Skip to content

Towards a Law and Political Economy Approach to the Global War on Terror


Zohra Ahmed (@zohraraheem) is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Georgia School of Law.

Over the course of the global war on terror (GWOT), authors and activists have issued countless assessments of why the forever wars endure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a great deal of legal scholarship has assumed that the cause is legal, and therefore that legal interventions, irrespective of the political power they mobilize, shape executive action. Missing from these accounts, however, is an analysis of the international political economy’s relationship to US militarism, including how it has thwarted the aspirations for self-determination of those who inhabit the countries the United States bombs. For scholarship to hold open the possibility of freedom from imperial domination, I suggest that it must interrogate the material conditions that enable the GWOT’s militarized (in)security.

In this piece, I focus on one specific case: that of Pakistan, where the United States has exploited the government’s reliance on foreign credit to guarantee cooperation in US counterinsurgency operations. In leveraging its role as a lender to provide Pakistan with short-term financial relief, the United States has deepened Pakistan’s economic dependency, undermined the nation’s chance for a more equal domestic political and economic arrangement, and consolidated the power of its domestic military elite. It is precisely that elite that has helped facilitate war in the region and thwarted economic reform. This recent history offers a template of how the United States negotiates and maintains the imperial formations necessary to its ongoing wars. As the United States escalates its war in Somalia and facilitates the country’s access to IMF loans, it may be operating from the same playbook. More research is still needed, but my hope is to invite other scholars to help elucidate the relationship between debt and militarism.

A Cycle of Debt and Militarism

Historically, Pakistan’s ability to access external credit has waxed and waned according to the status of its relationship with the United States. On the eve of 9/11, Pakistan’s debt had grown to alarming proportions. Policymakers and commentators warned of an imminent economic calamity. But the United States was not prepared to help; it had imposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear tests in 1998 and showed no signs of relenting. But on September 23, 2001, President Bush lifted the sanctions and voted to approve an IMF package for Pakistan. By December 2001, thanks to US support, the Paris Club agreed to write off or restructure $12.5 billion of Pakistan’s debt.

The United States has encouraged a dysfunctional Pakistani economy that remains dependent on foreign credit and works primarily for a small class of political, military, and economic elites.

The US would continue to use its access to credit as leverage in its negotiations with Pakistan for another decade. In 2008, in an unusual move, General David Petraeus met with the IMF to ensure that Pakistan would receive continued support from the bank. At the time, the United States was preparing for a surge in troops and drone strikes in Afghanistan, both of which required Pakistan’s logistical and political support. Shortly after Petraeus’ visit to the IMF, Pakistan received a $7.6 billion infusion. In 2013, as the US was planning to withdraw troops from Afghanistan—which it would need to do over land through Pakistan—the United States once again leveraged its position as the IMF’s largest financial contributor and voting bloc to obtain another package. This trend continues today, as the United States encourages Islamabad to facilitate over-the-horizon strikes in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of its ground forces.

Throughout the GWOT, the United States has relied upon and even encouraged a dysfunctional Pakistani economy that remains dependent on foreign credit and works primarily for a small class of political, military, and economic elites. With a reliable influx of credit, the Pakistani government has never made long-term plans to mobilize domestic resources. As political economist Akbar Zaidi points out, Pakistan’s acute debt problem is not inevitable, but rather the product of elite interests. Sources of revenue exist to address the constant budgetary shortfall, but the agricultural and industrial lobbies have thwarted tax reforms. Meanwhile, loan conditions that faithfully implement the Washington Consensus have imposed conditions that require the country to lift tariffs—once a vital source of cash. Other conditions, like financial sector liberalization, have also hindered more equal economic development.

Given these constraints, artificial as they may be, the state has stumbled from loan to loan in an unsustainable cycle. The debt has helped to cement the position of a “rentier‐class dependent on ‘external handouts’” made up of the landed aristocracy, industrial elites, politicians, and rent‐seeking bureaucrats, all of whom have relied on Pakistan’s geographic importance to US political and military interests for their continued enrichment. Ehtisham Ahmad and Azizali Mohammed describe how this dependency has orchestrated a “limited access society,” one that is designed to meet the needs of a limited few. Successive governments—composed of insiders benefiting from these arrangements—have preserved regressive tax structures and economic concessions that benefit whichever party is in power or selectively punish political rivals. The United States has actively helped to consolidate this political economy for its security needs, and Pakistan’s rentier class has happily obliged. The remaining 180 million Pakistanis pay the price.

