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“The Pakistani monster” by Wajahat Ali

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If Pakistan now poses a greater threat to the world than Afghanistan, the US is responsible for setting it on its violent pat

Recently, a top US diplomat warned that Pakistan poses a bigger security threat to the world than Afghanistan.

This ominous statement tracks a series of alarming developments: the surreal video of twelve gunmen brazenly attacking the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore’s broad daylight; Pakistan’s capitulation to the Taliban on implementing sharia law in the Swat Valley; several days of riots after the Supreme Court banned popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother from holding office; evidence directly linking Pakistani terrorist groups to November’s Mumbai tragedy; a significant increase in suicide bombings within Pakistan; and, of course, the rapid Talibanisation of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – a Grand Central Station for multicultural extremists seeking training, support and safe haven. Read the rest of this entry »

Suicide bomber attacks Pakistan lawmaker‘s home, killing 15

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By NAHAL TOOSI, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 49 minutes ago

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A suicide bomber attacked a lawmaker‘s house in eastern Pakistan on Monday, killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 50, officials and a witness said.

It came as Pakistan insisted Monday it has not made a deal allowing the U.S. to fire missiles at militant hide-outs in Pakistani territory after The Wall Street Journal quoted President Asif Ali Zardari as suggesting otherwise. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Wajahat Ali

October 6, 2008 at 7:37 pm

Pakistan’s Recyclable Commodity

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As the effects of global warming force us all to consider more sustainable lifestyles, we should give credit where credit is due and acknowledge Pakistan’s demonstrated commitment to squeezing every last ounce of utility out of even the most expended of resources.  After all, last month’s resignation of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf and the subsequent ascension to power by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Ali Asif Zardari, serve as proof positive that there is hope for the recycling and reusing of even the most overused, tainted and tarnished political leaders. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Wajahat Ali

September 8, 2008 at 8:43 am


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Fatima Bhutto, portrait by Rusty Zimmerman (www.rustyzimmerman.com/ )

FATIMA BHUTTO, A Portrait by Rusty Zimmerman (www.rustyzimmerman.com/)

Wajahat Ali

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 wajahatmali@gmail.com


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FREE PAKISTAN: An Exclusive Interview with Imran Khan on today’s Parliamentary elections, the future of Musharaff, and the hope for a democratic Pakistan

Pakistani Politician Imran Khan
“Unless we change strategy, the future is in danger”
Correspondent Wajahat Ali manages to speak to Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan on Monday’s parliamentary elections, the first in a post-Benazir Bhutto age.

After nearly a month’s delay due to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Pakistan’s contentious – some say “historic” – parliamentary elections were held on Monday amidst a sea of violence, unrest, and political instability. One anonymous insider tells me that “these elections are completely rigged, yaar. The results were already in last week. I really pray for Pakistan. There’s going to be a lot of trouble tomorrow.” His voice is dejected, cynical, and yet passionate and straining for hope.Another more popular and influential Pakistani voice is that of Imran Khan. One of Pakistan’s most well known personalities of the past twenty years, Khan first made his name as Pakistan’s winning cricket captain and sophisticated socialite. He then emerged as a worldly humanitarian and founder of Pakistan’s first cancer hospital.However, his newest role as the head of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e–Insaaf [the Movement for Justice political party] has cast him as one of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s most vocal and animated critics. He passionately – some say naively – advocates for Pakistan’s political reform and progression towards an enlightened democracy. After five hours of phone tag on Monday, I was able to speak with Imran on Pakisan’s political future after the ballots have been cast.
The polls in Pakistan for the general election are now officially closed. Here’s the question on everyone’s mind around the world: First, will these elections be free and fair? Second, will the results represent the pulse and wishes of the people?
KHAN: Number one, they are certainly not free and fair. Because the greatest pre-poll rigging ever in our history was done, where the whole State administration was pushing the pro-government, pro-Musharraf candidates. Every party has every day listed the ways the elections have been rigged for the past month. Secondly, it is the lowest ever voter turn out. In fact, I would say that 75% of the people have rejected the electoral process. They did not feel that if your Constitution is suspended, if 60% of your judges have been unconstitutionally sacked, your Chief Justice is under house arrest, then you cannot have free and fair election when the pre-conditions are not there. So, basically, people have rejected the election. If the people have come out to vote, then it is against pro-Musharraf candidates.
So, you’re completely convinced that it’s rigged against the pro-Musharraf candidates?

KHAN: You can just do any random sampling. You can see that people who are coming in – the PML-Q [Musharraf’s party] if it wins, no one will accept the results. No is going to accept the results.

Ok, so no one is going to accept the results. Here is the natural follow up question. Should we expect much violence and bloodshed following the announcement of the results?

KHAN: I think, As I said, there was a poll conducted and 58% of the people said that they would not accept the result if the PML-Q comes to power. Fifty eight percent! And they would go out and demonstrate. This is from a poll done recently.

