America, Pakistan, and the limits of militarism

Steve Coll Asma Jahangir
2 November 2004


Dear Steve Coll,

The despairing condition of my country, Pakistan, has featured little in your country’s election campaign. This neglect reflects the way that communication between Americans and Pakistanis has been corroded through consistent disinformation or a misreading of the realities on the ground. The fallout from 9/11 has destroyed earlier links between pro–democracy elements in Pakistan and the United States. What can be done to restore them?

I am no idealist. I realise that every nation will serve its own interest first, and that every country has to deal with rulers of other sovereign states regardless of the nature of their government. All US administrations have long followed such a pragmatic policy, but – because the American people demanded it of their governments – they also stood their ground whenever human rights were violated or democracy subverted.

This expectation seems to have disappeared, and as a result the super–rulers in Washington have granted legitimacy to self–imposed dictators or authoritarians. These fall into the category of “good” dictators, while others remain on the “evil” list. In this baleful ordering, Pakistan is “blessed” with a military leader – General Pervez Musharraf – who has even been described by leaders in Washington as a “true democrat”.

American media reports routinely view Pakistanis as hooligans, corrupt, criminals and uncouth people who are being herded by a single moderate soul in uniform, a born–again messiah.

The history of my country shows how partial and distorted a view this is. Pakistanis have been ruled by their military – either directly or indirectly – almost throughout their fifty–seven years of independence. At the same time popular sentiment has been consistently anti–dictatorship. For decades Pakistan’s civil society has struggled against military rule and also held civilian rulers publicly accountable. Numerous leaders of the legal profession, trade unions, press and women’s rights groups have been imprisoned, harassed, beaten, humiliated and persecuted by successive military governments or their sponsored Islamists.

We have never given up, even when successive United States governments have supported our military dictators. At the very moment when the notorious General Zia ul–Haq, along with your intelligence agencies and the rulers of Saudi Arabia, were collectively trying to bring down another “evil” empire (the Soviet Union) through a multipurpose jihad, many of us were protesting in the streets of Lahore against Pakistan’s Islamisation. Pakistani citizens put up brave resistance to a process of “Talibanisation” that was not confined to our neighbours in Afghanistan, and many voices even within American administrations were raised in our support.

I give this example for two reasons. First, to indicate that in pre–9/11 days the United States could adopt a twin policy – pursuing its own vital interests (sometimes mercilessly) but also denouncing human–rights violations and supporting pro–democracy movements. Second, to emphasise that Pakistan has a vibrant civil society that aspires to create a democratic process. Culturally we are part of the subcontinent and remain so despite deliberate attempts by our military rulers and mullahs to Arabise us.

In the post–9/11 era, Pakistan’s civil society feels abandoned by the international community. The contradiction in American policy between its foreign policies and its attitude to civil liberties is more pronounced. For example, the welcome attempt to initiate the process of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq is combined with a disregard for Pakistan’s political parties and civil society when they call for the restoration of democracy. We receive sermons about the virtues of being governed by a moderate military general instead of autocratic and corrupt politicians.

The choices here are not about people but about a system. Can anyone doubt that a democratic process is far more beneficial than a military dictatorship? This is especially true in a country where political forces remain the best antidote to religious fanaticism. In Pakistan today, the only two players in the political field are the military rulers and the religious parties. In moments of crisis they join ranks to save one another and at the same time remain spoilers in the progress of democratisation. They play as a team to confuse Pakistanis as well as their foreign allies.

Where militarisation has gripped the country, a mixture of disrespect and intimidation causes a serious crisis in governance. The rulers turn to oppressive methods in order to demand the moral authority they do not possess. Civilians obey them out of fear, and thus their output is uncoordinated and insincere. Many disgruntled young people who in the past could be persuaded to join political struggles are now looking towards the jihadi groups to deliver them from the present impasse.

Will the “war against terrorism” be won in such a situation? No: it will only drive an even deeper polarisation between American citizens and the citizens of countries where America protects dictatorships.

In this bleak political environment, there are a few glimpses of light. The peace talks between India and Pakistan are continuing. Pakistan’s media is relatively free. Over the years people have become less willing to submit to the military authorities. But Pakistan’s people cannot simply count on small mercies and depend on fate to send us a not–so–evil dictator. We need to be allowed to make systems that minimise the role of fate.

But the fight against terrorism has deprived Pakistanis even of our few existing civil and political rights. Arbitrary arrests, extra–judicial killing and torture are routine. Under preventive detention laws, a form of collective punishment is being meted out. Even children as young as 7 years old are detained. There is a crisis of information. Reports appear of families of suspected “terrorists” being imprisoned but there are no details. The courts are silent, helpless. All these measures are implemented under the guise of counter–terrorism.

No one has bothered to follow the stories of the wives of al–Qaida members who were abandoned in Afghanistan and treated as spoils of war. Where are they? Whose slaves? What did they go through? In failing to pursue their cases, we are collectively guilty of blindly following the clarion–call of fighting terrorism.

As a Pakistani, a neighbour of Afghanistan and a citizen of the world I am very disturbed. The world is being divided into Muslim and non–Muslim. Ordinary Muslims suffer the wrath of the extremist fringe and remain tormented at the erosion of human values by leaders of the United States. Last night I saw a woman dig out a worm and eat it and I wondered if her life had any connection to domestic or international politics. It does. The worms that rule us determine the worm that goes in her mouth.

In this way we are all linked. My suffering could hurt your cause and your policies have an impact on us. This is why I welcome the dialogue initiated by openDemocracy and hope to continue it.

