Dangerous liaison

Published : Jul 31, 2009 00:00 IST

llah, Army and America or, to put it succinctly, the 3 As is a formula coined by social scientists often used to explain the political and social malaise that afflicts Pakistan. Numerous studies have been written on the Pakistani ruling elites amour with 2 As, namely Allah and the Army, most recently by Hasan Abbas and Irshad Haqqani on the former, and by Ayesha Siddiqa and Shuja Nawaz on the latter. However, what is usually miss ing from the discussion is how incurably enamoured the Pakistani ruling elite has become of the greatest imperialist power since the end of the Second World War, headquartered in Washington, D.C., ever since independence from British rule in 1947, and how small the dividends, if any, this dangerous liaison has yielded to the people of Pakistan.

Tariq Alis latest work, The Duel, attempts to bridge this gap in our understanding of the relations between the United States and the Pakistani ruling elite. It is rather timely, given the stirrings of democracy in Pakistan evidenced by the launch of the agitation for the restoration of the Chief Justice in March 2007, the coming to power of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) through elections, and the end of General Pervez Musharrafs dictatorship on one hand, and the almost daily incursions and killings of innocent civilians on the countrys western borders in violation of Pakistans sovereignty by American aircraft on the other.

Ali is one of the few prominent Pakistanis on the Left who grew up during the formative years of Pakistans birth as a postcolonial state, and the fact that he left it in the 1960s to pursue a more fulfilling political career in Britain has not stopped him from penning three works on his native country. His two earlier works on Pakistan created some controversy (not with readers but with Pakistans ruling elite), the hallmarks of which can be seen in this latest work. That no doubt played a part in the books subsequent unofficial ban in Pakistan, followed lock, stock and barrel by the Pakistani media.

When I asked Ali during an interview, while he was visiting Pakistan in 2002, whether he had any plans to update his conclusions about the country in Can Pakistan Survive?, he emphatically dismissed the suggestion, saying that the conclusions he drew in 1981 were still relevant. That he had cause to change his mind is disconcerting. In many ways, the book is a mea culpa for his native countrys economic and political woes and a testament to the changes that he has witnessed and chronicled in other parts of the world, in Latin America for instance, but never in Pakistan.

The book begins with a foundational history of Pakistan as a confessional state, brought into being by a political party dominated by feudal potentates. In many ways, the fact that the All India Muslim League looked to the British Empire, rather than the Indian people, for protection and advancement of its interests, and its demand for a separate state had a shaping influence on the actions of independent Pakistans ruling elite. The latter also relied selfishly on its relationship with the U.S. for self-preservation rather than on the people who had actually sacrificed their lives and properties in the bloodbath of Partition.

Most readers will not be amused to find out that even the founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was not immune to the charms of Washington, most noticeably evidenced by the fact that he once tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the Flagstaff House to the then American Ambassador in Karachi.

This lucrative relationship was facilitated by the fact that for the first decade of Pakistans independence, the new country did not have a Constitution or elections: this situation allowed an unelected coterie led by Ghulam Mohammad and Iskander Mirza to strengthen their power and cement a lasting alliance with the landed elite and the military. This coterie also set the tone for Pakistans foreign policy slavishly in tune with U.S. strategic interests. A curious thing that happened was the inclusion of this most Allied of Americas allies in the Non-Aligned Movement and its building of an all-weather friendship with Maoist China, which survives to this day.

We all know the sorry state that Pakistan was in after the bureaucratic-military raj gave way to a more direct military takeover by Ayub Khan in 1958. Alis description of Ayubs years in power as well as the resentment that festered in East Pakistan is tinged with uniquely personal insights, especially into the class nature of the new Bangladeshi leadership under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well as the Mukti Bahini guerilas inspired by Che Guevara, among others.

The truncated and moth-eaten state that remained after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 had a remarkable opportunity to be refounded by an unchallenged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, with the militarys humiliating retreat to the barracks. However, he squandered the few chances that were made available to him, and the promise of limited land reform, free public education and health, nationalisation of public utilities and an independent foreign policy gave way to a deterioration of democracy not only within the PPP but in the country as a whole. This, combined with Bhuttos intransigence vis-a-vis the U.S. over Pakistans nuclear bomb precipitated the overthrow of the first democratically elected leader in the countrys history. It also led to the brutalisation of Pakistans political culture at the hands of a dictator who was greenlighted to power by Washington, having firmly established his credentials for the job earlier in 1970 by brutally crushing Black September, a popular Palestinian uprising against the Jordanian monarch.

