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To nuke or not to nuke: fictional US attack on Pakistan

United States

Photo: President Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani of Pakistan during the Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea, 27 March 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

What happens when the crew of a US submarine receives an order from Washington to nuke Pakistan?

It might sound like a ridiculous scenario, but this is just the question US TV audiences are going to be presented with in an upcoming series called The Last Resort. When the leaders of the submarine question the order, which if carried out would result in the deaths of 4.3 million Pakistanis, they end up being declared enemies of the state and having to flee to a fictional island.

While the controversial plot which occurs at the beginning of the show hasn’t garnered any kind of significant media discussion in the US, in Pakistan news of this (fictional) possibility of nuclear annihilation is being taken more seriously. Respected newspapers like Dawn and The Nation have given it coverage, and the trailer is being posted on Pakistani discussion forums under alarming headlines – with many readers reacting with fury.

While it should be kept in mind that the (fictional) orders to launch the nuclear missile are not obeyed by the crew, and The Last Resort doesn’t exactly appear to paint the US government in a positive light, yet the question remains: what made the scriptwriters choose Pakistan, of all countries, as the target for this fictional attack? In a way, it is a measure of the degree of negativity which has come to be associated with the South Asian country in the US media.

The US-Pakistan relationship is one of the most complicated entanglements in the world today. With countries like Cuba and Iran the US has a very straightforward relationship – they may be openly hostile but the parameters are also clearer. In the case of Pakistan, the governments in Islamabad and Washington continue to call each other allies despite deep mistrust and frequent fallouts.

Yet a recent poll found 74 per cent of Pakistanis consider the US to be an enemy. As a result of continuing CIA drone attacks, the resentment has grown in a country where conspiracy theories about the US are fodder for TV talk shows.

Often when political analysts talks about Pakistan and the US, the reference is to the governments or the military. Yet it is at a people-to-people level that relations between the two countries have failed. This is where the role of literature and cinema could play a part. Fiction can be a powerful medium to look at international affairs, allowing us to remove the restraints of high-level diplomacy and analyse relations on a more human level.

In this respect I suspect The Last Resort is not the kind of series which offers a deep analysis of bilateral relations between the two countries – its focus appears to be elsewhere. A better bet would be the upcoming film version of Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the story of a Pakistani working in Wall Street who becomes radicalized by the US response to 9/11.

One of the distinctive features of the novel is the silence of the American character who sits in a café in Lahore as he listens to Changez, the book’s Pakistani protagonist, talking about his former life, job and girlfriend in New York. The silence of the American is partly a play on the notion of how the media today can often portray one side of a conversation and much less of the other. The film, which opened the Venice Film Festival last week, is directed by Mira Nair (of Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding fame), who has described it as her ‘most difficult project’.

Yet long before these ‘reluctant fundamentalists’ made difficult the love affair between Washington and Islamabad, a famous Hollywood film came out which presented religious fundamentalists in a very different light. Consider this short piece of dialogue: ‘What you see here are the Mujahedin soldiers, holy warriors. To us this war is a holy war. And there is no true death for the Mujahedin because we have taken our last rites. And we consider ourselves dead already. To us death for our land and God is an honour.’

These words were not spoken in some grainy video produced by the Taliban for recruitment purposes. Rather, they were uttered by an actor playing an Afghan rebel in the famous 1988 film Rambo III. In the movie, our hero Sylvester Stallone travels to the Pakistani border city of Peshawar, and from there makes his way to Afghanistan to team up with rebels fighting a jihad against the Soviet occupiers.

People often mistakenly think about Islamists as having arrived from another planet, and of being some kind of creatures completely un-associated with Western civilization. Yet one interesting piece of trivia about Rambo III is that it wasn’t actually shot in Pakistan or Afghanistan – but in the Israeli desert. There is a strange kind of irony there, given the film could be interpreted as a romantic flick between a favourite US film icon and jihadist militants.

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