The Churchill wannabes destroy any hope of a violence-free life in Pakistan
Benazir Bhutto's death is just the latest evidence of the disastrous legacy of western involvement in the country's politics
Pankaj Mishra; January 8, 2008 - The Guardian
Last week the portrait of Benazir Bhutto as the last great hope for democracy in Pakistan had barely received its finishing touches in the world media when it was muddied by accusations that the former prime minister had sponsored jihadists in Afghanistan and India-held Kashmir.
Neither assertion is without a measure of truth. Yet both obscure the major events that have rendered Pakistan unstable, even ungovernable, for at least two generations: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979; the American decision to turn Pakistan into the frontline state for a global anti-Soviet jihad; and, more recently, the Bush administration's corralling of Pakistan into the so-called war on terror.
Like many Asian countries, Pakistan stumbled from primeval chaos into postcolonial life, with an army as its strongest institution - which grew even more formidable after enlisting on the US side in the cold war. Six decades later, it is possible to see how in a less exacting climate Pakistan could have moved durably to civilian rule, as happened in Taiwan and Indonesia, two other pro-American dictatorships frozen by the cold war.
Such, however, was the scale and intensity of the CIA's programme to arm the Afghan mujahideen that it couldn't but retard political processes in Pakistan. General Zia-ul-Haq, who faced disgrace domestically and internationally after his execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, abruptly became a prestigious ally in Washington and London. Emboldened by American patronage, Zia brutally suppressed all opposition, which included some of the country's greatest writers and artists.
Pakistan's military strategists had long plotted to install a friendly regime in Afghanistan, which shares a fiercely autonomous and traditionally volatile Pashtun population with Pakistan. The CIA's generosity gave them the perfect opportunity to impose their will in Kabul through proxies like the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who, like many Islamists feeding off US largesse, spent more time building private armies and bullying women than fighting the Soviets. Military officers seeking revenge for their humiliation by India in the war over Bangladesh in 1971 redirected US resources more radically to anti-India insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir.
Pursuing their separate agenda, western cold war adventurers and their local allies deeply damaged Pakistan's frail society. Three million Afghan, mostly Pashtun, refugees poured into Pakistan, along with cheap guns and drugs. Furthermore, political Islam - until then a marginal force in Pakistani politics - acquired buoyancy, and a radical edge, from the anti-communist jihad in Afghanistan. Pakistan knew a spell of civilian rule after Zia's death in 1988. But elected leaders such as Benazir Bhutto could hardly supervise, let alone restrict, the cherished ventures of the all-powerful military intelligence elite, such as the backing of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban in Afghanistan's destructive civil war, and the training of extremists for jihad in Kashmir.
The US cancelled its aid programme to Pakistan before the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan in 1989; it went on to impose sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear programme. Visiting Pakistan in early 2001, I was struck by the anger Pakistanis of all classes expressed toward the US. Far from being a generalised Islamist hatred of American women wearing miniskirts, anti-US sentiment was rooted in particular grievances. Diplomats and ex-generals raged against US selfishness in leaving Pakistan to sort out the post-Soviet mess in Afghanistan; journalists and NGO workers described in anguished tones how the CIA-sponsored jihad strangled Pakistan's democracy, endowing the military intelligence establishment with a sinister extra-constitutional authority.
In late 2001, George Bush's resolve to eliminate al-Qaida and the Taliban with the help of the very same establishment inaugurated another cycle in which Pakistan's long-delayed tryst with civilian rule would be again postponed by US priorities in neighbouring Afghanistan.
It is clearer now that Pervez Musharraf's promises to the US could only be empty, no matter how sincerely he believed in them. Military and intelligence officers who had staked their careers on making reliable Pashtun friends were unlikely to launch more than a few token assaults on the Pak-Afghan borderlands, which even the British Indian Army couldn't subdue.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration has persisted for almost seven years in the hope that the Pakistani military could be bullied or bribed into scoring successes in the global war on terror.
Many generals and spies probably couldn't believe their luck as they received billions of US dollars for yet another phoney war. Paranoid western visions of crazy Islamists getting hold of Pakistani nukes ensured a steady flow of cash, which, as the New York Times recently revealed, the military mostly spent on objectives not remotely resembling those drawn up in Washington.
In any case, the Taliban and their sympathisers can't be "eliminated". The web of strategic tribal and ethnic alliances has represented the strongest Pashtun claims in recent decades as traditional rulers of Afghanistan's ethnic mosaic. Even today, as the writer Rory Stewart has pointed out, "many Pashtun clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops". In actuality, the Taliban can only be contained. But even that may remain a fantasy if foreign occupation continues to radicalise Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Musharraf has himself only just escaped assassination. Even though he grudgingly accepted Washington's choice, Bhutto, as a civilian facade for military rule, he can't be unaware that Pakistan's stability depends on successful deal-making in the Pashtun heartland rather than in the White House. This lesson is not entirely lost on western policymakers. EU diplomats expelled from southern Afghanistan a day before Bhutto's assassination were trying to reach out to the Taliban. But such peacemakers face their most influential adversaries among those who think that errant natives respond best to a bit of stick. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, the Tory MP Michael Gove warned the west not to betray any "sign of weakness" to the Taliban.
Doubtless the Churchill wannabes that have proliferated since 9/11 would fight on their laptops to the last drop of Afghan and Pakistani blood. Intoxicated by their own cliches, they remain blind to how their warmongering in the cause of democracy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has boosted the most militaristic elements there, ruining even the basic hope of a violence-free life, not to mention the grand ambition of democracy.
The CIA's anti-Soviet jihad not only ensured the dominance of the military intelligence establishment over elected government in Pakistan; it also spawned a new radical force, which now menaces military as well as civilian authority in Pakistan. We may praise or blame Benazir Bhutto for what she did or did not do, but as long as Pakistan remains hostage to failed western policies those aspiring to lead it can achieve little apart from personal power - along with a high risk of martyrdom.
· Pankaj Mishra is the author of Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond firstname.lastname@example.org