al-Qaeda forces were being sheltered in the Pakistani frontier town of Quetta, and that Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was found hiding in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani Army. Bernard-Henri Lévy once even produced a damning timeline showing that every Pakistani ‘capture’ of a wanted jihadist had occurred the week immediately preceding a vote in Congress on subventions to the government in Islamabad. But not even I was cynical enough to believe that Osama bin Laden himself would be given a villa in a Pakistani garrison town on Islamabad’s periphery. I quote below from a letter written by my Pakistani friend Irfan Khawaja, a teacher of philosophy at Felician College, in New Jersey. He sent it to me in anguish just after bin Laden, who claimed to love death more than life, had met his presumably desired rendezvous:
I find, however, that I can’t quite share in the sense of jubilation. I never believed that bin Laden was living in some hideaway ‘in the tribal areas’. But to learn that he was living in Abbottabad, after Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was discovered in Rawalpindi, is really too much for me. I don’t feel jubilation. I feel a personal, ineradicable sense of betrayal. For ten years, I’ve watched members of my own family taking to the streets, protesting the US military presence in northern Pakistan and the drone strikes etc. They stood there and prattled on and on about ‘Pakistan’s sovereignty’, and the supposed invasion of it by US forces.
Well, what sovereignty? What sovereignty were these people ‘protecting’? It’s bad enough that the Pakistani army lacks sovereignty over the tribal area and can’t control it when the country’s own life depends upon it. But that bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of Annapolis, MD…
You will notice that Irfan is here registering genuine shame, in the sense of proper outrage and personal embarrassment, and not some vicarious parody of emotion where it is always others – usually powerless women – who are supposedly bringing the shame on you.
If the Pakistani authorities had admitted what they were doing, and claimed the right to offer safe haven to al-Qaeda and the Taliban on their own soil, then the boast of ‘sovereignty’ might at least have had some grotesque validity to it. But they were too cowardly and duplicitous for that. And they also wanted to be paid, lavishly and regularly, for pretending to fight against those very forces. Has any state ever been, in the strict sense of the term, more shameless? Over the years, I have written many pages about the sick relationship between the United States and various Third World client regimes, many of which turned out to be false friends as well as highly discreditable ones.
General Pinochet, of Chile, had the unbelievable nerve to explode a car bomb in rush-hour traffic in Washington, DC in 1976, murdering a political rival and his American colleague. The South Vietnamese military junta made a private deal to sabotage the Paris peace talks in 1968, in order to benefit the electoral chances of Richard Nixon. Dirty money from the Shah of Iran and the Greek dictatorship made its way at different times into our electoral process. Israeli religious extremists demand American protection and then denounce us for ‘interference’ if we demur politely about colonisation of the West Bank. But our blatant manipulation by Pakistan is the most diseased and rotten thing in which the United States has ever involved itself. And it is also, in the grossest way, a violation of our sovereignty. Pakistan routinely – by the dispatch of barely deniable death squads across its borders, to such locations as the Taj Hotel in Mumbai – injures the sovereignty of India as well as Afghanistan. But you might call that a traditional form of violation. In our case, Pakistan ingratiatingly and silkily invites young Americans to one of the vilest and most dangerous regions on earth, there to fight and die as its allies, all the while sharpening a blade for their backs.
‘The smiler with the knife under the cloak’, as Chaucer phrased it so frigidly. (At our feet, and at our throat: Perfectly symbolic of the underhanded duality between the mercenary and the sycophant was the decision of the Pakistani intelligence services, in revenge for the Abbottabad raid, to disclose the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad.)
This is well beyond humiliation. It makes us a prisoner of the shame, and co-responsible for it. The United States was shamed when it became the Cold War armourer of the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the 1950s and 1960s. It was shamed even more when it supported General Yahya Khan’s mass murder in Bangladesh in 1971: a Muslim-on-Muslim genocide that crashingly demonstrated the utter failure of a state based on a single religion. We were then played for suckers by yet another military boss in the form of General Zia-ul-Haq, who leveraged anti-Communism in Afghanistan into a free pass for the acquisition of nuclear weapons and the open mockery of the nonproliferation treaty.
