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August 24, 2017

The emperor has no clothes


August 24, 2017

The latest outburst by Trump, threatening serious consequences for Pakistan for providing “safe havens” for terrorists, has stirred a mix of emotions, including surprise, fear and anger. It is particularly intriguing since Trump was an advocate for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and made it an important pillar of his foreign policy statements during the presidential campaign. With the looming escalation of US military involvement in the region, it is time for us in Pakistan to have an open debate on the changing nature of the US Empire, the emerging global order, and our own place in it.

Pakistan’s political and security leadership has oscillated between either complete capitulation to US interests, or a cynical use of its strategic position to pursue an ideologically-driven agenda. Capitulation to Empire resulted in the doling out of military and financial patronage as a ventilator for an authoritarian and decadent political order, particularly strengthening military regimes in the country. On the other hand, when the state occasionally tried to ‘assert’ itself, it did so to pursue fantasies of regional domination, in particular the desire to control Afghanistan, a policy that has caused immense suffering to that country, as well as to us.

With Trump’s belligerent posturing, we must reassess our strategy and consider treading the paths not taken. But before we do that, it is essential to understand where the US Empire stands today, especially militarily and ideologically.

The planned escalation of the war in Afghanistan by the US comes as the superpower acknowledges the embarrassment of participating in the longest war in the country’s history, and that too against a “ragtag army” of guerrilla fighters. While the US can lay the blame of its defeat in Afghanistan on Pakistan, that can in no way explain the colossal mess it has created in the Middle East. While Iraq was no paradise under the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussain, the country has today deteriorated into one of the most dangerous places in the world, and a threat to the region because of the widespread presence of terrorist organisations.

The same is true for Libya, where a knee-jerk and ill-conceived military intervention devastated the country’s economic and political infrastructure and led to the proliferation of warlords and terrorist outfits. The spectacular collapse of the country’s economy in the aftermath of the military intervention has also fuelled the immigrant crisis stemming out of the Middle East and North Africa. Similarly, the indecisive, chaotic, and at times outright cruel, US policies in Yemen and Syria have placed the entire region in an endless spiral of war and destruction. This is the reason Trump’s recent threats of a military intervention in Venezuela were met with a unanimous rejection by Latin American countries (including Venezuela’s primary opponent, Colombia), since the past two decades have shown that the destruction caused in the wake of US interventions are seldom contained within the boundaries of a specific country.

What is noteworthy about America’s interventions post 9/11 is the growing gap between its capacity to cause immense destruction through its latest weaponry, and its ability to place an adequate amount of resources and skills for reconstructing societies. Unlike the post-Second World War scenario, where the US provided massive financial assistance under the ‘Marshal Plan’ to counter communist agitation in Western Europe, recent administrations have demonstrated little appetite for any such imperial generosity. In fact, the continuing economic crisis in the US and the fragility of public opinion in the face of US casualties has generated the dangerous dynamic of the ‘privatisation of war’.

Private security companies are playing an increasingly important role in combat operations around the world, particularly in Iraq and Northern Africa. Aljazeera recently reported the use of former child soldiers from Congo by American firms; these children are deployed in various war zones, including Iraq. The policy is aimed at cost-cutting since a Congolese soldier costs $250 per month without additional benefits (significantly less than the cost of an American soldier), and helps avoid US casualties in wars to ensure public support. In other words, the wretched of the earth now spill each other’s blood on the streets of the Global South to ensure the safety and security of the American Empire.

We are witnessing the emergence of a new imperial logic. Empires have always been concerned with the management of violence on a global scale, but in previous eras (pre-colonial, colonial and post-war imperial), there was an ideological commitment to reconstructing societies. Couched in racial or civilisational discourses such as the ‘White man’s Burden’, it nonetheless entailed a long-term physical attachment to the lands being governed by such Empires.

In contrast, contemporary Empire manages its interventions without a concomitant duty to restabilisation. Today, the US Africa Command (Africom) and Special Operations Command in Africa (SocAfrica) are engaged in nearly a hundred shadowy combat missions in Africa, without any public scrutiny or reciprocal commitments to economic or political development of these societies. Moreover, the US state and corporations (as well as of other countries) have become adept at cutting deals with private warlords and militias to get access to the required resources, bypassing even the need for any form of sovereign states. This is an Empire on a truly planetary scale, yet without any sense of responsibility associated with previous imperial orders.

Already under Bush and Obama, the strengthening of the surveillance state, support to brutal dictatorships in Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, had eroded America’s prestige in the eyes of the global community. With the Trump administration’s tacit support for neo-Nazi groups and outright disregard for constitutional norms at home, one can now explicitly see the sinister machinations of Empire that were obfuscated by the charm of previous US presidents. The emperor today is truly naked!

That does not mean that we in Pakistan should resort to a sophomoric rhetoric of anti-Americanism that we have witnessed over the last two decades. What this analysis suggests is that we have to chart an independent path from the trajectory of a declining Empire.

Fundamentally, if we were to improve relations with our neighbouring countries, we could play a pivotal role in regional integration due to our historical and cultural ties with India and the Islamicate world, and our friendly relations with China. For this to happen, however, we will have to give up our embarrassing fantasies of regional domination that have hindered even the acknowledgement of our diversity, let alone its utilisation for political and economic ends. It also means encouraging a more open and transparent debate as we engage with emerging key actors on the global stage, including China, something unfortunately missing from the shadowy nature of negotiations on CPEC.

The big lesson for progressive forces is that they made a mistake in believing that US pressure can become an adequate substitute for popular engagement to induce the structural changes needed in state-citizen relations in Pakistan. The US neither has the capacity nor the desire to bring freedom to other countries. In fact, the rise of fascist currents in American political life has raised questions on the future of freedom even in its own domestic politics.

It is the citizens of Pakistan that have the primary responsibility of safeguarding popular sovereignty, and for ensuring a frank discussion on the future trajectory of our country. Considering the interests of our elites in the perpetuation of Pakistan’s role as a petty rentier state in the global system, such calls for a reasoned exercise of sovereignty may seem like an impossible task. Yet, we have no option but to fight for it, since the costs of past mistakes are too high for us to allow their eternal repetition.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge and a lecturer at the Government College University, Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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