Pakistan’s balancing act

An interview with Fatima Bhutto

Fatima Bhutto was born in Kabul in 1982. Her father Murtaza Bhutto, son of Pakistan’s former president and prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and an elected member of parliament, was killed by the police in 1996 in Karachi during the premiership of his sister, Benazir Bhutto. She lives and writes in Karachi, Pakistan. She is the author of three books. Whispers of the Desert, a volume of poetry, was published in 1997 by Oxford University Press Pakistan when Fatima was 15 years old. 8.50 a.m. 8 October 2005, a collection of first-hand accounts from survivors of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, was published by Oxford University Press in 2006. Her latest book, just published by Nation Books, is Songs of Blood and Sword. Bhutto spoke with ISR editorial board member Anthony Arnove, author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal.

THE NEW York Times reported on October 18 that the United States is negotiating a “multiyear security pact with Pakistan, complete with more reliable military aid—something the Pakistani military has long sought to complement the five-year, $7.5 billion package of nonmilitary aid approved by Congress last year,” but added that “the American gestures come at a time of fraying patience on the part of the Obama administration, and they will carry a familiar warning.... ‘Pakistan has taken aggressive action within its own borders. But clearly, this is an ongoing threat and more needs to be done,’ the State Department spokes?man, Philip J. Crowley, said.” How would you characterize the Obama administration’s stance toward Pakistan, and what do you expect to be the outcome of this pressure?

AMERICA HAS always played this sort of carrot-and-stick policy with us. It goes back to the late 1950s, when Pakistan signed on to be an arm of American interests in the region, and continues until now. General Pervez Musharraf, America’s last favorite dictator, bent over backwards to accommodate America, and yet it was never enough. Obama’s administration takes up where George W. Bush’s left off. The drone strikes have even been escalated. Bush employed drone strikes 45 times during his eight years in power. Obama exercised the use of drones 53 times last year alone. In fact, he ordered his first drone strike against Pakistan 72 hours after ascending to the presidency. There have been over 90 drone strikes against Pakistan this year, and we haven’t even hit December yet.

The current administration is even more amenable to American pressure than Musharraf’s was, and that’s saying something. Asif Ali Zardari has opened up Pakistan’s skies for these drone strikes most enthusiastically. It’s the first time in our history we’ve ever opened our country so that a foreign power may kill our citizens.

Obama, like Bush, continues to support and prop up corrupt and criminal leadership in the region. Zardari’s and [Afghanistan President] Hamid Karzai’s graft are infamous. And the United States looks the other way when Pakistan’s government imposes draconian censorship on its press and people. If the Pakistani army gives in to this increased American pressure—and the history of their relationship leads us to think they won’t be able to carry out all the conditions imposed on them by the Americans, conditions which are unpopular not only within the country but also within the army itself—it will only lead to more unrest in Pakistan and more tension between the Pakistani state and its people, who already feel their government and its machinery operates at the behest of a foreign power. 

THE DRONE strikes are wildly unpopular in Pakistan and have led to widespread displacement of people, destruction of homes, and civilian casualties. How does the government handle this balancing act of supporting the attacks and yet denying this fact in public?

VERY BADLY. No government can handle such a balancing act. These attacks are not only geared toward destabilizing al-Qaeda but also to destabilize Pakistan. Any unpopular act the government undertakes destabilizes it, and this is an unpopular government, especially one that involves the murder of its people—there have been more than 2,000 Pakistanis killed in drone attacks thus far.

The worst month for casualties and deaths resulting from drone attacks was the month after the floods, the most devastating natural disaster in Pakistan’s history. And we know that at that time, instead of withdrawing their support for drone strikes that are killing Pakistani civilians, at the time of utter havoc wreaked by the floods, the Pakistani government did the opposite and assured Washington and its NATO allies that they would not be diverting their troops from the war on terror efforts in the north to aid flood relief and rehabilitation.

As the floods raged in August, the provincial health secretary, Khurshnood Lashari, claimed that the Jacobabad airbase on the Sindh and Baluchistan border was being reserved for the unmanned drones—and that this is why the airbase could not be used to facilitate flood relief. The U.S. Embassy immediately denied they were using Pakistani airbases to launch their attacks, of course, and the Pakistani government kept very, very silent. 