By the start of the millennium, Pakistan had become home to a Walmart of fissile material, traded as far away as Libya and North Korea by the state-subsidised nuclear entrepreneur A Q Khan, the country’s nearest approach (which in itself tells you something) to a national hero. Among the scientists working on the project were three named sympathisers of the Taliban. And that gigantic betrayal, too, was uncovered only by chance.
Again to quote myself from 2001, if Pakistan were a person, he (and it would have to be a he) would have to be completely humourless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offence, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred. That last triptych of vices is intimately connected. The self-righteousness comes from the claim to represent a religion: the very name ‘Pakistan’ is an acronym of Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and so forth, the resulting word in the Urdu language meaning ‘Land of the Pure’. The self-pity derives from the sad fact that the country has almost nothing else to be proud of: virtually barren of achievements and historically based on the amputation and mutilation of India in 1947 and its own self-mutilation in Bangladesh. The self-hatred is the consequence of being pathetically, permanently mendicant: an abject begging-bowl country that is nonetheless run by a super-rich and hyper-corrupt Punjabi elite. As for paranoia: This not so hypothetical Pakistani would also be a hardened anti-Semite, moaning with pleasure at the butchery of Daniel Pearl and addicted to blaming his self-inflicted woes on the all-powerful Jews.
This dreary story actually does have some bearing on the ‘sovereignty’ issue. In the beginning, all that the Muslim League demanded from the British was ‘a state for Muslims’. Pakistan’s founder and first president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a relatively secular man whose younger sister went around unveiled and whose second wife did not practice Islam at all. But there’s a world of difference between a state for Muslims and a full-on Muslim state. Under the rule of General Zia there began to be imposition of Shari’a and increased persecution of non-Muslims as well as of Muslim minorities such as the Shiites, Ismailis, and Ahmadis. In recent years these theocratic tendencies have intensified with appalling speed, to the point where the state contains not one but two secret statelets within itself: the first an impenetrable enclave of covert nuclear command and control and the second a private nexus of power at the disposal of the military intelligence services and – until recently – Osama bin Laden himself. It’s the sovereignty of these possessions that exercises General Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistani Army, who five days after Abbottabad made the arrogant demand that the number of American forces in the country be reduced ‘to the minimum essential’. He even said that any similar American action ought to warrant a ‘review’ of the whole relationship between the two countries. How pitiful it is that a Pakistani and not an American should have been the first (and so far the only) leader to say those necessary things.
If we ever ceased to swallow our pride, so I am incessantly told in Washington, then the Pakistani oligarchy might behave even more abysmally than it already does, and the situation deteriorate even further. This stale and superficial argument ignores the awful historical fact that, each time the Pakistani leadership did get worse, or behave worse, it was handsomely rewarded by the United States. We have been the enablers of every stage of that wretched state’s counter-evolution, to the point where it is a serious regional menace and an undisguised ally of our worst enemy, as well as the sworn enemy of some of our best allies. How could it be ‘worse’ if we shifted our alliance and instead embraced India, our only rival in scale as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy, and a nation that contains nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan? How could it be ‘worse’ if we listened to the brave Afghans, like their former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, who have been telling us for years that we are fighting the war in the wrong country?
If we continue to deny or avoid this inescapable fact, then we really are dishonouring, as well as further endangering, our exemplary young volunteers. Why was the raid on Abbottabad so rightly called ‘daring’? Because it had to be conducted under the radar of the Pakistani Air Force, which ‘scrambled’ its jets and would have brought the Black Hawks down if it could. That this is true is bad enough in all conscience. That we should still be submitting ourselves to lectures and admonitions from General Kayani is beyond shameful.