Posts Tagged ‘bhutto assassination’
FATIMA BHUTTO, A Portrait by Rusty Zimmerman (www.rustyzimmerman.com/)
Wearing Bhutto as a last name in Pakistan is analogous to carrying a flamboyant, rare, elitist Prada bag: an accessory that assures you will never be common nor anonymous. The Bhutto merchandise captivates the political landscape as a dynamic, privileged, legendary and plagued real estate that encapsulates all that is wildly schizophrenic, volatile but ultimately endearing about Pakistan. It’s precisely this mythology borne from a feudal dynasty that burdens Fatima Bhutto, the charismatic and outspoken niece of recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto, and daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, himself assassinated in 1996.
The twenty five year old published poet, writer, and columnist for The News in Pakistan loathes “birth right politics” and laments Pakistan’s obsession with “the cult of personality.” Regardless, that Bhutto brand name, for better or worse, places the spotlight squarely on this young “Bhutto,” who is now coming into her own as both a vocal social activist and highly coveted, Pakistani bachelorette tabloid sensation. Instead of abusing the limelight for pretentious self adulation, Fatima Bhutto has found a forum to publicly blast Musharaff’s dictatorial government, Asif Ali Zardari’s corruption, Benazir Bhutto’s self serving machinations, and the Army’s hegemonic apparatuses.
I recently conducted a lengthy and informative interview with Pakistan’s “new” daughter of destiny and pleasantly discovered that she, despite her regal and privileged upbringing, was not like the narcissistic, self-absorbed Pakistani Clifton elitists I’ve met and come to abhor over the years. Instead, I talked to an extremely opinionated, well informed, sarcastic, passionate, garrulous yet articulate young woman about the recent Pakistani elections, Asif Ali Zardari’s new government, the real Benazir Bhutto, the role of Bhutto and Zardari in her father’s assassination, the disastrous results of American foreign policy, the future of Musharaff, and life living under the “Bhutto” spotlight.
ALI: There are many who have partisan views on the Bhutto family dynasty. Some see you as “the real Bhutto” as opposed to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of Asif Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto. Why would you think you warrant the “authentic label” – a political label, I might add, you seem to wholeheartedly reject at the current moment.
BHUTTO: To me it sounds like two different things. First, there’s a question of simple genetics I think. There’s a question of some kind of political birthright. But I think both propositions are frivolous. The first question is: who is actually a Bhutto child by virtue of their parents? I think that is a pretty straightforward answer; one that shouldn’t have other implications but does now in this exciting frenzy of “dynasty” that we live in, right?
The other is which child is more qualified to rule, which is equally frivolous. Because “name” is determining the qualification in this place. It’s not a resume, it’s not any work experience, it’s just who has the closer genetics to the [gene] pool and therefore who is more qualified. It’s an example of how names and personalities rather than principles and platforms have taken over politics in South Asia and Pakistan.
ALI: Many claim the dynasty has a curse and a privilege, which can be likened to what we have here in America with the Kennedys. Do you think this cycle will repeat itself in the 21st century: a cyclical pattern of tragedy and privilege? Is there any way to break from this dynastic “curse”, or is this just an overreaching assumption?
BHUTTO: I think it’s a bit fantastical actually. When we rely on things like curses and blessings to explain things for us, we lose sight of the real picture. We lose sight of the wider truths and how it is that people live in the countries they live in and the factors that decide the things like violence in these countries. I think it’s all very romanticized to say there is a curse and that’s why they will be part of a cyclical violence for a family like the Kennedys, the Ghandis and so on.
The answer is probably less exciting or less mythical. That’s something people don’t like to look at. It’s amazing the politics of distraction that are practiced, not just in South Asia, but also in the media at large. Where you can take a family and build a myth around it that is exciting and sad and romantic without any mention of actual politics or actual conditions in the country they live in. It’s purely distraction. I think they keep perpetuating this myth of curses and blessings – it’s all very frivolous.
ALI: Throughout the history of Pakistan it seems either the military or feudal dynasties control the power. From the ground up, there seems to be a system in place that always hijacks the democratic process in their favor. How can Pakistan tangibly and realistically free itself of this? Can it at all?
BHUTTO: It certainly can. The question is will it? One question that is central to both is the issue of accountability and certainly the issue of merit. When you look at the state of Pakistani politicians today – you are right – it’s either a taking over by the army who believe they are the only ones who care for Pakistan and they are the only force that can set Pakistan down the right path. Then you’ve got this sort of feudal dynasty that believes they are entitled to rule and that they deserve power. Neither one of these groups is going to give up power or authority. Now we see a third cycling of politicians.
Musharraf came into power because people were fed up with Nawaz [Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s once exiled former Prime Minister] and [Benazir] Bhutto. Then, Nawaz and Benazir came back to Pakistan, because people were fed up with Musharaff. And when people are finished with Asif Zardari [Benazir’s husband and her party’s current figurehead] and Nawaz, they will go back to Musharaff.
Parties have molded politics in Pakistan into one of personality. They have completely lowered the political discourse and political understanding in this country. It doesn’t have to be about issues anymore, it’s about people. It’s about who looks better on a sticker. I mean it sounds funny, but in a sense it’s true. They are able to do this because in Pakistan we have no discourse that pushes things like principles or platforms or merits. One should be qualified to rule because of their experience, their platforms, their party’s manifesto, because of the internal democratic system. But of course that’s not the question, it’s whom you are related to and how closely you are related to them.
The other factor is also accountability with things like the NRO, which is really an odious piece of legislation called the National Reconciliation Ordinance, which is a bill signed unilaterally into power by Musharaff when he was the General and not the President. It effectively wipes out 20 years of corruption for politicians, bankers and bureaucrats. And it makes it virtually impossible to file future charges against a sitting parliamentarian. It effectively puts those in power above the law. And today the NRO is being used not to excuse just financial crimes, but also extortion, murder, smuggling cases, drug cases, I mean this is certainly the case of Asif Zardari. There’s no accountability, there’s no way of saying these feudal dynasties have stolen from the country and they have not given it back to the country, and the army has increased violence and changed our way of life. We would like to hold them accountable to their rule, and therefore remove them from office. Without that system, we can’t remove them.
ALI: Let’s discuss the current election and some political parties. You have actually talked about the rigging of Pakistan’s February elections, and even suggested the PPP [Benazir’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party] had a hand in rigging them. However, many said this election represented the will of the Pakistani people. Were these truly free elections we witnessed?
BHUTTO: This election was nothing more than state theatre. It was a complete farce in many ways. First of all, it was the third time the election date was changed. It was supposed to be in December, but then Emergency was declared. Then we were supposed to have it January 8th, and then it was postponed to February 18th. Now for each of these periods, the campaigning time was extremely limited – 30 to 45 days given – and if you look at the original Constitution, you need at least 60 but at least preferably 90 days for canvassing. For those who don’t know, this is an enormous country. We have very distinct provinces, and in order to canvass on that scale you need time. So, that’s the first way the elections were clearly not going to be free or fair.
Secondly, there was no drive for registration in Pakistan. If you look at most rural areas in many of these provinces, women don’t have ID cards. Not just women, but you also have the peasants working the land, your construction workers that come from the Frontier, village people who are in a way bonded labor; people who have no sort of social security or are legally tracked in any way. Women especially just don’t have access.
So, you have an election from the start that is not going to be representative of the people. You’re going to have only a small percentage of the people that can vote. Then, there’s Election Day. Musharaff’s government enabled rigging. I think that’s very important to state. They released, for example, a voter list by the government at one stage. Several weeks later, polling lists were released. Now, let’s say you have a voting list of 60,000 people and a polling list of maybe 300 polling stations; people have no idea where they are registered. So, they may go to their closest polling station where they voted at last elections, wait in line, and then be told, “No, I’m sorry you’re not registered here.” “So, where am I registered?” “Sorry, we don’t have that information.” There’s a complete disconnect and there’s no transparency between these two lists.
The other way is the election commission released booklets and did ads in the media putting out the rules of elections. What you need in an election to vote legally is that you need to appear in person, and you need a valid identity card with your name and card number on it. However, the voter lists that were given to the voting stations by the election commission and the government, they have a name and a birth date but nothing in between. They don’t have an ID card number or address. So, you can appear at a polling station and say, “Hi I’m Afzal Khan and I’d like to vote,” and there’s nothing to distinguish you from 400 other Afzal Khans in your neighborhood.
So, that name doesn’t get checked off, and people can come and vote on the same name over and over again. The Musharaff government certainly enabled rigging, but what’s important to know about rigging especially in a country like Pakistan is that people have this image that the government is sort of a miscreant in a black cloak who comes in to a station, sticks in a separate box, hides it in under his cloak, and somehow rigging happens. But how it really happens is through the local parties on the ground, who have polling agents at the scene and who are technically there to ensure rigging doesn’t happen, but of course that’s not the case.
Parties like PPP, PML-N rig in a number of ways, the first is through intimidation. These are small communities, the polling agent knows your name, knows where you live, and if you don’t vote the right way, you will be noticed. There’s also ballot stuffing, which we saw quite openly. You also have a presiding officer at the polling station who are usually school teachers, and these are government appointed positions who owe their livelihood and job to the government so they are not neutral in any way.
You also have fake ID’s being used. We saw women coming in with several ID’s. They come in wearing the burqahs and you have a 19 year old wearing a burqah who has an ID card saying she was born in 1938. And you are not permitted to ask a lady wearing a burqah to lift her burqah, she doesn’t have to show her face when she votes, and that of course leads to rigging.
ALI: CNN recently stated that Asif Ali Zardari is the most powerful man in Pakistan. The Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was sworn in last week, and many people say he is a handpicked Desi [South Asian] uncle who is merely the proxy of Zardari. And, as you know, Zardari’s former nickname is “Mr. 10%” due to the illegal commissions he got off contracts. Has he been reformed 100%?
