Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Weekly Pulse
January 13-19, 2006
Each working morning when I go to the Quaid-e-Azam University, located in the foothills of Himalayas in the Pakistani capital, I see this huge pair of American Chinook helicopters led usually by a Blackhawk, carrying tons of earthquake relief supplies from the Chaklala Airbase in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s sister city, to remote, disaster-stricken mountainous regions of Kashmir and the Frontier Province.

And, upon my way back home in the afternoon, I often see them again flying back to the base after accomplishing this great humanitarian job. This has really been the case since a week after the deadly earthquake hit the country on October 8, claiming over 73, 000 innocent lives and making 3.3 million homeless.

And then I see these endless stories in the Pakistani media quoting MMA leaders like Jama’at-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmad and JUI head Maulana Fazalur Rehman that somehow a grand Western conspiracy hatched by Washington was underway to “occupy Kashmir.”

The compatriots of these Islamist leaders, the self-proclaimed strategists—such as the disgruntled cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, the former Army Chief General Mirza Aslam Beg, and the former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Hamid Gul—go further by claiming that, in the guise of humanitarian relief, the United States or, for that matter, NATO are planning to establish a “permanent US base” in Kashmir or the Frontier to eliminate the “terrorist threat from al-Qaeda” in the short-run or to “contain communist China’s rise” in Asia in the longer run.

Such claims based essentially on hearsay or sheer ignorance have, on the one hand, kept the government leaders and their spokespersons busy denying that any such game-plan by either the United States or NATO was in the offing. Precisely because of this conspiracy talk, within over a month of the start of NATO’s largest ever humanitarian venture, the Foreign Office spokeswoman had to clarify publicly that Western alliance’s relief effort was only for a limited duration, and that as soon as the relief work was over, NATO would leave.

Sadly enough, even the Commander of the NATO relief operations was forced to appear on TV or give interviews to the local press talking more specifically about the February 15 deadline for the withdrawal of NATO’s force consisting of 1,000 military personnel.

Despite the fact that NATO personnel engaged in the humanitarian operation are not regular troops but consist of engineers, doctors and the like, the country’s leading conspiracy theorists, particularly the politically dubious characters like Generals Beg and Gul, have left no stone unturned in portraying them as regular Western troops out there to occupy the Land of the Pure as part of the US-led West’s “strategic game-plan.”

On the contrary, I remember this leftist fundamentalist who preaches anti-Americanism to Third World and Muslim world people while benefiting from all the comforts of Western life, the freedom of expression in particular—the great Pakistani-born novelist Tariq Ali, the editor of leftist Verso Press in New York City—castigating the United States for not doing enough to help the victims of Pakistani earthquake.

Somehow, he was on a visit to this God-forsaken country in early October when the earthquake happened. Soon after the quake, President General Pervez Musharraf had made an urgent appeal to the world for the immediate supply of cargo helicopters. Pakistan only has a handful of these helicopters, which were not enough to manage the sort of havoc which the earthquake had caused, devastating entire towns and rendering them and the remote mountainous regions inaccessible by road.

The first country to respond to the President’s emergency appeal was the United States, which took some time in dispatching an armada of Chinooks from the Afghan theatre. Since these helicopters were part of the military operations in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom or facilitating the security operations of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the insurgency-hit country, managing the logistics of the ensuing humanitarian operation on the part of US Air Command in the neighbouring country should naturally have taken some time. Despite that, however, the arrival of Chinooks at Chaklala was astonishingly quicker than expecting.

It was during this transitional stage spanning only days of the second week of October, between the President’s call for helicopters and the arrival of American Chinooks, that we had this “privilege” of having a US-based “son of the soil” among us, lecturing us on how America was using Pakistan in its “War on Terrorism” and not coming to its rescue when the country was in a dire straight due to a disaster. I am sure had we hosted him in the aftermath of the start of a gigantic earthquake relief effort by the United States as an essential part of the NATO humanitarian operation, Tariq Ali would have said exactly what a couple of former Generals with bigoted ideas and a handful of Islamists with extremist leanings have been propagating all along.

I have followed the international response to the Pakistani earthquake quite closely. Indeed, there could not be any two opinions about the extent to which the international relief operations in the earthquake regions, led by the US and NATO, have been helpful in bringing relief to the victims of this great tragedy. Had Chinooks not arrived in time, thousands would have perished. For the heroic pilots of these helicopters, since the second week of October, it has been an hour-by-hour dawn-to-dusk relief effort, a very tiresome venture.

