The reports are unsettling: Jalaluddin Haqqani – the latest thorn in Washington’s side, the tormentor par excellence of American forces in Afghanistan – once shared centre stage with President Ronald Reagan at the White House and Charlie Wilson, the American cowboy prowling Afghanistan with dollars in one hand and stinger missiles in the other, called him goodness personified. A classic case of friends turned foes? Hardly. And this is why they are so upsetting — the reports indicate how the United States of America changes partners with shifts in its geostrategic policies and politics. This is bad news for those who look up to the US as the single most important sponsor and supporter of democracy, freedom of speech, the rights of minorities and women in this region.
What if, in the near future, Washington discovers that its support for democracy and human rights in Pakistan does not serve the American interest as well as an autocratic, one-man rule could, regardless of whether that one man comes from right, left or is ideologically somewhere in-between? While it is difficult to predict if and when that will happen, the past is replete with not-so-helpful American engagements with Pakistani dictators of various hues and stripes. The glamorous wife of a charming American president sharing photo frames with the founding father of military dictatorships in Pakistan as a medal for his personal charm as well as political slavishness; an obsequious looking Ziaul Haq being welcomed into the Reagan White House in recognition of mutually shared hatred for godless communists; and whiskey-swigging, ‘enlightened moderate’ General (retd) Pervez Musharraf becoming America’s most allied non-NAT O ally for his historic turnabout on September 11, 2001 — these snippets have only one constant: the Americans don’t give a hoot about democracy and human rights as long as someone is willing to do their dirty laundry in his own backyard. Banking on America for strengthening democratic values in Pakistan is like writing on wind or catching at straws.
Behind the images of Ayub Khan, Haq and Musharraf basking in borrowed American glory are the darkened and invisible ruins of ideologies, values and principles that the march of Pax Americana has left in its wake since the 1950s. Current and the future US governments don’t care if gold-rimmed photographs of third world democrats and advocates of human rights with the Kennedys, Reagans and Obamas just become another pile in history’s dustbin that Washington, perhaps, has added to the most. But this is something that democrats and human rights activists in countries like Pakistan should worry about — how will the Americans treat them as and when they outlive their utility for Washington’s international politics?
Here is a historical low down on their alliances. In the 1940s, communist leaders and parties in colonial and postcolonial countries of the south and east sided with Washington-led allies in fighting against The Axis power. By the 1980s, the Americans had found the Islamists to hit the communists who, by then, had become synonymous with what Reagan called the Evil Empire and the rest of the world knew as Soviet Union. In the 2000s, the Islamists became what George W Bush called the warriors against freedom and civilisation. So, who is next? In the logical order of events, it would be the democrats who have sided with the US against religious extremists and faith-inspired militants.
The trouble with such historical analogies is that they generalise and simplify in a sweeping manner. Of course, not all communists sided with the West for the sake of economic benefit, even on a more personal level; the Islamists were not involved in their anti-Soviet jihad only because it brought them financial remuneration. By the same token, democrats and human rights advocates in Pakistan today do not receive American funds to support democratic principles and fight for the rights of vulnerable groups. But the US has this magic touch that turns indigenous gold into made-in-USA dust and that helps explain why advocates of a democratic, fair and inclusive state and society in Pakistan are always equated with some nefarious American conspiracy to westernise – in the worst case scenarios disintegrate – our beloved homeland.
What is important to keep in mind here is that ideas and ideologies bankrolled from outside have as much traction as a cockroach in cow dung. There is a difference between winning hearts and minds and buying them. Buy you can — but those whom you buy cannot be bought forever. They will keep changing sides to align with the highest bidder. Win you must, but certainly not in a top-down way. The emergence of a democratic Pakistan that respects the rights of all its citizens regardless of their creed, sect, ethnicity and financial status, if it ever materialises, will only become sustainable and productive if it has the groundswell of popular support behind it.
In this also lies a message for all those who stand for a democratic and inclusive Pakistan: standing for democracy cannot, should not, be conflated with supporting the US or be supported by the US. The support for and by the US is, either way, a pact that accrues them little political capital, leaves their image sullied as Uncle Sam’s henchmen and cuts absolutely no ice with fellow countrymen. In worst case scenarios, it haunts both sides as Haqqani’s White House powwow must be haunting him and the Americans these days.