The proxy wars between Saudi and Iran backed militant groups in Pakistan – linked to the US battle against the Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan – took an ugly turn this week in the lawless province of Balochistan.
On Sept 20, pilgrims traveling on a bus to Iran, were stopped by armed men near Mastung, some 30 km southeast of Quetta. Some 26 pilgrims were forced to disembark… and shot point blank after being identified as Shias. Two family members of the victims who rushed to the scene to help, were chased by gunmen and shot dead.
The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LEJ) a Sunni Deobandi group affiliated with the Taliban, claimed responsibility. In recent months, Mastung has become a strong hold for the LEJ – whence the sectarian group emerges to inflict lethal attacks on Shias and non Muslims.
The administration’s response was mild. In Balochistan, authorities hunkered down and advised tour buses not to move around without security.
Ten years after the US toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, today their resurgence has given the LEJ an umbrella to inflict repeated pain on Shias in Pakistan. The Iran backed Tehrik-i-Jafria, sometimes engages against the LEJ, but is no match for the antagonists.
In the last few months, the LEJ and its parent organization – Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (formerly Anjuman Sipah Sahaba Pakistan) have found a soft target in the Hazara community in Balochistan. These Shias, originally from Afghanistan, have been repeatedly killed on sectarian grounds. This week’s massacre brought nationwide protests, including Hazara women to demonstrate against the lack of safety.
Sectarian strife has escalated since LEJ chief Malik Ishaq was released from Kot Lakhpat prison, Punjab in July 2011. Although wanted in the murders of some 70 Shias, the Supreme Court reportedly released him because of the absence of witnesses. Prima facie, this seemed logical in a country where witnesses in heinous crimes have little or no protection.
But the Punjab administration failed to act against the LEJ chief even after he moved around giving hate speeches on sectarian grounds.
Victims families found cold comfort in the fact that Malik Ishaq has been temporarily detained at home after the massacre in Mastung.
Interestingly, in recent months the paradigm of sectarian violence has moved out of the Punjab into Balochistan. That comes on the heels of a blooper by the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif… when he apparently spoke his mind in telling militants to “at least leave my province alone.”
Today, lawlessness and poor governance in Balochistan has turned it into ideal ground for sectarian outfits. Despite being declared terrorists, the organizations constantly rename themselves and avail of the type of protection they enjoyed since the days of Gen. Zia ul Haq.
The Shia massacres in Mastung mirror the brutal pattern in which Christians were killed nine years ago in Karachi. In September 2002, as the US invasion of Afghanistan dislodged the Taliban, their LEJ affiliates headed straight to the Institute for Peace and Justice in Karachi. Here, the activists – mostly Christians – were bound and gagged and shot point blank after being identified by their faith.
Today, while US presence in Afghanistan fuels national resistance, it also spawns violent extremists. As experience shows, the attempts to use militants for political gain invites more blow-back. With neighboring countries fighting their proxy wars in Pakistan, the ingredients in the cauldron turn the mix into a matter for global concern.
Pakistan’s catastrophic monsoon floods of 2010 – which scientists link to climate change and global warming and which has mostly hurt the farmers who eke a living along the Indus River – have turned into a defining moment for the nation.
The world watched with disbelief as the torrential rains, which bloated the Kabul and Indus rivers, swept away hundreds of people, homes and livestock in the north of Pakistan. As bridges and hotels collapsed in the scenic Kalam and Swat valley, the northern areas of Gilgit and Baltistan were cut off from the world.
Despite this, crisis-ridden Islamabad appeared unaware and unprepared for the most devastating natural disaster in its history.
Only then – as the Indus River, swollen to nearly 12 times its normal size, wreaked havoc on villages and towns in its southward journey to the Arabian ocean – did the government wake to the existential threat to Pakistan.
“It’s like partition,” said a dazed PPP Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who compared the sheer scale of the devastation caused by the 2010 floods to the events of 1947, when Pakistan was carved out of India.
Prime Minister Gilani, who has stepped into the late Benazir Bhutto’s shoes, had the unenviable position of answering to millions of people who voted for the PPP because of its founder Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter, Benazir’s pledge to provide “Food, Clothing and Shelter” to the people.
