With the assassination of Ms. Bhutto, we are given to understand, by many newspaper stories and broadcasts, that anti-democratic religious zealots killed Pakistan’s last hope for democracy.
Ms. Bhutto was in many ways an admirable and accomplished leader, a talented woman of courage, but her assassination was a far more complex event than simplistic claims about the dark work of anti-democratic forces.
President Musharraf, for most of the years since the American invasion of Afghanistan, was treated in public as an acceptable ally by the United States. The U.S. desperately needed Pakistan’s help in its invasion of Afghanistan, a land about which American politicians had little understanding. To secure that help, America forgave Pakistan’s debts, removed its embargo-bad guy status (for developing atomic weapons in secret), provided large amounts of military assistance, and even managed to swallow its pride over the embarrassing work of Pakistan’s scientific hero, Dr. A. Q. Khan, who supplied atomic-weapons technology to other countries.
Once Americans had mired themselves in Afghanistan–after all the hoopla over a "victory" which amounted to little more than massive bombing while the Northern Alliance warlords did most of the fighting against their rival, the Taleban – the extent of the mess into which they had put themselves slowly dawned. This is particularly true regarding the almost non-existent border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a huge area that forms almost a de facto third country of Pashtuns.
Intense pressure started being applied to Musharraf to allow American special forces to conduct the kind of brutal and socially-disruptive operations they have maintained in the mountains of Afghanistan. The American approach to rooting out the dispersed Taleban, following its initial "victory," amounted to going from village to village in the mountains, crashing down doors, using stun grenades, holding men at gunpoint in their own homes, separating the village’s women from the men’s protection, plus many other unforgivable insults in such a tradition-bound land.
All of this has really been getting them nowhere. In effect, the American government demonstrated it had no idea what to do in Afghanistan after it invaded, only knowing it wanted to get the "bad guys."
Recently, Musharraf’s position vis-à-vis the U.S. has undergone a dramatic change. Overnight, the State Department changed him from valiant ally to enemy of democracy, and the American press obliged with the appropriate stories and emphasis.
The reason for this change was simply Musharraf’s refusal to cooperate enough with Bush’s secret demands to extend America’s special-forces operations into Pakistan’s side of the Pashtun territory: that is, to allow a foreign country into his country to terrorize and insult huge parts of its population. In Bush’s worldview, this only amounted to Pakistan’s fully embracing the "war on terror," but for many Pakistanis, the "war on terror" is only one more aspect of American interference in their part of the world. The Taleban is viewed by millions there as heroic resisters, standing up to American arrogance, a view not without some substance.
In trying to accommodate Bush, Musharraf launched various showy operations by Pakistan’s army, but his efforts were viewed in Washington as weak. The U.S. kept pushing the limits, trying to force Pakistan to internalize the "war on terror," and Musharraf resisted. There was a horrific incident in which the U.S. bombed a madrassah (a religious school) in rural Pakistan, succeeding only in killing eighty children, falsely claiming it was Pakistan’s work against a terrorist center.
Musharraf has, rather bravely, opposed America’s demands for a de facto American invasion of his country. He has been remarkably outspoken about American policies on several occasions, not something calculated to endear him to Bush’s gang. So, suddenly he became an undemocratic pariah who needed to be replaced. It was easy enough to exploit public dissatisfaction with a military dictator, even if he was only trying to do his best for his country within some terrible limits.
America gave Ms. Bhutto a blessing and a gentle push, likely a bundle of cash, and undoubtedly the promise of lots of future support, to return home as opposition to Musharraf. One could fairly say that her assassination just proves how little Washington policymakers understand the region. It sent her to her death, desperately hoping against hope to get what it wanted.
Ms. Bhutto was regarded in Washington as more amenable to American demands in Pakistan. She had the double merit of being able to give Pakistan’s government the gloss of democracy while serving key American interests. But it couldn’t be clearer that democracy is not what the U.S. was really concerned with, because Musharraf was just a fine ally so long as he did as he was told.
The truth is that Musharraf has, in opposing America’s demands, been a rather brave representative of Pakistan’s interests, a patriot in American parlance.
True democracy for a place like Pakistan is a long way off, not because of this or that leader or party, but because of the country’s backward economic state. This is even truer for Afghanistan. You cannot instantly create democracies out of lands living in centuries-old economies, burdened with centuries-old customs. The best thing America could have done for this region would have been generous economic assistance, but the U.S. has demonstrated, again and again, it has little genuine interest in that sort of thing. The customs and backwardness of centuries only melt away under the tide of economic development. Democracy follows almost automatically eventually.
The quick fix is what the U.S. demands, a quick fix to its own perceptions of problems under the guise of supporting democracy and opposition to terror, will achieve absolutely nothing over the long term.
JOHN CHUCKMAN is the author of What’s It All About? The Decline of the American Empire, published by Constable & Robinson Ltd, London. Available from Indigo Books, Canada.