As the United States has taken advantage of its resources to obtain Pakistan’s cooperation, it has enhanced the power of one institution in particular: the Pakistani military. This is not a new trend: The US offered political cover to Pakistan’s military dictatorships for geopolitical ends during the Cold War and then again in the first decade of the GWOT. After 2008, the country transitioned to civilian rule. Yet despite an unprecedented decade of electoral democracy in Pakistan, the military’s power has not diminished. Rather, as Aqil Shah argues, the military has adapted its mode of exerting power. Instead of direct rule, the military has applied pressure covertly, deployed repression selectively, and micromanaged elections. The US has especially exploited and benefited from the military’s persisting predominance in Pakistan’s foreign affairs. Whereas the civilian elected branches of government have, at least publicly, resisted close cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism, particularly the use of drone strikes, the military and intelligence agencies have served as more reliable allies behind closed doors. Meanwhile, with support from the United States and in the name of counterterrorism, Pakistan’s military has carried out its own catastrophic military campaigns in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas. Abductions by intelligence agencies are also a regular occurrence there.

Self-Determination Inside and Out

International human rights law recognizes a territorial and external right to self-determination. That is, a people attached to a particular territory have the legal right to exclude others, to determine their political status, pursue their economic, social, and cultural development, and to dispose of their natural wealth and resources. But the other critical dimension to the right of self-determination is internal. An internal right to self-determination enshrines popular sovereignty, which recognizes that a government’s authority emanates from the people. Popular sovereignty grants the right of self-rule to those occupying a given territory. A military coup or policies that extract national wealth for the benefit of the few would thus violate this internal right to self-determination.

US militarism relies on interlocking crises of self-determination in Pakistan.

US militarism relies on interlocking crises of self-determination in Pakistan. As Odette Lienau writes, residents of states in the Global South find themselves negotiating the conditions for self-rule on a range of fronts. The struggle for self-determination is not simply a dyadic one. There are, as Lienau underscores, multiple “selves” to determine. For Pakistan, the various dimensions of self-determination—internal, external, territorial, political, and economic—are deeply intertwined. Domestically, a dominant military has suppressed self-rule and thwarted the chances for a more egalitarian political economy. That internal domination has in turn cemented external dependence on, and domination by, international creditors and their major stakeholders. This external domination and dependence have further exacerbated internal military domination. US military intervention is enabled by these conditions, and the continuation of the GWOT in Pakistan has further amplified these cyclical dynamics, weaking popular sovereignty in multiple ways.

The kinds of international relationships the United States cultivates in support of its wars fall somewhere in a legal grey zone between consent and coercion. If consent is the aspiration and the black letter law governing interstate relationships, the United States thrives in legal ambiguity. For its part, the international legal system accommodates, if not encourages, this legal instability. For the United States, obtaining a partner’s state’s enthusiastic consent or engaging in a unilateral military campaign would require expending political capital to either cultivate real partnerships or to mitigate reputational damage. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has tried to avoid the appearance of deep entanglements. It has preferred a more light-footed approach in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. But the body count betrays this aspiration: the United States has killed more than 8000 people in over 1000 strikes in those three countries in the last decade. To extract maximum leverage, the United States uses a combination of pressure and incentive, choosing its moments and its interlocutors carefully to piece together what Madiha Tahir aptly calls its distributed empire. To make the military incursions appear less offensive to Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty, the United States exploits weaknesses in the Pakistani people’s ability to self-determine in other ways.

Pakistan’s experience in the GWOT underscores how debt and militarism reinforce each other. It invites us to pay attention to the interwoven challenges facing countries of the Global South. Freedom from external domination requires certain internal political and economic arrangements. But internal self-determination also requires an international order conducive to it. Centering an expansive commitment to self-determination rooted in non-domination may provide a more enduring tool to challenge US imperial violence. In other words, to borrow Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s formulation, abolishing the GWOT will require nothing short of “chang[ing] everything.”