The government came under global scrutiny as the media zeroed in on shirtless villagers stranded on highways, hands outstretched with vessels for food and drinking water. Modestly draped mothers, clutching their infants, waded through waistdeep currents, farmers sloshed through the waters with sheep on their backs and people waited for rescue helicopters on islands along river beds that looked like chapattis (an Indian flatbread) floating in gravy.
Adding insult to injury, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari chose the occasion to visit his family’s chateau in France. His meeting with President Nicholas Sarkozy was ill-timed, given that French prosecutors prepared a case against Sarkozy for funding his political campaign through kickbacks from the submarines provided to Pakistan. Zardari is also named for receiving kickbacks, although he was in prison when the French engineers building the submarines were killed in 2002.
But in July 2002, President Zardari was en route to London to coronate his eldest son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, as the party co-chairman. It was a program arranged ahead of time. As hundreds were swept away by the deluge and their sufferings appeared in the world media, his ill-timed foreign tour would send a message of disconnectedness with the people.
The US quickly demonstrated the importance it attached to Pakistan, becoming the first nation to respond with USD 50 million aid, helicopters, boats and halal meals. Helicopters were sent to the Gilgit Baltistan area to rescue stranded people. As torrential rains rushed down the denuded Koh-i-Suleman mountain range, the US coordinated with Pakistan’s federal National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the army to save villagers fl eeing the rising Indus waters in southern Punjab and Balochistan.
Early into the disaster, US Secretary Hillary Clinton took to the airwaves in Washington DC to appeal to the American public to come forward and donate to the flood victims. It was a commendable move, laced only with the irony of being issued while President Zardari fiddled in London.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s visit to flood-ravaged Pakistan and his declaration that he had before never seen such devastation gave pause to those who were listening. As the UN declared that the disaster was bigger than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haitian earthquake and Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake combined, the world reached deeper into its pockets in a gesture on a scale that seemed like it might just fulfill the humanitarian needs of the flood’s victims.
But as weeks went by and the world media depicted poor, ill fed and homeless people displaced by floods, it did nothing to win global confidence. The UN’s first fund appeal for USD 460 million fetched 70 percent of its target with great difficulty. That forced the UN to launch a second appeal for USD 2 billion. Still, as winter set in, UN officials, working hard for flood victims in Pakistan, reported that they had already run out of essential supplies.
In his visits to Washington, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi told the world that if it did not help Pakistan in the flood relief efforts, the nation would fall prey to militants. It was an argument repeated like a mantra. Indeed, where the PPP government had fallen short of providing for the enormous needs of flood ravaged Pakistan, Islamic fronts for jihadist organizations had emerged to dispense relief aid.
If the world needed proof that floods had not washed away the militants, they did not have to wait long. Barely had the floodwaters stopped ravaging communities in the north of Pakistan and the Punjab than the suicide bombers began detonating. A succession of suicide blasts on religious processions in Lahore, Quetta and against security officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would convince the world that the bombers were alive and ticking.
As the Indus River made its south ward journey toward the riverine areas of Sindh – wiped clean of the marshy jungles cut down at the height of the dacoit menace in 1992 – it threatened the thickly-populated towns of upper Sindh. The PPP government issued flood warnings in its home turf – Sukkur, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, Shahdadkot, Dadu, Badin and the southern town of Thatta – forcing millions to evacuate their homes.
Still despite trains and bus services run by the government for the flood affected to go to Karachi, the victims preferred to take temporary shelter with relatives or simply move to higher ground. Indeed, with floods coinciding with the ethnic flare-up between Pashtuns and Mohajirs in Karachi, the rural Sindhis, already battered and robbed of their life savings, took chances with the vagaries of nature rather than a tense ethnic situation in the city.
There was high drama in Bhutto’s birthplace of Larkana, where the government worked frantically to make cuts in Kirthar canal to save the graves of Zulfi kar Ali Bhutto and his children – Benazir, Murtaza and Shahnawaz. PPP officials rushed to create a four-kilometer-long embankment around Garhi Khuda Baksh in Larkana to save the graves of the Bhuttos, whose murders have come to symbolize the eternal sufferings of the people of Pakistan.
Sindh and southern Punjab swirls with tales of feudal lords, including those from the ruling party, who arm-twisted irrigation officials to breach the dikes and save their lands. A pattern emerged where the most influential managed to protect their assets at the cost of the weakest. It would increase resentment in an environment where millions lost their crops and livestock and became internally displaced persons in their own territory.
