Bleeding Pakistan further

When the chickens of Western interventions come home to roost, home tends to be far, far away from where the taxpayers and decision-makers behind these interventions reside. The burden of Western interventions seems to lean strongly in favour of landing in warm weather and Muslim majority environments: Pakistan has been a perennial favoured landing spot.

In Pakistan, we tear our leaders and institutions apart. For running the country into the ground, for lacking capability and imagination and maybe, worst of all, for allowing the good grace that distinguishes us to be consumed by short-termism and cruelty. Far too infrequently do we assess or reflect on the devastating impact of Western intervention on Pakistani territory and in its near-environs – both explicitly in Afghanistan and implicitly in Iran nee Persia. Add in the blind Western endorsement of Hindu supremacist leaders in India – and Pakistan is a more tightly packed powder-keg than it has ever been.

The US national anthem boasts of enduring the “bombs bursting in air”. In Pakistan too, the bombs burst. In the air. On the ground. In mosques. At police stations. In markets. At hotels. In schools. Everywhere. The Ayatollahs took over Tehran, the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, and Al Qaeda conducted the September 11, 2011 attacks, but somehow through forty-five years, two major wars with dozens of countries involved, it is only Pakistan that is at fault for allowing Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the TTP, and a whole new alphabet soup’s worth of terrorist groups to keep killing Pakistani citizens, especially our policemen and soldiers.

None of this is to suggest that Pakistan has not chosen the wrong option at successive crossroads moments, but all of it is to suggest that we may be approaching another crossroads and how Pakistan chooses its path should be informed by Pakistani realities. The path forward should not be informed by fantasies imposed upon a nearly bankrupt Pakistani republic – led by optionless military leaders and helpless politicians.

Watching the leaders of Egypt and Jordan try to manage the fallout from the latest Western intervention – Israel’s genocide in Gaza – has been illuminating. We have seen this film before countless times across all formats. Across North Africa and the Middle East, the US invasion of Iraq ignited the dismantling of a series of imperfect, but largely secular series of Arab regimes that managed to stave off the Al Qaedas and Daeshs of the world much better than their successor regimes have been able to.

Egypt’s challenges merit entirely separate treatment, but the ease with which extremists are able to point to both Algeria and Egypt (across three decades) should alarm Muslims that believe in predictable, accountable and transparent systems of governance. The alarm often points to the foibles of Muslim elites – but the underlying drivers of bad governance are in lands far, far away.

Today, the best performing and most modern Muslim leaders in the world (most of whom are in the GCC region) must dodge not just traditional foes emanating from the complexities of Egypt that go back several decades, and the terrorist groups that were birthed of those complexities. They must also manage the hostility of Muslims aghast at what is taking place now in Gaza with the approval of the Western powers that have actively supported Israel’s genocide. This has three important implications for strategists in Muslim majority countries, especially places like Riyadh, Rabat, Jakarta, Dhaka, Ankara and perhaps most importantly, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

First, the cost of aligning with the West is domestic anger and revulsion. Remember, it isn’t 1979. Bucking public opinion and countering the artful populist isn’t as easy as it was back in the day. Most populists, just like in the West, prey on the simplest and most linear insecurities of people. Mainstreaming extremist narratives within Muslim majority societies used to be an equal opportunity game – with both state and anti-state players taking turns at playing Ummah Defender.

The Israeli genocide in Gaza has dramatically shrunk the spectrum and timelines within which this game is played. Put it this way: the temporary ceasefire in Gaza is really a product of the nosediving opinion polls for the Biden Administration from within the US electorate. If such shape shifting pressure is being felt in Washington DC, can you imagine what the Arab and Muslim Street is generating in terms of pressure on their elites?

Second, the Western endorsement of the genocide in Gaza has incentivized Muslim elites’ already significant flirtations with China and Russia. Remember: neither China nor Russia is particularly pro-Palestine. But they have both threaded the needle very carefully in calling for Israeli restraint. In doing so, they have deliberately set themselves apart from the Western powers.

The cruelty of both Russian and Chinese authorities in how they have historically dealt with Muslim populations at home, and the gaps in their behavioural profiles with respect to governance are all easily ignored under the shadow of Israel’s genocide in Gaza. It would make sense to paint this dynamic with some degree of scepticism, given both the still awesome firepower that Western allyship offers (hello Turkey, Bahrain and Qatar) and the enduring technological dominance of Western supply chains in the defence sector (ma’salaam Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistan and Indonesia). Yet, it would also be unwise to ignore the draw of Beijing and Moscow on these accounts – both countries are rapidly expanding the spectrum of their relations with Muslim majority countries.

Finally, the longer term and perhaps most damaging aspect of the West’s support for Israel’s genocide is the shared-values thread of alignment between Muslim majority societies and Western nations. This is especially problematic as more and more Western electorates cave to the allure of hate-mongering populists like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and the rising Jordan Bardella in France. Western support for Israel however has not been anchored in the populist right wing, but in the supposedly liberal, Muslim-friendly and benign mainstream.

Neoliberal Muslims (and most elite or elite adjacent Muslims are this – no matter how much they rock to leftist poetry and socialist novelties) are in a unique existential quandary. The continued embrace of seemingly Western values and agendas will now, almost at every turn, be questioned with images from Gaza. This will have profound consequences for how Muslim societies engage with and tackle the most important challenges and opportunities – such as the degree of freedom afforded to the press, and perhaps most importantly the quality of economic power and mobility enjoyed by women.

Pakistan is headed toward a general election on February 8, 2024. The delays in the election and the way the political discourse has been managed since May 9 have already undermined the level of excitement and confidence that an election should generate. Pakistan’s raging external debt crisis curtails the powers of any government – elected or unelected – to tackle the most urgent challenges Pakistanis face: inflation, joblessness, low and no skills education, continued climate catastrophes, and the persistence of a low baseline of maternal and neonatal health, population welfare and economic agency for females.

Through all this, Pakistan is going to have to deal with a rapidly metastasizing extremist threat. The TTP and its affiliated groups, including remnants of the virulently anti-state and anti-society groups like the LeJ, enjoy renewed energy and vigour thanks to safe havens in Afghanistan. Separatist terror groups like the BLA enjoy safe havens and financial support from New Delhi. New Delhi itself has stepped up its assassination programme across the globe, including in Pakistan – feeding into growing resentment about the restraint of Pakistani authorities. Perhaps most worryingly, extremist groups like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik continue to enjoy large swathes of support in urban areas – and have artfully (and predictably) hijacked the mantle of the voice of the people of Gaza.

Pakistan’s second war on terror has been raging now for the better part of three years. All eyes tend to be focused on the outcomes of this second war: a spike in the rate of the US dollar, a resulting economic crisis, the collapse of a political compact that was negotiated from 2006 and reached in 2010, and the heart-breaking eviction of Afghans that sought refuge in Pakistan from the mess in their own country. Yet it is the war itself that has, once again, driven and shaped the country’s toplines.

The narratives that enable recruitment and financing for extremists are emerging from Gaza faster than Israel can kill the next Palestinian child. Ceasefire or no ceasefire, these narratives will not haunt the Western powers that have aided and abetted the genocide, but they will sharpen the knife that bleeds Pakistan and other Muslim majority nations around the world.


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