This spring, I attended an interreligious peace conference in Pakistan. When I landed, I thought that Spring would bring fighting season soon, just a few hundred kilometers north. The late March heat in Lahore and Islamabad thrust me back into the sights and sounds of Central Asia, the smell of korma, the wail of the Azan at prayer time, and crowds clad in traditional shalwar kameez. I agreed to go to Pakistan because I wanted to confront the demons of the war that I fought a few short years before. I hoped to meet people whose lives I affected through my small part in the war. My demons eluded me. It was arrogant of me to think that the war revolved around the American experience, instead I found people for whom the scars of colonialism ran deep, and the echoes of its brutality informing how the people I encountered saw the war. When we talk about the war, we never talk about the specter of colonialism, but its prevalence in Pakistan made me think that maybe we’ve been looking at the war the wrong way for more than fifteen years.
The roots of the so-called War on Terror stretch far beyond the birth of America. We never understood our wars, we mistake progress as being western; if only they (Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians—the list goes on) enjoyed democracy, capitalism, and education, they wouldn’t be so warlike. Instead, we ignore the looming specter of empire in the world, and resistance against it.
I had always been aware of the effect of colonialism on my own life. I have ancestors that were pressed into service by the French, and indeed my very blood is colonized by some anonymous French forebear, but I didn’t grapple with this reality until very recently. At the conference, Pakistan’s leading Liberation Theologist Charles Amjad-Ali pointed to our program and told me that the very fact that we spoke English at a conference in Pakistan was proof that colonialism held sway over Pakistan. For all the good that global expansion brought to the world, like democracy, Charles was circumspect. He pointed out that the enlightenment values of liberty and democracy were not originally intended for all, but for the small mercantile classes to wrest control from the crumbling monarchies of the West.
To turn such cherished American values on their head disturbed me. Though I had been skeptical of America’s nation-building project in Afghanistan while I was there—indeed I saw little democracy in the violence I perpetrated in Afghanistan—I maintained that democracy was categorically good. I had hoped that fighting was a small step towards shaping a war-torn nation into a just and peaceful one. These days, with the war escalating, I cannot help but feel that I failed at that as well. Like me, many veterans want to be able to justify their suffering by saying that we made a difference in some small way, but I think of the Vietnam war in which a million communist casualties could not stem their ultimate victory. Many of the men I served alongside maintained this view; for every enemy we killed, that was one less terrorist that could harm the homeland.
Yet sixteen years of war does not seem to have lessened the threat. America’s Forty-Fifth President was elected in part on a platform of xenophobia. What are we fighting for if not to keep the U.S. safe? One man I met, Decolonial Scholar Salman Sayyid, offered that the War on Terror was ultimately a project to defend white privilege. During the age of empire, violence was always something that occurred in the colonies, away from the Colonial countries. While the United States did not absorb European colonies, we assumed much of their power in the wake of colonial collapse after World War Two, and in doing so we inherited many of those assumptions and behaviors of world power. Sayyid said that 9/11 was unique in that the real horror of that day was that violence was not exclusively over there, but our enemies brought it to America. How dare they attack us? How dare they break the rules?
Another man I met during the conference, who will remain anonymous, had a different perspective on 9/11. This professor insisted that 9/11 was an inside job. I expected this sort of perspective from American conspiracy theorists, but to hear it come from a scholar at one of Pakistan’s most prestigious universities disturbed me, not because of the controversial nature of his comments, but the way they mirrored the simplistic worldviews that proved so destructive when the war began. For the professor, the world was divided into neat categories—America embodied wanton violence, whereas powers like China could only do good, regardless of their blatant human rights violations. The professor went on to say that seventy percent of conspiracy theories were true, while eighty percent of new stories were false. This man’s delusions seemed closely aligned with the alternative truths of the insurgent Alternative Right that has taken hold in the West. Psychiatrist and writer Fantz Fanon asserted that the effect of global power inflicts psychological harm to both the oppressor—in this case, the Western Alt-Right in power—and the oppressed—this Pakistani professor.
