October Issue 2007

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 17 years ago

“The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs — it is the universal appeal of freedom. Freedom is the design of our maker, and the longing of every soul.” After all the crimes against humanity that his administration has committed in the name of freedom, it takes an unusual degree of spineless audacity to cite George W. Bush as an authority on the subject. Even Republican stalwarts keen to succeed him in the White House would think twice before saying anything that could be construed as uncritical admiration of the incumbent and everything he stands for.

Such considerations did not deter Benazir Bhutto from prefacing the foregoing quotation with “President Bush has rightly noted” in an article published under her byline in The Washington Post last month. The former prime minister’s determined charm offensive has included frequent forays into the US and close encounters with the likes of Bush’s UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (who has previously served as the administration’s proconsul in Kabul and Baghdad), and late last month, she returned to woo the Democrats who control both houses of Congress — and who, by and large, are considerably less enamoured of their president’s disastrous stance on Iraq than Bhutto.

Apart from weaving for American politicians and bureaucrats the sorts of fantasies they are vulnerable to at the moment — for instance, the illusion that she would somehow be better-equipped than General Pervez Musharraf to deal with the dire situation in Waziristan — Bhutto has also been schmoozing the American press, winning plaudits from, among others, the right-wing columnist Robert Novak, who is convinced the “beautiful, charismatic and determined … graduate of Harvard and Oxford” is bent upon returning to Pakistan “to promote democracy and fight extremism.”

There can be little doubt Bhutto remains convinced that the primary constituency she needs to convince of her suitability as a born-again prime minister of Pakistan consists of the government machinery and the congressional majority in Washington, DC. Her attitude 20 years ago, at a time when she genuinely enjoyed mass popularity at home, was strikingly similar. It’s an unfortunate state of mind but, even more unfortunately, it does have a basis in reality.

us-zulfikar-bhutto-oct07There is a strong chance that Benazir’s basic frame of reference in this context is her father’s lamentable fate. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arguably headed the only long-term government in Pakistan that did not instinctively kowtow to Uncle Sam at every available opportunity. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was disinclined to be dictated to, and it is quite likely Washington was more perturbed by evidence of his closeness to relatively radical Arab nationalists such as Muammar Gaddafi and Houari Boumedienne than by his government’s friendship with China or increasingly cordial relations with the Soviet Union.

It was over Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions that Henry Kissinger infamously threatened to “make an example” of Z.A. Bhutto, and by the time the crisis of 1977 erupted, no one had the slightest doubt about the side on which the United States and its interventionist intelligence agencies stood. Bhutto’s judicial murder, more or less, coincided with dramatic political events in Kabul, whereafter General Zia-ul-Haq’s emergence as Washington’s favourite military tyrant was only a matter of time.

The moral of this story, as far as Benazir is concerned, is that Papa’s nonchalance about Washington’s opinion of him was a fatal error, and she wouldn’t dream of repeating the mistake.

It was possible, of course, to draw a rather different lesson from the foregoing tragedy: it could have, for instance, reinforced the determination to establish a level of sovereignty that Pakistan has never before experienced. But that was not to be.

It does not follow, however, that blame for Pakistan’s multifarious woes can be laid squarely on the shoulders of the US. Washington’s influence has played a deleterious contributory role in many respects over the decades, but we are essentially the authors of our own misfortunes — not least in terms of offering the US repeated opportunities to establish, and abuse, its clout.

In the years after its inception, unlike many other post-colonial states, Pakistan opted against non-alignment. Using as leverage an invitation from the Soviet Union, the country’s first prime minister succeeded in procuring an extended vacation in the US, well before Washington had shown much interest in enlisting the brand new nation as an ally in the incipient Cold War. Within its first decade of existence, Pakistan became a signatory to the Baghdad Pact (whose nomenclature was revised to make it the Central Treaty Organisation, or CENTO, after Iraq pulled out in 1958) and the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation, or SEATO.

Both of these western-sponsored bodies were intended as bulwarks against the much feared spread of communism in Asia and the Middle East. They were part of the “spheres of influence” game played by the superpowers, and Pakistan was disinclined from the outset to even feign neutrality. Among the consequences of this frame of mind were bizarre foreign policy stances. For instance, when Britain and France, in collaboration with Israel, militarily threatened Egypt’s sovereignty over the Suez Canal in 1956, the Suhrawardy administration wasted no sympathy on the victim of the aggression.

The following year, The Pakistan Times took notice of US ambassador Horace Hildreth’s comments at the Dacca Press Club to the effect that “criticism of Pakistan’s foreign policy generally came from people who were uninformed and unaware of the facts of life.” The Lahore-based newspaper, then still an independent entity, editorialised: “In condemning all the critics of the Pakistan government’s foreign policy as ignoramuses, the US ambassador has not only violated the rules of diplomatic conduct but insulted a large number of parties…” What’s interesting, of course, is that 10 years into Pakistan’s existence, the US envoy felt perfectly comfortable giving vent to petty political grievances.

