Nuclear Feudalism: Terror War Profits and the Crack-Up of Pakistan


There is high drama in Pakistan these days, as terror, tribalism and repression cut a deadly swathe through the collapsi
ng regime of military strongman Pervez Musharraf. The latest upheaval came on the political front this weekend, as the nation's last elected leader was forcibly barred from entering the country -- while yet another former leader was frantically negotiating a backroom deal, with Washington's blessing, on sharing power upon her own imminent return from exile, as the Times of India notes.

The dictator is being propped up by the largess of his Terror
War patron, George W. Bush, who for years has overlooked (or abetted) the entwining of Pakistan's military and security organs with the Taliban, their support for a range of terrorist groups, and the clandestine peddling of nuclear weapons technology to "rogue regimes" all over the world. The military alliance between the United States and Pakistan -- toasted again last week by Pentagon warlord Bob Gates -- is far too profitable for elites on both sides to relinquish over such quaint notions as democracy, stability, human rights, national interest or nuclear non-proliferation.

But the tensions in Musharraf's increasingly disfunctional
realm are becoming too great to sustain the status quo. A rising, discontened Islamic militancy on one side; a rising, dicontented middle class, long shut out of power and influence, on the other; rising, discontented tribal and ethnic groups -- many of them forcibly incorporated into the country decades ago -- seeking independence or greater autonomy, and meeting wtih violent repression: all of these are wreaking havoc with Washington's aim of a sturdy client state to serve as a bulwark on the empire's Central Asian frontier. And so the Bushists are casting about to find some way to bring a measure of cosmetic "change" to Pakistan's government, in hopes of easing some of the intolerable pressures -- while at the same time keeping the military-security organs firmly in control of the nation.

Hence Washington's support for the fraught negotiations bet
ween Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister (and daughter of a former president), who fled the country after her last term in office amidst a storm of corruption charges against her and her family. Bhutto is seen by many in Washington and London as, almost literally, the "great white hope" for Western interests in Pakistan. Educated entirely in the West, and long resident there, strikingly beautiful, pale and elegant, the aristocratic Bhutto would be a beguiling face indeed for the corrupt and bellicose system upon which the elites in Washington and Islamabad thrive. If the talks succeed and she returns to Pakistan to serve as prime minister under President Musharraf, it will doubtless be hailed as a "return to democracy," another triumph of freedom for the Terror War.

But as the historian and traveller William Dalrymple pointed out in the Guardian last week, Bhutto is hardly an icon of democracy and good governance. She is in fact emblematic of the feudal system that has crippled Pakistan's democratic development since the country was founded, a scion of the small but powerful elite that has long ruled the country through violence and corruption and collusion with the military. As Dalyrmple notes:

The last time I visited the [Bhutto] estate, in 1994, a convoy from the house of Begum Bhutto -- Benazir's mother -- to her husband's grave had just been shot at by police, leading to the deaths of three of the family's retainers. Begum was in no doubt that the police were acting to support Benazir. Soon afterwards, there was the funeral of Benazir's brother Murtaza, who had just returned to Pakistan to try to oust his sister from control of the family's political wing, the Pakistan People's party. He died, along with six of his supporters, in a hail of police bullets, yards from his front door. Many pointed the finger of suspicion at Benazir, and her husband was later charged with complicity in the murder.

...Few would argue with the proposition that democracy is almost always preferable to dictatorship; but it is often forgotten the degree to which Bhutto is the person who has done more than anything to bring Pakistan's strange variety of democracy -- really a form of elective feudalism -- into disrepute. During her first 20-month long premiership, astonishingly, she failed to pass a single piece of major legislation. Her reign was marked by massive human rights abuse: Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world's worst records of custodial deaths, extrajudicial killings and torture. Bhutto's premiership was also distinguished by epic levels of corruption. In 1995 Transparency International named Pakistan one of the three most corrupt countries in the world. Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari -- widely known as "Mr 10%" -- faced allegations of plundering the country.

...Nor is the distinction between democracy and military rule quite as sharp as Bhutto likes to imply. Behind Pakistan's swings between military government and democracy lies a surprising continuity of interests: to some extent, the industrial, military, landowning, and bureaucratic elites are all interrelated and look after one another. The current negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto -- which have excluded Bhutto's democratic rival Nawaz Sharif -- are typical of the way that the civil and military elites have shared power with little reference to the electorate.