In October 2010, a survey conducted by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank said that Pakistan’s floods caused an estimated USD 9.7 billion damages to homes, roads, farms and personal property. PPP officials called the figures grossly under-estimated. There were fears that in an agriculturally based economy like Pakistan the damage to the crops alone could be as high as USD 43 billion – 25 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product the year before.
About two thousand were killed in Pakistan’s floods – dramatically lower than the estimated eighty thousand casualties caused by the earthquake five years before. Still there was more bad news ahead, as hundreds of thousands fell victim to acute diarrhea, respiratory infections, skin disease and malaria. Children who saw their parents being washed away had been traumatized and put up for adoption.
Under world scrutiny, Pakistan made payments of PKR 20,000 (USD 233) in four installments to each family. The United Nations and civil society networks injected a modicum of transparency that involved disbursing aid after verifying the national identity cards of flood victims. Still, double payments occurred, as did complaints from families that they had received no money. With food supplies running out, the UN was faced with the difficult choice staggering the aid or giving people less than their nutritional requirements.
For the US government, the biggest concern is that the economic devastation created by the floods will fuel militancy. The army operation against the Taliban in Swat, for example, resulted in massive losses of infrastructure and livelihood for 2.9 million residents of Malakand division. Barely had government surveys reported that the division would need USD 1 billion for recovery, when the floods struck.
Awami National Party’s Minister for Information, Mian Iftikhar Hussain touched a note with the people when he declared, “First we were devastated by the terrorists. Whatever was left was finished by the floods.” For the ANP minister, it was a particularly emotional time, when, just prior to the floods, the Taliban had killed his only son.
The US would prioritize its aid programs to Pakistan with a view to thwarting potential militant attacks. In September 2010, the Obama administration diverted USD 831 million set aside under the Kerry Lugar Berman act for Pakistan’s developmental needs like energy and water and earmarked it instead for humanitarian assistance in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
But with the US and Europe waging their own financial battles for recovery, the US Coordinator for Economic and Development Assistance, Robin Raphael urged Pakistan to pass meaningful reforms, including expanding its tax base. There was a muted response from the government. The feudal ruling elite has traditionally shunned land reforms, even as the urban industrial class is hostile to suggestions that it should pay more taxes. There was consensus to raise sales tax, which would have the consequence of raising prices for already stressed consumers.
The fact that the floods struck in the post-9/11 scenario and not when the world was busy somewhere else should give pause to Pakistan’s observers. With aid coming in, the civilian government has gone into autopilot – leaving flood recovery and civilian development to foreign and international organizations. As people watch to see if the leadership cuts back on their extravagant lifestyles, the international community, too, has put Pakistan under a microscope to see if it is able to get its act together.
Barely had the people of Sindh recovered from the scars of the 2010 floods, when walls of waters returned knocking on their mud walls, drowning the most vulnerable women and children, sweeping livestock and destroying crops – leaving millions without shelter.
Almost as grave as the crisis unfolding across Sindh, is that it could have been contained. In July, the international donor agency Oxfam warned Pakistan that it was not ready for another natural disaster. To which governmental officials responded that dykes were plugged and embankments strengthened – and there was no cause for alarm.
So this monsoon, when Sindh hit the ice-berg, officials shifted the blame for their unpreparedness on the changing weather pattern. They contrasted the historical scale of the down pour with the 2010 floods. Then, the torrential rains in northern Pakistan had caused the Indus River to swell and burst its banks – taking huge waves toward the more urban settlements.
It is an argument that environmentalists in Pakistan refuse to buy. After last year’s floods, they cautioned the government that what was once considered “abnormal” weather should now be considered the “norm.”
Today, with water, water everywhere, relief agencies are at a loss to find dry land to pitch tent shelters. While the army and non governmental organizations like the Pakistan Fisher folk Federation ply rescue boats, they have few places to deposit the rescued. In the process, pregnant women have died for want of medical care.
The human sufferings have mounted as the roads leading from Karachi and Hyderabad have been inundated, cutting off assistance from urban dwellers. The administration claims that villagers are reluctant to leave their districts, hoping the waters will recede and they can go home.