BHUTTO: I don’t think Zardari has been reformed an iota. This reform of Zardari has been through the NRO, a completely unconstitutional and illegal piece of legislation. What they have done is stricken from the record 2.5 to 3 billion dollars worth of corruption from Zardari’s name. And they said, “Sorry, nope, just kidding, he didn’t do it”. But in a city like Karachi most of the citizens don’t have access to electricity. In the summer, the running water comes maybe two or three hours a day. A city that effectively looks like a refugee camp. That’s evidence of that corruption, that evidence you see every day doesn’t erase itself with the NRO. They’ve removed some extortion and drug cases from Zardari’s record as well.
He had 4 murder cases pending against him, and one of them was just removed involving the murder of a High Court Justice and his young son. Just because his name is now suddenly stricken from the record, doesn’t change that there’s a family who remembered him. I don’t think he’s been reformed in any way except to promote this idea of reconciliation, healing and democracy at work in Pakistan. Which of course is for the benefit for people who know nothing about Pakistan.
If you see Gilani the Prime Minister, what has not been mentioned in the Washington Post pieces about his exciting and democratic election, is that he not only served under the parliament of the dictator Zia al Haq [Pakistan’s military dictator from 1977 to 1988 until his assassination], but he also served under the Majlis of Shura council of Zia al Haq, an Islamic council or parliament that Zia had created which he filled with his most trusted and closest advisors. A former crony if you will, or certainly a political worker of Zia al Haq, now stands in Parliament as a Prime Minister of the PPP, whose founder [Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father] was killed by Zia. These are all fiefs. Historical amnesia in Pakistan doesn’t even have to extend that far, it just goes back 20 years. That’s how far you have to go to check Gilani’s political history.
Certainly he’s been placed there because he’s a “yes man”, he has no ideological attachment to the People’s Party, certainly the party that was founded by Zulfiqar Bhutto. However, I’m sure he worked just fine with Benazir and Zardari’s people. But this has become a charade concerning Zardari’s cases. What the NRO does is that those cases with Zardari no longer have to happen under the table – now they can happen over the table.
ALI: You’ve said publicly that you hold Benazir Bhutto “morally responsible” for the assassination of your father [Murtaza Bhutto shot outside his house in Karachi, Pakistan in a police ambush in 1996.] We now know the police had a direct role in the murder, including blocking traffic and delaying the ambulances as well dragging the investigation. Do you specifically blame your aunt and Asif Zardari for your father’s assassination? Pointing fingers at your aunt and Zardari is a bold claim no?
BHUTTO: As you said we know for a fact that the police pulled the trigger. Some very high level police officers were at the scene of the murder – they placed themselves there. Who authorized the police to stage a private killing of an elected member of the Assembly and coincidentally the Prime Minister’s brother? I always said Bhutto bears moral responsibility for my father’s murder because if you look at her last government in the mid 90’s it presided over thousands of deaths in Karachi. Bhutto used the police force to attack her critics and opponents.
The police were given orders by the Prime Minister’s office to clean up Karachi. They went after the ethnic Muhajir community, a community that came from India [after 1947’s partition], and is primarily Urdu speaking and the MQM party, which is the party that represents them. They were attacked in “Operation Clean Up”, which was as genocidal as it sounds. I mean the police were empowered by the Prime Minister’s office to setup torture cells and assassination squads. It was as simple as the police stop you, they ask for your ID card, and if you don’t have a Sindhi name, if you have a Muhajir name then you’re shot on spot. There were thousands of these daily murders. The MQM were targeted primarily because they opposed Bhutto and primarily because they were a sticking point in the province of Sindh where she got most of her votes and power from. My father was a very vocal critic of the corruption by Benazir and Asif and these extra judicial killings. And he was one man out of thousands that was killed by her government.
So, absolutely she created an environment of organized and sanctioned violence against political figures. None of these cases were solved. None of these cases were seriously looked into. The police were allowed to attack with immunity and were covered by the law. Secondly, I pointed the finger at Benazir because her role in the cover-up was substantial. While we don’t know if she signed the death warrant her self, while we know she wasn’t there to pull the trigger, we also know certain things. After the murder my family wasn’t allowed to file a first information report [F.I.R.], which is a police report that is every Pakistani’s right by law. Our family was denied the right to file an F.I.R. We had to go the high court of Sindh to have our legal rights awarded to us.
Secondly Bhutto’s government arrested the witnesses and the survivors to the assassination but not the police, they were not arrested, they were all internally cleared in a review, and they were honorably reinstated to their job, and they were promoted. One member of the police force who at the time headed the intelligence bureau that directly reported to the Prime Minister’s office, after the murder he was asked by Benazir to join the Central Committee of her Party. That sounds like a reward really. It doesn’t sound like a punishment. It was a very honored position to be given.
Third, the Benazir government didn’t allow us to push forward with a criminal case. They elected to have a tribunal which was to have no legal authority to pass a sentence. It was essentially a stalling mechanism. However the judges chosen were very well respected members of the community. The tribunal concluded three very important things, but unfortunately they were unable to act on these conclusions.
First, it was an assassination. Forensically, they concluded only the police fired ammunition; it wasn’t a shoot out. Second, they concluded that the police used an excessive amount of force, that they stopped traffic, they didn’t take the injured men to hospitals, and they dropped them off at clinics but not to emergency wards. And third, they concluded the assassination couldn’t have happened without approval from the highest level of the government. At the time what was higher than Benazir’s post as Prime Minister?
ALI: Many say that the bad blood between your late father and Asif Zardari points the blame at the latter. Do you think that’s pure speculation or accurate?
BHUTTO: We have to take into account my father was very vocal about Asif’s role in Benazir’s government. He was outspoken about his corruption and about the manner in which he and his friends essentially hijacked the government. He was given positions like the Minister of Investment, which is almost ridiculous to place in the hands of a man who has corruption cases leveled against him. Asif Zardari certainly with his wife took the party in a direction that rendered it completely unfamiliar in its original form. A party that was founded on the ideals of social justice, land reform, provincial empowerment, and economic empowerment became under Benazir and Asif’s control the party of feudal landlords. It became a party of the industrial class, these oligarchs that control industry in Pakistan, and it no longer is a party for the disposed and disenfranchised. It’s become a club, a club for the rich and famous and criminally inept. My father was very critical about this, of course he represented a threat politically to Benazir. He spoke truth to the power in that case, and it was certainly very threatening.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this is not the only murder case leveled against Asif Zardari. There’s the case of the high court judge as I mentioned. There was a case of the steel mill chairman as well. Asif was a man at the time in power who was not used to hearing no, he was used to getting what he wanted. He received “10%” during Benazir’s first government and he became Mr. 50% during the second. Nothing ran in Pakistan without Asif’s approval, and I don’t imagine that this would have changed very much now. Again we see him at the helm of power pulling the string of the Prime Minister and Parliament.
ALI: If you’ve been reading the Western media’s coverage of Pakistan, you’ll know your late aunt, Benazir Bhutto, was heralded as the “beacon of democracy.” Some others state she was merely a shameless self-promoter. What was the reality, and why did the United States want so much to project her as this beacon of democracy?
BHUTTO: When people do their bidding for the U.S., they become beacons of democracy. The U.S also, I believe, thought Pinochet of Chile was a beacon of democracy at one time; they heralded Taliban as freedom fighters in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. Let’s not forget they supported Saddam Hussein until he became inconvenient then they toppled him. The Shah Of Iran was also a great friend of America. So I think it’s perfectly obvious why America would choose to support Benazir: she was willing to do their bidding for them. Here was a politician who was certainly corrupt if not financially then certainly ethically, and who had lost, through the years, the necessary ground support to bring her to power any more. That’s why she needed backers like those in The White House.
Before she came back to Pakistan, she gave a number of very controversial statements. She said that once re-elected Prime Minister for the third time, which she assumed – in the way feudal dynasts do – was a given, that she would open up Pakistan’s borders for U.S. troops to stage operations in their War on Terror. Now that statement is not pro American, that statement is anti Pakistani. But those were the lengths she was willing to go to please those pulling the strings. It was Condi Rice who basically pushed Musharaff’s arm to deal with Benazir and said, “Look, you need a pretty face in the government, we can’t keep supporting open dictators. We can support you and give you millions of dollars of aid provided you look sort of like a democracy. It’s not the ‘70’s anymore.”
Purely looking at Benazir’s record, Wajahat, we have to conclude she was not a beacon of democracy. In her first government, she came into power by dealing with the military, through dealing with Zia’s military. She would’ve been his Prime Minister, and she was very fortunate that he was killed before that. It’s worthwhile mentioning General Zia assassinated Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, her father, and abrogated the 1973 constitution. When Benazir won the 1988 elections the army said to her, “Look we will invite you to be Prime Minister, but we will choose your cabinet for you and your foreign minister for you. And, you have to continue on with the IMF and World Bank loan agreements that we have taken on, and they have to be carried forward without any argument.” And she agreed and compromised with the army in ’88.
If we look at her first government which lasted two years, Benazir’s government failed to pass any major legislation – and by any major legislation I mean any legislation. Instead, you’ve got a woman Prime Minister popularly elected who did not remove the Hudood Ordinance, which is the most violent piece of legislation against women and minorities in Pakistan. It is a part of Zia’s legacy. It says if a woman commits adultery or engages in sexual relations before marriage she can be stoned to death. It’s a completely draconian law. The Bhutto government didn’t even attempt to remove the Hudood.
She was ousted in 1990 on large-scale corruption charges. She comes back to government in ’93, which is now known for continued corruption on a major level. We’re talking billions. Two to three billon dollars worth of corruption cases about money stolen from Pakistan’s Treasury. They were also known for major flagrant human rights violations, for the extra judicial killings targeted against the ethnic Muhajirs and political dissidents. To top it off, before falling out of power, she recognizes and provided support for the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Her interior minister used to call the Taliban “my boys.” And Benazir has basically admitted in interviews “Look we made a mistake with Afghanistan. Whoops, I didn’t know. Please forgive me.”
This is her record. During her last government, six Sindhi papers were shut down because they were critical. There was no freedom of press, no freedom of political difference. Her record is not just violence, but also distinctly undemocratic. So, we come out of that and ask, “What did she do afterwards?” She leaves the country and she comes back and makes a deal with a dictator.
