While dictator-president Pervez Musharraf does all he can to cover up the facts concerning Bhutto’s assassination, a conviction spreads that his hand was involved. At least no one disputes that he had motives for negligence when it came to protecting Bhutto. She had returned to Pakistan under America’s aegis in order to share power with him. The US had brokered the deal with the idea that Bhutto would help Musharraf, who had lost all popular standing, in securing another presidential term. The top judges, however, opposed this additional term. When Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3 and had the judges arrested, Bhutto, under pressure from her party, turned against him. She began an effort to win the two-thirds parliamentary majority she would need to depose him.
The Bush Administration sees Musharraf as its key ally in the War against Terrorism. It overlooks the fact that this dictator earlier suspended the two main political parties that rivaled him, the People’s Party of Bhutto and the Islamic League of Nawaz Sharif. There is no democracy in Pakistan, but there are weapons of mass destruction. None of that stops George Bush from backing Musharraf and doing all he can to save him.
Pakistan is complex. It began as an artificial state, self-consciously Islamic, in a breakaway from India at a time when the latter was gaining independence (1947). It is made up of four ethnic areas: West Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province (Pashtun). These regions are glued together not just by Islam, but also by Pakistan’s army and the security forces, which maintain gloves-off control over internal politics.
The roots of the present crisis go back to the 1970’s. From 1972-77, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir) led a secular government which enjoyed a broad popular base; he initiated deep reforms in land distribution, education and health. Zulfikar allied to China as a counterweight to India’s ties with the Soviet Union. In 1977, backed by the US, a Pakistani general named Zia-ul-Haq made a successful coup against Zulfikar, whom he hanged two years later. It was Zia-ul-Haq who brought America to Pakistan.
Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship had enormous influence, first on Pakistan and later on the world. The source of this influence may be traced to US President Ronald Reagan, who forged a strategic alliance with Zia-ul-Haq in the project of ejecting the Soviets from Afghanistan. This alliance came with a political as well as a military price. Zia-ul-Haq adopted fundamentalist Islam and its Sharia legal code as tools for undermining Pakistan’s democratic parties. In this way, the Islamic movements gained power in the country’s internal political life. Saudi money flowed to the Islamic associations, which established some 40,000 Muslim madrasas—schools for the study of Islam.
The Mujahidin combating the Soviets in Afghanistan were honored by Reagan as “freedom fighters.” His government armed and trained them. It transformed the Pakistani security service, ISI, into an arm of the CIA. All this happened despite the rumor that Pakistan was developing a nuclear weapon. While Washington turned a blind eye, a land that was under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism was in the process of getting the Bomb.
Thirty stormy years have passed since Zia-ul-Haq took power, years peppered by coups and assassinations. We may speak roughly of three political decades: a mysterious plane crash killed Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. Then came a decade of corrupt democracy, in which power alternated back and forth between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. In October 1999 the army Chief of Staff, Pervez Musharraf, toppled Sharif. Musharraf then declared an emergency government and in 2001 named himself president. Now, with the murder of Benazir Bhutto, his regime may have reached its end.
Pakistan edges toward oblivion
The 1990’s were the gay Clinton years. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington wanted to share “the dividends of peace.” The global village arose in the image of America, under a shock therapy provided by economists of the Chicago School. Whoever wanted to benefit from the pax Americana had to become economically correct; this required total privatization of resources, tariff reduction, opening of markets to the free flow of capital, and welfare cuts. Russia, Argentina and the Asian countries were arenas for experiments that brought social misery.
In the late 1990’s, however, Clinton’s economic policy blew up in his face. Russia and Argentina went into free fall. The stock exchanges in Southeast Asia imploded. India and China emerged as central players. On the other hand, Afghanistan and Pakistan—with their failed economies and Islamic ideologies—could find no place in the new order.
Immediately after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan entered a period of civil war among the former anti-Soviet factions. The Pashtuns fought against the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, all of whom wanted a slice of power. The Americans bet on a new Pashtun force, the Taliban. This current was also supported by Pakistan’s army. It received ideological approval from the same madrasas that the Saudis had established.
Both Benazir Bhutto, in her term as president, and Nawaz Sharif in his, supported the Taliban. They saw them as allies in Pakistan’s ongoing war with India, and they also judged that the Taliban would help broaden their country’s regional influence. During Bhutto’s second term (1994-97), she allied herself to the man who is considered the Taliban’s spiritual father, Fazlur al-Rahman. He is leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, the Islamic Party of Religious Leaders. She appointed him to head the parliamentary Committee for Foreign Relations. She also reached understandings with the autonomous Pashtun tribes in the North-West Frontier Province.
In 1996, meanwhile, the Taliban took over Afghanistan, imposing Sharia law as taught by the Pakistani clerics. The Taliban invited al-Qaeda—including Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and the Arab Mujahidin—to transform Afghanistan into the advance base of a new holy war. This time it would not be waged against the Communists, but rather against their recent allies, the Americans.
Back in Pakistan, in 1997, Nawaz Sharif took power. He deepened the role of Islam in Pakistani jurisprudence. At war with India in Kashmir, Sharif relied on the Mujahidin. In 1998 he initiated Pakistan’s first nuclear test. The US opposed and levied sanctions.
One year later Musharraf overthrew Sharif. At first he had him condemned to death but later commuted the sentence to exile. There was nothing special in this to attract international attention: another dictator takes power in a poor and backward country, big deal! While Musharraf incited the extremist Islamic organizations against India, and while Osama bin Laden prepared his attack on “the big Satan,” that Satan himself remained blissfully unaware.
