14 Desember 2010

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Pakistan’s apocalyptic grapevine

WHEN PAKISTAN balked at a previously agreed upon deal to hand back enriched uranium, donated a half-century ago under “Atoms for Peace,’’ the United States was naturally miffed. Pakistan’s WikiLeaked reason, because the transfer would be interpreted locally as a US attempt to get its hands on Pakistan’s bomb, may sound absurd to Western ears. But to some Pakistan’s foot-dragging made a certain sense.
Pakistan is awash in apocalyptic rumors, and the boogeyman is the United States. Despite all the billions paid in aid, America is desperately unpopular with the common man, and with some of Pakistan’s military.
This has led to all sorts of wild conspiracy theories in which the CIA and Blackwater play central roles. On a recent visit, I could have bought a CD at an Islamabad bookstore titled “CIA threats to Pakistan, episodes one through nine.’’
The rumor mill reaches from the poorest farmer into the very top echelons of the ruling establishment. For example, we know from Bob Woodward’s book that President Asif Ali Zardari believed that the wave of terrorist bombings that has beset Pakistan, and the Pashtun rebellions up north, must have been the work of an unseen hand. Suspect number one: The United States, because, he reasoned, archenemy India wasn’t smart enough to pull off something that devious.
America’s recent flood relief earned some credit among Pakistanis. I saw nothing but friendly faces followed by ardent handshakes from Pashtuns in the troubled Swat Valley when I accompanied a US Army helicopter on a recent mercy flight. But ugly rumors fly even faster than helicopters. Alas, some Pakistanis believed that the floods themselves were Allah’s punishment for Pakistan entering into an alliance with the United States.
No matter how many Pakistan Taliban we may target with our drones, the rumor is that the United States is encouraging the Taliban to attack the Pakistani state in order to create chaos so that America can have an excuse to invade. Nothing, however, tops the fear that America may want to seize Pakistan’s nuclear bombs. And, indeed, there has been a lot of talk in America about what would happen if terrorists got their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Oddly, the other side of the coin is to attribute god-like qualities to the United States, the theory being that Americans are so strong that they can do anything, to which Zadari’s fears attest.
Another example came after a day of killings in Karachi that claimed 34 lives and shocked a nation often inured to violence. “Not Even America Can Control Target Killings,’’ headlined the Express Tribune, quoting a “seemingly hapless home minister’’ as saying that even if the contract were given to the United States, it would fail to ensure peace. This tendency of the weak to exaggerate the cunning and strength of the powerful is common enough, and it can be found throughout the developing world and in the developed world, too. If only the CIA was as smart and omnipresent as people think it is.
The power of rumor on the subcontinent predates the Internet and WikiLeaks, even the founding of Pakistan itself. In 1857, the most serious threat to the British Empire was a revolt among Britain’s Indian soldiers, ignited by rumor. The British introduced new cartridges that had to be bitten before loading. The story got about that the cartridges were greased with either pig fat or cow fat, which would have been enough to defile both the Hindu and Muslim religions.
British officers and their wives and children were murdered by rampaging Indian soldiers, and the empire itself was shaken to its foundation. The “Great Indian Mutiny,’’ which many Indians now consider their first war of independence, was finally suppressed by all the fury Victorian Britain could bring to bear.
The virulence of the anti-American rumors in Pakistan today underlines a deeper distrust between two allies, as the cartridge rumor underlay a deeper distrust between ruler and ruled 150 year ago. Pakistan would like a truly strategic partnership, but fears it has only a transactional one in which America says, as if to a servant: Here’s the money, now do what we say.
H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
Opinion of Boston 14 December 2010