The U.S. and the making of Pakistan’s crisis

May 13, 2008

David Barsamian has been working in radio since 1978 and is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, the independent award-winning weekly series based in Boulder, Colo. He is the author of several books, including Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky and The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting.

The following is a speech Barsamian presented in April at The Attic, a "space for the living arts" in New Delhi, India.

PAKISTAN IS routinely quoted in the American media as "the world's most dangerous country." You can turn to Newsweek, USA Today, Business Week and other magazines and newspapers, and it's always described in those dire terms. How it became that way is never explained. It just happened. It may be something in the genes of Pakistanis, that they are naturally inclined to be dangerous.

But I think it's important to talk about U.S. involvement in Pakistan. Because that explains a lot of why Pakistan is the way it is today. According to the Human Rights Commission of that country, which just issued its annual report, Pakistan is a nation that is "half alive." And 2007 is called "one of the worst years in Pakistan's history, if not the worst."

So I think it's crucial to know a little bit about the background of the country. And it's interesting how India factors in this and especially the U.S. When Pakistan was created out of British India in 1947, the U.S. was at that time kind of dividing the world into different regions that it would seek to dominate. South Asia was part of that focus. The major focus was West Asia for obvious reasons: oil. But South Asia was also of great interest to Washington.

In the post-colonial era of newly independent states, an alternative between the U.S. and the USSR was trying to establish itself. It was the non-aligned movement. India's Nehru was its most visible figure. But there were others such as Kenyatta in Kenya, Nkrumah in Ghana, Nasser in Egypt and Sukarno in Indonesia.

This Third Way Bandung (the site in Indonesia where the non-aligned movement met) politics was viewed by Washington with great apprehension. It is interesting. Instead of, perhaps, embracing the non-aligned Third World movement, Washington saw it as a threat. Even then, the idea was: You're either with us or you're against us. You can't be in the middle. There is no grey area.

So Washington, in response to the non-aligned movement, as well as its primary goal of "containing" the USSR, started to create a network of military alliances. Pakistan would be used as a foil to India. It was quickly brought into U.S.-run military alliances, specifically CENTO (the Central Treaty Organization), also known as the Baghdad Pact, as well as SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization). Although how Pakistan geographically comes into South East Asia is, of course, a bit of a leap as they say.

What Washington was doing was globalizing its Latin American model, which it had developed over decades. That is to say, to create strong alliances with military and security services in client states. The military and security services were always seen as natural allies of the United States that could be relied upon. They were dependable. They were hierarchal, top-down organizations that did not brook dissent.

So the Latin American model now is globalized. And Pakistan is brought into the U.S. orbit. And the Pakistanis, fearing rival India, were quite willing to come under the U.S. umbrella. Pakistani officers are brought to the United States for training. There are mutual exchanges and military exercises and billions of dollars of weapons are flowing to Pakistan.

The U.S. supports a string of military dictatorships beginning with Ayub Khan in 1958, continuing through Yahya Khan and then the notorious Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88). And finally, Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999. He is president of the country, but his position is very shaky right now. He has become a major liability for the Americans. He has become an albatross around their necks.

THAT WAS one of the reasons they had negotiated this deal with Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan. She was going to be the eloquent, articulate, sophisticated, Harvard and Oxford-educated face of Pakistan, with Musharraf in the background. As part of the deal, Benazir agreed to allow American troops to openly operate in the country. In return, she exacted a high price for her cooperation. The most controversial condition was the dropping of all criminal charges facing not only her but also her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and members of the Pakistan People's Party.

There were two other components of the deal. The clause in the Pakistani constitution that would only allow for a prime minister to serve for two terms was to be eliminated. Recall that Benazir served as twice as prime minister from 1988-1990, then again from 1993-1996. So that was going off the books. And the last, not-so-well-known, condition was the removal of the clause in the Pakistani constitution which allows a president to dismiss a prime minister for corruption or incompetence or for violating the constitution. Twice, Benazir was dismissed by presidents.

