Panic Over Pakistan

by , January 01, 2008

The drumbeat to "do something" about Pakistan – preferably of a military nature – has been going on for some time, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is the perfect catalyst for such an enormous blunder. As far back as this last summer, the administration has been sending out signals that a direct assault on Waziristan, where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants are reputed to be holed up, is not out of the question. It was almost embarrassing to hear the pleading tone in Pakistani Foreign Minister Kurshid Kasuri’s voice, as he questioned the rationale for intervention and warned CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the U.S. had better not go there:

“If you have superiority in technical intelligence, please share that with us. And then you talk of going after targets – you will lose the war, the battle for hearts and minds. It is much better to rely on Pakistan[‘s] army. Pakistan[‘s] army can do the job much better, and the result will be that there will be far, far less collateral damage.”

The irony is that, when it comes to actually capturing and/or killing al-Qaeda’s top guns, the Pakistanis hold the world record, bar none: yet the mantra from Washington, getting increasingly loud and insistent as the American elections approach, is that it isn’t enough. To which Kasuri replied:

"People in Pakistan get very upset when, despite all the sacrifices that Pakistan has been making, you know, you have the sort of questions that are sometimes asked by the American media."

These days, the question being asked by the Western media and some Western politicians (such as Hillary Clinton) is: did the regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, by neglecting to provide ample security for Bhutto, become complicit in her murder? This whole thing is beginning to resemble the media narrative in the aftermath of the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, where the supposedly ubiquitous Syrian intelligence service was said to wield near-absolute power. Ipso facto, the Syrians did it (this in spite of evidence pointing to other possible perpetrators).

All sorts of elaborate conspiracy theories are being thrown together by the West’s best fantasists, which suggest rather strongly that Musharraf is less than sincere in his condemnation of the killing, and hinting broadly at his indirect cooperation with Bhutto’s killers – in spite of the fact that al-Qaeda has taken direct responsibility for the murder. An e-mail from Bhutto, released by the aforesaid Blitzer, is being touted as "evidence" that Musharraf’s men deliberately left Bhutto vulnerable.

Potentially more destabilizing is the emerging dispute over how Bhutto was killed. The Pakistani government’s official report specifies that she died as the result of a blow to the head: when the attack occurred, she was standing with her upper body through the sun roof of her bulletproof vehicle. Her bodyguards tried to pull her into the vehicle, hitting her skull on a lever in the car roof – that’s what killed her. Other witnesses, however, attest to having supposedly seen bullet wounds.

All this is part and parcel of the typically simplistic Western media narrative of Bhutto, the martyred "democrat," a woman who stood up against the Islamists and the unsympathetic Musharraf, Pakistan’s Pinochet. Yet the reality, as William Dalrymple points out in the Guardian, is far more complicated.

Pakistan is in many ways a modern, developed nation, and yet the rising middle class has yet to rise up politically: power is in the hands of the large landowners. Bhutto was the exemplar of this system, an autocrat who presided over her domain using methods that were far from democratic. During her years in power, Amnesty International condemned the Pakistani government for presiding over extra-judicial killings, frequent torture, and one of the highest rates of prison deaths in the world. Even her own family wasn’t immune:

"Within her party, she declared herself the lifetime president of the PPP and refused to let her brother Murtaza challenge her. When he persisted in doing so, he ended up shot dead in highly suspicious circumstances outside the family home. Murtaza’s wife Ghinwa and his daughter Fatima, as well as Benazir’s mother, all firmly believed that Benazir gave the order to have him killed."

Now that the father and the son have succeeded her as head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the royal succession is official and will be tested in the upcoming elections. Whatever the PPP represents, however, it isn’t the spirit of liberal democracy. As Dalrymple puts it:

"Today, Benazir is being hailed as a martyr for freedom and democracy, but far from being a natural democrat, in many ways, Benazir was the person who brought Pakistan’s strange variety of democracy, really a form of ‘elective feudalism’, into disrepute and who helped fuel the current, apparently unstoppable, growth of the Islamists."