Tariq Ali, who was close to Bhutto, and was later in touch with Bhuttos daughter Benazir, devotes a whole chapter to the rise and fall of the Bhutto dynasty. As with all charismatic postcolonial leaders of the Third World, the tragedy of this dynasty is inevitably the tragedy of modern Pakistan. The PPP was formed by a dedicated cadre of people who wanted a thoroughgoing structural transformation of the state. But petty dynastic politics and attempts to be on the right side of history have gradually isolated the PPP from its mass base, with the result that the post-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto leadership reposes more trust in the halls of power in Washington and London than in the Pakistani people. As a result, Pakistans largest political party is now little more than a patronage-doling machine dominated by feudal elements, opportunists and bandwagon careerists of every hue who have now anxiously hopped onto the Washington Consensus to preserve their privileges. This can only lead to tragedy, as in the case of Benazir Bhuttos assassination.

The failure of the Bhuttos, however, does not absolve the other dynasties that have ruled Pakistan in the past and, unlike the Bhuttos, owe their origins to benign dictators the Sharifs and the Chaudharys of Gujrat, whose servility to power is well known and do not offer any hope for the future.

The price Pakistan has paid for being steered into the flight path of American power has been great and is growing. One of its most disastrous results is the events in Afghanistan, where state-led efforts at modernisation and establishment of secular nationalism were repeatedly stalled by foreign powers, Pakistan included. All that eventually boomeranged on America, in the form of 9/11, and on Pakistan, which has a murderous imperial war going on on its western borders involving the Taliban, the Pakistan Army and the U.S. forces.

In the absence of a secular-nationalist Left, and with a puppet imported from California in power in daytime Kabul, the task of resistance to foreign occupation in Afghanistan is inevitably left to the remnants of the Taliban. The latter might very soon be reclaiming their past status as rulers of Afghanistan, thanks to the spectacular corruption of a tiny U.S.-backed elite and the success of the resistance. Only a total withdrawal of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops from Afghanistan and an alliance with China, Pakistan, India and Iran that guarantees non-interference in that countrys affairs can salvage a lasting peace for this tortured land.

Ali shatters a few myths about Pakistan, which in the West fill tonnes of paper, devoted to proving that Pakistan is a failed state. Firstly, the duel that he alludes to in the title of his book is not one on its western borders between the Taliban and the government, but the duel between the people of Pakistan and the American-backed elite, who have historically ruled and plundered the country. In fact, this duel is a familiar story in many parts of the world Colombia, Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the scores of tiny American protectorates in the Gulf, the Balkans and the Caucasus are part of this distinguished club. Secondly, that Pakistan is on the verge of a takeover by the Taliban and that the only party able to do business with them are the khaki ironclads. Indeed, the way Washington is currently dealing with the new regime in Islamabad proves that the latter claim is false.

The way forward for Pakistan, according to Ali, lies in the end of the American search for a perpetual khaki-clad to manage Pakistan. In addition, Pakistan has to evolve from a national security state to one where desperately needed land reforms are carried out, with free health care, education and housing for the poor. Peace with India should be the foremost priority, as also the formation of a South Asian Union with increasing political and economic ties to China and Iran in order to counter American efforts to put a permanent military presence there. Ali places little faith in the traditional political parties but hails the enthusiasm of the judicial activism that erupted in March 2007.

One wishes he had also mentioned the scores of social movements that have been battling to change the status quo in various parts of the country the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab in Okara, the Baloch resistance, the peasant resistance in Hashtnagar in the North West Frontier Province and the Fisherfolk Forum in Sindh, all refreshingly secular and having no truck with religion. But he makes up for it with warm references and homages throughout the book to regional poets and writers to show that art and culture have never been coopted by the Washington Consensus.

Earlier, in September 2008, the Pakistan government paid its own tribute to Alis book when it unofficially banned the work in Pakistan. However, the learned mandarins within the Ministry of Information did not have to wait for long to discover that books and ideas are never hindered by frontiers. Alis book, like his previous two on Pakistan, succeeded in finding a large black-market readership before the ban was ultimately revoked.

Those who banned the book should read it and recommend it to their middlemen in Washington, London and Riyadh.

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