Weeks after the monsoon rains lashed down in southern Pakistan, UN relief has begun coming in. The officials will tell you the request for assistance was made rather late by the government. Moreover, now that foreign aid is evident, the top brass are reportedly diverting it to their own home towns, rather than across the board.
All this is going on at a time when many villagers complain they have still not received compensation for the devastation they suffered last year. This time round, the destruction to livestock and almost 70 percent damage to the crops, threatens to push the peasants deeper into the unending cycle of poverty.
Back in 2005, when the earthquake struck in Kashmir, Pakistan created a National Disaster Management Authority. Today, the NDMA and its provincial branches struggle to cope with changing weather patterns. For a start, the government claims that its national meteorological service plans to take assistance from Japan to modernize its ability to predict and issue early warning systems for imminent disasters.
At this stage though, when the government appears to have abdicated in favor of foreign donors and philanthropists – the danger is especially pronounced for Sindh. This region of peace loving, mystical cultivators barely gets noticed while Pakistan draws attention to itself – albeit for the wrong reasons. As the waters pass over Sindh, there is a real possibility that the world will forget people in its most remote corners.
As you are aware the southern parts of Pakistan, particularly the Sindh province, has been devastated with severe rains and floods. In the past few days the affected areas have received 142% more rains than normal. Twenty one districts of the Sindh province are particularly severely affected and 4.1 million acres of land have been inundated. The estimated number of flood affectees is more than 5 million. One hundred and forty one lives have been lost. The Government of Pakistan has established 4,000 relief camps where more than 150,000 people are being provided relief and refuge.
The Government of Pakistan has mobilized all its resources to help the affected people. Unfortunately, the devastation caused by rains and floods is such that the Government of Pakistan is constrained to request international assistance. The President of Pakistan has, therefore, appealed to the international community and to the Pakistani Diaspora to provide relief and assistance for the affected people.
You are requested to kindly step forward and help Pakistan overcome this latest challenge. The most immediate needs are tents, aqua tablets, water purifiers, food, de-watering plants and medicines.
By a stroke of chance, the 9/11 terror strikes against the US became the genesis for my book. Having arrived in the US from Pakistan on a teaching fellowship shortly before the horrific attacks, I was drawn into the narrative. It was a narrative waiting to be told. As a journalist in Pakistan, I had for decades witnessed the huge influence of the US on my region. While inside America, I recognized that the media and educational institutions discussed domestic subjects – which to my mind nurtured a tunnel vision.
That changed a decade ago, as airplanes turned into missiles and crashed into the World Trade Towers. It was a high price that ordinary Americans paid for foreign involvements that were not of their choosing. And yet, 9-11 raised a clamor among people that they be told how US foreign policy was conducted. As popular demand forced the media to zero into the world – and Afghanistan and Pakistan became house-hold names – the globe grew more connected.
In undertaking to write `Aboard the Democracy Train,’ I went back in time – from the Cold War days when the US and Pakistan had combined to defeat the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then, as a front line reporter for the daily Dawn newspaper in Karachi, Pakistan, I had chronicled how the weapons funneled to the Afghan Mujahedeen next door, were used to settle ethnic and tribal feuds inside Pakistan. It was the period when US-Pakistan collaboration hastened the rise of the Taliban.
Back then, I was one of the nation’s few women reporters to document Benazir Bhutto’s meteoric rise to become the nation’s first woman prime minister. Fast forward nearly two decades later. Based in Washington D.C. in the post 9/11 era, I was privy to another historical event. This time, it was Benazir – adored by Pakistan’s masses – attempting to convince the US that she would be a better candidate than President Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf in tackling Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the region.
The tight rope that Benazir walked between the US and Pakistan military’s interests – not to mention the antipathy she aroused as a woman within the terror network – led to her tragic and inevitable end. Her murder fed into the clamor for change by the masses, grown more impoverished and brutalized by the spill over of the Afghan war. `Aboard’ documents how after Benazir joined her family of martyred Bhuttos, and her Pakistan Peoples Party was swept into power – it catapulted husband, President Asif Zardari into new and unchartered territory.
But the world too changed after 9/11 precipitated the US invasion of Afghanistan a decade ago. The US’s longest war – with numerous soldiers’ deaths and combat related suicides – has taken a toll on American society. While the economic recession sweeping across the US and Europe has triggered demands in the West to draw back in its foreign involvements and focus on jobs and growing the economy at home.