September 11 changed nothing in Pakistan
After al-Qaeda’s attack on September 11, 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan at the head of the NATO forces to get rid of the Taliban regime. Musharraf, who had been under boycott by the West, was transformed overnight into America’s strategic ally in the War against Terror. The sanctions were lifted. Nevertheless, problems remained and still remain. First, Musharraf is a dictator. He has suspended the constitution. He has supported the Taliban and their Pakistani backers. When the father of Pakistan’s bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, helped spread nuclear weapons to states George Bush had grouped in the axis of evil, Musharraf merely put him under house arrest. Bush elected to ignore these unpleasant facts. He whitewashed Musharraf and then turned his attention not against bin Laden and the real terrorists, rather against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
Bin Laden remains alive long after the hanging of Saddam. The US decided, in the context of its War on Terror, to settle generous aid on Pakistan’s armed forces, amounting to $10 billion since 2001. That is of course very little compared to the $700 billion expended on the war in Iraq. If the $700 billion had been used to fight bin Laden, it is doubtful whether he would still be sending out videotapes.
Musharraf, though, understands that the real War on Terror is not taking place in the Hindu Kush but in Mesopotamia. He does little to oppose the Taliban. The American billions have gone instead to Pakistan’s perennial war against India, although the latter, since the Soviet collapse, has become America’s friend. Since 2001, thanks to Musharraf’s double game, the Islamist movements have actually gained in Pakistan.
In 2002, for example, attempting to please the Americans, Musharraf announced a parliamentary election. Unfortunately, the two major parties—Bhutto’s and Sharif’s—had to run without their exiled leaders. The Islamist movements united in a single list. Musharraf’s party took the victory, but he made sure that the Islamists would serve as a loyal opposition.
All the while, the Sharia laws have remained in effect, the madrasas have kept up their activities, the Islamist movements have broadened their influence, and Musharraf has become a dictator accepted by the West.
Under Musharraf the Islamist movement has gone beyond expanding its parliamentary base. In regional elections, it won the North-West Frontier Province as well as Balochistan. These victories enabled it to form local governments. The first thing that the North-West government did was to pass strictly ascetic laws and suppress any form of secular culture. Women were sent to their homes and music forbidden. The Taliban regime returned to Pakistan, this time with the help of Musharraf and with full American agreement.
The two regions where the Islamist movement has formed governments are precisely those bordering Afghanistan. Somewhere in the mountains, on one side or the other, Osama bin Laden is probably hiding. How is it possible, one wonders, to fight the Taliban in areas of Pakistan that are under the rule of their spiritual mentors? How can one fight Islamist extremism when it constitutes the regime that is supposed to do the fighting?
The answer is simple: one doesn’t. Pakistan’s army sees India as its main external enemy. And its internal enemy? The secular parties that demand democracy. Indeed why, in its view, should the army combat the Taliban? Afghanistan is ruled today by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which is under the influence of Russia and Pakistan’s enemy, India. Nor is the army inclined to fight the Taliban’s Pakistani supporters, who are willing to co-exist with the present dictatorship as long as it allows them a free hand in matters of religion.
What has changed since September 2001
If in Pakistan business proceeded as usual after September 11, the rest of the world changed. Bush could have exploited the public mood to isolate extremist Islam in Afghanistan. Instead, he chose to widen the area of conflict. The invasion of Iraq, without a western consensus, was part of a plan to take over that country’s oil reserves. It wound up, however, strengthening the very extremists that America was supposed to fight, while raising dangers of anarchy and collapse in neighboring states. Instability has now spread to a very broad area, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and even the Palestinian Authority (PA).
US policy in the region is fraught with contradiction. Take, for instance, the division of Pakistan into ethnic areas, or the division of Iraq among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, or the split between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and the West Bank respectively. Is this what America wants? If not, then it is acting against its own interests. For example, the toppling of Saddam Hussein, followed by the transfer of Iraq into the hands of its Shiite majority, has strengthened the influence of Iran at the expense of America’s allies in the Gulf, above all Saudi Arabia. Toward the latter, too, Washington is employing an ambiguous policy: it relies on the royal regime while knowing that Wahabi (Saudi) Islam is financing extremism all over the world. In Pakistan, meanwhile, Washington preferred Benazir Bhutto over Nawaz Sharif because Sharif is close to the Saudis.
Or consider America’s actions in Iraq. It arms Sunni tribes in order to combat Sunni al-Qaeda. It relies on the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the Bader brigade (Shiites allied to Iran) in order to fight the Mahdi militia belonging to the Sader family (also Shiite). It backs Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq while supporting Turkey, which views a future Kurdish state on its borders as a threat to its territorial integrity. In general, it appears that the US is acting with the goal of partitioning Iraq, a thing that would bolster Iranian influence and severely threaten Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon, meanwhile, is divided between its Sunnis and Shiites, who rule different areas in the manner of mini-autonomies. Saudi Arabia on the one side, Iran and Syria on the other, inject their own power struggles into Lebanon. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran also have opposing interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban pursue and massacre the Shiites. Here, though, America supports Iran, despite its strategic alliance with the Saudis. And so these tangled conflicts remain without solution, the countries bleed and unravel, anarchy rules, and terrorism flits back and forth across borders. What began as a victory against the Soviets has become a nightmare threatening civilization.
If we want to complete the picture, we must not forget the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here American-Israeli policy has brought on a civil war. There is a direct line connecting Pakistan and Palestine: both feature, on one side of the coin, secular figures like Mahmoud Abbas and Benazir Bhutto, while on the other side are Hamas in Gaza and the Islamist movement in Pakistan. Such is the result of a policy that attempted to move the peoples of the world like pawns on Washington’s chessboard. But this time America is in the bog up to its neck. It sinks together with the civilizations it has sought to destroy. Pakistan is not alone.