The corruption of the Bhutto family, including the martyred Benazir, is indisputable: they plundered the country and socked away $100 million in overseas bank accounts. It’s not for nothing that Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, is known as "Mr. 10 Percent." Investigators uncovered a payment of some $10 million made by a gold dealer into Zardari’s Citibank account in Dubai just as the Bhutto government granted the dealer a monopoly on gold imports for Pakistan’s jewelry-making industry.

That’s why the PPP didn’t dare run him as the party’s candidate for prime minister, choosing instead to make him co-chair of the PPP along with his son. Bilawal Zardari will henceforth take his mother’s name, although, as the father puts it, Bilawal is "of tender years," so dad will take the helm for the time being. (Old Mr. Ten Percent will have plenty of time to collect his cut.) The PPP candidate for prime minister is Makhdoom Amin Fahim, formerly the vice chairman of the party, a decidedly uncharismatic party loyalist who will put a bland face on the monarchical decadence of the same old Bhutto gang.

Benazir was a personable, brave, and thoroughly Westernized woman, whose political style was nonetheless akin to that of the shah of Iran, or any of the other flamboyant despots who have ruled over that area of the world with the approval of the West. She spoke excellent English, her first language, but her Urdu needed work, and as for her Sindhi – suffice to say that she was, in many ways, a foreigner in her own country. Her distance from ordinary Pakistanis was underscored by the fact that she built herself a presidential palace that Dalrymple deftly described as resembling "the weekend retreat of a particularly flamboyant Latin-American industrialist" – this in a country where grinding poverty is endemic and the national debt is enormous.

Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister deposed by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup, offers no real democratic alternative. As I wrote at the time of the coup:

"Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was increasingly unpopular, and often accused of trying to establish a personal dictatorship: he had recently cracked down on the opposition, and made inroads on the authority of the judiciary, but the real reason for the decline of his political fortunes was his decision to withdraw support from Islamic radical rebels in Kashmir, a disputed province claimed by both Pakistan and India. For years, the Pakistani military has been encouraging Syed Salahuddin, chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen, the pro-Pakistani Islamic rebel organization in Kashmir, arming, supplying, and training the insurgents, who want ‘reunion’ with Pakistan. While Sharif tried to whip up and ride the wave of Islamic radicalism that has engulfed Pakistan, the movement he helped to create quickly decided that he was not radical enough and called for his dismissal. Amid an economic downturn, and the ongoing humiliation in Kashmir – where a primarily Muslim population is governed by Hindu nationalists in New Delhi – it was only a matter of time before the Sharif government fell. The only question was: who will replace him – the Islamic radicals, who invited Osama bin Laden as the guest of honor at a gigantic rally held in Islamabad last year, or the military? The military preempted the militants – but don’t break out the champagne just yet."

Nawaz was the Kerensky of Pakistan’s Islamist revolution: if Musharraf and the army hadn’t acted, al-Qaeda would have had access to nuclear weapons two years before 9/11. Democracy may enthrall the Democratic candidates for president and their retinue of policy wonks in search of more gainful employment, but American interests and the history of Pakistan militate mightily against that unlikely prospect.

As in Iraq, and across much of Africa, we are left in Pakistan with the legacy of British imperialism, which imposed on the region national boundaries that bear little if any correspondence to real political, ethnic, and religious allegiances. Pakistan never was a genuine unitary state, and today, as the country comes apart at the seams, al-Qaeda is creeping into the cracks and crevices. While bin Laden’s minions are not even close to coming to power, the mere prospect of U.S. military intervention makes the jihadists salivate with anticipation: their ranks are already swelling, and the Islamist parties are gaining. The idea that a sudden infusion of "democracy" is going to solve Pakistan’s problems is a Western delusion that should have died a quick death in the sands of Iraq, and didn’t.