Yours Sincerely,


Dear Asma Jahangir,

Thank you for your eloquent letter. Its intelligence and passion signal the enduring strengths of Pakistan’s hidden leadership – the lawyers, journalists, human rights advocates, community organisers and teachers who struggle to shape a Pakistan free from inequality, violence and political abuse. It will be a long, difficult and uncertain struggle; we have all dug Pakistan a deep hole to climb out from. Yet I do believe that you and your colleagues will prevail.

I agree with many of the observations in your letter. It is a particular shame that at the very moment that the United States and Pakistan need to understand each other better than ever before, our interactions are often limited and distorted by military–to–military channels and news cycles that emphasise arrests, battles, and suicide attacks.

Unfortunately, few Americans – even those in government – know the aspects of subcontinental Pakistan that I think we both admire: its open culture, its relatively free press, its entrepreneurial ambitions, and its long history of political struggles for democratic constitutions and civil rights. These are the qualities that should truly bind Pakistan and the United States, as they are more reliable and enduring sources of understanding and alliance than are short–term military pacts based on common enemies. Yet they are now barely visible or remarked upon in Washington.

How did we reach the point you describe? How is it that even the Bush administration, which has preached passionate Wilsonian sermons – to use your word – about the need to spread democracy in the middle east, appears to have no interest in applying its doctrines to Pakistan, and instead repeatedly accommodates the army leadership’s oppressive and self–interested dominance of domestic politics? Clearly, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants has taken precedence over everything else in American foreign policy, as well it should. I do believe that the nihilist wing of the jihadi movement constitutes an existential threat to the United States – and indeed, to Pakistan. Yet I do not believe we are making anywhere near an adequate effort to confront and defeat that threat, in part for the reasons you highlight in your letter.

As to Pakistan, the logic of this phase of the American government’s campaign against al–Qaida is painfully clear. The Saudi and Egyptian architects of 11 September 2001 are hiding in or near Pakistan’s federally–administered tribal areas. The United States depends on collaboration with the Pakistan army to reach these fugitives, but the Pakistan army pays a high political price at home and abroad for such collaboration. So, in exchange, the Pakistan army demands that Washington forgive its other transgressions – domestic repression, corruption, and a repeated refusal to open Pakistani politics to the country’s secular, civilian parties. Washington, keeping its side of this dubious bargain, pours billions of dollars in military aid into a country that ought to be spending such sums to increase literacy and create jobs.

The US’s narrow, militarised definition of its self–interest in relation to Pakistan has contributed to a flawed alliance. Three years of intimate collaboration with the Pakistan army and intelligence services has produced a few important arrests (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah), but – as Osama bin Laden’s video intervention on the eve of the US presidential shows – it has not produced any success against al–Qaida’s top leaders. Perhaps this is no surprise: if Pakistan’s army succeeded in capturing bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al–Zawahiri, it calculates that Washington would likely either lose interest in Pakistan or start pressurising the country to democratise. The interests of the two sides, in short, are not the same.

Some members of the American foreign–policy establishment have argued that the United States failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks in part because its policy toward Pakistan was too soft–headed and diffuse. If only we had not spent so much time hectoring Pakistan about democracy and nuclear proliferation, the argument runs, we might have made clearer to the Pakistani army and intelligence services how important it was to crush al–Qaida.

This is a misreading of history, which ignores America’s lack of understanding of the jihadi threat in the 1990s, and our consequent failure to communicate clearly about it with anyone, including ourselves. It leads elements of the US national–security bureaucracy to seek to organise the relationship with Pakistan around the jihadis alone. This is the fashionable, hard–headed Realpolitik that governs much American foreign–policy thinking these days.

While this approach prevails, the traditional heart of American “soft power” – the universal appeal of our core values of democracy, social equality, and human rights – has been undermined by the invasion of Iraq and our failed public diplomacy since 9/11. The United States is today the universal country, a military hyperpower – led by “super–rulers”, in your word – and an inexorably spreading culture. I fear that by our conduct and incompetent communication, we have helped discredit the very ideas that are the most enduring source of our global influence.

Even worse, the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad has been discredited in important circles in Washington. During the cold war, the United States constructed a largely bipartisan foreign policy grounded in a belief – shared by Republicans and Democrats alike – that American ideas of freedom, self–government, and individual rights would ultimately defeat Soviet communism. A bitter presidential campaign has emphasised how far American foreign policy today has become the subject of sharp, angry partisan disputes.

This has produced perverse results. For example, Democrats like John Kerry, who once would have advocated the promotion of civil society and democracy in countries such as Pakistan, today tend to denounce such ideas as the naïve, ill–judged fantasies of Republican neo–conservatives. If elected, Kerry promises to be the most tough–minded of realists, working with whatever regimes he must – dictators, despots, no matter – in order to confront the jihadi threat. Meanwhile, a second Bush term would likely see the idealistic, democratising strain of neo–conservatism become less influential than its national–security impulse. Thus, whatever the outcome of America’s election, I fear that for the United States and Pakistan the result will mean more of the same.

I echo your cautious optimism over the peace talks between India and Pakistan, especially their support by public opinion on both sides. What worries me is whether Pakistan, led by such a narrow and self–interested army – unable to develop the stable, self–correcting national consensus that a democracy provides – can really make the hard decisions that peace with India will require?

Let’s hope reason prevails. After the last few years, at the very minimum, we could all use some breathing–space.

With admiration,


Yesterday in the series: Swedish activist with The World Speaks, Kajsa Klein, writes to the African American writer and civic leader, Julianne Malveaux.

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