December Issue 2008

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

“Allah, Army and America” — or to put it succinctly, the “3 As” — is a formula coined by social scientists that is often used to explain the political and social malaise that afflicts Pakistan. Numerous studies have been written on the Pakistani ruling elite’s amour with 2 As, namely Allah and the army. The most recent ones are by Hasan Abbas and Irshad Haqqani on the former, and books by Ayesha Siddiqa and Shuja Nawaz on the latter. However, what is usually missing from the discussion is how incurably enamoured the Pakistani ruling elite has become with the greatest imperialist power since the end of World War II, headquartered in Washington DC, ever since independence from British rule in 1947. And how little dividends, if any, this dangerous liaison has yielded to the people of Pakistan.

Tariq Ali’s latest work, The Duel, attempts to bridge this gap in our understanding of relations between the United States and the Pakistani ruling elite, which is rather timely given the stirrings of democracy evidenced by the launch of the judicial battle for the restoration of the chief justice last March, the coming to power of the PPP and the end of Musharraf’s dictatorship on the one hand, and the almost daily incursions and killing of innocent civilians on the country’s western borders in violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by American aircrafts, on the other. Ali is one of the few prominent Leftist Pakistanis who grew up during the formative years of Pakistan’s birth as a postcolonial state, and despite the fact that he left it in the 1960s to pursue a more fulfilling political career in Britain, he has penned three works on his native country. His two earlier works on Pakistan generated some controversy (not with the readers but among Pakistan’s ruling elite), the hallmarks of which can be seen in this latest work. When I asked Ali during an interview, while he was visiting Pakistan in 2002, whether he had any plans to update his conclusions about the country in Can Pakistan Survive? he had emphatically dismissed such a suggestion, saying that the conclusions he drew in 1981 were still relevant. That he had sufficient cause to renege on this promise is thus amply disconcerting. In many ways the book is a mea culpa for his native country’s economic and political woes and a testament to the changes which he has witnessed and chronicled in other parts of the world like Latin America, but never in Pakistan.

The book begins with a foundational history of Pakistan’s origins as a confessional state, brought into being by a political party dominated by feudal potentates. In many ways, the fact that the All-India Muslim League looked to the British Empire for protection and advancement of its interests and the demand for a separate state rather than the Indian people, were to provide the building blocks for independent Pakistan’s ruling elite, as the latter also selfishly relied on its relationship with the US for self-preservation, rather than the people who had actually sacrificed their lives and properties in the bloodbath of partition of the Indian subcontinent. Most readers will not be amused to find out that even the founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah was not immune to the charms of Washington, most noticeably evidenced by the fact that he had once unsuccessfully tried to sell the Flagstaff House to the then American ambassador in Karachi. This lucrative relationship was facilitated by the fact that for the first decade of Pakistan’s independence, there was neither a constitution for the new country neither were any elections held, which allowed an unelected coterie, led by Ghulam Mohammad and Iskander Mirza, to strengthen their power and cement a lasting alliance with the landed elite and the military. This coterie also set the tone for Pakistan’s foreign policy slavishly in tune with US strategic interests. An interesting curiosity which surfaced during that time was the inclusion of this “most Allied of America’s allies” in the Non-Aligned Movement, as well as an all-weather friendship with Maoist China, which survives to this day.

We all know the sorry state Pakistan took after the bureaucratic-military raj gave way to a more direct military takeover of the country by Ayub Khan in 1958. Ali’s description of Ayub’s years in power as well as the resentment that festered in then East Pakistan – which eventually led to the latter’s secession – are tinged with uniquely personal insights, especially into the class nature of the new Bangladeshi leadership under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as well as the Mukti Bahini guerillas inspired by Che Guevara, among others.

The truncated and moth-eaten state that remained after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, had a remarkable opportunity to be refounded by an unchallenged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with the military’s humiliating retreat to the barracks. However, he squandered the few chances that were made available to him, and the earlier promise of limited land reform, free public education and health, nationalisation of public utilities and an independent foreign policy gave way to the deterioration of democracy not only within the PPP but also the country as a whole. This, combined with Bhutto’s intransigence vis-à-vis the US on the issue of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, precipitated the overthrow of the first democratically-elected leader in the country’s history and subsequently led to the brutalisation of Pakistan’s political culture at the hands of a dictator who was green lighted to power by Washington, having firmly established his credentials for the job earlier in 1970 by brutally crushing the popular Palestinian uprising against the Jordanian monarch, known as Black September.