According to Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, when CIA Director General Michael Hayden told Zardari that the United States would be employing unmanned Predator and Reaper drones against Pakistan, the Pakistani president is said to have replied, “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

Zardari not only enthusiastically enabled the drone strikes against his country but went a step further and asked America for drone technology for Pakistan. He’s desperate to possess it. Why? To attack his own people? His neighbors? It’s outrageous.

THE WASHINGTON Post reports that, “The United States has renewed pressure on Pakistan to expand the areas where CIA drones can operate inside the country.” Can you comment on the areas they are seeking to target and what the impact of a broader drone strike campaign might be?

THE IMPACT will be more deaths, more civilian deaths. It is absurd that, after nine years, the Americans are still using the same tactics in the “war on terror.” Tactics that promise swift solutions to universal terror, huge military interventions that haven’t been swift in any sense, given that we’re nine years into the failure of this war. Baluchistan, if it is attacked, will not yield any more results for the conclusion of this war on terror. America’s huge military actions have failed for the last nine years. Pakistan’s military interventions in Baluchistan have failed for the last 60 years. 

By expanding the surface area of the drone strikes, the United States will only increase terror, fuel violence, and lessen any goodwill that they might have (which is very little to begin with, I’d argue). That said, the Pakistani government would love to take the drones to Baluchistan—not only because it would make America happy, but also because this is an extraordinarily rich province that has been economically exploited by the state since time immemorial and where some 10,000 people have been disappeared since the war on terror began in 2001.

THE LATEST disclosures from WikiLeaks reveal that, as the New York Times reported, “Last fall, the Pakistani Army secretly allowed 12 American Special Operations soldiers to deploy with Pakistani troops in the violent tribal areas near the Afghan border.” What kind of operations were these and are they continuing? What has been the reaction inside Pakistan to this news?

THE PAKISTANI people are the last to hear anything about what our state allows other armies to carry out on our soil. There’s been absolutely no light shed on any of these operations in the form of confirmations from the spokespeople attached to the current regime, who exist only to deny, deny, deny.

When asked if Blackwater was in Pakistan, the answer was no. When asked if the state was facilitating the drone attacks against their people, no. Did the chief of the army collaborate in the strikes against the northern areas? No. All bald-faced lies. And it’s not just the Pakistani machinery that’s lying. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, lied when he said America didn’t have troops on the ground in Pakistan. He didn’t even attempt to dance around his lie. It was an out and out untruth.

Anything involving collaboration with the U.S. Special Forces is always shrouded in absolute secrecy in the country. From previous operations, we know whatever they’re doing constitutes attacks on Pakistani sovereignty and most likely the most horrific human rights abuses. We can assume this from a long history of disappearances, renditions, torture, gun running, and more, that the American military has a dirty history in Pakistan. There’s no evidence that this enthusiastic cooperation with the U.S. Special Ops soldiers has stopped in the least.

THE TIMES adds that “The cables also reveal that the American Embassy had received credible reports of extrajudicial killings of prisoners by the Pakistani army more than a year before the Obama administration publicly acknowledged the problem.” A cable labeled “secret/noforn” on September 10, 2009, acknowledged “extrajudicial killing of some detainees” but stated that the U.S. ambassador “advises that we avoid comment on these incidents to the extent possible.”

IN THE Swat Valley, evidence of extrajudicial killings grows more sinister. In June 2010, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 282 extrajudicial murders had been carried out in the past year in the Swat Valley alone.

In September, a five-minute video was leaked showing men wearing what seemed to be Pakistani military uniforms and carrying standard issue G3 rifles executing six young men in plain clothes. The men were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs. The video, grainy mobile phone footage, shows one of the soldiers asking his commander in Urdu, “One by one?” “Together,” comes the reply, before the men in civilian clothes are fired at and killed. The Pakistani army insists that the video is a fake, though according to news sources including the BBC, Al Jazeera, and some American media outlets, unnamed American officials were surprisingly quick to voice a belief that the video is authentic.

Nothing has been done in the way of investigating any of these killings. And since those unnamed officials suggested this was a tactic of the Pakistani army, there have been no calls for Pakistan to answer the questions relating to this spate of extrajudicial killings. And this is just in the northern regions. We’re not even talking about the rest of the country. By August of this year, some 300 political activists or politicians in Karachi were victims of targeted killings. This is a hallmark of this government that, in the 1990s, presided over a genocidal rampage in the city of Karachi under Operation Clean Up, in which some 3,000 men were murdered in a two-year period.