What’s interesting is that, on the home front, it’s the Democrats who are taking the lead in calling for U.S. intervention. Proposing such a reckless course was Barack Obama’s defining moment during the Democratic debates, dashing the hopes of some anti-interventionists, who saw, in the charismatic Iraq war critic, a potential antiwar standard-bearer. And although Hillary Clinton has lately been touting her experience in contrast to Obama’s steep learning curve in the foreign policy realm, she’s not exactly been ready for prime time during this crisis.

Clinton called Musharraf an "unreliable" ally and said she doubted elections could be held in the wake of Bhutto’s death. This last proved to be jumping the gun, as both the PPP and Sharif’s party have decided to contest the elections anyway, and, as for the former, it is hard to imagine that, in Musharraf’s absence, the U.S. has any allies at all, never mind reliable ones. Hillary clearly wants to dump Musharraf, just as her husband was at least passively complicit in the overthrow of Sharif and the installation of Musharraf as military dictator in 1999. Sharif was no longer useful to the United States and had to go. Now Musharraf is useful to Mrs. Clinton only as the symbol of George W. Bush’s failed policies.

Even worse, she is now recklessly indulging in conspiracy theories, openly speculating that Pakistan’s military murdered Bhutto: "There are those saying that al-Qaeda did it. Others are saying it looked like it was an inside job – remember, Rawalpindi is a garrison city."

Will the Clintons stop at nothing in their bid to establish their dynastic claim to the Oval Office – not even the destabilization of a nuclear-armed Pakistan? A more disgusting opportunism would be hard to imagine – and talk about unpresidential! If this is the voice of experience, I’ll take a greenhorn any time.

John Edwards isn’t much more reassuring. He reported to Wolf Blitzer that, via his contacts with Pakistan’s ambassador, Musharraf actually called him, and Edwards wasn’t shy about revealing his advice: a "transparent international investigation" into Bhutto’s murder, democratic elections, and more action in the tribal areas where bin Laden and his followers are supposedly ensconced. In short, he echoed Clinton and Obama, while adding that we needed to use our aid package to Pakistan as "leverage" to get "reform."

The reality is that the panicked atmosphere surrounding this issue is completely bogus: the Pakistanis are getting their act together, and the country is not falling into chaos. The hopped-up hysterics of our media during a very slow news cycle is closely tied up with their inherent bias in favor of yet another manufactured "crisis," which puts pressure on political candidates to respond with what is thought to be appropriate assertiveness.

"Well, then," David Shuster demanded of Ron Paul, during a television interview shortly after the assassination, "what would you do, what action would you take?" Action without thought of the consequences: that’s the problem with the formulation of foreign policy in Western democracies – too much action and too little thought, when "doing something" is only apt to turn a crisis into a catastrophe. That, unfortunately, is how a politically driven foreign policy is often made in Western democracies, but Paul didn’t fall for it.

Instead, he condemned the massive aid to the Musharraf regime and said that we shouldn’t be undermining him, either, by "stirring up the fires of civil unrest." We don’t need to be "endlessly involved in these conflicts." We didn’t intervene when the Soviets had 40,000 nuclear weapons, and we don’t need to intervene in Pakistan, either, under the dubious rationale that its nukes are about to fall into the hands of Islamists. In fact, no such possibility immediately presents itself, and the "crisis" atmosphere generated by the American news media, in this instance, is biased in favor of the clumsiest sort of interventionism.

Pakistan is not now fated to fall into the hands of radical Islamists. Such an outcome becomes more probable, however, the more determined we are to "do something." As Dr. Paul knows from his experience as a physician, the guiding rule of American foreign policy should be "First, do no harm." Taking "action" – intervening either militarily or politically – will do more harm than good. The illusion that we can control events on the other side of the world is a dangerous one: the sooner we get over it, the more likely we are to stay out of trouble.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Just out on Taki’s Top Drawer: Why conservatives are unclear on the concept of Ron Paul.

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