War as Eqbal Ahmad saw it

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

EQBAL AHMAD, the academic, writer and activist, died over seven years ago. But even today, in the words of the American intellectual activist, Noam Chomsky, it is a “fascinating experience” to view major events of the past half century through his (Eqbal Ahmad’s) discerning eye”.

The Columbia University Press has facilitated this exercise by publishing The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad (produced in Pakistan by Oxford University Press).

Of course much has happened in the world after Eqbal Ahmad’s death. But many of his observations still hold true, and his insight and knowledge can be applied with equal effect to the events of the post 9/11 period that are tearing the world apart.

In this book there is a chapter titled, “The Cold War from the standpoint of its victims” (a paper read at a conference in 1991), a typical Eqbalian analysis of the 1945-1990 years which Prof John Lewis Gaddis terms as the “long peace”. The long peace is a misnomer.

For western scholars it has stood for stability and the absence of conflict between the major powers. Eqbal Ahmad rightly disputes this interpretation because he finds that the existence and structure of modern imperialism are a defining factor in international politics and have led to the use of force by the superpowers in the Third World causing 21 million deaths and the displacement of 100 million people in the 45 years following the end of the Second World War.

The key characteristic of this system, which Ahmad calls a war system, is its reliance on militarism. In other words, wars were integral to the bipolar system of the Cold War era, which was also marked by a wasteful arms race. The destructiveness of the post-Second World War as well as the post-Cold War international systems is indicated by their impact on the civilian populations. According to the UNDP and as quoted by David Korten in his book When Corporations Rule the World, 90 per cent of the war casualties in the beginning of the 20th century were military combatants. As the century ended , 90 per cent were civilians.

But today 16 years after the Cold War has ended, the world is in the grip of even more deadly conflicts – be they on account of the violence unleashed by Al Qaeda and its allies or the American-led war against terror. Eqbal Ahmad is no more with us but he would have in his soft and gentle tone spoken of the vindication of his view on the ubiquitous existence of the imperial system.

In the days of the Cold War, each of the superpowers armed itself to the teeth and justified its high level of militarisation on the plea of safeguarding its national security. But we now know that the arms race was fuelled by the arms manufacturers who had to keep themselves in business. The faster the pace of the arms race the more lucrative the trade became. Besides the battlefields in the Third World provided convenient testing grounds for the new generation of weapons that were manufactured.

All this has two grim implications for the Third World countries that is hardly noted by political analysts who focus constantly on the imperial intents of the major powers. First, the theatre of war is always in the Third World and very often the conflict is not one imposed by the imperialists but is the making of the Third World states themselves because they have failed to resolve their own internal contradictions and external disputes.

Secondly, the continuous conflicts ensure a high level of militarisation that gives the arms manufacturers a growing market and unprecedented leverage in Third World affairs. They not only sell expensive and sophisticated arms to countries where people are starving, ill and impoverished, they encourage the establishment of indigenous arms industries that thrive on the war system of international politics today.

Focusing on security in South Asia, the Mahbub ul Haq Development Centre (MHDC) in its 2005 report highlights the high incidence of conflict in South Asia and its disproportionately large military sector. Using an index developed by the Bonn International Centre for Conversion to measure militarisation by combining data on military expenditure, armed forces personnel, weapon holdings and employment in arms production, the centre shows how the trend in South Asia is towards greater militarisation.

In 2002, the BIC3D index for South Asia was -12 (a negative figure shows higher militarisation) when the figure for the Third World was +10.8. Pakistan’s score was -13 with India trailing at -12. Sri Lanka and Nepal show an alarming trend in militarisation scoring -55 and -47 respectively.

It is plain that the arms manufacturers are having a field day. The table showing arms transfers to South Asia in 1999-2003 is an eye opener. The eight largest suppliers of conventional weapons sold $10.9 billion worth of arms to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1999-2003. India’s share was $7.8 billion and Pakistan got $2.5 billion. This massive transfer took place in a region which has experienced 15 ethnic conflicts leading to 120,000 deaths in the region in the same period. The key suppliers were the US, Russia, France, Italy, China, and the Netherlands. Does this make sense?

It appears that the systemic wars Eqbal Ahmad was talking about are now encompassing the Third World. This time the countries where millions live below the poverty line and whose governments cannot even feed their own populations are fuelling their own wars. Emulating the imperialists, the weak and impoverished states of the region are building up arms industries and exporting weapons. Pakistan is exporting armaments worth $200 million per annum while according to the criteria provided by SIPRI India’s defence exports amount to not less than $400 million. The MHDC’s report tells us that these countries respectively spend $21 and $12 per capita on defence, $19 and $23 per capita on education, and six dollars and seven dollars per capita on health.

The imperialists have acted smartly. They at least try to protect the interests of their own people. However, the protégés of their system in the Third World with their burgeoning military/ nuclear sectors have neglected the interests of their own populations which have suffered at the hands of their own governments. Reminds one of a poor man in rags wearing a gold watch.