I need your thoughts on today’s quotation by Musharraf, where he said, “Whatever the result, whatever the result, we will accept it with grace. Whoever is the prime minister, I will work with that person in a reconciliatory mode. We should end the confrontationist politics. Let’s enter into a conciliatory politics.” Do you believe him? Should the world believe him?

KHAN: No one in Pakistan believes him, because everyone knows he has gone back on his word so many times. He has no credibility. In the first election, in 2002, he said, “All I’m interested in is someone becomes Prime Minister, so I can play golf.” And, he did actually anything but that. Again, again, he’s making these statements, but he’s going to rig these elections to the point where he thinks his party can still win. There was a statement out in the paper in an interview he gave where he said he thinks MQM [a Pakistan political party not expected to win] and PML-Q will win the majority seats and will win the elections.

Well, according to the polls, that’s ridiculous.

KHAN: Absolutely. What I’m saying is what he says and what he’s trying to do is two different things. We’ve heard all this – he’s made these false promises so many times that no one trusts him anymore.

The two main opposition parties, now this is a rumor, suggested they unite against Musharraf’s party. This again is Benazir Bhutto’s PPP led by her husband Zardari and Nawaz Sharif’s [Pakistan's former Prime Minister recently returned from exile]. They said if they could capture two thirds of the seats in parliament and form a coalition, then they would win a two-thirds majority in parliament and take steps to impeach Musharraf. Is a united front going to be successful against Musharraf? Or, like you said, all is rigged and all is lost?

KHAN: Well, if there was a two-thirds majority, if they were free and fair elections, they would get it. But, they are not free and fair elections, I’ll doubt they’ll get the majority. But, there’s always a fear in our minds that People’s Party [Bhutto's party] might for the fourth time bail out Musharraf by doing a power sharing deal with him. Now, really, this is the next step. Are they going to do a power sharing deal with him?

That’s the question on my mind and most policy experts and pundits as well. Is Zardari going to do a power sharing deal? Will a power sharing deal be engineered between the United States, Zardari’s PPP, and Musharaff?

KHAN: Well, look, if [Zardari] does so, remember, not only will the People’s Party be destroyed, but anyone who now does a deal with Musharraf will destroy himself. If the U.S. backs Zardari – and people will know that if Zardari does a deal with Musharraf, they will know he’s doing a deal to get off his corruption cases [Zardari is affectionately known as “Mr. 10%” in Pakistan due the steep kickbacks he allegedly pocketed during his wife's tenure]. And so, he will destroy his own party. I don’t think even People’s Party will accept him. [The] People’s Party won’t accept that deal.

Let’s ask a question for the layman. What are the results going to be tomorrow? What are we going to see?

KHAN: Well, I don’t know what the results are. It’s the lowest turn out. But, as we know, Musharraf did a referendum, and there was no one out to give votes, but Musharraf showed, and the election commission showed a 75% turnout! That’s even more than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s turnout! [Benazir Bhutto’s father, who was Pakistan’s popular and controversial Prime Minster, was hung by General Zia-al-Haq following a bloodless coup]. Therefore, no one trusts the results that the elections commissions are going to come up with. That’s why we feel it should’ve been an independent election commission. This election commission – no one has any faith in it.

“The West” has popularized the image of Benazir Bhutto and her party, The PPP [Pakistan People’s Party], as saviors of democracy in Pakistan. What is the truth behind that image?

KHAN: Well, I’m afraid [the] People’s Party has already bailed out Musharraf three times when he was sinking. They actually went against the democratic movement. We were all wanting the Constitution and the re-instatement of [the illegally sacked] judges, and People’s Party bailed him firstly by not resigning from their assemblies – so they legitimized his Presidential elections. Number two, they did not boycott the elections when Musharraf held this illegal, unconstitutional State of Emergency [in November 2007, Musharraf sacked critical judges, jailed attorneys, and shut down NGO's and independent media] and he held elections under the Emergency. And number three, when Benazir was assassinated, all parties wanted to boycott the elections and first find out who killed her. And Zardari wanted to go ahead with the elections again to save Musharraf. If they save him, this will be the fourth time they will save Musharraf, so I don’t think the rank and file of People’s Party will accept it. He will damage the People’s Party if he does a deal now.

You’re an insider to Pakistan’s political scene. I want your opinion on this. What is America’s interest in supporting Musharraf, and not only him, but also in supporting a power sharing deal between him and Zardari’s PPP?

KHAN: Because Musharraf has sold the idea to the Americans – he has sold the myth that he is the only one who can fight the U.S. “war on terror” and he is indispensable. Therefore, the Bush Administration is blindly backing Musharraf, and as a result, you see the situation where Musharaff is completely unpopular in Pakistan. Everyone wants him out. What we’re seeing is that the U.S. administration is backing Musharraf and wanting a civilian façade, which is why they wanted a People’s Party deal with him.

