The influence of external powers in Pakistani politics

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has revealed a facet of Pakistani politics that is not generally known to people in the West: the extent to which Pakistani politicians act as agents of the West. Tens of thousands of Muslims are killed in political violence each year, most of of it sponsored by the West. Few are mourned as deeply as Benazir. Her assassination has been condemned by US President George Bush, the UN Security Council and a long list of other western leaders. Why should the death of one Pakistani draw so much attention in the West, when those of other –” such as the girls killed in the Lal Masjid in July –” are regarded with disdain?

The answer is obvious, of course: for those in the corridors of power in the West, Benazir was “one of us”. Before she returned to Pakistan, she had made a pilgrimage to Washington to receive the blessings of the Bush administration, where she was hailed as a modern, moderate leader. The Washington Post revealed on December 28 –” the day after her death –” that the final decision regarding her return to Pakistan in October had been taken in a telephone conversation with American secretary of state Condolleezza Rice. She was also known to be close to Zilmay Khalilzad, one of the US’s key strategists in the Muslim World, who served as viceconsul in both occupied Afghanistan and Iraq before becoming US Ambassador to the UN in February last year.

This, however, is nothing new or surprising for a ruler of Pakistan. Whether civilian or military, they have all acted as agents of the West to stay in power. And nor is this the only thing she had in common with the military elite that were her main rivals for power. Her notorious corruption and the venality of those around her was shared by all Pakistan’s rulers, who have always enriched themselves while selling the country short. Pakistan has been brought to the brink of disaster by an unholy alliance of ambitious generals and feudal lords . How it arrived at this sorry state needs careful consideration in order to understand the underlying reasons for its continued instability. If domestically Pakistan is held hostage by greedy generals and corrupt feudal politicians, externally the US casts a dark shadow over its politics.

Caught between these twin evils, the people of Pakistan search in vain for saviours to extricate them from this predicament. Some saw Benazir as their saviour; others repose their trust in Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister. Yet others see Imran Khan, the former cricket star-turned-politician, as the person who will lead them to the promised land. This reflects a failure of understanding because people repose their hopes in individuals, not the policies they pursue.

There are other players as well (India, Saudi Arabia and even Afghanistan ) that pervert its course and prevent the realization of its full potential. Despite its large and resourceful population and strategic location, Pakistan has failed to benefit from its assets because of the shortsighted policies of successive rulers. The US and India in particular have affected Pakistan disastrously. It is difficult to determine who has caused greater harm: the US as “friend” or India as enemy. The current crisis in Pakistan must be viewed against the backdrop of these external influences, which continue to manipulate and distort its domestic agenda.

Both India and the US have been constants in Pakistani politics since its ‘independence’ in 1947. Pakistan fell into the deathly embrace of the US virtually the day it was born: India’s hostility propelled the country’s rulers to seek Washington’s help to keep the bully next door at bay. India’s military aggression in and occupation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, subjugating its people in contravention of the partition plan, locked the two new states into perpetual conflict. It is interesting to note that the one third of Kashmir’s territory that Pakistan controls today is the result not of its military prowess but of the sacrifices of tribesmen who went to support their Kashmiri brethren against India’s invasion. Pakistan’s generals and politicians immediately realized the utility of Kashmir; they cashed in on people’s emotions by taking up the cause of the Kashmiris and promising to complete the unfinished business of partition. The generals in particular discovered that Kashmir was the goose that would continue to lay the golden egg. Sixty years later the Kashmiris still reel under the Indian army despite having sacrificed tens of thousands of people, while the military in Pakistan has spread its tentacles into every facet of life under the pretence of championing the cause of Kashmir.

Pakistan’s rulers–”military and civilian–”have historically sought external support rather than mobilize the masses to confront the threat from India. US aid provided some relief, but this soon turned into a millstone around Pakistan’s neck as it became an appendage to US ‘cold war’ designs. In the unequal relationship, Pakistani rulers deluded themselves into believing that America would help them fight India; the Americans simply used Pakistan against the Soviets during the cold war. The close relationship with the US has had a disastrous impact on Pakistan: it enabled the military to interfere directly in domestic politics. Washington has always preferred strongmen–”read military dictators–”at the helm of affairs, rather than troublesome civilians. In Pakistan’s case, civilian rulers have been just as keen as their military counterparts to act as Washington’s tools.

Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are two other entities that have interfered with Pakistani politics since the early nineteen-eighties. Afghanistan had been a troublesome neighbour since the day Pakistan gained independence. It was the only country that voted against Pakistan’s entry into the UN in 1947. Initially, Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan was carefully calibrated; it kept Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the border happy by means of generous handouts, while cultivating anti-regime elements inside Afghanistan. This paid dividends when a Marxist-led coup toppled Sardar Daoud Khan’s regime in Afghanistan in April 1978. Immediately, a number of Afghan representatives–”Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbudin Hikmatyar, Rasoul Sayaf, Professor Sibghatullah Mujaddidi and Pir Syed Ahmed Gailani–”emerged on the scene. They set up camps and offices in Pakistan while the latter facilitated their propaganda campaign.