She makes a deal with Musharaff and asks for three things: First, the NRO and for [the pardon of] her corruption cases and her friends, which distinctively cover her and not other figures, from the start of her power till the end, from 1986 till now. She asks for the NRO. Secondly, she asks that the Constitution be changed so that the Prime Minister can have more than two terms. Now, most functioning democracies have limits on the powers for the Prime Minister and President. Benazir was asking this be removed so she could return to power for the third time, a personal request. And the third request was to remove Article 58-2b, which allowed the President to depose his Prime Minister without the sanction of Parliament. By removing the Article, it doesn’t empower the people, the democratic institution, the parliament; it simply shifts power from the President to the Prime Minister. Again, that’s a deeply personal sort of request.
For Benazir coming back for a third shot at power, it’s remarkable she didn’t ask for the 1973 Constitution to be restored, or she didn’t say drop the Hudood, or she didn’t ask for the thousands of people that have disappeared since Musharaff came into office. The only legislation she asked for was concerning her own person. Her record is one that is deeply flawed, deeply, deeply flawed. It’s no more democratic than the Shah of Iran or General Pinochet.
But, however, I think it’s this continued sort of racism in the West and this need for expediency to push Benazir forward. Here is this woman that speaks beautiful English and she went to the best schools the West could offer. And she is compliant, and she was a pretty face for this idea of a democracy, this sort of transposed democracy they were planning to put up in Pakistan. I don’t think the US government has dealt with Pakistan any differently than they do with other similar countries they intervene in. Certainly the media, and this is important to note, was remarkably irresponsible in their covering Benazir before she was coming back to Pakistan.
There were these fawning articles written about what a horrible life she had, how attractive she was, how she went to Oxford, who her friends in Washington and London were. It didn’t say much about her record, or her time in government. Ultimately, that’s what she is accountable to – her record.
ALI: Western media portrays Pakistan as a hotbed of “rage boys” – yet fundamentalist parties only win a minority of seats. Nonetheless, we see an explosion of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks this past year. This makes it hard for U.S. and the world to hear the age-old tale “Hey, we Pakistanis are peaceful.” If you could control the Western media’s depiction for one day – what would you show as the modern day reality of Pakistan?
BHUTTO: Wow. Well, that would be a very heavy day. I think when we talk about things like Islamic radicalism or Islamic extremism in Pakistan, the one thing Western media is really good at is showing the really scary side: men with beards burning things and bombing things. They de-contextualise them. They leave them completely floating in this space of terror and violence. One thing I’ve never seen in the media explanation as to why Islamic fundamentalists have become powerful in Pakistan is the following. In most of this country, you see no evidence of the government in rural areas. They are completely an invisible force, either reluctant or unwilling to provide the most basic needs for people in this country. So what happens in these places, Islamic organizations will come in and set up madrassas. So if there’s no other option for a family to have their child educated, how do you convince a family not to send their child to a religious school, a madrassa? You can’t. You don’t. You have no right to. Of course not all madrassas are bad, and we have to distinguish between good and bad madrassas In the Western media, madrassa is followed by jihad or training camp, and that’s certainly not the case.
After the 2005 earthquakes, which was incredibly devastating with tremendous destruction, what you saw when you went to these areas hit by the earthquake, you saw aid coming from foreign countries, foreign flags flying, and you saw the Jamaat and Islamic parties and organizations building tents and rehabilitations centers. You didn’t see anything from the Pakistan government. I would put that in the newspaper for the day. I think also the thing that happens in the Western media is that they have set the bar incredibly low for countries like Pakistan. That speaks to this sort of – I don’t know what the word is - one could call it Orientalism, neo-colonialism or imperialism – let’s just call it imperialism. Part of imperial thinking is to denigrate the people you are lording over, and say these are very simple people and so we must come and help them. The Western media does this constantly with Pakistan, for example, after the elections, they said, “Oh, only 20 people were killed that’s very good for Pakistan!” No, that’s not good or okay for Pakistan! 20 people or 200 people, it doesn’t matter, this is still 20 people, it’s still violence on Election Day.
You also had Joe Biden and John Kerry come in and say, “Oh, for Pakistan this was incredibly free and fair elections.” No! For no country was this free and fair elections, but the bar has been placed so low in the Western media. When there’s two suicide bombings instead of five, the media says, “Whoa! Things are booming in Pakistan.”
There are so many things the Western media leaves out, sorry for going on like this. The Western media paints this picture of economic progress in Pakistan, you know 10 billion dollars of aid, this country is moving forward, they are allies on the War on Terror, they are receiving foreign investments and so forth.
The idea that The New York Times would say these things that Pakistan is booming under Musharaff – everything is wonderful and everything is great. But what they don’t print is that the growth they speak of is this very small pool. Like 20 families that have always done well in Pakistan and have continued to do well. If you look at the majority of the population, it’s become too expensive to eat in this country in parts of Punjab and Sindh. The price of bread, which is a staple in the Pakistani diet, went from 2 rupees to 18 rupees. The price of flour, wheat is just enormously high in this country.
ALI: War on terror has produced kidnappings, battery and even outright attacks on Pakistani people by Pakistan’s army in its hunt for Bin Laden. A lot of times we see disappearances of activists and professors in the Balochistan province. Describe this scene to us and explain if this, at all, is linked to the blowback we see via suicide bombs in Pakistan?
BHUTTO: It started off in the same way that you see with American military involvement in a lot of countries under the guise of fighting terror or protecting interests, they’d come in, say so and so has terror links, and they’d take them to Guantanamo. However, the Pakistani government, once the American government stopped shipping people to Guantanamo with enthusiasm, decided this was a very convenient way to deal with their problems. In Balochistan Province you have anywhere between five to eight thousand people disappeared – that’s an incredibly high number. As you said they are activists, professors, political workers, poets, they are picked up and taken and for no reason. Their families don’t know where they are; we don’t discuss this in the media.
You know Pakistan doesn’t have a history of suicide bombing, but certainly does have a violent political history, but we never had suicide bombings. But this recent slate of suicide attacks against the state, but also politicians, in crowded places, in parks and outside eateries – several things here need to be mentioned. If you look at the suicide operations that happened in Sri Lanka or Palestine or Lebanon, you always have a testimony or evidence by the suicide bomber before he kills himself. You know, “I am so and so and I am killing myself for this reason.” And then afterwards you have family members who come and explain. In Pakistan, there is a bomb blast, many people die, we are told there was suicide bomber but he is now dead. Who is this suicide bomber? We never get the names of the suicide bomber, we never get a testimony or explanation, and we rarely get a picture. We never hear the background to this man, who he was, what his family thinks, does his family think he was guilty of suicide bombing or not?
The government then conveniently says look we promise we will provide some justice for people who lost their lives in these attacks and justice will be provided and the man who did it is killed and oh well. I mean the troubling part is how easily suicide bombings are used and how readily they are accepted; there is no questioning anymore. Everything is done now through the machinery of suicide bombing, and if we assume they are genuine attacks that are not manipulated in any way, they are incredibly aggressive, and they have grown more aggressive every year. This year we have Lahore hit thee times, which is the capital of Punjab, which is the safest province in the country. It has perfectly running water and most of the army comes from Punjab. But they’ve been hit three times. It’s an alarming rate. We have to connect this to the growing civil war in Pakistan, which started off in the tribal areas and moved near the capital and is coming into the country. This is the war against the government, which I think might have started off as a reaction against the War on Terror and American involvement, but I think now it’s very much concentrated against the state of Pakistan.
ALI: Musharaff seems to have slipped under the radar. What’s his role in Zardari’s new PPP controlled Pakistan? The U.S. still backs Musharaff, however, and he is still President. What’s his future?
BHITTO: So long as there’s an American occupation of Afghanistan, Musharaff will remain viable and indispensable. He has played his cards badly inside the country. He has lost a lot of control and power within the country. He picked General Kiyani to replace him as Chief of Army, but the word is that the army has had enough of Musharaff and he has brought on loss of respect for the armed forces. Personally, I think his role in the next government is to wait and watch. He has enabled this government to come forward and perhaps quite wisely. This is the government that has to deal with price inflation, greenage shortages; it has to deal with a civil war that is brewing across the country, which is no longer in the tribal areas. This is the government that has to deal with renewed American strength in Pakistan. We’ve seen since 2008 a tremendous amount of American air strikes, and they are reported as having great accuracy and tremendous precision, but it is never explained to us who is allowing the Americans to come in almost directly and conduct their business on Pakistan soil. So this government has to deal with a de facto American invasion and occupation of parts of Pakistan.
I think Musharaff prefers that these other politicians and parties deal with that, while he sits on the sidelines and waits for them to fail. But the question is will they allow him to do this and have any part of it? Will he have any future once this government disintegrates? I think that is looking increasingly unlikely as time goes by.
ALI: Islam permeates the cultural and political psyche of Pakistan’s society. What should Islam’s role be in modern day Pakistan, from a political level and from a grass roots socio-cultural level as well?
BHUTTO: This is an Islamic republic of Pakistan, but it was founded in its inception not as an Islamic state but rather as a state for Muslims. We’ve seen Islam used as a means of oppression, under Zia for example, the Hudood Ordinance was brought in as a piece of Islamic law, but has no connection to Islamic law. Islam as a religion has given women a tremendous amount of rights. Certainly, it was very progressive in its treatment of women at that time, and if you look at other religions, Islam is one that gives women the right to divorce and the right to property. But the laws of Hudood do not reflect the progressive side of Islam. I think when you bring in religion into the equation you ultimately use it to silence people and use it as a means to scare people into submission. Unfortunately, that’s what happened in this country, you cannot say please remove the Hudood Legalisations which is extraordinarily offensive to women, because it’s seen as Islamic legislation and it would be seen as blasphemous to ask to remove an Islamic piece of the law.
Ultimately, Islam in Pakistan has to be private, it has to be followed individually. This is a country that has four very distinct provinces. We have a minority presence in this country as well. We have Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, we used to have Jews. Part of this diversity, certainly cultural diversity and linguistic diversity, and anything that seeks to close off anything different, to cut off people and make them more exclusive – it’s going to be difficult to absorb in a country as diverse as Pakistan. For the most part it’s always been harmonious in its diversity. Islam plays a very large part in people’s life, in the psyche and the culture as you said.