Ten years after the events of 9/11, the lesson taught by the loss of innocent lives – whether in the US or in Afghanistan and Pakistan – is the need to stop all wars. Indeed, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and the internet provides new tools, the West has learnt a great deal about traditional cultures like Pakistan. It is with the simple moral compass in me that I have written `Aboard,’ – knowing we are all in this together.
Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up – John A. Appleman
Why would anyone carry out such a horrible crime as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? How should the United States respond? What would be the likely results of a military attack on Afghanistan ?
Searching for answers to these and other questions, more than 200 students, faculty, and staff gathered in Gamble Auditorium on September 19 for “After September 11: The Hard Questions,” a teach-in sponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Office of the Dean of the College and the Dean of Faculty.
Offering their perspectives were three authorities on the situation: Nafisa Hoodbhoy, a former journalist with an English-language daily in Pakistan, now producing programs for WFCR radio, Michael Klare, the Five College professor of peace and world security studies, and Sohail Hashmi, Alumnae Foundation Chair in the Social Sciences and an associate professor of international relations at MHC.
Moderating the discussion was Kavita Khory, associate professor of politics at the College.
Taking pains to condemn the terrorists’ actions, the panelists explored the events that led up to those acts, and generally agreed that the United States would have nothing to gain by waging war in Afghanistan.
The nation seems to be moving ahead with a military response, Klare said. “The machine has been set in motion,” he said, warning that a military campaign would be “a disastrous course of action that will lead to certain deaths [in the Muslim world] and stir up more hatred of us.”
A better alternative, he argued, would be pursuing and prosecuting Osama bin Laden and his accomplices as criminals in an international court.
Klare said the seeds of the current conflict were sown in 1945, when the United States pledged to protect the royal family of Saudi Arabia against external and internal threats in exchange for unfettered access to Saudi oil.
That pledge has led to United States-supported suppression of free speech in Saudi Arabia, as well as a growing military presence that has fanned opposition among Muslims angered by the perceived defilement of Mecca and other holy places.
“There is absolutely no sense in bombing Afghanistan, because this is a country that is already in the Stone Age. It has nothing,” Hoodbhoy said. Military action, she said, would likely push Muslim moderates into the camp of the hard-line fundamentalists, and “cause more sympathy for a regime which people are sick of and would like to be rid of.”
Hashmi said that if the terrorists are carrying out a holy war, they probably see it as a defensive action against the expansion of the West’s power and influence in the Middle East.
Others, including many non-Muslims, share their views, he said, but split with the terrorists over the method of addressing those concerns. Although the Qur’an teaches that killing one innocent person is like killing all humanity, Hashmi said, the hard-liners have taken the position that no one in the United States is innocent in this struggle—a justification for mass murder.
The United States, he said, should not respond in kind. “The idea of an endless series of events that could be the source of grievance is one that would perpetuate the cycle of attack and counterattack,” he said.
The teach-in was one in a series of events by which the College is responding to the attacks of September 11.
On October 17, at 7:30 pm in Hooker Auditorium, Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, will speak on the relation between human rights and terrorism.
There was palpable excitement among students crowding 137 Hasbrouck at University of Massachusetts Amherst — the classroom designated to me to teach “Gender Politics and Mass Media in Muslim World” this past spring. It was a course I had designed after Sept. 11 to cater to the tremendous interest generated in Islam and the region I’d taught about at Amherst College a year ago — Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Students from more than a dozen departments at UMass enrolled in my course — offered through Women Studies and cross-listed with journalism. Apparently my own background as a journalist from Pakistan had attracted many — including a handful of males — interested in root causes of terrorism. Women, already interested in the gender politics of the Muslim world, now enrolled to study these countries from a global perspective.
Among those who arrived for the course — young, white and working class — many had grown up on a steady diet of television entertainment news. Lately, television was throwing out names that were difficult to pronounce: Tally Ban, Af-Gan-is-Tan, Pak-is-Tan. They stared at the world map, unable to locate the countries. Why had I expected anything different? Not long ago, presidential hopeful George W. Bush, when quizzed about the Taliban, had asked, “Are they a pop group?”
Apparently, a few were looking for ready-made answers. They appeared bewildered as I began my lecture from 6th century A.D. — about a foreign religion with foreign believers. In my opening lectures about the rise of Islam and the Caliphate, an exasperated young woman at the back of the room yelled: “What does that have to do with 9/11?” My answer was “Everything.”
