‘Aboard The Democracy Train’ Excerpt Pages 170-172: With stepped-up US and NATO patrols in Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda found Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan belt a much more hospitable terrain to resettle and reorganize. The Al Qaeda’s militants, who were welcomed by the U.S. to fight against the Soviets during the Cold War, had already integrated through marriages within the local tribes. In the post 9-11 era, the peace deals offered by Musharraf allowed them to recreate a Taliban state that mirrored their fallen government in Afghanistan.
Over time the Taliban murdered hundreds of maliks (tribal landlords) in FATA, accused of spying for Pakistan, beheaded drug peddlers, kidnappers, looters and dacoits and collected jazihya (taxes on non-Muslims) to establish their rule. It would change the traditional social structure and hierarchy and cause an exodus of landlords, political agents and secular communities to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s settled areas.
In Khyber agency, the main artery connecting Peshawar to Kabul, a running battle between two religious groups – led by Mufti Munir Shakir and an Afghan, Pir Saifur Rehman – in 2005 resulted in a heavy loss of life. Shakir’s group spawned the Lashkar-i-Islam (Army of Islam), whose leader Mangal Bagh used FM radio stations in the madressahs (Islamic schools) of the tribal belt to incite listeners into acts of sectarian violence against the local Shia population. From time to time, they blew up transmission towers of FM radio stations to stop the government from broadcasting music and information.
While the government encouraged the predominantly Shia population of the surrounding Kurram agencies to form tribal armies – or lashkars – for self-protection, the militants responded by suicide missions that included ramming explosive laden vehicles into jirgas (tribal councils). These militants banded under the ASSP and LEJ also found ways to attack Shia refugees and their congregations in prayer houses and mourning processions that stretched all the way from Khyber to Karachi.
Although Shias did not turn against Sunnis on a large scale, as has been the case in Iraq, these attacks led to steady stream of retaliation. Where the military took on the Taliban, their sectarian affiliates responded with growing attacks on non-Muslims, surpassing the sectarian violence witnessed two decades ago.
As the Bush administration mounted pressure on Pakistan to “do more,” in the “War on Terror,” Pakistan’s army soldiers came in the front line of fire. Being poorly equipped and trained, the conventional army was no match for the well-armed Taliban who fought with guerrilla tactics that included improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide attacks, kidnappings and beheadings. It led to situations in which entire contingents of soldiers were kidnapped and several were beheaded. Others were either forced to surrender or voluntarily deserted the army.
In 2006, matters reached a point where Musharraf was forced to make a deal with Taliban militant Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan that his tribesmen would expel foreign fighters from the tribal belt and refrain from attacking the Pakistan military in return for the administration’s movement of 80,000 troops from check posts in Waziristan to the Afghan border. The deal succeeded in getting rid of Uzbek fighters – subsequently leading to the assassination of their chief, Tahir Yuldeshev, through a drone attack.
But the North Waziristan peace deal would eventually turn the area into the last refuge for jihadists. As late as 2010, Awami National Party Senator, Afrasiab Khattak admitted to me that Gul Bahadur’s forces had become a “problem” for his government.
Meanwhile, tribesmen were eyewitnesses to the return of Afghan Mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in North Waziristan. In December 2009, these former CIA-funded Mujahideen gave sanctuary to a Jordanian double agent who used suicide bombing to wipe out a sizeable portion of US intelligence officials who were posted at Khost, Afghanistan.
Former FATA security chief Brig Mahmood Shah, who quit his position in 2005, calls the North Waziristan accord “a bad deal” that enabled the Taliban to consolidate its position. While initially the Afghan Taliban did expel foreign fighters from the region, soon it was back to square one as the Haqqani network attracted foreign jihadists and launched increasingly daring attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
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.
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.