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Pakistan: the Aftermath

by TARIQ ALI

Arranged marriages can be a messy business. Designed principally as a means of accumulating wealth, circumventing undesirable flirtations or transcending clandestine love affairs, they often don’t work. Where both parties are known to loathe each other, only a rash parent, desensitised by the thought of short-term gain, will continue with the process knowing full well that it will end in misery and possibly violence. That this is equally true in political life became clear in the recent attempt by Washington to tie Benazir Bhutto to Pervez Musharraf. The single, strong parent in this case was a desperate state department – with John Negroponte as the ghoulish go-between and Gordon Brown as the blushing bridesmaid – fearful that if it did not push this through both parties might soon be too old for recycling."

I wrote this opening paragraph in a lengthy essay for the London Review of Books earlier this month. That the violence would come so soon afterwards took me aback. The first shock of Benazir Bhutto’s killing is now receding and it’s necessary to evaluate the likely outcome dispassionately, avoiding the piety that occupies so much space in the global media. Virtually everything being written or shown on television screens is specious and designed to avoid discussing the real issues at stake.

Why were Bush, Negroponte and their British acolytes so determined to fix the crisis in Pakistan in this fashion? What did they think it would achieve? What brave new world did they envisage?

Virtually all their assumptions are based on facts that are systematically and selectively pruned, distorted or overstated. The aim is to avoid all Western responsibility for the present crisis. Since all this is endlessly repeated with minor variations by the global media networks, it is worth treating each major theme in turn.

Pakistan is a nuclear state, the only Muslim country to test and possess nuclear weapons. There is a danger that if the jihadisal-Qaeda were to gain control of these weapons they could unleash a nuclear holocaust. Musharraf has to be supported because he is staunchly opposed to this possibility.

It’s worth remembering that Pakistan perfected its nuclear device during the Eighties under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul Haq, a valued ally of the West and central to its then war against the Evil Empire (the Soviet Union) in Afghanistan. The United States was so obsessed with punishing the Russians that it did so by both organising a global jihadi network to recruit militants to fight the holy war in Afghanistan and turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s hardly secret construction of a nuclear facility.

The nuclear facility is under very tight military control. There is no way any extremist group could gain control of this in the face of an army half a million strong. The only way any religious extremists could achieve state power is if the Army wanted this to happen. But as the Pentagon and the DIA know full well, the Pakistani military command structure has never been broken and that the generals are heavily dependent on US funds and weaponry. The Pakistan Army invoices Centcom in Florida each month for its activities on the Pak-Afghan border. It is the military as an institution that delivers the goods, not individual generals. Musharraf has no legitimacy left since he discarded his uniform. Hence Bush’s insistence that the elections go ahead despite a mass boycott, imprisoned judges, a neutered media, key politicians under house arrest and the public execution of Ms Bhutto. If only Benazir decided to boycott the elections (it would have meant a break with Washington), she would still have been alive.

Pakistan is a failed state. It is on the verge of collapse and waiting in the wings are angry, determined jihadis. Hence the need for a non-religious alternative and the grooming of Benazir Bhutto to help Musharraf acquire some badly-needed legitimacy.

Pakistan is not a ‘failed state’ in the sense of the Congo or Rwanda. It is a dysfunctional state and has been in this situation for almost four decades. Sometimes the situation is better and sometimes worse. At the heart of this dysfunctionality is the country’s domination by the Army and each successive period of military rule has made things worse. It is this that has prevented political stability and the emergence of stable institutions. Here the United States bears direct responsibility since it has always regarded the military as the only institution in the country it can do business with and this is still the case. This is the rock that has diverted admittedly choppy waters into a headlong torrent. Economically the country is lop-sided with a corrupt and ultra-rich elite, but surely this is perfect for the Washington Consensus. And the World Bank has been full of praise for the economic policies of Musharraf.

The latest crisis is a direct result of the NATO occupation and war in Afghanistan which has destabilised Pakistan’s North-West frontier and created a crisis of conscience inside the Army. There is much unhappiness at being paid to kill fellow Muslims in the tribal areas that border both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The arrogant behaviour of NATO soldiers has hardly helped matters in either country. Sending US troops to train the Pakistan military in counter-insurgency is likely to inflame passions further. Afghanistan can only be stabilised via a regional agreement involving India, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, coupled with the total withdrawal of all NATO troops. It is US attempts to avoid this that enhance the crisis in both countries.

Musharraf has failed as a US pointman in Pakistan. His failure to protect Benazir Bhutto has not gone down well in Washington and they could dump him within the next year and pin their hopes on General Ashraf Kiyani, who replaced Musharraf as Army chief. It’s less easy to find a substitute for Benazir. The Sharif brothers are not as reliable and far too embedded with the Saudis. The elections will be royally rigged and thus lack any real legitimacy. The dark night is far from over.

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