Tariq Ali: Getting used to the idea of double standards

'The underlying maxim is: we will punish the crimes of our enemies and reward the crimes of our friends'

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On a trip to Pakistan a few years ago I was talking to a former general about the militant Islamist groups in the region. I asked him why these people, who had happily accepted funds and weapons from the United States throughout the Cold War, had become violently anti-American overnight. He explained that they were not alone. Many Pakistani officers who had served the US loyally from 1951 onwards felt humiliated by Washington's indifference.

On a trip to Pakistan a few years ago I was talking to a former general about the militant Islamist groups in the region. I asked him why these people, who had happily accepted funds and weapons from the United States throughout the Cold War, had become violently anti-American overnight. He explained that they were not alone. Many Pakistani officers who had served the US loyally from 1951 onwards felt humiliated by Washington's indifference.

"Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," he said. "We've served our purpose and they think we can be just flushed down the toilet." The old condom is being fished out for use once again, but will it work? The new "coalition against terrorism" needs the services of the Pakistan Army, but Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, will have to be extremely cautious. An over-commitment to Washington could split the armed forces and lead to civil war in Pakistan. A great deal has changed over the last two decades, but the ironies of history continue to multiply.

In Pakistan itself, Islamism derived its strength from state patronage rather than popular support. The ascendancy of religious fundamentalism is the legacy of a previous military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, who received backing from Washington and London during his 11 years as dictator.

During his rule (1977-89), a network of madrassahs (religious boarding schools), funded by the Saudi regime, were created. The children, who were later sent to fight as mujahedeen in Afghanistan, were taught to banish all doubt. The only truth was divine truth. Anyone who rebelled against the imam rebelled against Allah. The madrassahs had only one aim: the production of deracinated fanatics in the name of a bleak Islamic cosmopolitanism. The primers taught that the Urdu letter jeem stood for jihad; tay for tope (cannon), kaaf for Kalashnikov and khay for khoon (blood).

The 2,500 madrassahs produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and die for their faith when asked to do so by their religious leaders. Dispatched across the border by the Pakistan Army, they were hurled into battle against other Muslims they were told were not true Muslims. The Taliban creed is an ultra-sectarian strain, inspired by the Wahhabi sect that rules Saudi Arabia. The severity of the Afghan mullahs has been denounced by Sunni clerics at al-Azhar in Cairo and Shi-ite theologians in Qom as a disgrace to the Prophet.

The Taliban could not, however, have captured Kabul on their own via an excess of religious zeal. They were armed and commanded by "volunteers" from the Pakistan Army. If Islamabad decided to pull the plug, the Taliban could be dislodged, but not without serious problems. The victory in Kabul counts as the Pakistani Army's only triumph.

To this day,the former US Secretary of State Zbigniew Brezinski remains unrepentant: "What was more important in the world view of history?" he asks with more than a touch of irritation, "the Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" If Hollywood rules necessitate a short, sharp war against the new enemy, the American Caesar would be best-advised not to insist on Pakistani legions.

The consequences could be dire: a brutal and vicious civil war creating more bitterness and encouraging more acts of terrorism. Islamabad will do everything to prevent a military expedition to Afghanistan.

What is more likely is that Osama bin Laden will be sacrificed in the interests of the greater cause and handed over, dead or alive, to Washington. But will that be enough? The only solution is political. It requires removing the causes that create the discontent. It is despair that feeds fanaticism and it is a result of Washington's policies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The orthodox casuistry among factotums, columnists and courtiers of the Washington regime is symbolised by Prime Minister Tony Blair's personal assistant for foreign affairs, ex-diplomat Robert Cooper, who writes openly: "We need to get used to the idea of double standards."

The underlying maxim of this cynicism is: we will punish the crimes of our enemies and reward the crimes of our friends. Isn't that at least preferable to universal impunity? To this the answer is simple: "punishment" along these lines does not reduce but breeds criminality, by those who wield it.

The Gulf and Balkan wars were copy-book examples of the moral blank cheque of a selective vigilantism. Israel can defy UN resolutions with impunity, Turkey can crush its Kurds, India can tyrannise Kashmir, Russia can destroy Groszny, but it is Iraq which has to be punished and it is the Palestinians who continue to suffer.

Cooper continues: "Advice to post-modern states: accept that intervention in the pre-modern is going to be a fact of life. Such interventions may not solve problems, but they may salve the conscience. And they are not necessarily the worse for that." Try explaining that to the survivors in New York and Washington.

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