I let on quite early in the course that in order to understand Islamic fundamentalists, one needed to study the rise of Islam. While the industrial revolution has catapulted the West into the 21st century, traditional Islamic societies — with their tribal and feudal structures — are still deeply influenced by Islamic and pre-Islamic values.
For the majority of students who stayed on, we journeyed to understand Islam. Fatima Mernissi’s book, “The Veil and the Male Elite,” would lay out the historical conditions of 627 A.D. when Prophet Mohammed issued Q’uranic injunctions like the veiling of women — “splitting the Muslim space.” Under colonial rule, the Islamic bloc would experience only superficial modernization. Leila Ahmed’s book, “Women and Gender in Islam,” and Deniz Kandiyoti’s “Introduction to Women, Islam and the State” would provide valuable insight into how 20th-century colonialists used the low position of women in Islamic countries to put down foreign cultures — contributing to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
My course would cover the revival of Islamism by the regimes that seized power in Pakistan (1977), Iran (1979) and Afghanistan (1992) . The political use of Islam grew toward the end of the Cold War when the West supplied billions of dollars worth of arms to Pakistan to assist Afghan Mujahideen and mobilize Islamists from around the world to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. This was the embryo of the Al Qaeda network — which has today come back to haunt the United States.
There was special interest in my five-week series of lectures on the United States and the regional media’s coverage of 9/11. Having recently returned from a fact-finding survey of the media in Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta, Pakistan, I was able to update students on the regional media’s reaction to Sept. 11.
On their part, the students combed the internet for the U.S. media’s response to 9/11 — creating an interesting juxtaposition between the two. We had interesting discussions on current topics. While I condemned Palestinian suicide bombings of civilians, students put down Israeli expansionism. They were most critical of the U.S. for spending billions of dollars to bomb Afghanistan while giving a pittance for reconstruction.
“If we, as college students can understand that this is only going to breed terrorism, why can’t the State Department understand that?” a student was asking.
Since my course title covered so many topics — being as one put it “three to four courses rolled in one” — I gave my class the option of writing about their topic of interest. For those who did well in the first short paper, I was careful not to inflate their mid-term grades. This strategy appears to have worked well — allowing 17 students (about half the class) to secure A’s or AB’s on their final papers. Although student evaluations suggest they struggled to keep up with the readings, there were many appreciative comments.
“This is the best course I’ve taken in three years,” was one. A few stayed back after the final class to thank me. “This is a wonderful course, I’ve learned so much,” one woman — a journalism major — told me. For me, the student feedback — conveyed orally, e-mailed or written on paper — made the teaching worth while.
Nafisa Hoodbhoy taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst this spring. She was a staff reporter for the Dawn newspaper in Karachi, Pakistan, from 1984 to 2000 and is writing a book on the last 20 years of Pakistan’s politics.
Some two decades may have separated President Gen. Zia ul Haq and President Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf’s military rule in Pakistan, but they had one person in common – Benazir Bhutto. The twice-elected woman prime minister of Pakistan took on both military rulers, one by one, with a promise to take the nation from dictatorship into democracy.
Ironically, on both occasions – 1988 and 2007 – Benazir went to Pakistan with a commitment from officials in Washington at a time when the US needed Pakistan to achieve its strategic objectives in Afghanistan. Never mind the fact that millions of people were ready to vote for her, realpolitik demanded that the road to Islamabad be traveled not through the dusty villages of Pakistan but through the power corridors of Washington DC.
In 2006, as Benazir solicited US help to return to power, I went from DC to Maryland to hear her address a rally – organized by Pakistan People’s Party workers. That cold February afternoon, she told expatriates gathered in a hotel around lunch tables in a speech in English, intended for the consumption of the US government,
“One crucial reason Gen. Musharraf gets so little pressure from the Bush administration about restoring democracy is the assumption that only a dictator can deliver military cooperation. That had better not be true.”
Benazir made the sales pitch to Washington at a time when its “blue eyed boy,” Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf – who then wore two hats as chief of army staff and president – prosecuted President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” Western pressure on Musharraf to relax his chokehold on politicians had led to the release of Benazir’s husband Asif Zardari in 2004. Pakistan’s former woman prime minister followed it up with a visit to the US capital to test the waters for her return to power.