But in Sindh, Islam is seen through the Sufi tradition, and has many followers here, which is certainly very different from the Wahabbi Islam, which is trickling down from Afghanistan and is funded by Saudi money. Preferably, Sufi Islam is much better than Wahabbi Islam. But you can’t impose one kind of Islam on a nation of people, so it’s better to be private.
ALI: You’ve lived under the microscope of infamy and scrutiny. That’s been your life. Now, as you’re becoming more vocal and visible, it’s going to continue. How do you cope with it? Does it ever become normal, or is it something you learn to deal with?
BHUTTO: I live in one part a public life because of my family and because people imagine you’re fair game. That I don’t relish at all. That is bizarre and uncomfortable. But through my writings and my speaking out, I think it’s so necessary, because if you’re being too quiet, then you are doing the government’s job for them. I’m not interested in helping any government quiet dissent. I think it makes it important to keep speaking out and speaking about Pakistan and what life is like here and what the government has done to this country. It’s so we don’t forget. Milan Kundera has said, and I think this is so true, he said, “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” And for places like Pakistan that are violent and are repressive through authoritarian rule, whether military or civilian elected, what we have in a lot of these countries is we have our words and our memories. The minute you surrender that I think it’s game over. That balances out the uncomfortable-ness or discomfort rather of having to be seen and noticed in the public.
ALI: What’s the future for Fatima Bhutto? A political Bhutto? A journalist? A writer- poet – politician? What have you decided now at the age of 25?
I’m not interested in going into politics, they always smile at me and say, “Wink wink, nudge nudge, just kidding, but no, really, what’s the real answer?” I always tell them I’m not saying no or yes or saying no for now, but maybe next year. If the situation were different, then my answer would be different. But the environment is not different; this is the environment we live in. For me to go into politics would be to perpetuate a system I don’t believe in. A system of dynastic rule and perpetuate a system of personalities.
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
ALI: Benazir Bhutto was assassinated over a month ago; a suicide bomber near Peshawar killed 13 people this week; two officials with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission were kidnapped and a Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan disappeared at the Khyber Pass, and you have General elections in a week. Is the Economist correct in proclaiming Pakistan “the most dangerous nation on Earth,” or is that an overblown statement?
COLL: Well, something is afoot in Pakistan that is really dangerous for Pakistanis. There is a real insurgency coming out now that the country has never experienced before, and it’s aimed at the Pakistani state and it’s gaining ground. It’s been cooking up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for a long while, certainly in the last several years it’s been gathering strength.
The more recent expansion of the insurgents into mainland provinces has particularly been in the North West Frontier Province; it’s a really striking change. I’ve been coming and going to Pakistan for over 20 years and traveled in the Frontier, and it’s different now. I don’t think the insurgents are anywhere near a path to seizing power in Pakistan. Although, you can’t rule out the possibility that they won’t be able to organize some coup attempt in the next 3 or 4 years. But it really isn’t encouraging because they’ve been gaining, and the State has been losing in some of these areas.
ALI: Many people in America don’t know about the four different provinces of Pakistan. You’ve spent significant time in the two northern provinces, the NWFP and Balochistan regions, bordering Afghanistan. Explain to me why these provinces, more than any other, are susceptible to hard line, extremist ideologies and personalities? Why is this an impossible region to not only reform but also infiltrate either via Pakistani or American military forces?
COLL: Well, it’s been the site since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since 1979, there has been a deliberate buildup, first with American and Saudi support and then later with the Pakistani army in the lead, to build up Islamist militias that have been equipped, armed, and funded to fight guerilla wars in Afghanistan. The accumulative effects of these programs in these border regions have radicalized and spread Islamist ideology and empowered radical clerics in places where they didn’t hold such unrivaled powers in the past.
These are areas, especially in the NWFP area in particular, dominated by tribally organized Pashtuns who are very conservative, very independent people who have a long history of governing themselves and rejecting outside influences – this dates back to the [British] Imperial period. Their societies, while very conservative in the cultural sense, hadn’t been as radicalized by international Islamist trends as they have now, and that’s a result of the 25 years of war fighting as much as anything else.
So, the Pakistani state in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in particular was not very much present and that was by a constitutional design. It’s difficult for any government of Pakistan to suddenly decide to take these places over; where no imperial power has ever succeeded in doing so, and where the Pakistani state’s bargain was it would govern from a distance.
You know it’s very interesting that you hear in the FATA now that there’s quite a lot of appetite to be integrated into Pakistan. This is not a backwards place, although it is very poor and very isolated and its social and health indicators are very low. But, it is affected by globalization just like any other place in the world. They have uncles in Dubai and in the Gulf, and they are ready to be a part of Pakistan, many people are, but how do you pull that off politically? I don’t know.
ALI: You’re this American, white journalist going into the tribal regions of the NWFP in Pakistan. What were your experiences with these Pakistanis? Were they mistrusting, or open and hospitable?
COLL: Pakistan is a very hospitable place. I feel very comfortable there. I recognize that I might not recognize, in any kind of Danny Pearl way, where I had crossed into some territory that’s not hospitable. I think I’d be the last person to notice it. But, I try to be careful in the sense I’m always with the people who I know and trust and I trust they won’t betray me. I’ve never had any trouble.
But, I would say what’s happening from a foreign journalist point of view is that you wouldn’t really want to run into any Algerians, Uzbeks, or Saudis, they won’t be hospitable [in Pakistan’s NWFP.] And they are likely to execute you. There’s a new generation of younger Taliban who seem willing to kidnap and in some cases execute some people whom they consider to be apostates. That would certainly include white skinned foreigners like me. Mostly, it’s trying to stay out of the way of this international brigade.
ALI: Let’s talk about the triptych relationship between the Pakistani Taliban, Afghanistan, and the United States. How has the Taliban made such a resurgent comeback in the Afghanistan – Pakistan region and what does this, if at all, speak of our Anti-terrorism and Iraq war efforts? Is this what you’d call a blowback or instead an independent phenomenon germinating on its own in that region?
COLL: I think it’s a combination of a failure of American foreign and counter terrorism policies that I think the Bush Administration, reluctantly, would acknowledge. Now the Pakistani state is directly threatened by Islamist forces the Bush Administration thought they had under control after the fall of the Afghan Taliban.
I think the cause of the Pakistani Taliban emergence has a lot of factors contributing to it. There is American policy and our blind support of President Musharaff, who turned out to be an ineffective leader of counter insurgency and pacification efforts in Pakistan – that was one mistake.
Musharaff’s rejection of plural politics, his inability to find partners in Pakistani democracy was another failure of his and of American support for him. I think the President’s Administration and the U.S. was really distracted by the Iraq War and really stopped paying attention [to Pakistan] until things reached a crisis.
As you know, big government has got a lot of funding, lot of people going to work every day thinking of foreign policy, but it’s remarkable how the Iraq War has drawn off so much of the capacity of the United States, not just financial and physical capacity such as the number of vehicles and uniforms, and blankets, but, it’s the attention span of the government. Every day, every meeting, the whole machinery of the Administration is drawn towards Iraq. As a result, this problem drifted, and if Musharaff had turned out to be a brilliant and effective partner then the fact the United States was so badly distracted would not matter so much. As it was, however, Musharaff was losing his grip on the country at the same time the Bush Administration was distracted with the war.
ALI: Let’s talk about these upcoming elections. Reports are surfacing that the PPP’s Zardari [Benazir Bhutto’s husband] and Nawaz Sharif [Pakistan’s former Prime Minister who returned in the fall from exile] are talking of a united front against Musharraf’s allies. What is the likely outcome of this election? Will it be free and fair? What’s the pulse of the people and will the elections represent their desires?
COLL: The best evidence about the last question is provided by the most recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, which despite its name is pretty non partisan, civil society oriented, polling organization, who have polled pretty consistently in Pakistan. While polling is not a perfect science or art, as Americans have realized in this election season, it’s probably a pretty good approximation of public opinion in Pakistan. And Pakistanis are political creatures, and I think they know what they’re saying when they express their opinions.
By and large what it shows is an enormous amount of support for the PPP [Bhutto’s party] at about 50%, a number higher than I would’ve guessed. It shows PML-Nawaz [Nawaz Sharif’s party] at about 20-30% and shows PML-Q [Musharaff’s allies] way down, I mean, less than 20%. Musharaff’s personal popularity is at an all time low.
What’s important about the poll is that it sets a benchmark by which the results will be measured by the Pakistanis themselves. If the results are way out of line with what that poll shows then the inference will be obvious that a “fix” was put in. But, it also puts a lot of pressure on Musharaff’s government not to permit manipulations that produce results that are way out line with this polling. That’s why it’s clever of whoever scheduled the polls to essentially bracket this election with this information.
I think it must be discouraging and frustrating for Musharaff’s political allies that they have in fact fallen so low. And how they will react to that predicament and how their supporters in the military and intelligence bureaucracy will react is the big question for the next week or two.
I think they’ve been watching what’s happening in Kenya and they know that an illegitimate election that is rejected by a party as large and street oriented as the PPP could be a dangerous event. One hopes they will let the elections go forward. There is always, of course, rigging in Pakistani elections, as it is in India elections, when it comes to the local levels. Candidates figure out how to get 500 people together, put them in a bus, drive them around, and make them vote 10 times. You can’t have a perfect election. But, you need to have an election where those types of local manipulations are awash at the end of the day, and you have a result that is at least broadly responsive to public opinion.
ALI: Is Musharaff going to step down if he loses? Or, will he pull some dictatorship card and declare a State of Emergency again? What do you think he’s going to do?
COLL: I don’t know, but he has secured his 5-year Presidential term even though the next National Assembly is likely to reject that and agitate. That’s what he used the State of Emergency to do in the fall; it was to say, “Hey, I’m around, and you’re going to have to deal with me.” Even if he, essentially, allows his civilian political allies to go down in this election, he’d be tempted to keep himself in power as civilian president by negotiating with PPP’s Zardari. And, this is a cynical point of view that Musharaff and his people around him believe that Zardari is a guy “we can do business with.” [Zardari] has a reputation for being opportunistic in the past, and “we’ll” [Musharaff and his allies] be able to figure out a way to give him what he wants, the cabinets that he wants, give him the access to government that he wants, and by that “we’ll” buy some peace.
But by now, I think Zardari knows that’s his reputation. So, he may decide he’ll defy Musharaff and play it a different way by forcing Musharaff’s resignation. But, I think he’ll be under a lot of pressure from his colleagues in his party to come up with an approach that, first of all, the international community regards as responsible. Second of all, that gives his senior party people access to government, because they’ve been out of power for a long time, and they’re hurting.
So, I think Musharaff could figure out a way to hang on with the PPP government. I hope not in the sense that I feel his unpopularity is so strong that it is a source of instability for the country. And I think if he loves Pakistan as much as he says he does, if he wants to defend its integrity and promote its prosperity as much as he says it does, he really ought to get out of the way at this point.
ALI: I want to talk about Bhutto’s assassination. We heard a lot here in U.S. that she was the best and only hope for a democratic reform in Pakistan. You have an interesting quote in your most recent New Yorker article describing your last meeting and conversation with Benazir. You wrote:
“This was vintage Benazir: perfect pitch liberalism and at the same time, formulation barely distinguishable from the American foreign policy of the moment.”
So, questions, what was American foreign policy in regards to promoting Bhutto in Pakistan, and was this alleged relationship with the United States the cause of her untimely death?
COLL: The answer to the first part of the question is that the Bush Administration in particular wanted to use Bhutto to save Musharaff – initially. I think the aggregate effect of the policy was a way to use her as way to shore up Musharaff rather than to develop a more broadly based approach to democracy promotion in Pakistan. She allowed herself to play that role. Her primary interest wasn’t pleasing the Bush Administration; it was her interest to return to power and return to Pakistan. She saw herself as using the U.S. in order to achieve her goals and the goals of her party. But, it was an instrumental relationship in the sense that it was dominated by how each party could use the other to accomplish their own goals, rather than a deep and sustainable approach to trying to revitalize Constitutional democracy in Pakistan
Did this kill her? There were lots of things going on at the same time as I described in my New Yorker article. But, I mean the ambivalence the United States had about her, the mixed feelings they had about her, did, I think, contribute to the lack of security she had at the ground. Americans would say things like, “How could you hold us responsible for her security? After all, we did everything we could to warn her about the threats she would face! We met with Musharaff and asked him repeatedly to provide security and so forth.”
Ok, those are reasonable defenses, but I really don’t think it is entirely convincing. Because when the United Stated wants to protect the leader of an ally government who might not be able to protect him or herself, it gets the job done. Look at the government in Iraq, in the context of the suicide bombings, most of the national leaders have remained safe and the United States has played an instrumental role in devising security regimes that have kept them safe. Yes, they [the leaders] end up isolated in many cases, but they’re safe.
ALI: Karzai for example. [Hamid Karzai the President of Afghanistan.]
COLL: Karzai –an even better example! I mean Karzai was flanked by American military bodyguards for a long while and then they handed him off to diplomatic security services, and the United States still plays a crucial role in keeping him safe. Well, one can say,
“he is an elected leader of a country who made a request to the head of a government, that’s different with the case of an opposition leader [like Bhutto.]”
I mean, come on, if you really wanted to get it done, if it was really an urgent priority, I think the United States could’ve done more. I think it’s entirely reasonable for Bhutto’s family, friends, allies, and supporters to feel aggrieved that the United States did not do more to ensure she had the basic, technical security of someone, who took the physical risks she was taking, deserved.
ALI: Who do you think killed Bhutto? She named some names before her death and ultimately blamed Musharraf about his indifference in an earlier prescient email to her friend essentially foreshadowing her death. What’s the evidence suggesting who killed her?
COLL: Of course an obvious answer to the question is that a suicide attacker killed her and that suicide attacker was almost certainly Al Qaeda, or Pakistani Taliban, or some affiliated sub-cell that seems to be a Pakistani national, but we don’t really know.
It isn’t who was at that moment standing in front of her ready to detonate an explosive device to assassinate her. That isn’t the most important question. The real question is how did that attacker reach her? By what safe houses? By what logistical support? With what money? From what camp? What is the circumstances surrounding that camp? Who is aware of the existence of that camp? To what extent has the Pakistani State, at any level, been involved in protecting the organization from which that suicide bomber arose?
I think those are questions she had in her mind after she was first attacked in Karachi. It was, in a way, an accurate forecast of her own death. She was killed by Al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban. But that isn’t the end of the story. I do think the Pakistani government themselves in their reaction harbored a guilty knowledge that they weren’t involved, almost certainly, in an active plan to kill her, but they were probably implicated by some of these contextual questions. So, they’ve been very careful in controlling the investigation. If it turns out that the camp from which this particular suicide bomber emerged was in fact known to the army, or had in the past collaborated with the army, or did have an ISI [Pakistan’s Intelligence Agency] handler of some kind, then they don’t want an independent investigation to these types of questions.
ALI: Let’s talk about the power of the ISI and Pakistan’s military in dominating and spearheading the domestic and foreign policy of that country. Are they aligned with extremist, Anti-American members partial to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda? I mean the Red Mosque was just 1 mile away from ISI headquarters and it was stockpiled with weapons, so how could they miss it unless the ISI were somehow supporting the extremist students who took over the school? What’s your take on the ISI and the Military?
COLL: Certainly, there is no doubt that the ISI has a continuing relationship with some Islamist militant groups on Pakistani soil. The most obvious relationship is with the Kashmiri oriented groups, which still operate, more or less, openly. You have the Lakshe Tayyiba, which operates with its bank accounts; they have a big campus outside Lahore; they operate many, many offices around the country. Now, that’s not Al Qaeda, but it’s an organization whose members have sometimes overlapped with some of the groups in the West and some members of these groups were present in the Red Mosque [during the Red Mosque standoff between extremist students and Pakistan’s army leaving more than hundred, mostly students, dead.]. So, that’s the most obvious sort of collaboration.
There’s also no doubt that the ISI has continued to tolerate and protect the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar. Their relationship with the Afghan Taliban has bled with their relationship with the Pakistani Taliban. As to Al Qaeda, the smaller group of mostly Arab and Uzbek fighters who are led by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, I don’t think there is much evidence of a current relationship between ISI and Al Qaeda. There may be individuals within ISI who had such a relationship, but the institutional relationship isn’t too strong.
First of all, Al Qaeda is very suspicious of the ISI. They think ISI is an instrument of the Americans. Nobody who is trying to protect Osama bin Laden from getting caught is going to tell the ISI where he is. Just in historical terms, Al Qaeda’s relations with the ISI have been more indirect; they did collaborate on training camps for Kashmiri groups back in the early 90’s. It’s not anything like the relationship the ISI has with Kashmiri groups or some of the Taliban groups.
ALI: We have one of the most interesting elections in recent times with the tightly contested Democratic race between Obama and Clinton. We know now that McCain is all but sealed as the Republican nominee and he’s a hardliner who doesn’t mind if we’re in Iraq for another 100 years. Clinton also voted for the Iraq War and the strong resolution against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Obama, now infamously, took heat for saying he’d use military intervention in Pakistan if necessary. What should we expect any different in our foreign policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan if Clinton or Obama are elected President?
COLL: I think some of the answers are clear enough even though you wouldn’t be able to know it from the campaign trail. Overall, I don’t think you’d see a dramatic change. I think they would both attempt to rebalance U.S. aid to Pakistan to emphasize civil society, education, infrastructure, safer drinking water, poverty alleviation, alongside support they would continue to provide to the Army for specific operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They would attempt to support Constitutional democracy more explicitly than the Bush Administration did. They would be very skeptical about Musharaff and his role, but they wouldn’t force him out in some way that would look heavy handed. They would leave that to the Pakistani Army to decide. I don’t think they would offer the same rhetorical personal support for Musharaff that Bush has offered.
Overall, the basic idea will be that U.S. support for Pakistan is for the long run and we are not going to repeat this pattern of “coming and going;” that we’re going to build trust, we’re going to help the Pakistani Army defeat this insurgency. And, that we’re going to change strategy and not be so militaristic, but try to take a broader approach. That’s basically what both of them as Presidents would do.
There are some questions around the edges I’m not sure of. [There’s the question of] a return to policies of “conditionality of U.S. aid to the Pakistani Army”, where we would threaten to withhold aid to them if they didn’t do what we wanted. There’s been a debate whether or not that approach has been effective or not, and that approach has backfired in the past. But, there are many people, and I’m one of them, who think that the past policies of “conditionality of U.S.A aid” are so discredited in Pakistani eyes that you really ought to be cautious on using that method again. Because, you’re really going to anger everybody and not accomplish anything.
ALI: You have a book coming out on Bin Laden in the Spring [The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century], and I’m assuming you’ve spent significant time researching his history, politics, childhood and ideology. How does Bin Laden and others like Zawahiri, products of education and economic well-being, transform from a lanky, well intentioned son of a multi-millionaire to the most wanted terrorist on Earth? Is it accurate to simply think of him in black and white terms as a Jihadist superhero defending the oppressed, according to a few Muslims hardliners, or the Arab manifestation of the devil himself according to everyone else?
COLL: (Laughs.) He’s a really complicated figure. In some ways, he isn’t complicated because he’s so stubborn and not very self-reflective. As guerilla leaders go, he’s nowhere near as interesting as Che Guevara, or someone who murdered quite a lot of his own people like Mao. He’s kind of a one-note thinker and in that way he’s not very interesting. In many other ways, he’s fascinating because he’s a modern man. He grew up in a very modern setting. He was always around and interested in technology and the technologies of globalization whether they were telephones or satellite phones or airplanes and jets. All of the tools of modernity that we’ve all gotten so used to. He fully embraced them, but he just adapted them to a different cause.
After he went and fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, he developed a vision of himself as a leader. But, he might’ve just faded away if he hadn’t been this modern figure who knew how to use technology and build diverse coalitions around him. The other thing that is very interesting about him is the lesson his father provided him about diversity. His father ran these multi-ethnic, multi linguistic labor camps in the Arabian desert back in the day when he was building his fortune as a construction magnate. That’s very un-Saudi. Saudis tend to be very clan oriented, very concerned about genealogy and bloodlines, and very racialist, and I don’t want to say racist, but [they have] racialist concerns about racial profiles.
The Bin Ladens lived in multi ethnic, multi linguistic Jeddah, big, sort of, “men of Mecca,” in the sense of Mecca as a gathering place for the whole Muslim community in all its diversity. So, Bin Laden, much more than many of his Egyptian or other colleagues, was always comfortable with a many splendors of following: lots of different people, lots of different places, lots of different languages. He never exhibited bias towards people’s national origin or their social or economic status the way his colleagues did. That made him a great leader. That combined with his comfort with technology made him quite effective.
Of course in the United States, he is just seen as someone who lives in a cave, and I think that is a complete misunderstanding of his success.
ALI: Right, we think he’s just chilling and releasing music videos from Tora Bora Caves.
COLL: (Laughs.) Right, right.
ALI: So, what’s up with this guy, Bin Laden? Is he alive? Dead? Is he in the caves? I mean, where is he?
COLL: Yeah, I think he’s alive, I mean, he’s living where, more or less, everyone thinks he’s living which is up around the border, the territory around North Waziristan, where I guess he would spend some of his time and days. These are people he’s known for 20 years. This is his territory. He’s lived there for a long while. The area is deeply radicalized. It’s entirely Taliban country. So, he’s amongst friends. I think he moves around and probably very few people know where he is at any given moment, and the only people are those in his inner circle. But, he’s obviously in touch with Al Qaeda’s media operations to put these videos together. They obviously have enough comfortable space to operate in to pull these things off without getting caught.
ALI: You think anyone is going to catch him?
The history with these things is eventually somebody takes the money usually. In his case, people have been reluctant because he is seen as such a mystical figure, larger than life. In that part of the world, it’s sort of hard to act as individual if you are, essentially, known as the person that ratted out Osama Bin Laden, then your village, your family, and your clan is going to suffer even if you are going to end up in Arizona with 25 million dollars. So, it’s hard to motivate people to accept the reward money. But, usually, that’s how it ends, and that’s how it ends in the past. I think it’s sort of 50/50 whether someone will walk in and rat him out, or whether he’ll eventually just die of old age or some horrible disease of having to run around and hide all the time.
ALI: O.K., last question. A genie comes to you and says, “Coll, congratulations, you’re in charge of shaping U.S. policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan for a day. You’ve got 2 magic wishes in the form of policy changes you can make. Go for it.” What would you do to ensure the world doesn’t go up in flames in the next 10 years?
COLL: (Laughs.) First thing I’d do is invest in a stable Pakistani democracy. I think that’s the only way that Pakistan will realize its own potential. I think Pakistan has a lot of potential. Between what is likely to be India’s enormous economic and political success and with the money flowing to the Gulf these days, Pakistan is well positioned to develop a truly prosperous middle class, democratic, constitutional society where the army is still there, but like Turkey, it’s out of the way. I think the United States can adjust its policies so as to make that more likely; we can sure do a lot better than what we are doing now to facilitate it.
My second wish would be to take on the problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole. Right now, all of U.S. policy is stove piped as if these were two completely separate problems, but of course their destinies are tied up with one another. So, the United States, its allies, and its international partners and Europe should respond to this as it is: a regional problem. It’s going to be difficult to get it done. But, that’s a place to start anyway.
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at email@example.com
I’ll show you mine…
The result would be a National Assembly that would not be answerable to the military but to a democratic system. This is only the very, very, very beginnings of something, but it is better than the option of Musharraf retaining all political power according to the frustrated voices of Pakistanis wishing to see a democratic Pakistani system. Their voices are not being listened to. The worst possible situation of all is for there to be no election, or the candidates are simply the military’s chosen candidates or the military’s sympathetic coalition, the MMA, the religious coalition, which as we know only polled 12% of the vote in the last election.
Another reason her death is significant is that, in essence, it is a blow to a buoyant progressive movement. A lot of people will feel downtrodden, very pessimistic. It strengthens the military’s hand in Pakistan. Fear, chaos, and anarchy in Pakistan strengthen the military’s hand. It also plays very much in the military argument that democracy is young, incapable and juvenile even, and that only the military is the professional, solid entity that can hold together a fractured Pakistan. They create a false equation that goes like this: “Without the military, there would be chaos. Without the military, there would be an Islamic coup. Without the military, the nuclear assets of Pakistan may well fall into the hands of Jihadists – or parties and goals – antithetic to the West.” This is completely crass and a complete un-writing of the real situation in Pakistan.
The reality is that the military have, throughout, manipulated the Islamist vote. They have given succor, money, training, arms and political power to the Islamists and religious conservatives. They’ve brought them into the military coalition; they’ve used them against the military’s moderate, liberal opponents. In fact, if we look at Musharraf through hard objective facts, since 1999 virtually all facets of Pakistani life have gotten worse. The only facets that have not gone worse are due to the swamping of Pakistan by US money. When they talk of the Pakistani economy and economic growth being more buoyant, these are simply figures that are bent around the artificial situation of billions of dollars being pumped into Pakistan by America. [The US has given Pakistan more than 10 billion dollars of aid in the past 5 years.]
In effect, society has become far more radicalized, far less democratic, the institutions of democracy have been undone by the military. The military has become tremendously wealthy, tremendously unreliable even. The personal wealth of the top tier generals, I mean, each general has assets of more than 10 to 15 million dollars. If you look at the military businesses, they turned in a 10 billion dollar profit, which is the same size profit last year as the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. They’re a political class of their own, and their interests aren’t the same as the democratic movement of Pakistan.
Let’s talk in depth about Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, the ISI. First, from your research, how powerful are these agencies? If indeed they are powerful and pervasive, how could they not have known of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation activities [Abdul Qadeer Khan is known as the "Father of Pakistan's Nuclear Bomb," a Pakistani scientist and engineer who confessed to operating a nuclear proliferation program]? How can students who besieged Pakistan’s Red Mosque in July – which is sitting right in front of ISI agencies – be fully loaded with guns and ammunition? Are the ISI and military incompetent, or are they highly involved in the daily political happenings of Pakistan?
All the research shows, and all of my objective sources that include external agencies and former members of Pakistan’s military, that the nuclear proliferation activities of A.Q. Khan were effectively a state run policy. They evolved out of the desk of General Zia [Zia al Haq ruled Pakistan as a military dictator for 11 years] in August 1988, and they evolved in the knowledge that in 1988 the US made it clear as soon as the Soviets had left Afghanistan, all US aid would be cut off to Pakistan since Pakistan would not be needed anymore.
So, Pakistan was looking at two things: 1) The need to get hold of hard cash outside the monies they would now lose from the US, and 2) To generate a political presence of power that could stand up to US, since it could no longer be counted as a continuous, consistent, solid ally. The leadership of both the ISI and the military, after the death of General Zia, thought the best way to do this was to woo political allies through use and deployment of the country’s nuclear assets and to make hard cash by selling those assets. This is critical in understanding the motivation behind what happened to A.Q. Khan.
The ISI and military leaders sat down and had a meeting during the last 3 months of Zia’s life, and then after his death, the leader of the military, General Baig, and the leader of the ISI, Hamid Gul, sat down and discussed a term of defiance. Would it be a nuclear defiance, or an economic defiance? What was the best way of creating an Islamic movement that could stand up to US interference?
One thing to keep in mind is that the US very much created the grounds for this to happen. The US relationship in Pakistan has been feeble, a roller coaster, a feast and famine existence. America either loved Pakistan when it needed it politically, or it abandoned it when it didn’t. I want to throw forward one critical point to understanding this idea. If we can just look at the hard figures of US aid to Pakistan during every period of dictatorship in Pakistan, we see that US aid has been enormous, absolutely enormous. It has been bountiful: both “black” aid by the CIA and overt aid by Congress. And during the weak period of democracy in the 90’s when fledgling political parties in Pakistan tried to stand on their own feet, US aid only amounted to $1 million a year. America never tried to build a civil society, instead they’ve only supported dictatorships [in Pakistan.]
In your book you name names and state that at least 5 US presidents had knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions and could have taken a more proactive and competent approach in curbing what is now a volatile and potentially explosive situation. Let’s talk about America’s love- hate relationship with Pakistan. Originally, in the 70’s you mentioned US was loathe to have a nuclear Pakistan, however the State Department, especially in the 80’s, engaged in highly dubious, if not illegal, leaks of information and support to Pakistan to help them build nuclear technology. How complicit has the United States been in this deception? Who has been deceiving whom? How has US, if at all, helped Pakistan go nuclear and if so how does it benefit US foreign policy interests?
The critical time is 1979: the world changed. We have the Soviets invading Afghanistan, the Shah fleeing Iran, and Khomeini returning to lead the Islamic Revolution from Paris to Tehran. When that happened, American began to feel insecure suspecting a front against it that could expand to Asia. The feeling of Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski – and he lobbied for this in memos he wrote in 1979 – was that the gold standard of US should be shifted. No longer should emphasis be placed on human rights and non-proliferation, but these should be moved down the political agenda in order to court Pakistan anew and win it under our umbrella. Carter’s administration ran out of steam, but we see as soon as Reagan’s administration came in the White House, a huge number of moves from the State Department to the Pentagon were made to Pakistan to attract them to the table. Those offers were very clear: the information that has been released through the Freedom of Information shows meetings between Haig, the Secretary of State and other US officials saying, “We will not mind Pakistan having a bomb. That is not an issue for us now. We need to use them as a springboard for our support of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. We are prepared to set aside, or, not look at issues of the Pakistan bomb.”
In other meetings they were more overt and actually said, “just take it off our radar. Get the bomb program off our radar. Don’t embarrass us with it.” So, in terms of deception, it is a deception of the American people. The American people are being told that non-proliferation was the gold standard of the government, in fact, it wasn’t. Non-proliferation was sold down the river to woo Pakistan in this temporary relationship of 8 or 9 years. And Pakistan, of course then, having been armed and enabled by America that not just turned a blind eye but actively gave assistance to the program, having done that, America then turned its back on Pakistan in 1989-1990. Pakistan warned three US officials, “if you turn our back on us, we will sell our technology and Iran will be our first client.”
Now, that message was given to Norman Schwarzkopff at Central Command, it was given to Bob Oakley, the US Ambassador in Islamabad, and it was given to the Assistant Secretary of State in the Pentagon. All three were told and all three reported back. And, the decision was that Pakistan wasn’t needed now. The attention was on Gulf War 1, the attention was on the Middle East, so Pakistan was abandoned, and it did what it said it would do and began to sell its nuclear technology. We know through several interviews given by many people in the CIA and working in the Pentagon as analysts that active operations to prevent Pakistan from selling and procuring nuclear program were sabotaged from within the White House. It’s actually a question of enabling the program. Reagan’s administration enabled it, and Bush Sr.’s administration then basically turned their back on Pakistan in 1990 when the country was unstable, when democracy was weak, when the [Pakistani] civil society needed support from the US. So, it was an inevitable consequence that Pakistan would sell. Any claims that American had a progressive view towards nuclear technology wasn’t true. It was duplicitous. Pakistan was very much a victim of this, in essence. It was looking for consistency from US and never received it.
First, please explain the relationship of Musharraf and Bush post 9-11 and specifically how it relates to Pakistan’s nuclear capability and ambitions? Second, one argument is that Musharraf’s military dictatorship, although it is hardly labeled as such by the White House, must be supported out of necessity to ensure nuclear technology does not fall in the hands of extremists and al-Qaida. Basically, the line goes: if no Musharraf, then al-Qaida has a nuclear bomb. How legitimate is this threat and assertion?
It’s completely false, a completely false assertion put forward by two groups of people: a circle of neo-conservatives from the Vice President’s office and the Pentagon. They didn’t want to get involved in the messy business of building a democracy, and they did want to get involved with dealing with a dictatorship, because it is easier to talk down on the phone to a General than it was to talk about a messy democratic system. They were on the verge, before 9-11, in proclaiming Pakistan a terrorist state for supporting Al-Qaeda, for nuclear proliferation. In fact, if we look at all the facts, we had a military regime that was suppressing human rights, that was proliferating, that was supporting terrorism, that had a threatening link to 9-11. That was not Iraq. It wasn’t Iraq. There was only one country that ticked all of those boxes: Pakistan. And yet, a group of neo-cons around the President had an agenda that went back to 1992 and that agenda was Iraq. They thought Saddam should be the next suitable target. Consequently, all information on Pakistan were downscaled. Quite honestly, the greatest threat was instability in Pakistan, and yet that’s something American didn’t want to get involved with.
So, how legitimate is that claim that Pakistan’s nuclear program will allow itself to fall in the hands of Al-Qaeda or –
Absolutely impossible. It’s impossible for a weapon to be released. That just cannot happen. The Pakistani military have their own command and control structure, their own methods of dealing with it. It’s a fear story that is put forward to justify the support of the dictatorship. It’s a ludicrous argument.
The modern fear is that the “Axis of Evil” or rogue nations are stealthily obtaining nuclear technology. This charged is leveled against Iraq under Saddam, Iran’s new government, and al-Qaida sympathizers and Taliban. How credible is this allegation? Also, what is Pakistan’s role in helping these countries and agents achieve their goals?
The Pakistan military and intelligence agencies were selling to these countries, and they didn’t allow it to slip into the hands of the jihadists. The Pakistani military set up country to country deals They first offered all of their technology to Iraq, but Iraq didn’t believe the offer was genuine and thought it was entrapment, so they turned them down. Pakistan then went back to Iran and set up a relationship with Iran. Then, in 1993-1994, they did the same in their deals with North Korea. Those deals came from within the military and A.Q. Khan’s network was simply the proxy by which it happened. By 2002, we reached a situation where Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Saudi Arabia were all either in the position to be negotiating for or possessing nuclear technology. This was a government enterprise. Government carriers were used. Government transporter planes, ships, the Navy, and air force were used to transport. And A.Q. Khan was tracked at every stage by American intelligence until the end of the 90’s and beginning of the millennium. So, they began to know what he was doing. The picture that was portrayed in the intelligence was that this was a government enterprise and not simply A.Q. Khan.
A.Q. Khan is routinely painted as the “father of the Islamic bomb.” In fact, in 2004, he appeared live on television and claimed personal responsibility for nuclear proliferation and selling of information to “rogue governments.” Subsequently, he was pardoned but placed under house arrest by Musharraf, who feigned ignorance regarding nuclear black market deals happening under his nose. If what you just said is true, then how can one man, an elderly scientist no less, escape the scrutiny of his nation and international policing forces and freely deal nuclear technology? Why was he used as scapegoat?
A deal was done in 2003, because Pakistan had signed up on the “War on Terror” and was now a consolidated partner – the military was seen as a partner without whom the war could not be fought. So, they decided to absolve the reputation of the Pakistani military by finding a scapegoat: A.Q. Khan. If Khan would agree to stand up for this [nuclear proliferation], then no one else would interrogate him, no one else would be given access to him. And the whole deal would be dealt with within Pakistan. The military will be absolved, their military’s reputation protected and preserved, and they would continue to be an ally. So, Khan appeared on T.V. in 2004 in January and he gives his great speech, a mea culpa of “I, alone, along with a small band supporters did this grand enterprise,” and sure enough the next day he is pardoned. And the investigation is done later, 18 months later, written up by Musharraf. And a line was drawn under the affair.
Why do some people in Pakistan or “the Muslim world” consider A.Q. Khan to be a hero, whereas the rest of the world paints him as a criminal and nuclear proliferator? What explains this marked discrepancy in characterization?
In one sense, he is a hero: a man with relatively paltry means took a country that was, at that stage, under-equipped and created for it through his brilliant organization a sophisticated nuclear program. For which, you can have nothing but the highest respect in that he put together a massive enterprise run very efficiently. We can see quite reasonably why certain people would see him as a remarkable individual. He was betrayed very much by the military he worked for; he was sacrificed by them for very cynical political reasons.
In that sense, the military of Pakistan has been the enemy of the wider “Islamic” community. And Khan was seen as simply a dutiful assistant of Pakistan who loved his country and serviced that program with remarkable efficiency. A lot of people over-emphasized the money that Khan made, his individuals assets and etc., this is just part of a smear against Khan. He was mostly motivated by patriotism. He was mostly motivated by his desire to see Pakistan stand up to India. Mostly motivated by what he saw as a bigotry with the non proliferation act and bigotry with its enforcement which allowed Israel, for example, to develop a covert bomb with no word about it, and yet Pakistan couldn’t have one. The un-level playing field where countries like Israel, South Africa, Argentina and others could secretly acquire technology, and yet Pakistan was forbidden. So, one can understand why Khan was lionized and treated as a hero.
Pakistani patriots and supporters say India is nuclear and has fought several wars against Pakistan. Israel is an ally of India and it’s nuclear. Major Western countries are nuclear. Why should Pakistan be denied this same right? Isn’t it merely protecting its borders and sovereignty? What gives Western countries the right to have it and not Pakistan? Is this a legitimate question?
It’s a very, very good question. It’s a really good question. It’s the hardest question to answer. I think the problems have been created by the proliferation mainly with the situation with India. India did obtain a nuclear problem and it was de facto accepted. And when one reads the report from the State Department and Pentagon regarding this, they accepted that Pakistan is going to take this badly and it is an inequality that India will be accepted and the Pakistan program wouldn’t. That’s absolutely right.
But the major problem stepped in, because as we discussed before, America was slow to respond with any consistent regard to Pakistan, so Pakistan then went on and developed a proliferation system. This is brand new within nuclear history. Which other countries proliferated on the scale that Pakistan did, with the contempt that Pakistan showed both to organizations and to nation states? The [Pakistani nuclear] program may well have been accepted if it was not for the proliferation that created a situation in the international intelligence community; that just enraged them. When the deals were exposed, the extent, depth, and breadth of it, that basically created the movement to go after the Pakistan program. But, you’re right, there is a huge inequality in a way that system is administrated by the protectionist powers – that’s absolutely right.
The last question. We often see movies of the 50’s and 60’s depicting the Cold War hysteria – mushroom clouds, the Cuban Missile Crisis, children hiding under desks preparing for potential nuclear annihilation, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) situations and what not. Is this the vision of the world’s future? What can be done now via foreign policy or international organizations that can curb the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weaponry? Is it hopeless?
I think the most important thing of all, and it this comes back to your initial question, for most people who have the money, who have an interest, have the influence and interests to work towards creating a stable Pakistan. I think that really, really matters. I think a nuclear-free Middle East is desirable. Disarming Israel, assuming all the powers around it are disarmed, that idea will simply not be realizable. I don’t think Israel will be persuaded to do it. I think creating a progressive movement in Pakistan that itself will fight against terrorism, al-Qaida, and create a liberal, more secular consensus might be the answer. In order to do that, we have to support democracy over there. We have to honor the wishes of the majority of the Pakistani people who don’t want to live under military dictatorship. So, in America’s policy sense, it has to shift from the easy path of propping up generals and to the messy path of assisting countries in nation building. It needs to be consistent towards countries like Pakistan.
An uncertain future
The vast majority of Pakistani citizens, according to my friends and family who live there, lament the tragic actions of an extremist minority that continues to pollute and threaten the spirit, character, and personal safety of the nation. To the ears of “Westerners,” whose only exposure to Pakistan by the US media has been a simplistic, cartoon-like depiction of angry extremism ["Rage Boy"] and enlightened “moderation” of a military dictatorship [Musharaff], this sentiment rings false and hollow. Indeed, “Rage Boy” has become the ubiquitous image of not only Pakistani politics, but also 160 million Pakistani citizens; “Rage Boy” is a bearded, irrationally angry, frothing, anti-American extremist whose occupation consists of three full time jobs: burning American flags, studying at an Islamic fundamentalist madrassas, and engaging in anti-American terrorist activities. Any proper student of history or anthropology with even a modicum of knowledge regarding Pakistan’s diverse socio-cultural identity would scoff at that simplistic depiction. Sadly, nuances and complexity are not afforded media air-time amidst Pakistan’s continuing and repeated, albeit isolated, acts of sensationalistic violence.