A young student from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province named Shah was assigned to our delegation as a minder at the National Defense University in Islamabad. We traded cigarettes and war stories. For those unfamiliar with the nuanced dynamics of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pashtun lands straddle two borders. For the people that live there a line drawn by occupying armies carries little meaning—so what happens on one side of the border inevitably bleeds over the other side. I showed Shah battlefield pictures, and he told me about buying USGI aviator sunglasses in Afghanistan. He spoke of a Major General he interviewed who claimed to have trained thousands of Taliban, only to turn around and commit his time to deradicalization efforts. Shah and his family faced the repercussions of American intervention in Afghanistan daily. His father was threatened and survived attempts on his life by militants. His cousin was present at the Peshawar school massacre in 2014 that claimed the lives of one hundred and forty-one students and faculty. He told me that the dead lined the halls of the hospitals. Recalling the event, he said this act of terrorism was his country’s failure.
Yet Shah asked me to see the other side. He said, if a man came to him and punched him for being Muslim and he punched back, it was absurd that he should be called the terrorist. I asked if he planned to pursue a career in the intelligence or security services. No, he said, he wanted to pursue the kind of work that would bring peace to his home province. Despite being enrolled at an institution that trained field grade Army officers for staff and command, he told me that peace could never be won at the end of a rifle, never. It struck me that this young man, having witnessed so much violence in his own backyard would be undaunted in the pursuit of peace. “You have the best [weapons] in the world, but you cannot negotiate with the Taliban.” To him negotiation was the only option, but America was unwilling to pursue it.
Dr. Omar Shaukat Ali, a professor of politics and religion in Lahore, offered another perspective. During a study in South Africa, he surveyed people who claimed to have fought for the so-called Islamic State, or sympathize strongly with their cause. His goal was to see if he could use alternative readings of scripture in order to dissuade these people from their professed alignment with the Islamic State. Though he was successful in pointing out the fallacies in their logic, many of his respondents remained undeterred. Some of them said to him that ultimately these shortfalls didn’t matter, because the political purpose of carving out the Caliphate superseded all concerns. They asked what, if any, political purpose he had in trying to deter them? Try as he might, Omar said he could not answer them. As Omar spoke, I wondered how different the desire for an Islamic State was from the impetus of national liberation movements against European colonizers. Both sought self-determination, albeit through violent means. Perhaps all that separates Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from Ho Chi Minh are the changing circumstances of the long violent march of history.
If the scars of colonialism inform so much of how the formerly colonized conceptualize the world, in terms of strategy, how could we make such a gross oversight? After over a million dead on all sides, trillions of dollars, and more than fifteen years of war, I thought the sacrifice would produce something tangible. But rising violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria demonstrates that peace is a distant fantasy.
Nearly all the Pakistani security forces I encountered expressed a sense of betrayal by the United States. One Army captain at the National Defense University implored me to see that his people were not all terrorists, that we were fighting the same war and should remember that we are allies. A retired general lamented to me that the US left Pakistan holding the bag after the Soviet Afghan War. He questioned what would come out of this one. I put forth that the solution didn’t lay with fighting men like us, rather peace must be in the hands of civil society.
Those solutions start with young women like Sobia Khan, who calls Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province home. As I learned about Sobia and her grassroots work, I wondered if solutions for sustainable peace are in the hands of men at all. The War on Terror ravaged the region bordering Afghanistan, entangling communities in the conflict—as a result, this left behind families that lost not only loved ones, but their means of survival. In response, Sobia helped found the Support Humanity Organization, which provides services to women in agribusiness, and IT training for communities bereft of opportunities in the wake of the current conflict.
What struck me about Sobia was that while she valued the importance of history, she was primarily concerned with the future. On the other hand, I still feel very fixed in the recent past of my deployment. In Afghanistan, we always talked about putting an Afghan face on the war, but our enterprise was wrought with American treasure, by American hands. I was so blind to not see that nearly everything I did there was another form of colonialism. When I went to Pakistan, I hoped for closure over my failure. Some part of me knew that this trip would yield no answers for me, only questions. For many of the Pakistanis I met, their difficult pasts stretched further, to the Soviet Afghan War, to Partition, or to the day the first East India Company ships landed on the Indian Subcontinent.
Drew Pham is a Brooklyn based writer and contributing editor at The Wrath Bearing Tree. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Follow Drew on Twitter @Drewspeak.