Nailing urban legends
Urban legends are hard to kill. They may even be unkillable. One urban legend — for whose worldwide provenance we have to thank President Pervez Musharraf — is the threat held out to Pakistan by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage after the September 11 attacks, that unless Islamabad did America’s bidding, it would be bombed into the Stone Age.
Had the president said that in a newspaper interview, it would have been long forgotten because nobody reads yesterday’s newspaper and as the great Maulana Charagh Hasan Hasrat so sagely observed, the same evening the day’s newspaper is used to wrap fish in. And had the president quoted the remark in one of his TV interviews, of which he never tires, having once been told that he is “media savvy”, few would have remembered it even the next day. And certainly not in Pakistan where there are more media channels today than there are absconders being chased by police around the back streets of Gwalmandi, Lahore.
What happened was that the president put it in his book, or maybe his ghostwriter — who would fail to frighten even a three-year old were he to materialise as a ghost — did. The general, I don’t hold responsible for this confusion at all. It is not his fault. He merely reproduced what he had been told — and on an open phone line from Washington on September 12, 2001 — by the then chief of the Invisible Soldiers Inc., Lt Gen Mahmud Ahmed.
That was not what Richard Armitage, Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, the No 2 man at Foggy Bottom, had told him, though obviously that was what he told the president back in Islamabad. I suspect the conversation took place in Urdu and the chief Invisible Soldier provided what he thought was the “gist” of the exchange with Armitage. There were four others from the Pakistan side present at that meeting but since they were all officials, none of them felt the need to nail the myth that has grown around Pakistan being bombed into the Stone Age (which won’t be much of news to several areas in Balochistan and Sindh that have never emerged from the stone age in the first place, thanks to their munificent federal governments.)
We should all thank the young man attending a discussion on Pakistan last week at the Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s “mahan” think tanks, for standing up to ask Armitage, who looks like a bouncer but is sharp as a razor, if not sharper, why he had threatened to bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age if it did not do America’s bidding.
Armitage replied that he had said no such thing, nor was he authorised to say any such thing. He had asked for Pakistan’s cooperation after the attacks. The US, he had said, was calling on its friends for help and wished to know if they were on America’s side or not.
The conversation had remained civil and Armitage, one of those present at the meeting told me, had been frank but polite. I do realise that the Stone Age urban myth is too good to be laid to rest, so it will live on. Sorry Mr Armitage, but I tried.
As for the now retired Gen Mahmud Ahmed, what can I say? I am told he has a flowing white beard and has “gone fundo”. It is best to stay away from such new recruits to piety. It may also be prudent, since the old adage — once Invisible Soldiers Inc., always Invisible Soldiers Inc. — may well be true.
Another urban legend that also refuses to die — maybe we will have to hammer a silver cross through its heart on a dark night — is Henry Kissinger telling Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that if he did not dismantle Pakistan’s nuclear programme, “we’ll make a horrible example of you.”
What Kissinger said to Bhutto at Governor House, Lahore was that if Pakistan went down the nuclear bomb road, it may not benefit from it, nor may the prime minister.
That is a far cry from saying, “we’ll make a horrible example of you.” However, the latter is what everyone believes and anyone who suggests otherwise is sure to be denounced as CIA.
Another urban legend that has also refused to die is Bhutto declaring at Karachi in a throwaway line directed at Shaikh Mujibur Rehman, “Udhar tum, idhar hum.” For the tenth time, I make another attempt to nail this one. Bhutto never said those words. If anyone is guilty of what Bhutto’s enemies have called his saying goodbye to East Pakistan, it is Abbas Athar, who as the enterprising and inventive news editor of daily Azad, Lahore, slapped this colourful headline on a news report of Bhutto’s speech at Nishtar Park, Karachi.
The most powerful urban legend of all also involves Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: namely the Polish resolution, which its contenders insist would have saved Pakistan had Bhutto not torn it up and walked out of the UN Security Council in December 1971.
Now the facts. There was no Polish resolution. It was a draft, which was never put to vote. There were many drafts circulating at the Security Council in those days, including the Polish one. Poland, after all, was a member of the Warsaw Pact and a satellite of the Soviet Union, which was India’s principal ally and a declared backer of Pakistan’s dismemberment. How could the Soviet Union circulate a resolution through one of its stooges to save united Pakistan?
As for Bhutto physically tearing up the Polish resolution, what he tore up were his notes, which were mostly doodles — as my friend Iftikhar Ali of APP covering the session has told me. And how does he know? After Bhutto stormed out of the Security Council, Iftikhar Ali took a hurried look at what Bhutto had torn up before rushing out to file his report. The urban legends around Bhutto have continued to swirl thanks to those who continue to hate him. There is nothing that you, I or Charlie’s aunt, for that matter, can do about it. Urban Legends Live.
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent