The White Man’s Mess

By Aijaz Zaka Syed- Dubai

My apologies for returning to Rudyard Kipling in every discussion about Afghanistan! But the man, who gave us such enduring classics as Jungle Book and an endless repertoire of tales, ballads, ditties and just about everything on the Raj, remains eminently relevant on this untamed frontier of civilization. 

Kipling may have been Poet to the Empire and its best apologist (or worst?). But having spent most of his life in Her Majesty’s Service in the Indian Sub-continent as a soldier and journalist, Kipling knew the redlines that were not to be crossed — ever. 

And Afghanistan and most of today’s Pakistan constituted the forbidden territory the English poet and writer repeatedly warned his fellow Westerners against.  Here’s one such advice:

It is not wise for the Christian white
To hustle the Asian brown;

For the Christian riles

And the Asian smiles

And weareth the Christian down.

At the end of the fight

Lies a tombstone white

With the name of the

Late deceased;

And the epitaph drear,

A fool lies here,

Who tried to hustle the East    

Kipling who famously justified the Western colonization and European imperialism in the now infamous poem, The White Man’s Burden, was nothing if not a pragmatist.  He knew the limits of the imperialism project. 

Kipling recognized the fact that the white man’s so-called burden to “civilize the natives” could wreak unspeakable havoc if he barges into the forbidden territory where angels fear to tread. 

These days, Kipling’s immortal words ring in my ears all the time as I watch Afghanistan and Pakistan go up in flames.

While Afghanistan has been burning for some time as a result of the Great Game that big powers have been playing in this part of the world, what’s happening in the Islamic republic of Pakistan is more terrifying than your worst nightmares. Even the distant Iraq of 2004 to 2007 now looks positively serene in comparison. 

Attack after bloody attack, day after horrifying day, Pakistan continues to bleed and no one seems to have a clue what to do about it.  So much so people have lost the capacity to react as their loved ones are killed right before their eyes.

While Pakistan fights for breath, the nation’s politicians are as usual feuding and plotting against each other. 

At a time when they should be putting their heads together for the survival of their country, they are debating the legal nuances and intricacies of the NRO (National Reconciliation Ordinance) that a desperate dictator brought in to rescue the country’s discredited politicians.  Is it any wonder then Pakistan is in the kind of mess it finds itself in?

The Pakistani army, one of the largest and most professional in the world and trained to fight its separated-at-birth twin across the border, is fighting its own people from one end of the country to another. Thousands have been killed and millions have been displaced by this byzantine, seemingly bottomless conflict.  And this war, if this is a war, might have just about begun. 

No one knows where and when it’s going to end, that is, if it’s going to ever end.  Every war has certain goals and is fought against certain enemies.  This seems to have none.    The enemy is within.  The army is fighting its own. The hot-blooded tribesmen in the northwest are fighting their own people.  Driven and egged on by its friends, Pakistan is fighting itself.  And it is imploding in the process.  The siege is within. 

Jinnah’s Pakistan and home to my beloved poet-philosopher Iqbal – and to many dear friends — is being ravaged and torn apart by the forces that claim to be its friends and well-wishers. 

The country that was created in the name of Islam after monumental sacrifices stares into a dark, frightening abyss of a future.  Pakistan has perhaps never faced a greater existential threat in its brief history.  Probably, even more serious than the one it battled in 1971!

Who’s responsible for this mind-numbing mess? Look no further than Pakistan’s long-time friends and allies. 

The white man’s burden has become the Muslim world’s mess.  Pakistan is paying with its lifeblood for having twice supported the US and rest of the West in Afghanistan – first during the Soviet occupation and then during the US invasion in the wake of the September 11 madness.

What began in Afghanistan as a supposedly limited and swift anti-terror operation against Al Qaeda lunatics has morphed into a full-blown regional conflict that not just threatens to rip apart Pakistan but also threatens the entire neighborhood. 

Strategically situated as Pakistan and Afghanistan are at the confluence of South-Central Asia and the Middle East, the heat of the so-called Afpak conflict is already being felt by Iran and Central Asian neighbors on the one side and India and China on the other.

If Pakistan, the only Muslim nuclear power, goes under, it wouldn’t go down alone.  It will drag down the entire region with it.  So those playing with fire in this part of the world and enjoying it thoroughly should watch it: It wouldn’t be long before you started feeling the heat under your feet.  If nothing else, it will burn your hands!  

President Barack Obama has repeatedly sought “a new way forward” after years of rancorous confrontation with the Muslim world under his predecessor.  And while there has been some skepticism about this President’s promise of change, his message has been generally received well across the world, from Morocco to Malaysia. 

The first black President with a middle name that’s one of the most popular ones in the Islamic world has certainly changed the way the world once looked at America – maybe forever.  The wise men on the Nobel panel acknowledged this quiet revolution last month.  

However, this change of mindset in Washington is yet to manifest itself on the ground in its engagement with the world.  Notwithstanding the Nobel, you can’t ignore the fact that America is still fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and is engaged in another war by proxy in Pakistan.  

W. may have become history with his neocon friends.  But his successor is stuck with Bush’s radioactive baggage.  Obama’s revolutionary agenda of change remains hostage to the policies and legacy of the folks who have turned our world upside down, making America even more vulnerable. 

Look at the Kerry-Lugar Bill that seeks to turn the complex nation of 170 million, proud people into an American colony.  If this is not ignorant, imperial hubris, what is?  As veteran American journalist Eric Margolis puts it, this is ham-handed dollar diplomacy at its worst.  Clearly, Obama has a team that doesn’t believe in his ‘change we can’ agenda.  

While Obama recently delivered a stern warning to Israel in the United Nations against Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, his Secretary of State sings Netanyahu’s tune saying Israel can complete the settlements it has already started. 

While the entire world condemns Israel for its crimes in Gaza, Hillary Clinton praises it for making “unprecedented concessions” to Palestinians! Having lost to the presidential race to Obama, it seems Ms Clinton is doing everything to derail his agenda.

This has to change. If Obama is indeed seeking a ‘new way forward’, he should order an immediate pullout of all US and allied troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and leave the mess in Pakistan to its leaders. 

For the answers to the riddles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are elsewhere. The key to America’s security and world peace lies in Jerusalem.  

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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