Ironically, Sharif, ousted in the 1999 coup that brought Musharraf to power, is also a product of that same disfunctional system. But he is not so tractable, or attractive, as Bhutto, and so his attempt to return to Pakistan to run in the upcoming elections was met with fierce resistance. Not only from Musharraf, who had him arrested on corruption charges upon his arrival on Sunday and then immediately deported to Saudi Arabia, but also from Washington, and, as Dawn reports, from some of Bush's best friends in the Middle East: the medieval religious tyrants of Saudi Arabia and Lebanese politician Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, the mogul and long-time Syrian ally who profited mightily by his turns in government office but was transformed into a martyr of democracy by his assassination in 2005.

The fate of Pakistan is, arguably, more important to the long-term security of the world than Iraq.  Not that lives of the human beings in one country are more important than those in the other, of course; but Pakistan's nuclear arsenal -- developed secretly over decades with a knowing wink from the West -- makes the very real possibility of its collapse more dangerous for the wider world than the hellish destruction that Bush has wrought upon Iraq. In a recent report on "How the West summoned up a nuclear nightmare in Pakistan," The Times conscisely encapsulated the situation. After detailing Musharraf's certain knowledge of Pakistan's long-term "nukes for profit" scheme, reporters Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark noted:

The tragedy is that America’s gamble on Musharraf has not paid off. Washington’s nightmare is a nuclear Pakistan controlled by fundamentalists. Yet Musharraf presides over a country that is not only still a nuclear proliferator but the real source of the Islamist terrorism menacing the West....

At least 17 of the worst Sunni terror groups banned by the US and the UN have been allowed to operate openly and launch recruitment drives, using flimsy cover-names, most of them operating within sight of the Pakistan military.

The Taliban reformed after Musharraf signed a secret pact with its supporters in Waziristan – the tribal region of northwest Pakistan – in 2004, and again in 2006, leading to what Nato commanders in Afghanistan complained of as a 300% increase in attacks on UK and Afghan forces....

Pakistan today stands on the failed states index at position 12, just below Haiti, in worse shape than North Korea and Burma. Yet Musharraf’s government has been rewarded with a 45,000% increase in US aid since 2001, taking assistance levels to more than $10 billion, five times more than received by any other country (including Israel).

On his only visit to Pakistan, in March 2006, Bush flew in at night, unannounced, without lights. As the US knew only too well, America’s enemies had access to US-supplied Stinger missiles that Pakistan’s former army chiefs had declined to help the CIA claw back after the Afghan war.

Bush never got near to the people of Pakistan. A heavy security blanket enveloped Islamabad, which was patrolled by thousands of riot police and para-troopers while US Black Hawks buzzed the skies which were empty of any commercial traffic.

That scene is a perfect emblem of the American Empire and its satrapies: the military hardware, and its attendant crony profits, are everywhere; the people are nowhere. Meanwhile, more violence, more extremism, more despair and anger will continue to build up behind the facade, exploding in unpredicatable ways, in unpredictable places, around the world for years to come. As Dalrymple notes:

...Real democracy has never thrived here, at least in part because landowning remains the principle social base from which politicians can emerge. The educated middle class -- which in India gained control in 1947 -- is in Pakistan still largely excluded from the political process. It is this as much as anything else that has fuelled the growth of the Islamists. According to the political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, "The military and the political parties have all failed to create an environment where the poor can get what they need from the state. So the poor have begun to look to alternatives for justice. In the long term, flaws in the system will create more room for the fundamentalists."

Pakistan today in many ways resembles pre-revolutionary Iran. A cosmopolitan middle class is prospering, yet for the great majority of poorer Pakistanis life remains intolerably hard and access to justice or education is a distant hope. Healthcare and other social services for the poor have been neglected, in contrast to the public services that benefit the wealthy, such as airports. Secular democracy will only ever flourish in Pakistan if space is created for secular politicians from non-feudal backgrounds who represent the grassroots...Until then, if Pakistanis only have a choice between the inter-related feudal and military elites, the growth of the Islamist parties will continue, and the country's violent upheavals can only escalate.

For more on Pakistan and the conflicts in the region, see "Fatal Vision: The Strategy of Chaos and Ethnic Cleansing."