Asif, who underwent medical treatment while he lived in an apartment in New York, joined Benazir after the speech. High-spirited and cheery, he flashed his familiar grin as he met expatriates. Out of Benazir’s earshot and away from the public milieu, I asked him with an informality that came from long years of acquaintanceship.
“So, you need to come to Washington to get back into power?”
“Of course, it is after all the world’s only super power,” he shot back.
We had the conversation at PPP senator, Khawaja Akbar’s home in Virginia after Benazir had sent word to me to join their private gathering. After her speech, I had walked to the stage where she signed autographs for a bevy of admirers. It had been more than a decade since I came face to face with Benazir. Still, her look of genuine surprise at seeing me in the US – as opposed to familiar surroundings in Pakistan – came with a warm response.
“Wait, I want to see you,” she said.
Minutes later, she had sent her senator to my table with a message to follow her small entourage to his Virginia home. It was an occasion to have a close sitting with Benazir and Asif, away from the public glare and in a small homely setting. Benazir looked different without her head cover, with shoulder-length light brown hair and a heavier physique, but she still had the same twinkling eyes that reflected her deep self-assurance.
She picked my brains on a drone missile attack that had then occurred in Damadola in Bajaur tribal agency.
“Do you know if the missile attack actually killed Ayman Zawahiri’s nephew as the government claims?”
I told her that it did not appear so, and that there were contradictory statements about the incident in the US newspapers as well.
Benazir had read with interest the Washington Post’s editorial, which cast aspersions on Gen. Musharraf’s role in the “War on Terror” and questioned the effectiveness of keeping him as an ally. As early as 2006, the US media’s critical comments that Musharraf could be engaged in double dealing with the West had obviously presented itself to her as an opportunity.
At that juncture, Benazir’s relationship with Musharraf was one of spy versus spy as both seasoned politicians – one civilian and the other military – worked to outfox each other. While Benazir gathered information on how Musharraf fared in the US, his administration followed her activities in Washington, DC with eagle eyes.
Only a few weeks earlier, Interpol had issued a red alert against Benazir and Asif on money laundering charges. Musharraf had shifted the responsibility of the alert on the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), allegedly set up to fight corruption among public officials and politicians.
But just that morning, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Shaikh Rasheed Ahmed had delivered a cold warning from the general, “Benazir will be arrested the moment she lands in Pakistan.”
Coincidentally, the same day that the Interpol alert was issued, I heard Benazir at a public forum in Washington, DC. As I reiterated the threat conveyed by Musharraf’s information minister to Benazir and asked her what she planned to do about it, she seized on the chance to criticize Musharraf and declare that “such tactics will not stop me from returning to Pakistan to bring democracy.”
At the home of the PPP senator, Benazir waxed casual as I reminded her of the Interpol alert. She began to ask party leaders about individuals in Pakistan’s establishment who might have been responsible for issuing the red alert against herself and Asif.
“Can you believe it, they are equating me with terrorists like Ayman Al Zawahiri,” she turned to me with a twinkle in her eyes.
Asif, too, was relaxed in the homely settings and more chatty than usual. It was a contrast to his behavior a few weeks ago when he had dodged my questions by saying he was under a “gag order.” Instead, he had passed the buck rather nicely:
“Why don’t you ask Benazir? You’ve known her longer than I have.”
Now on a one-to-one level, he volunteered to explain that he had been released from prison without striking a back room deal with Musharraf.
“You never thought I would get out of prison did you,” he chuckled.
To my surprise, Benazir talked of her erstwhile rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with camaraderie. It was a far cry from the Benazir I knew in Pakistan’s last decade of civilian rule, when the two former prime ministers were bitter rivals and worked at cross-purposes.
Instead, a year ago, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had come together in London to frame a “Charter of Democracy” that promised to force Musharraf to hold “free and fair” elections and enact constitutional reforms. Long years of exile suffered by Nawaz and Benazir under Musharraf had convinced the ousted prime ministers to agree on a charter that would prevent military rulers from overthrowing elected leaders like themselves.
In London, the politicians did the spade work for the constitutional package, passed by the Zardari government in April 2010, which undid the constitutional amendments passed by two former military rulers – Gen. Zia ul Haq and Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf – and curtailed the power of the president. The “Eighteenth Amendment,” as it is called, has been largely welcomed in Pakistan, even while some sections have been challenged in the Supreme Court.