YOU WRITE in your new book, Songs of Blood and Sword, about your rejection of the dynastic politics that have dominated Pakistan. Could you talk about your journey to this stance?

DYNASTIC POLITICS has been the scourge of Pakistan. It has transformed our political culture, subverted it to be a system that operates solely on the basis of names, rather than ideology, or personalities over platforms or principles. Dynasty isn’t unique to Pakistan. It’s found across the region, from India to Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, and I’d argue it’s not a particularly viable system anywhere.

For Pakistan, though, we’re at a crossroads right now in our history, and we have to make a choice. We can’t afford the luxury of no longer taking a stand. We have to choose whether we want to throw our lot in with dynasty or with democracy. They can’t go together. They can’t operate simultaneously, because dynasty ultimately cancels out democracy. Where democracy seeks to encourage participation—and I’m talking here not just of representative democracies, but of participatory ones—dynasty negates participation. It closes down what should essentially be an open system. Where democracy is inclusive, dynasty is exclusive. We’ve seen in Pakistan that decades of dynasty hasn’t strengthened democratic institutions, hasn’t furthered progressive reform, hasn’t elevated the level of discourse between a government and the people. It’s really a form of political inbreeding.

MILITARY PLANNERS now speak routinely about “Af-Pak,” reducing Pakistan to an appendage to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, which has now lasted even longer than the Soviet occupation. The likelihood of any withdrawal keeps receding into an ever-distant horizon, and we see Washington putting pressure on other countries to step up their presence in Afghanistan, especially as some NATO powers pull out troops. What role does the Obama administration expect Zardari to play in Afghanistan, in your view, and how is that viewed within Pakistan?

IT WOULD seem that so long as we continue to agree to let America use our country to launch their attacks against our neighbors, to open our skies, our borders, our airports, so that the war against Afghanistan can be more easily conducted, we’re doing what is asked of us.

Tariq Ali wasn’t exaggerating when he called Pakistan a “U.S. satrapy.” If you look through the latest tranche of cables released by WikiLeaks, it’s outrageous how often the Zardari government seems to acknowledge and thank America for keeping them in business. There’s no disguising the fact that it is this government’s acquiescence that keeps them in power. The minute they say no—which I wouldn’t hold my breath for—they’re out.

But there’s no danger of this happening. Zardari has even breathlessly assured his American allies that, if he is killed, they are not to worry, as his sister—as unqualified in any political or intellectual sense as her brother—would take over running the country and would continue the bidding of the Americans. This obeisance is regarded with deep anger and shame in Pakistan. We are only a 63-year-young country. There is a generation that remembers the fight for an independent Pakistan—and this is a state that operates at the behest of a foreign power.

IN THE establishment press, we rarely see any discussion about the social dynamics within Pakistan. Can you discuss the class fault lines in the country and also some of the linguistic, cultural, and ethnic divisions in the country among Bengalis, Punjabis, Pashtuns, Baluchis, Sinds, and others?

THERE IS one large class fault, and that is between the rich—the very rich—and the very poor, who are dispossessed in the extreme and who live without access to potable water, to health care, without access to justice, without even the most basic education. That is why the Islamists have been able to build a popular base across the country—simply because they provide what the state seems either unable or unwilling to provide.

While you have a majority of Pakistanis living in desperate poverty, you have a slim minority of those who are above the law. The courts run only at their behest—if they run at all. They have entire laws made up to protect their plundering of the state treasury, like the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), for instance, an odious piece of legislation brought in by General Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto that erased twenty years of corruption cases against politicians, bankers, and bureaucrats and includes a stipulation that will make it virtually impossible to file charges against sitting politicians in the future.

I’ll tell you something that demonstrates this fault line in regards to the NRO. Nasir Aslam Zahid is a former justice and chief justice of Sindh, and he resigned when judges were required to take their oath to a sitting general, Musharraf—so he’s the independent judiciary, not these others who took the oath and then complained about it later. Zahid refused and lost his judgeship, and he now runs the juvenile and women’s prisons in Karachi.