Tariq Ali’s closeness to Bhutto and his subsequent contacts with Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, allow him to devote a whole chapter to the rise and fall of the Bhutto dynasty. Like all charismatic post-colonial leaders of the third world, the tragedy of this dynasty is inevitably the tragedy of modern Pakistan. Formed by a dedicated cadre of people who wanted a thoroughgoing structural transformation of the state, petty dynastic politics and attempts to be on the “right side of history” have gradually isolated the PPP from its mass base, with the result that the post-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto leadership reposes more trust in the halls of power in Washington and London than in the Pakistani people. As a result, Pakistan’s largest political party is now little more than a patronage-doling machine dominated by feudals, opportunists and bandwagon careerists of every sort who have now anxiously hopped onto the Washington Consensus to preserve their privileges. This can only lead to tragedy, as in the case of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The failure of the Bhuttos, however, does not automatically grant immunity to other dynasties which have ruled Pakistan in the past, and unlike the Bhuttos, owe their origins to benign dictators, like the Sharifs and the Chaudharys of Gujrat, whose servility to power is well known and who do not offer any hope for the future.

The costs to Pakistan having been steered onto the flight path of American power by its ruling elite have been great and are growing. One of the most disastrous has been the events in neighbouring Afghanistan, where repeated attempts to stall state-led modernisation and secular nationalism (Amanullah’s ambitious reforms and a once- functioning, if official, communist Left) by foreign powers, Pakistan included, has now led to blowback on American shores in the form of 9/11 and on Pakistan’s western borders in the form of a war that now involves the Taliban, the Pakistan army and the US forces. In the absence of the secular-nationalist Left – with a puppet imported from California – in power in daytime Kabul, the task of resistance to foreign occupation in Afghanistan is inevitably left to remnants of the Taliban, who might very soon be reclaiming their past status as rulers of Afghanistan thanks to the spectacular corruption of a tiny US-backed elite and the success of the resistance. In Ali’s view, only a total withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and a type of alliance with China, Pakistan, India and Iran which guarantees non-interference in that country’s affairs can salvage a lasting peace for this tortured land.Ali shatters a few myths about Pakistan in this book, which supply the tons of paper devoted in the West to proving that Pakistan is a failed state. Firstly, the duel that he alludes to in the title of his book is not about the duel that now engulfs the country on its western borders between the Taliban and the government but between the people of Pakistan and the American-backed elite, who have historically ruled and plundered the country. In fact, this duel is a familiar story in many parts of the world — Colombia, Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the scores of tiny American protectorates in the Gulf, the Balkans and the Caucasus are part of this distinguished club. Secondly, that Pakistan is on the verge of a takeover by the Taliban and that the only party to do business with them are the khaki ironclads; in fact, the way Washington is currently dealing with the new regime in Islamabad proves that the latter claim is patently false. The way forward for Pakistan, according to Ali, lies in the end of the American search for a perpetual khaki-clad to manage Pakistan; a search which has only prevented the growth of organic politics in the country. In addition, Pakistan has to evolve from a national security state to one where desperately needed land reforms are carried out, with free health, education and housing for the poor; with peace with India as the foremost priority, and the formation of a South Asian Union with increasing political and economic ties to China and Iran in order to counter American efforts to put a permanent military presence there. Ali places little faith in the traditional political parties but hails the enthusiasm of the judicial activism which erupted in March 2007 in the struggle for restoration of the chief justice. One wishes he had also mentioned the scores of social movements that have been battling to change the status quo in various parts of the country, like the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab in Okara, the Baloch resistance, the peasant resistance in Hashtnagar in NWFP and the Fisherfolk Forum in Sindh, all refreshingly secular and having no truck with religion. But he makes up for it with warm references and homages throughout the book to regional poets and writers to show that art and culture, for one, have never been co-opted by the Washington Consensus and always been on the side of the people, providing a mirror and harbinger for the crushed hopes and aspirations of a people who yearn to be free from this destructive partnership with America.

The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.