The Saudi influence on Pakistan’s domestic politics was shown clearly recently when a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, exiled to Jeddah in 2000, was allowed to return to Pakistan on November 25 by direct Saudi intervention. Throughout the 1970s, the Saudis had helped Pakistan with free or cheap oil, and allowed Pakistani workers into the kingdom to work on construction sites. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 27, 1979, Saudi Arabia became a full partner with Pakistan in financing the anti-Soviet struggle. It was Saudi money that bankrolled the Afghan resistance during the eighties. The Saudi gravy-train, however, came with toxic baggage, courtesy of the Americans: the narrow sectarian ideology of Wahhabism. This was spread throughout Pakistan, especially in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan.

The import of Wahhabi ideology into Pakistan was part of a carefully crafted American policy to undermine Iran’s influence. Iran had just brought about an Islamic Revolution, overthrowing one of Uncle Sam’s favourite puppets. The Islamic Revolution, led by Imam Khomeini, who had mobilized the Muslim masses, was seen as a threat to US hegemony in the region because the Imam owed nothing to any external powers or influences; he had emerged solely and purely from the intellectual and spiritual roots of Islam. In the previous 50 years, native ‘elites’ that were products of Western education had led movements for ‘independence’ and simply continued the colonial mission when their colonial masters left. In Iran, by contrast, there was total change: this is what alarmed the West, which was determined to undermine Iran. The intolerant Wahhabis were the perfect choice for this task. Pakistan became the battleground on which this war was to be fought. The anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan provided a convenient cover for this nefarious agenda. In a country that had seldom experienced sectarian conflict, suddenly virulent sectarian groups emerged to launch a vicious war against other sects, especially the Shi’as. They were well-financed and well-armed, and spread swiftly to every part of the country.

The US-Saudi-Pakistani nexus was so successful that it drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in less than ten years. By then, there was no Soviet Union left to return to. Having avenged its humiliation in Vietnam by the defeat and dismemberment of the Soviet Union, America washed its hands of the Afghans, leaving Pakistan to hold the bag. The genie of Wahhabism unleashed in Pakistan began to exact a heavy price. Pakistani intelligence agencies found sectarian criminals very useful to keep people preoccupied with their own problems, instead of allowing them to think about domestic politics or the plunder of Pakistan’s resources by the generals and their feudal accomplices. Throughout the nineties, various sectarian groups perpetrated gruesome acts of violence and murder; mosques were especially targeted: even when the police apprehended the culprits, politicians in Islamabad intervened to secure their release. In one particularly horrible incident in Karachi in March 1994, a powerful bomb exploded in a Shi’a mosque after jumu’ah salah, killing more than 50 people. A few days later the culprit was apprehended; he turned out to be a Shi’a gangster. At a press conference a senior provincial official, also a Shi’a, dropped a bombshell: this gangster had been arrested thrice before but released each time on orders from someone high up in the political establishment in Islamabad! A few weeks later the civil servant was shot dead as he left his home to go to work.

It is widely recognized that criminals are patronized by the intelligence agencies as well as by politicians because they find them useful. Last July, when the military assaulted the Red Mosque in Islamabad, killing more than 1,000 students (both boys and girls), the military regime deliberately sabotaged the agreement that had been worked out by its own negotiators. The US had demanded that Musharraf attack the madrassa/mosque complex and wipe it out. Pakistani commandos used phosphorous bombs to burn those inside the building alive. Most of the children were from Swat and other parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). This explains the strong reaction in these areas to the military assault. The insurrection in Swat is the direct result of this criminal act by Musharraf and his henchmen.

The same holds true for military attacks in South and North Waziristan, with the dirt-poor town of Mirali taking the brunt. Cobra attack-helicopters and F-16 planes have been used to bomb the area. This was highlighted early last year, when ten members of a single family were killed in a missile strike ostensibly aimed at Ayman al-Zawahiri. A Pakistani journalist, Hidayatullah published photograps showing a piece of the American missile that killed them. He was subsequently kidnapped and murdered by the army. His widow, who vowed to pursue her husband’s killers for trying to cover up the US strike on the village. On November 17, she was killed by a missile fired at her home. It is now widely known throughout the NWFP that American troops are operating inside Pakistani territory, in Waziristan as well as in the Kurram Valley and near Bajaur. The US also demands that the Pakistan army attack tribesmen along the border with Afghanistan. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, is even more subservient to the US than Musharraf.

Until her assassination, Benazir was the US’s main hope for the future. They insisted that Musharraf agree to work with her, and drop corruption charges (amounting to a theft of $1.5 billion) against her. Benazir has vowed to follow the American agenda; she was among the few politicians, another being Altaf Husain, don of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) sitting in London, who supported the Pakistan army’s assault on the Red Mosque because that is what the Americans wanted. Benazir had also promised to hand Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, to the US for questioning.. She also maintained close links with India, hated by most Pakistanis but favoured by the US.

It is clear that Pakistan is as much occupied by America as are Iraq and Afghanistan. The only difference is that American troops are not usually visible in the streets of Pakistan; the US can operate more discreetly thanks to their dominance of Pakistan’s political institutions. In Afghanistan and Iraq they face major threats and have suffered massive casualties. In Pakistan, they can keep Pakistani troops in the front to fight against their own people while Americans give the orders. What better arrangement could they ask for?

Benazir’s murder has once again exposed the degree of external interference in Pakistani internal affairs. Whether or not the elections go ahead, little will change as long as Pakistan remains in the grip of a military-feudal alliance that is subservient to the West and more concerned with their personal interests that those of Pakistan’s long-suffering people.