More western savvy than Nawaz, Benazir had, after 9/11, correctly surmised Pakistan’s importance for the US. Although President Bush had developed a one-on-one relationship with Musharraf, American voters were growing disillusioned with a sagging economy and a seemingly unending war in Afghanistan.
Taking advantage of the swing of voters toward the Democratic Party, Benazir put her foot in the door and worked to prize it open for her reentry to power.
A senior journalist seated at our small table suggested to Benazir that her goals may be better served if she moved from Dubai to the US. Benazir demurred, not just because it would make her US connections far too obvious, but because she said she was concerned about the education of her children enrolled in Dubai’s schools.
Instead, Benazir went on to work with Democratic members of the US Congress to broker the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) deal with Musharraf, which granted amnesty for herself, husband Asif Zardari and thousands of other politicians and businessmen accused of corruption. PPP sympathizers say it was Benazir’s way of ensuring that the “politically fabricated” cases did not stand in her path to return to Pakistan.
Among those who got former President Musharraf to sign the National Reconciliation Ordinance was Democratic Senator John Kerry. Kerry’s advisor Shahid Ahmed Khan accompanied Benazir and Kerry to the office of Tom Lantos. The latter, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, knew Musharraf in his capacity as the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
As Benazir telephoned Musharraf, Khan stated that he had stepped out of the office “to give them some privacy.”
Afterwards, Khan said that Senator Kerry told him that he had talked briefly with US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, to ask that he telephone Musharraf to ensure security arrangements for Benazir’s return. Khan said that Senator Kerry subsequently asked the Republican administration’s US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to ensure that Benazir was provided with proper security while she was in Pakistan.
In 2007 Benazir met President Gen. Musharraf twice in Dubai to work out her quid pro quo arrangement with him. It culminated on October 4, 2007 with Musharraf’s signature on the National Reconciliation Ordinance – which paved the way for Benazir, Asif and several party officials to return to Pakistan. Two days later, as Gen. Musharraf presented himself for presidential reelection, the PPP members permitted him a façade of legitimacy by remaining in parliament while other political parties boycotted the vote.
That cold February afternoon, as Benazir and I stood alone at the refreshments table in the Virginia home of her party senator, she picked away disinterestedly at the lavish spread. She was in a pensive mood, apparently reflecting on the gravity of her decision to return to Pakistan. Instinctively, I said to her,
“It’s very brave of you to go back.”
She dropped her gaze still further and became still. It would be many seconds before she turned to me and we rejoined the rest of the group. Perhaps she knew that this would be her last battle.
It was 9:15 am on September 11, 2001 when the phone rang. There was a strange urgency to the ring. It made me spring out of bed in my tiny apartment in Sunderland, Western Massachusetts and run to the other room to quiet it.
It was my relative, Shabnam, who had left Pakistan decades ago and lived in Houston, Texas. In the instances when we met on either side of the globe, I shared with her my adventures as a journalist. Given our mutual background, she reveled in the exciting stories I told her as a reporter for the nation’s leading newspaper.
Evidently, she knew me well enough to sense that this day – a day that changed the US – would change my life as well.
“Quick, turn on the television,” she said.
Alas, I told her, we didn’t have a television. My husband and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment and had only the sparse belongings of new immigrants.
We had arrived about a year ago from Pakistan and I had just finished teaching a course at the Women Studies Department in Amherst College, Massachusetts on Gender Politics in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“The trade towers in New York are burning. They say it was hit by an airplane,” she was saying.
Sensing it was a terrorist act, I rushed to turn on the radio. I was immediately drawn into the drama unfolding in downtown Manhattan, where I had worked as a journalist for two years during the 1980’s.
National Public Radio contributor, Ginger Miles, whose apartment overlooked the World Trade Towers, was on air.
I knew Ginger from my reporting at WBAI radio in New York. There was unmistakable excitement in her voice, sounding like journalists do when they inadvertently turn into part of the story.
Ginger fought her way through the smoke and debris blowing in through her windows as she spoke.
Her commentary about thick ash, which blew into her apartment from the collapsing trade towers, conjured up vivid images of the attack into the heart of capitalism.