The recent arrest in the US of Ghulam Nabi Fai, accused of using funds from the ISI to run his ‘citizens organisation’ that lobbies for the freedom of Kashmir, has Indian hardliners gloating, and Indian liberals — specially those who received Fai’s generous hospitality — somewhat embarrassed.
Twenty-one years ago, in early August, Iraq invaded Kuwait and set off a sequence of events whereby the US began looking forward to war against Saddam Hussein. War hasn’t looked back since.
What might have been forgotten is that the first Gulf War was figuratively flagged off by a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl. This is the story of ‘Nurse Nayirah’ and it is a tale worth repeating.
In the weeks after Saddam’s occupation, Kuwaitis in the US struggled to drum up support for a US invasion. Expats, exiles and a few slightly shadier types got together to form ‘Citizens for a free Kuwait’. They were fronting for the exiled government. But Americans barely knew where Kuwait was, leave alone thinking about liberating it.
But one televised testimony before Congress in October 1990 changed everything. Nurse Nayirah sobbed and gave a horrific eyewitness account of the bestiality of Saddam’s soldiers, recounting the murder of 15 newborn babies at a Kuwaiti hospital. In an American accent, she said: “They took the babies out of their incubators… and left the babies to die on the cold floor.”
This was powerful stuff. Senators, congressmen — and President George HW Bush — repeated the story. The people needed no further evidence that Saddam was the presiding demon of an evil empire. The Senate voted that America should go ahead and fight this just and popular war.
Except for a couple of things. The story was an invention: dreamed up by execs at the powerful PR firm Hill and Knowlton, who billed Citizens for a free Kuwait about $11 million for the job. The money trail led back to the Kuwaiti government, of course.
The image of the sobbing teenager was almost too powerful. In the weeks after the testimony, it acquired a life of its own and the number of babies who had their life-support snatched from them continued to grow. Amnesty International released a report saying more that 300 babies had been murdered this way. But as independent observers investigated, they found no evidence in support. Amnesty withdrew its claim.
And Nurse Nayirah? She wasn’t a nurse at all. In fact, she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Her father, Saud bin Nasir alSabah, sat a few seats away from her during her testimony and she had been coached for hours by Hill and Knowlton executives so that her delivery was just right. This came to light about a year later when journalist Rick McArthur wrote a piece in Harper’s Magazine.
Ghulam Nabi Fai’s Kashmiri American Council had, it would appear, a far smaller budget to play with — the ISI parted with just $4 million since the 1990s, according to official documents presented — for propaganda. But he seems to have had an even greater constraint. A witness has testified to the FBI that 80 per cent of what he did was dictated by his handlers while the other 20 per cent required their approval. Fai’s organisation was in essence hostage to the agency’s thinking.
The trouble with this approach (and the shoddy cover-up job on the money front), is that while martyrs’ days were being observed and human rights violations in Kashmir were assigned numbers and seminars were being held, the mileage that Fai and his handlers might have hoped for never materialised. Would they have been better off hiring an imaginative PR firm that spun fantastic stories, swung public opinion and forced the US to act?
Possibly. But that isn’t how the ISI thinks. It is much more comfortable retaining terrorists. They come cheaper too.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2011.