Attack on schoolgirl fuels Pakistani conspiracy theories

October 24, 2012

It’s a well-known fact in Pakistan that Osama bin Laden died in 2006 and that the U.S. commando raid on his compound in May 2011 was merely a “drama” orchestrated by President Obama to help win reelection.

Of course, if that were true, Obama might have waited until after the first presidential debate of the campaign season to fake the al-Qaeda leader’s killing.

But no matter. Pakistanis love a good conspiracy theory.

Some national newspapers and TV cable outlets routinely report that the United States is behind terrorist attacks and supports the war that the Pakistani Taliban is waging against Pakistan’s government and military. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad has to regularly churn out “Corrections for the Record” that take Pakistani media to task for carrying outrageous claims.

Now, the latest conspiracy theory to gain traction is the notion that the United States was behind the Taliban attack this month on Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student who criticized the extremist group for denying girls access to education.

The purported purpose of the ruse: to make the Taliban look really bad and, thus, generate public sympathy for CIA drone strikes — and whip up support for a Pakistani army invasion of North Waziristan to rout Haqqani network militants based there.

A Taliban spokesman was quick to assert responsibility for the attack on the schoolgirl and her two classmates. Yet, the idea of U.S. involvement has spread widely, even generating its own meme on Facebook.

A photo of Obama sharing a hearty laugh with members of his staff is making the rounds, being circulated and “liked” by thousands on social media sites. Its caption reads: “Sir, they still believe that Taliban attacked Malala.”

To many Pakistanis, Yousafzai is a national hero. But others say she is a spy because she once met with then-U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke — another photo shared on the Internet.

Part of the reason there’s so much conspiracy thinking is because Pakistanis live in a security state that many believe is controlled by the shadowy spy apparatus known as the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. It is widely seen — and feared — as a hidden force capable of steering domestic and foreign affairs.

A.Z. Hilali, chairman of the political science department at the University of Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, said politics is also behind much of the conspiracy mongering.

“When the incident happened with Malala Yousafzai, the people thought the security establishment might be involved because there is pressure from the U.S. that they have to take action against the Haqqani network,” Hilali said. “That perception was already existing in Pakistan. Right-wing parties just exploited the situation.”

But now, Hilali said, “right-wing parties are in a great crisis because Malala has deep sympathies from the common people. . . . They believe the Taliban has crossed a boundary. Malala has become this symbol, and the right wing is losing support.”

Nasreen Ghufran, an international-relations professor at the university, said a common sentiment in Peshawar is that the horrendous deed had to serve other agendas. “They think that Taliban on their own would not do anything unless the ISI and the army is behind it,” she said.

There was good reason to think that the United States was pushing for an operation in North Waziristan. In August, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Pakistan’s military leaders “had developed plans to go into Waziristan. . . . Our understanding is that, hopefully, they’re going to take that step in the near future.”

Pakistan denied it, saying its military lacked the necessary manpower.

As for the theories that besmirch Yousafzai as an agent of the West, they will ultimately come to naught and even enhance her stature, Hilali said. The Islamists “were already against that girl, but there is not just one Malala, there are many Malalas.”

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