In an era when the US did not even pretend to have qualms about military dictators (provided they were unequivocally anti-communist at the domestic and regional levels), it took a shine to General Ayub Khan, and before long he was being hailed as the epitome of a Third World strongman and as the Asian Charles de Gaulle. Passions on both sides cooled somewhat in the wake of the 1965 war, which had led to the suspension of American arms sales to India as well as Pakistan. This wasn’t hypocrisy on Washington’s part: it had made it clear to Islamabad that military assistance was only conceivable in the event of conflict with a communist or pro-communist state. India clearly did not fit that category.

It was, nonetheless, a sobering moment for Pakistan, as it reflected on the conditionality of American friendship. Perhaps it should have been paying more attention: Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had frankly pointed out a decade earlier that the US had no friends, only interests.

Pakistan’s next military dictator, Yahya Khan, served as a conduit for American contacts with China, and his reward was the Nixon administration’s infamous, and broadly inconsequential, “tilt towards Pakistan” during the Bangladesh war. Tellingly, there is no record of any attempt by Washington to curb its ally’s genocidal behaviour in 1971.

By far the deadliest phase of American involvement in Pakistan unfolded nearly a decade later. Not long after Soviet tanks had rolled into Kabul, General Zia accompanied Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to the Afghan border and literally begged the Americans to step in and prevent the communist hordes from overrunning his country. Incursions into Pakistan weren’t on Moscow’s menu, and Zia’s desperation was mainly due to other considerations: the illegitimacy of his regime posed a problem both at home and abroad, and he hoped collaboration with the US on its favourite battlefield, anti-communism, would serve as a reprieve for his detested regime. He wasn’t entirely wrong. What he presumably didn’t know at the time was that the man standing next to him had been instrumental in provoking the Soviet intervention — as Brzezinski himself confessed without remorse many years later.

Zia’s stock in Washington steadily rose as the CIA’s biggest covert war since Vietnam got under way and the Carter administration made way for the Reaganites. The mujahideen, trained by western and Pakistani commandos, not only fought the Soviet forces and the Kabul regime’s army but also targeted all symbols of enlightenment, including schools, and especially schools for girls. There is more than an element of irony in the fact that many of the aims of the US-backed Karzai administration are not all that different from what the Soviet-backed governments were attempting to achieve. And it’s at least equally ironic that some of the leading beneficiaries of American munificence in the 1980s, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, are now allied with the Taliban.

If Pakistan was among the leading victims of Washington, Riyadh and Islamabad’s Afghan policy, its status is certainly no lower in the blowback stakes. Nor was the interim between the Zia and Musharraf dictatorships as uneventful as Benazir Bhutto would like the world to believe. She told an audience in the US Senate last month that extremists had been unable to gain a foothold in Pakistan during her two terms as prime minister. Not surprisingly, she must have deemed it imprudent to remind her potential benefactors of the inconvenient truth that it was during her second stint as head of government that the Taliban were transferred to Afghan soil from madrassahs in Pakistan. One of the intentions behind this move was to reduce their nuisance value on the Pakistan side of the border. In retrospect, the attempt clearly backfired.

us-musharraf-oct07In the aftermath of 9/11, Musharraf had little choice but to acquiesce in American designs. The consequences for Pakistan have been unpleasant, and there is plenty of cause to suspect that the truth about the subsequent role of American forces on Pakistani soil has been covered up. Yet, notwithstanding periodic pats on the back from Benazir’s favourite political philosopher, George W. Bush, American trust in Musharraf has never quite been unequivocal. His tightrope performance has frequently been found unconvincing. Somewhat arbitrarily, it has been decided a double act with Benazir would somehow be worthier of international applause.

At the time of writing, it isn’t clear whether Anglo-American efforts towards a Bhutto-Musharraf deal have produced results. It’s conceivable that the military ruler’s strictly conditional offer to discard his uniform in the event of his “re-election” is part of the package. Benazir has in recent years frequently indicated that she would end her exile “soon;” she never did. Her promised return this month, however, is reinforced by the western support she has succeeded in garnering: it has been reported that Condoleezza Rice even brought up the subject during her notorious 2 a.m. phone call to Musharraf, during which Pakistan’s president was ordered not to impose emergency rule.

None of the foregoing is intended to suggest that Pakistan has somehow been singled out for special treatment by Uncle Sam. Various forms of intervention have been a pillar of US foreign policy since the 19th century, beginning with Latin American countries, many of which have fared considerably worse than Pakistan over the decades. After the Second World War, Washington spread its net farther and wider even as it nudged the old European colonial powers towards relinquishing their hold on vast swaths of Asia and Africa. Its anti-communist crusade included not only replacing French military power in Indo-China but also manipulating political events in Italy, for instance, condoning the murder of democracy by Greek colonels in the mid-1960s and backing the apartheid regime’s endeavours in South Africa until well into the 1980s, when Pretoria’s description of Nelson Mandela as a terrorist was still being parroted by its friends in Washington and London.

Nor is Pakistan by any means the only country where military dictatorship has, from the American point of view, been the preferred form of governance. Not all that long ago, uniforms were common enough in the corridors of power throughout Latin America. Over the past couple of decades, however, the trend has been towards ensconcing trusted civilians in power. Pakistan has lagged behind in this respect, and now we may be about to witness a relatively rare phenomenon: a Punch and Judy act sponsored by the production company that has to its credit two regional theatres of war.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.