So those were the conditions that she negotiated for her return to Pakistan on October 18, 2007. Many Pakistanis were aghast by the deal she struck. Her detractors sarcastically referred to her as "Bezamir" (Urdu for "no conscience").

Benazir is a subject of great interest in the United States, particularly since her shahadat, martyrdom. She has been glorified in death. Her actual historical record has been distorted and reinvented. It's not surprising, because I'm old enough to remember John F. Kennedy. And when he was assassinated, all of a sudden he became a saint. Everyone forgot about his invading Cuba, his using chemical weapons and bombing Vietnam, counter-insurgency in Laos, and the coup in Brazil. Once he was killed, he was transformed into an angel.

It is not surprising that a similar pattern occurs in Pakistan. It may have even happened in India when different political leaders have died. History is engineered. It's an interesting concept almost like a building--you can reconstruct it. So history is reworked in order to glorify and sanitize the one who has died.

But there are other aspects of Pakistan and why its relationship with United States became so military dominated.

The U.S. had a particular strategy for West Asia, the Middle East as it is referred to in the U.S. The region was to be controlled by "local cops on the beat" as Nixon's Defense Secretary Melvin Laird called it. And that's to say that Israel, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, all non-Arab states, were all recruited by the U.S. to kind of police the Arabs. And of course, if there were a big problem, then Washington would intervene directly. But the preference was to delegate the smaller tasks to surrogates.

So Pakistan proved to be valuable asset. In 1970, the Pakistani army under Zia-ul-Haq was responsible for attacks on Palestinians in Jordan during the Black September period. Pakistani air force pilots were basically the Saudi Air Force. The Saudis had no pilots; they used Pakistani pilots to fly their planes. And the U.S. established an important spy base in Pakistan outside Peshawar. It was from that base that the infamous Gary Powers and his U-2 plane took off from to spy on the USSR in 1960. Powers' capture created a huge incident between the two superpowers.

Today, in fact, it is suspected that very same base has been resurrected by the U.S. and is being used to launch missile strikes in the frontier areas as well as in what is called FATA, the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas. This is not exactly a province of Pakistan. Pakistan has four official provinces, and then it has what are called the tribal areas.

Many Americans, when they hear the terms tribes and tribal leaders, immediately lapse into the clichés of wild Indians, the indigenous population, attacking innocent white settlers who are trying to bring civilization to the savages. The vocabulary has been repeated in Iraq in exactly the same way. Sunni tribes led by sheikhs, have been hired by the Americans to do their bidding. In a classic colonial technique, this is how they win the hearts and minds of people in Iraq or Pakistan. Let me demonstrate another technique of power and control. [A large wad of rupees is shown to the audience.] This is money. The people are bought to perform certain services for the paymaster.

It was the great jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s that saw the U.S.-Pakistan relationship bloom into full flower. Zia-ul-Haq's 1977 U.S.-backed coup ousting Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto effectively ended a democratic interlude in Pakistan. Bhutto, father of Benazir, with all his flaws, was a civilian ruler and had promulgated a constitution for the country. He was the founder of the PPP--the Pakistan People's Party. Zia had him executed in 1979.

Zia was an all-too-willing satrap and instrument to promote Washington's goal of giving the Soviets a "Vietnam" in Afghanistan. Billions of dollars flowed into Pakistan from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to arm and train jihadis from all over the Islamic world who were brought to Pakistan and then sent into Afghanistan to fight.

The Afghan operation was the biggest in the CIA's history. It worked closely with the powerful Pakistani ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The ISI made sure the bulk of the weapons coming in from the U.S. and Europe went to its favorite client, the fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

All the U.S. and Saudi money was funneled through the ISI and Pakistani military. Much of it simply disappeared. It is in this period when Zia institutes his fundamentalist Islamic program. Highly restrictive laws directed against women are implemented. Many are still in place. It is during the '80s that many of the extremist madrassas, seminaries, are established and funded.

ZIA'S REIGN is without question the darkest era in Pakistan's 60-plus-year history. The country has not yet fully recovered from the excesses of his rule. He was killed in a plane crash in 1988. The cause of the crash, which also killed the head of the ISI and the American ambassador to Islamabad, remains a mystery.