Such was the nature of this challenging task that the commanders leading the NATO-US relief effort by air even proposed to fly sorties at night, for the Chinooks are equipped with night-vision devices. It was the inability of the Control Tower staff at the Chaklala Airbase to manage the night operation, or the complexity associated with the airlift of supplies in the quake-hit northern most mountainous regions, that prevented Chinooks from operating at night.

Even though I do not have access to exact estimates, but, from the news reports appearing in the national media, it can be stated that, thus far, the Chinooks must have undertaken thousands of sorties, dropping tens of thousands of relief supplies ranging from the direly needed tents to blankets, clothing, medicines and food stuff. The earthquake was the first tragedy, the snowfall and the second round of death and misery in the Himalayas would surely have been the second one had the Chinooks not arrived.

In this backdrop, is it moralistic to perceive conspiracies in the efforts of those who have day in and day out helped save the lives of thousands of our devastated sons, daughters, brothers and sisters in Kashmir and the Frontier? Instead of being thankful and grateful to the nations and people helping us in times of need, the reactionaries of the Left and the Right have spared no effort in proving the inherent sadism and insanity of their mental makeup.

If America or the West does not help, it is accused of being insensitive and hypocritical to the needs of the Muslim world; and when it does, it is blamed for intending to dominate and occupy Muslim lands. Is it not dichotomous, and morally unjust, on the part of our Islamist elite or their self-proclaimed compatriots as named above to maintain such contrasting stances on a US-led Western humanitarian relief operation in a Muslim country devastated by a natural calamity?

Culturally speaking, Pakistanis are by and large an open-minded and hospitable nation. We have been so welcoming and accommodative of foreign people that, unlike Iran, which confined the Afghan refugees to the border areas throughout the 1980s Afghan jihad against the Soviets and pushed them inside the devastated country in its aftermath, we continue to host millions of Afghan refugees paying a huge price in the form of growing joblessness, heroic addiction and crime.

Thanklessness and ungratefulness—Pakistanis should be the last nation to display such nasty tendencies, especially if someone has come to their rescue in the most difficult of times since independence. Somehow, it is due to the widespread public ignorance and the unfortunate influence of bigoted religious notions that the established hatchers of conspiracies have succeeded in the past in misleading our nation.

However, truth is something that no force on earth can ever hide forever. It comes out one day. In the disaster zone, the truth seems to be already out, against the wishes of the conspiratorial lot among us. The news that most people there, many of whom might have been staunchly anti-American prior to the quake, look at the US and NATO as forces of good is, indeed, a good omen.

Having said all of the above, let me also state that, personally, I am no fan of America or the West. I accuse a section of it of practising Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11. I have been quite critical of the Bush Administration over the Iraq war. And, for a difference, I may also share some concerns of the fellow scholars critical of the US role in the world—certainly not those of the extremist “intellectuals” of the Right of or the Left—pertaining to the pursuit of essentially real-politick interests.

One can, for instance, argue that, as part of their inherently real-politick outlook, Washington or the West may be using a natural disaster to win the hearts and minds of a Muslim populace whom it has historically annoyed by pursuing certain policies in the Muslim world. However, I would be the last person to perceive—the way the bin Ladins of our world in hiding or their disciples living freely among us—behind every American/Western action, be it in the name of humanity, a grand conspiracy to dominate us as Muslims.

Similarly, instead of seeing double standard in America or West’s inaction, I shall blame my own nation or the community of Muslim states for failing to gain self-sufficiency at least in managing natural disasters, despite having abundant natural resources, financial wealth and skilled manpower.

At the end of the day, it is we as a Muslim nation or part of the global community of Muslim nations who have to decide whether we want too much America or the West, less of it, or no America or the West at all. And when our leadership decides to have either, that’s a conscious decision which it takes. That such a decision does not have the due public input as is the norm in the democratic world is not America’s or West’s headache; it is an outcome of our own inability as a Muslim people to institutionalise democracy and freedom in our polity.

The above remarks pertain to normal times of inter-state relationship, during which considerations of real-politick, especially of great powers of the Western world led by the Americans, remain a hallmark of global politics. However, in times of calamity, we should be very careful in accusing those who are helping us overcome a disaster which we could not have possibly manage with all of our national resources put together.

Let us, for a minute, put ourselves in the shoes of the Chinook pilots who are flying humanitarian sorties between Rawalpindi and the Himalayan peaks of Kashmir or Frontier, would it not be most disheartening for us to find some of our hosts accusing us of intending to eventually dominate and subjugate us under the cover of a humanitarian relief operation? What sort of impression about the host country we will bring back home? That these people do not even deserve a hand of help even during cataclysmic times such as the post-quake situation the hapless people of Kashmir and the Frontier have been in?