This dualistic and Manichean representation of Pakistan manifests itself with the description of the personality at the center of this recent, contagious conflagration: Bhutto. Mere hours after her assassination, Bhutto was both praised as a “shaheed” [a martyr], “a beacon for democracy,” “a model of progress,” “a loyal friend to democracy,” and condemned as “a traitor,” “a US puppet,” and everything in between. When extremism, political fervor, and selfish interests marry, the resulting progeny is usually instability, uncertainty and violence; common sense, rationality, and moderation are generally aborted.
Prime Minister Bhutto
Before outlining the possible motives and culprits of this dreadful assassination, a cursory look at Bhutto and her political career is needed. Following in the dynastic footsteps of her father, the Harvard and Oxford educated Bhutto became the head of the PPP [Pakistan's People Party] and was elected as the country’s first female Prime Minister in 1988. In a stunning twist of fate, irony, or cunning (depending on whom you ask), she succeeded the assassinated General Zia al Haq, the same man responsible for hanging her father in 1977. Although plaudits and adulations have been heaped on the recently deceased Bhutto, her political tenure in Pakistan was marred by ineffectuality and widespread charges of corruption, which effectively ended both of her terms as Prime Minister. [It should be noted that Nawaz Sharif's first term was dismissed for corruption charges as well.]
Specifically, Bhutto was accused of stealing more than $1 billion from Pakistan’s treasury, and Switzlerand convicted Bhutto of laundering nearly $11 million. Furthermore, Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, is affectionately known in Pakistan as “Mr. Ten Percent,” an honorable title he earnestly earned for receiving a “10%” commission from all government contracts.
Also, it is worth noting that Bhutto, who in the past few hours has been hailed as “Pakistan’s last hope for democracy and reform,” financially and militarily supported and strengthened Afghanistan’s repressive, extremist and misogynist Taliban government that came to power in 1996. The Taliban’s disastrous and archaic human rights policy, hardly democratic or progressive, was conveniently swept under the rug in lieu of pacifying the Afghan region to ensure beneficial and lucrative trade routes to Central Asia. Like a scene from King Lear or Godfather 2 – if Bhutto’s own niece and political critics are to be believed – Bhutto engineered the still unsolved assassination of her estranged brother, Murtaza, in 1996 to consolidate political leadership of the PPP. Bhutto’s political history, thus, is marred by several questionable controversies, rank corruption and abuse. Why, then, was she promoted by the United States as a harbinger of peace and democracy?
The fateful triangle
Reports indicate that the United States, Musharraf and Bhutto recently agreed to a brokered power sharing deal, whereby Musharraf would retain his Presidency, Bhutto would be named Prime Minster and her numerous corruption charges would bypass the courts and be “dropped” due to the creation of a “National Reconciliation Ordinance.” The deal was suspect from the beginning and only further deteriorated with Bhutto’s return from exile to Pakistan in October, when a devastating assassination attempt on her life, still unsolved, left nearly 140 people dead.
The nail in the coffin was hammered by Musharraf, who unilaterally implemented a State of Emergency in November. Experts state his action was motivated by the Supreme Court’s adverse ruling regarding his eligibility to lead Pakistan, thereby denying him a right to lead as both President and Chief of Army Staff, a title he relinquished only recently. As a result, The United States’ erstwhile democratic ally, Musharraf, undemocratically suspended the Constitution, ousted and jailed Supreme Court judges and lawyers critical of his policies and leadership, detained nearly 2,000 human rights activists, and silenced independent media and news stations. Although publicly reprimanding Musharraf’s “questionable” (one could say “undemocratic”) actions, the White House remained loyal to their dictator-of- choice, because the US has provided Pakistan with nearly $10 billion in aid as “good will currency” in its support to hunt al-Qaeda and extremists within Pakistan’s borders. Specifically, President Bush said he wants democracy in Pakistan, but “at the same time, we want to continue working with [Musharraf] to fight these terrorists and extremists.”
Two weeks before the State of Emergency prompted his unlawful arrest, incarceration and subsequent kidney failure, Muneer Malik, Pakistan’s former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association and prominent critic of Musharraf, gave me an exclusive interview, in which he proclaimed a statement shared by many in Pakistan: “The US supports dictatorships that suit its interests. It is never interested in the masses of Pakistan. The power sharing between Benzair and Musharraf will only perpetuate military hegemony. The mindset of the politicians is that the road to Islamabad [Pakistan's capital] leads from Washington and not from the streets of Pakistan.”
A grand irony results from observing this alliance. The United States wants to support democracy in Pakistan by allowing Musharraf to implement undemocratic measures and dictatorial practices to ensure Pakistan’s future democracy. That is akin to endorsing an avowed pacifist who feels forced to purge his enemies through murder and violence in order to bring peace.
Precisely due to Musharraf’s recent array of dictatorial and undemocratic suppressions of dissent – specifically the sacking and arrests of Supreme Court justices and attorneys – and extreme unpopularity amongst his own people, the US hoped Bhutto would serve as an ameliorative and reliable presence for their interests. Her political presence, it was argued, could act as a counterbalance to Musharraf, thus ensuring some semblance of stability in Pakistan. Specifically, before returning to Pakistan in October, Bhutto had publicly stated she would allow the United States within Pakistan’s borders to assist in hunting Al-Qaeda operatives and terror cells. Bhutto said,
“I would hope that I would be able to take Osama bin Laden myself without depending on the Americans. But if I couldn’t do it, of course we [Pakistan and US] are fighting this war together and [I] would seek their co-operation in eliminating him.”
Her critics questioned her sincerity and motives in potentially allowing Pakistan’s sovereignty to be threatened by inviting America to strike within Pakistani soil. The critics responded by calling her America’s “stooge” and “puppet,” a woman willing to appease Western nations by any means to ensure her political power.
This charge and allegation of “servitude to the United States” arguably ensured her assassination or, at the very least, cemented her unpopularity amongst an extremist political segment of Pakistan. However, with the January parliamentary elections around the corner and the power sharing deal all but quashed by Musharraf, Bhutto changed her tune. In her final speech on the day of her assassination, she passionately declared, “Why should foreign troops come in? We can take care of this [referring to resurgent Al Qaeda extremists in Pakistan], I can take care of this, you [Pakistani citizens] can take care of this.” Did this duplicitous, flip flop statement make Bhutto a Janus – a two headed Roman God – or was this a sincere change of conviction? Sadly, Pakistan will never know the answer.
The smoking gun?
What is known, however, is that Bhutto foreshadowed her death, or at the very least was extremely cognizant of potential attempts on her life. In October, she informed her spokesman, Mark Siegel, via email to make public the following statement if she was to be killed in Pakistan: “I [Bhutto] would hold Musharraf responsible.” Bhutto’s aides told CNN that she accused Musharraf of “deliberately failing to provide adequate security measures” in Rawalpindi, which included failing to provide her a four-car police escort and jamming devices against bombs. After the devastating October assassination attempt on her life, Bhutto accused Pakistan’s intelligence services [the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI] in having a hand in the suicide attack on her convoy. Although it is premature to conclusively determine who masterminded the assassination attempt, Bhutto’s supporters place the blame firmly on Musharraf’s shoulders, whom they believe either engineered the attack or acted negligently in failing to deter it.
From one angle, Musharraf’s recent actions portray a consistent pattern of unilateral power grabs by stifling opposition and criticism. His state of emergency and declaration of temporary “martial law” serve as prime evidence of that argument. This recent tragedy has further destabilized the country prompting mass protests and vandalism thereby giving Musharraf a rationalization and excuse, according to his critics, to impose martial law yet again if he so chooses and curb the democratic process.
Since the United States has no political allies in Pakistan that it feels it can remotely trust, one can argue they will be forced, out of necessity and desperation, to tacitly endorse Musharraf and promote him as an “ally against terrorism” and “hope for democracy.” The West fears that the nuclear weapons and technology of Pakistan will fall in the hands of an extremist minority that will align itself with Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces, thus endangering US presence not only in the Middle East but South Asia as well. However, it is imperative to note that the extremist element of Pakistan (aka “Rage Boy”) is but a despised minority that doesn’t even have enough legitimacy to secure a political majority in even the most fundamentalist regions of the North Western Frontier Province and Punjab.
Yet, this miniscule fraction of the population, when united with ideologically like-minded sympathizers within the ISI, could have orchestrated this latest round of violence according to Pakistani intellectuals and pundits. As of now, no group has claimed responsibility. However, many believe rogue elements of Pakistan’s highly secretive and powerful ISI in association with al-Qaeda sympathizers bear scrutiny. When asked who engineered the October assassination attempt on Bhutto, Muneer Malik simply stated, “the intelligence agencies.” When I asked him about the July “Red Mosque” tragedy, and specifically who armed the radical students [in July, the military raided the Red Mosque that was besieged by heavily armed radical Muslim students resulting in nearly 173 deaths], Malik replied, “It was a scam of the intelligence agencies. How could arms have been smuggled in the Masjid [Mosque] that is located less than a kilometer from the ISI headquarters?” In fact, Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, pointed his finger at the ISI for the October assassination attempt as well: “I blame the government for these blasts,” he said. “It is the work of the intelligence agencies.” Many share this belief.
A Pakistani requiem
Perhaps the identity of the real culprits may never be known. One can only hope that they are found soon. Regardless, Benazir Bhutto has now been buried next to her father in their family’s ancestral village on the day of juma (Friday), a holy day for Muslims. As her mourners ascribed to the rituals of the Islamic funeral procession, many have taken turns supporting her casket on their shoulders, eventually guiding the deceased to her burial grounds. For some, they will literally carry their last vestige of hope for a democratic Pakistan. Others will carry the last of a dynamic and volatile political dynasty. Most will carry a tragic but common reminder of violence that has claimed too many of Pakistan’s icons and leaders. The Namaaze-I-Janaza, the Islamic requiem as it is known in Urdu, requires Muslims attending the funeral to supplicate Allah asking His forgiveness and blessings for the recently deceased. Perhaps they can pray for Pakistan as well.