The U.S., hell-bent on its agenda of bloodying the Soviets, played a central role in turning parts of Pakistan into a center for jihad. The consequences have been huge. Some of the jihadis, who President Reagan called "freedom fighters," later morphed into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The primacy of the military in Pakistan has seriously diminished and hindered the development of civil society along, for want of a better term, more normal lines. U.S. policy is greatly responsible for that. Pakistan has been prevented from, let's say, evolving along the line of its neighbor India in terms of civil society. It's always been the military that has been in the foreground in the country. It was privileged by the Americans over all other groups.

Do you know the great American philosopher Yogi Berra? He's a kind of a character people make jokes about. He's kind of like Mullah Nasruddin. He seems to be foolish but he says incredibly intelligent things (Yogi Berra is not a yogi by the way). He was asked once by an American, "How would you explain how Pakistan is ruled?" And he said, "Well, first of all, 22 feudal families control 40 percent of the country's wealth." Then he said, "The other 90 percent is controlled by the military."

Yogi has a problem with math. But he doesn't have problem with analysis of a situation. The dominance and intervention of the Pakistani military in that country's economic life is stunning, You may not be aware of the kinds of things controlled by the Pakistani military. For example, they are the largest realtors in the country. They have housing developments, banks, strip malls, cement factories, they make tissue paper and, last but not least, breakfast cereal! The poet Daman said it well, "Now each day is fair and balmy. Everywhere you look: the army."

There is a very good book on this topic, by Pakistani scholar Ayesha Saddiqa, it's called Military Inc. It's the first book to document in detail the role and degree of involvement of the military in the Pakistani economy.

A lot has happened in the last year. The crisis began on March 9, 2007, when Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was dismissed by Musharraf. Why? The chief justice was reportedly looking into the suspicious sale of a state steel mill. He was also asking questions about the whereabouts of the many Pakistanis disappeared by the state security services.

Musharraf has long been the American favorite in Pakistan. The U.S. has been supporting him since he overthrew Nawaz Sharif in 1999. As recently as early April, George Bush said he still supports Musharraf and called him a real friend of the United States. The general also received some $10 billion from the Americans to carry out their various projects in the so-called war against terrorism. Most of that money is unaccounted for and very little of it went to the needs of the Pakistani people.

Musharraf's dismissal of the chief justice sparked lawyers to take to the streets in protest. They maintained their protests through the year and into 2008. It was an impressive display of consistency and principle. They were joined by others from civil society but it always seemed that it was the men in suits and ties who formed the bulk of the public opposition.

Pakistan's terrible year ended with the murder of Benazir in Rawalpindi on December 27. Few believed the Musharraf story blaming Beitullah Mehsud and the Taliban. Most Pakistanis believe the intelligence agencies must have been involved. They point to the quick cleansing of the murder site and the destruction of all forensic evidence. The Scotland Yard investigation, reluctantly agreed to by Musharraf, was thus very limited and many government officials were not available for questioning by the detectives. Political assassinations in Pakistan have a long history of never being solved.

Benazir's death set off a series of events. The January 8 elections were postponed until February 18. When they were held, Musharraf and his allies were given a stinging defeat. The Islamic parties also were routed. A coalition of the PPP, now led by Zardari, and the PML-N, led by Nawaz Sharif, formed a coalition to rule the country. Their alliance must be seen as temporary, as there are deep differences dividing them.

Nevertheless, there is a honeymoon period for the time being. The new prime minister, a PPP stalwart, Yusuf Gilani, endeared himself to many by lifting the dreaded bans on student unions and trade unions. The government has announced it is seeking some kind of truce with militants. The Americans are very nervous about this and are putting pressure on Islamabad not to go forward with any kind of peace deal.

Musharraf continues as president of the country. How long he will last is uncertain. It can't be for long. He is even more unpopular than his patron and payroll master, George W. Bush. The latter is bound for Crawford, Texas. And Musharraf, if he avoids being killed, may end up in Miami, Fla., or in his house in Turkey.

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