Two years ago, just after the NRO was passed, he told me the story of two young boys who had stolen the metal bar off a gate. They took the bar—which would have locked the gate shut, it’s a tiny piece of metal really—in front of the man whose gate it was, and so naturally they were caught and sent to the juvenile jail. Zahid met them and asked why they stole the bar. Why risk jail for such a small bit of metal? And one of the boys replied that they thought they’d get 100 rupees for it, maybe 150. A negligible amount in any case—maybe a dollar or two dollars worth of money.

“Why did you bother getting into all this trouble for such a small amount of money?” Zahid asked them, confounded, and the other boy replied, “Oh, well, we thought it wouldn’t be a problem because we heard there’s this new law that sets you free if you’re found guilty of stealing.” And Zahid replied, “For that law to benefit you, you’re going to have to steal a hell of a lot more.” It’s true, though. That’s the amazing thing.

As for the ethnic fault lines, there is a complete lack of provincial autonomy. Power is concentrated in the hands of the Punjabi elite. The army, the bureaucracy, they all are centered in the Punjab. Yet it is Sindh’s water, Baluchistan’s gas, Sindh’s oil, the natural resources of the northern province and their strategic position that the country runs on, while it’s Punjab’s large population that benefits.

PAKISTAN AND India both are nuclear powers, neither is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and both use their historic conflict domes?tically as a political weapon. How would you describe the current tension between India and Pakistan? Do you share Tariq Ali’s view, in his new book on Pakistan, The Duel, that “One of the older sources of official legitimacy—the cultivation of anti-Indian/anti-Hindu fervor—has... run dry.”

THE TENSION between India and Pakistan has always been between the two countries’ respective governments, but not their people. It has been a necessity for those governments, who have nothing else to stand on, who deliver nothing to their electorate (whether deliberately or not, that’s a whole other discussion), to distract from their poor rule by using the Pakistan card or, in our case, the India card. But Kashmir—which is the source of the tension—is not unresolvable. The Kashmiri people have come out and made it clear that they are ready for a resolution that involves India, Pakistan and the Kashimiri people. But in both countries, the political establishment is terrified of this idea.

There cannot be an Indian solution to Kashmir. There cannot be a Pakistani solution either. There has to be a Kashmiri solution. There has to be autonomy within the state of Kashmir—provincial autonomy, I mean. 

Kashmir is the most militarized zone in the world. It’s the longest running conflict. Dr. Mubashir Hasan, a founding member of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, is a great voice on Kashmir in Pakistan. I don’t mean to speak on his behalf, but in his writing he’s advocated a demilitarized Kashmir with Pakistan protecting its borders and India protecting its borders but neither country imposing itself on Kashmir and its people—again, autonomy and the devolution of power play big parts in this discussion. I’m also a great admirer of Basharat Peer and his extraordinarily courageous writing on Kashmir.

Yes, though, to get back to your main point—Tariq is right, this bogeyman has run dry. 

PAKISTAN HAS seen growing signs of unrest—the lawyers’ movement, protests against the government’s abysmal response to the massive flooding during the monsoons, the strike of the Gadani Ship-Breaking Democratic Workers’ Union. Do you think any of the social movements in Pakistan today have the possibility of bringing about institutional, structural change?

ABSOLUTELY. BUT they have to be people’s movements. They have to come from the grassroots, from those disaffected and those millions dispossessed, like some of the protest movements you mention. The lawyers’ movement was a strange one because it was fought for the independence of a judiciary that said absolutely nothing about the NRO. If the NRO is about anything, it’s about the sanctity of the law. Its about those in power being above the law, about the judiciary being subverted so the corrupt status quo can reign, and there was not one peep about this from the lawyers’ movement.

The lawyers’ movement was also a movement heralded as independent, but it was promoted and sponsored by political parties. That made it tribal: one man’s tribe against another, the chief justice against the general. Now that Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has been reinstated, we’re still waiting to see what he does in regards to the disappeared, the NRO, and investigating the corruption he said had him removed from office. The movement seems to have floundered. It had the aim to restore Iftikhar and they did that. Now who defends the disappeared? Who defends the law against those in power who have been extraordinarily enthusiastic about subverting it? But, yes. The objective conditions exist in Pakistan. It’s only a matter of time.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

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Critical Thinking


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