Pakistan - A Coalition of Turpitude
by Deputy Foreign Desk Editor Frédéric Bobin of Le Monde
2007 was supposed to be a landmark year. It was meant to be the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the country’s founding on the blood soaked ruins of the British Empire of India. Instead, it was an accusatory year, a year of terrible indictment, an unending progression of accumulating evidence of failure for a state conceived and hoped to be the refuge for Muslims from the former British Raj, tragically dismembered in December 1947. It was a sad commemoration against a backdrop of Islamic insurrection among the Pashtoon tribes, the separatist rebellion in Baluchistan, the maneuverings of a general-president determined to keep his grip on power and a state of emergency meant to suppress a movement toward freedom, as well as an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings of which Benazir Bhutto, the ambiguous muse of the divided democratic camp, is the most recent victim.
Fingering al-Qaeda and its planet-wide plots is insufficient to fully comprehend of the disaster that is Pakistan. This sinister year of 2007 is only the manifestation of a profound, multifaceted indigenous crisis fueled by the dangerous intrigues of the State, the armed forces and the ruling class to which West –with the United States at the forefront–, blinded by its calculations of short-term realpolitik, is accomplice.
Radical Islam in Pakistan did not drop out of the sky. It has been flourishing for decades in ideological terrain sown by the state itself. Is the drift fatal, is the trap unavoidable because the state has defined itself as Muslim since its founding? Yet founding fathers of Pakistan led by Ali Jinnah were relatively secular. But their inheritors lost no time in playing the Islamic card in the hope of preventing the erosion of their power. From moment Islam became the sole uniting factor in a country riven by ethnic rivalry – Punjabis, Sindis, Balochis and Muhajiri (refugees from India) – the country's leaders never hesitated in instrumentalizing it to boost their crumbling legitimacy.
Even the father of Benazir Bhutto, the “progressive” Zulficar Ali Bhutto, who led Pakistan in the 1970’s, went astray. He extolled “Islamic Socialism”, was enthusiastically engaged in the Organization of Islamic Conferences, ostracized the Ahmadis by declaring them apostates, and, in the end, proclaimed Shar’ia as the law of the land. His successor, the putschiste General Zia-ul-Haq, who had Bhutto hanged in 1979, continued on the same course. He made zakat –the Islamic tithe– mandatory and fostered the spectacular growth of madrassas, the schools that would later become the hotbeds of radical Islam. In the short-term, the authorities could justify the concessions made to Islam by the necessity of integrating the religious parties into the institutional framework in order to neutralize them. But over the long term opposite has taken place. Islamism, confirmed at the highest echelons of society, has won over minds and institutions. Yet it was in a geo-strategic context that the military coddled jihadist groups, sent as “cannon fodder” to Kashmire –an issue of contention with its rival, India– and to Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan theatre was the second source of derailment of Pakistani policy. Here again, you must go back to the partition of the British Indian Empire to understand the issue. In 1947, Afghanistan voted against the admission of Pakistan to the United Nations. This was the time in which the Afghani monarchy, furious that the new state was able to keep Pashtoon lands that the British had amputated, decided to fuel the irredentist aspirations of the proud and turbulent Pashtoon tribes.
For Pakistan, already confronted with the Indian threat to its flank, the hostility with Kabul constituted a nightmare scenario. It was absolutely essential to reduce Kabul and to install reliable actors. Pakistani leaders were ceaseless in their efforts to “Finlandize” Afghanistan to open that country up as a vital strategic redoubt in its conflict with India. For Islamabad, the masters of Kabul were to have two essential characteristics: they must be of Pashtoon origin (a Pashtoon in control of the Afghani capital was viewed as a guarantee against frontier irredentism) and must support pan-Islamism (conceived as an antidote to Pashtoon ethnic nationalism). Even Benazir Bhutto, who fell victim to radical Islam, went along with this game. It was during her second government (1993-1996) that the Afghani Taliban movement emerged, fostered by her Interior Minister, Nasirullah Babar.
A third factor stoking the current chaos unquestionably resides in the irresponsibility of Pakistani ruling class. The new state very quickly came to be dominated by the Muhajir (refugees from India). Afterwards, power was won by the Punjabis, who controlled the military-bureaucratic apparatus. It should be recalled that it was the refusal of the Punjabi ruling class to respect the rules of electoral democracy that forced the Bengalis of Eastern Pakistan into a corner and set off the war of independence that gave birth to the state of Bangladesh in 1971. The arrival of the Bhutto dynasty to power – first father Zulficar Ali Bhutto then daughter Benazir – confirmed the entry upon the scene of the Sindis, who, it was thought, would turn things around. But despite their populist rhetoric, they behaved like feudal barons.
During her two terms of office as Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto was involved in shameless corruption benefiting her clan. The celebrated icon of her supporters, she ruled her own party, the Pakistani People’s Party, with an iron fist and was consecrated as chairman for life. The weakness of any liberal political tradition in Pakistan provides fertile soil to radical Islam and contributes to the grip on power by selfish elites.
There is a last key element of the crisis: the complicity of the West, especially the United States. Instead of promoting a free civil society, as they should have, Western democracies never failed to support military regimes when they believed that Pakistan was on the front lines: first under Zia ul-Haq during the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan during the 1980’s, then under General Pervez Musharraf in the name of the fight against al-Qaeda. It was they who assisted in building the coalition of turpitude that has plunged today's Pakistan into chaos.