Think back to a more innocent time in Pakistan, say around 2007 or so. Terrorism may have been at its peak then, but all the right-thinking people knew who the enemy was: the Taliban and its enablers in the media, who spun wild theories to explain how everything was the fault of the Americans. The US –– the conspiracy theorists somehow expected us to believe –– was using robot flying saucers to attack us. Ludicrous as it sounded, these deranged people claimed that hordes of beefy Blackwater mercenaries were roaming the country. Clearly, no serious and sane person was going to fall for any of this jihadist propaganda.
One by one, we got confirmation that drone attacks were real, that the US did indeed have a lot of private security contractors working in the shadows and, in the effort to catch Osama bin Laden, even ran a fake vaccination programme. Welcome to Pakistan, where even the most feverish anti-US conspiracy theories turn out to be, well, true.
Those who took the pragmatic position that in a fight between the Taliban and the US, it would be wise to pick the latter’s side, should have had to reexamine all their core beliefs –– if not when drone attacks became a matter of public knowledge, then at least when Raymond Davis was revealed to be a spook. But we’re in a war, dammit, and picking a side is vital, no matter how much we mocked Dubya when he insisted on the same formulation. Thus, you have Pakistan’s liberals still denouncing the conspiracy theorists but having nary a negative word for those who are so adept at proving that the conspiracies actually exist.
Always beware of the person who is more willing to change his or her arguments than admit to a change of mind. So drones have now become the most effective way to kill militants, legality and scores of civilian deaths be damned. What’s wrong with a fake vaccination or two if it leads to the capture of Osama? And as for Raymond Davis, let’s just never talk about him again.
Many of those who seem more interested in being apologists for destructive US policies, mean well by concentrating on defeating the Taliban through strongly-penned columns and ignoring American transgressions. But what they are indulging in is propaganda, which by its very nature is designed to obfuscate, not illuminate.
The propagandists include among their ranks, obviously, the Zaid Hamids and Ali Azmats of the world. What grates is that some of their most ferocious critics seem to be stuck in the same mindset. Justifying desired policy outcomes becomes the goal, and facts are little more than an inconvenient hindrance that can easily be brushed away. Thus, you get someone like Farhat Taj arguing –– with a complete lack of verifiable evidence –– that citizens of Fata actually support being attacked by US drones and that the drones kill far more militants (or suspected militants) than civilians.
Here’s a simple rule that propagandists on both sides may want to follow: it’s possible to be both anti-US and anti-Taliban at the same time. Even better, sloganeering in support of a cause may not be the most effective form of argument. If it is absolutely essential to make a case in favour of one side, inconvenient facts should not be brushed away. We desperately need an honest debate. That we don’t have one is equally the fault of both sides.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2012.