Conspiracy Brigades

Moeed Pirzada | Khaleej Times |

General (retd) Musharraf’s recent interview with Singapore’s The Straits Times was widely misquoted, misrepresented and blown out of proportion. His words referring to the US — “…I challenge anybody to come into our mountains.

They would regret that day…” — certainly looked as if the general, following the inspirational example of Saddam Hussain, was threatening to make a horrible example of the intruders. But in reality most publications conveniently took out the last five words that followed: “It is not easy there.”

He was merely pointing out, for the umpteenth time, the flaws in US perceptions regarding the scope of military operations in Pakistan’s northwest. Yet it will be naïve to suggest that ever widening fault lines do not exist between his regime and the Bush administration.

A combination of interesting developments; a plethora of rather colourful conspiracy theories in Pakistan; leaks to important publications in the US and the fanciful Op-Eds that appeared there since the imposition of emergency in Pakistan; and then the quite unexpected jumping of international community’s man of last resorts, IAEA’s Dr Al Baradei, into that mishmash — all point to the increasing difficulties in managing a US-Pak relationship that was, to begin with, anything but easy.

Indian Booker Prize winner, Kiran Desai, had amazed me with her rather wild imagination running amok in her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. But let me make a secret confession. She was nowhere close to the rich and racing minds of Pakistani conspiracy brigade. In a perverse way I feel proud.

First it was Ms Bhutto who was conspiring along with the US to destabilise and denuclearise Pakistan. Unlike the dictionary definition of ‘conspiracy’, it was a rather disappointingly transparent kind of plan in which the US administration, the Congress and the media had openly joined hands with many inside Pakistan — notably the media, the judiciary and the civil society — to put up a weak, pliant and stooge government in place with the ultimate objective of undermining ‘national security’ and stripping Pakistan of its nuclear assets.

But then the US administration found out that the clever Bhutto was not following the script. And the CIA eliminated her. Israeli agency, Mossad, was also involved, according to one retired spymaster. Will anyone demand to know who sent the water hoses from ‘Tel Aviv’ to wash the scene of crime in Pindi?

South Asia had traditions of women gossiping across shared ‘mohalla’ walls; men spreading rumours at street corners and then that endless drawing room ‘bethaks’. But once again our Pakistani conspiracy brigades make me feel proud. In an age of Internet, they have made the art truly global. They send emails copied to tens of thousands; I had wondered why they never use the facility of ‘BCC’ or blind copy. But now I know: with hundreds of recipients openly displayed you create an impact.

Could it be the awe of these conspiracy brigades that even the US embassy in Islamabad decided to jump into the fray?

Investigative journalist Ansar Abbasi’s piece, “US rejects conspiracy theories amid new revelations” in the leading national daily, The News, starts by quoting the US spokesperson who termed the attempts to connect Washington to an international conspiracy behind Benazir Bhutto’s assassination as completely outrageous and unfounded. But by the time you finish reading that before her death Bhutto was sending secret messages to nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, and former ISI head, Gen Gul Hameed you leave with the impression that may be the US was doing something to stabilise or destabilise Gen Musharraf’s government if not Pakistan?

Could it be that many in the US now desire a more open, a more normal, Pakistani political system with political parties, judiciary, media and the civil society jostling for influence? If this becomes a reality then the role for central messiahs like Musharraf and the military will be limited. Such a plural system can provide the US and the West with a number of players to deal with. Is this what the conspiracy theorists describe as the ‘pliant government in Islamabad?

If this is the conspiracy then I am up for it.

But the conspiracy theorists insist on something else. Whether the US was acting through the political persona of Ms Bhutto or through a hole in her temple what they see is a foreign plan to create chaos, a kind of chaos that sets the stage for international intervention to either seize Pakistan’s nuclear assets or to force it to share command over them. Given that the nuclear issue is deeply embedded in Pakistan’s insecure sense of identity any such plan is unnerving to think of. Yet the conspiracy theorists have much to cite.

In November last year, two US scholars — Frederick W Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Michael O Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution — penned an unusually provocative piece, “Pakistan’s Collapse Our Problem”. It appeared in New York Times. This piece, reeking with fanciful ideas, fearing turbulence in Pakistan, even contemplated a direct invasion of the country to secure its nuclear assets. But that was not an exception; irrespective of the bizarre nature of calculations very similar themes keep on recurring in the media, think tank reports and now in the speeches of the US presidential hopefuls.

Responding to Pakistani concerns, the US administration keeps on re-affirming its faith in Pakistan’s ability to safeguard its strategic assets but many suspect that maintaining a certain degree of calculated ambivalence on this issue helps the US to exercise greater influence in Islamabad. Pakistani assets are believed to be widely dispersed which further heightens the Western fears of their falling in the wrong hands but then they are dispersed in the first instance not because of the fear of India or jihadis — but of the US and the West. And that really defines the problem.

The best solution would have been if the US could involve Pakistan in any of co-operative arrangement that could bestow international legitimacy to its nuclear status. But given the AQ Khan saga and Pakistan’s current image problem no such initiative could be in the offing. That means we continue to sit upon a fuselage while the conspiracy theorists will have many more field day.

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