Here’s what everyone says in America: “If not Musharraf, then it’ll be the Taliban or Al Qaeda taking over Pakistan, so we should choose the lesser of evils.”

KHAN: This is an example of Musharraf propaganda. He’s selling himself to the West that he is a bastion against fundamentalism and Taliban-ization. It is a complete myth. If you look at Pakistan’s electoral history, even the religious parties were not extreme; even they have hardly got any votes. Whenever we’ve had general elections, they’ve always been beaten. Today, Maulana Fazlur Rahman fighting in the name of MMA [the right wing, conservative religious party], he’s taking a bashing, he’s going to barely survive according to the opinion polls. So, people in this country are moderate. Actually, who’s fostering extremism has always been military dictatorships. Whenever we’ve had growth in extremism it’s always been under a military dictator. Whenever you’ve had people who have been allowed to vote, the free and fair vote has always marginalized the extremists.

You know Pakistan’s image in the world. CNN labeled it as “Terror Central” and the Economist called it “The Most Dangerous Nation on Earth.” You have bomb blasts and attacks last week and this week at polling stations, you have kidnappings and disappearances of your diplomats, etc. So how do you convince the world that extremism and violence is not the real face of Pakistan? That Pakistan is indeed moderate under the weight of all this evidence?

KHAN: First of all, the United States backed a dictator [General Zia, Pakistan's ruler under Martial Law from 1977 to 1988] who took us into the Afghan jihad – never consulting the people of Pakistan. CIA and Pakistan’s ISI trained these people to fight the Soviet occupation in the art of terrorism. Once the Soviets left, Pakistan was lumbered with these people, these guerilla fighters. Then, this other dictator [Musharraf] then takes us to start eliminating these people. We never went in the first Afghan jihad with the backing of the people of Pakistan. We never went into the second, front line state against terror with the backing of the people of Pakistan. Both were military dictators.

Now, thanks to the way Musharraf has participated in the U.S. war on terror, where Pakistan is killing its own people through helicopter gun ships and bombing villages in the tribal areas – there is a backlash. And that backlash is what’s making Pakistan a dangerous place. The moment we have a genuine, democratic government, and they start talking to people and they start negotiating with people and holding dialogue rather than talking with these bullets and bombs, we will again go back to a normal country.

And I’m sad to say that it is the U.S. backing of a military dictator that has gotten us into this mess. It’s the military dictator that got us in there. If we had a democratic government, we wouldn’t have been in this, because our decisions would’ve been much better than what Musharraf has done. Of course, we should’ve always backed the U.S. in this war against terror. But, not the way, blindly following every dictate and now getting ourselves into this situation where our country’s own existence is in threat. Now Pakistan, a country that had nothing to do with 9-11, we now are fighting for our existence. And unless we change strategy, the future is in danger.

The natural question then is how can one get autonomy for Pakistani citizens? How do you bring democracy to this country that is currently under the world’s microscope?

KHAN: The only way, the only way forward is to have the judges reinstated. Then, they give independence to the media and the election commission. Free and fair elections. That’s the only way out for Pakistan.

How do you get out under the thumb of the military? Is it at all possible?

KHAN: If you have an independent powerful judiciary – that is the way you get out of the military’s thumb. They will make the military act according to the Constitution.

Several critics of Pakistan say all this is an example of Pakistan acting as a failed state, and this proves that Pakistan should have never undergone the 1947 Partition with India. Because, well, look at them, Pakistanis are now killing themselves. Is this an accurate assessment?

KHAN: Absolute nonsense! Pakistan is a very viable state. We’ve had a problem because the military kept interfering in our democratic process. We never went through a trial and error period where we could have evolved, where our democracy could have evolved. Now, I think we have, in a way, a very fortunate situation where it looks as if we are finally going to move towards a democratic system the moment our judges are reinstated. And then, Pakistan has a very bright future.

Pretend by some magic, you’ve become Pakistan’s Prime Minster, and you’re given control and autonomy. What would be the first immediate steps and actions you would take to change Pakistan’s current course?

KHAN: I would first of all have rule of law and institutionalize the independence of the judiciary. Secondly, I would have an education emergency in Pakistan. Thirdly, I would have an employment emergency. Finally, I would change the economic policies to change it from an elitist system, but change it to make sure that the priority becomes the common man: the bottom 40% of the population. Ok?

Can I get a last question?

KHAN (voice trailing): Ok, I’ve got to go. Khuda Hafiz [May God protect you].

Khuda Hafiz [May God protect you].

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 wajahatmali@gmail.com.

PAKISTAN IS BURNING: An exclusive interview with Steve Coll

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steve_collclauren_shay_lavin.jpg An Interview With Steve Coll on Pakistan, the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden and Bush’s Foreign Policy

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 wajahatmali@gmail.com


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