The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power

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Book Review: Tariq Ali: The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power

A country in crisis

Everything seems to be “on the brink” or “standing at the crossroads” in world politics these days. But Pakistan surely has done enough to earn every cliché in the book: as the country passes its sixtieth anniversary, it finds itself squeezed between mounting political instability at home and growing violence across the border in Afghanistan. Barack Obama has declared his intention to beef up the US presence on Afghan territory and launch raids across the Pakistani border, while the neo-Taliban are reportedly gearing up for a major offensive that will test the resolve of NATO to continue supporting its allies/puppets (delete according to preference) in Kabul. That prospect would test the cohesion of any state, never mind one as fragile as Pakistan appears to be.

Tariq Ali must be a publisher’s dream these days. When the Twin Towers fell, he already had The Clash of Fundamentalisms in the pipeline. A few years later, he was ready to publish a study of modern Pakistan when General Musharraf’s regime began to crumble. The Dual is a more coherent book than The Clash of Fundamentalisms, which could have done with an editor’s attention. It gives the reader a tight, well-focused account of political developments in Pakistan since the British Empire vacated the premises in 1947. The narrative loses some of its fluency as it approaches the present day, but that’s only to be expected (Ali must have had his manuscript ready to go when an assassin took Benazir Bhutto’s life and Musharraf was removed from power). He seasons the mix with personal anecdotes, describing conversations with Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Bhutto, or recalling a trip to meet activists from the Bengali independence movement – the fact that Ali was able to travel with a revolver “gifted indirectly with the IRA” past airport security on his way to Calcutta can only leave you nostalgic for such innocent and carefree times.

If you’re going to read this book, you should be aware in advance of the ground Ali chooses not to cover. This is a political history of modern Pakistan, not a social one – facts about the Pakistani social system are mentioned here and there, but there’s no detailed summary of the balance between rural and urban populations, the level of industrial development, and so on. This focus on high politics is a little surprising for an avowed Marxist. Although it’s not a cultural history either, Ali has more to say about Pakistan’s religious tradition, insisting that heretics and dissenters have always been part of popular spirituality in the region. He naturally detests the puritanical, intolerant brand of Islam promoted by Saudi money since the 1970s, and gleefully claims that the thriving domestic porn industry does a roaring trade in the provinces where Islamist parties are strong (only a killjoy would ask him for a source).

Britain‘s legacy

As Ali sees it, the problems of modern Pakistan owe much to the manner of its formation. In neighbouring India, the post-colonial state was the result of a long struggle against British imperialism by a mass movement. Pakistani statehood, on the other hand, was achieved by a faction of aristocrats who entered into collaboration with Britain as it sought to undermine the battle for independence. They had never sought mass backing for their agenda, still less consulted the people who became their subjects after 1947. Mohammed Jinnah was the only figure of any stature in the new Pakistani elite, and he died soon after independence was granted by London, leaving behind a crew of mediocre toffs. It was little wonder that the generals and civil servants who had been educated to run a British colony ended up asserting their control over the new state. No army officer would have dared to undermine Nehru and his colleagues in the leadership of the Indian Congress, with their long record of struggle and popular legitimacy. But the civilian politicians who ruled during the early years of Pakistan were not in any position to command fear, awe or even respect. It wasn’t long before the first military dictatorship was established under the leadership of Ayub Khan.

The absence of a popular anti-imperialist tradition left the system of power in Pakistan largely unreformed after Britain left the sub-continent, and limited the opportunities for grassroots democracy and mass participation in political life to develop. It had other negative consequences, according to Ali: lacking a genuine anti-colonial nationalism to give them legitimacy, the Pakistani elite fell back on sterile “anti-Indianism” which has remained one of the central obsessions of the state. The bitter rivalry between New Delhi and Islamabad has drained resources from social development in both nations and brought the two powers to the brink of a nuclear exchange.

Slaughter in Bengal

The best chance for Pakistani political life to transcend its origins came in the late 1960s, when the military dictatorship was brought to its knees by a vibrant protest movement. When free elections were held, the Pakistan People’s Party of Zulfiqar Bhutto swept to victory in West Pakistan. The moderate Bengali nationalists of the Awami League triumphed in Pakistan’s eastern segment (now Bangladesh). If the People’s Party and the Awami League had formed a coalition and negotiated an amicable separation – or at least a loose federation of East and West Pakistan on an equal footing – the path would have been cleared for both parties to set about reforming their societies, with the generals marginalised.

But Bhutto’s party was not an effective vehicle for reform. He came from an elite background and had served as a cabinet minister under the old system. His party was rigidly authoritarian, with power vested entirely in the leader’s hands. Although it contained some of the best activists from the mass movement which had brought down the junta, the People’s Party did not match the aspirations of the urban and rural poor who had voted for it in such large numbers. Bhutto stood aside and offered no resistance as the generals prepared to launch a murderous campaign of repression in East Pakistan. The army preyed on the Bengali people with ruthless savagery, raping, torturing and killing civilians.

Ali recalls the growing radicalisation of the Bengali nationalist movement as its partisans fought against the brutal occupation, and the fear of Indira Gandhi’s government that the mood would cross the border into West Bengal. The prospect of a Bengali socialist revolution was one of the key factors behind the Indian decision to go to war with Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh. Aware that this claim may invite scepticism when viewed from today’s perspective, Ali quotes an editorial in the New York Times which issued a stern warning about the opportunities which a protracted war in Bengal would offer to the revolutionary left and suggested that the sub-continent might ultimately go the way of Indo-China. The Indian army quickly routed its Pakistani counterpart and the new state of Bangladesh was created.

The second coup

With the generals humiliated by their defeat, Bhutto had an ever better opportunity to put his election promises of reform into practice. His government proved, however, to be corrupt and autocratic, ditching plans to introduce land reform and making no attempt to transform the structure of the army and break the power of the officer corps. Bhutto stumbled from one crisis to another, launching Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear bomb along the way (another example of the debilitating obsession with matching India). His chaotic period of rule left the door open for General Zia to mount a coup in 1977, initiating the second phase of military rule.

Any qualms the western powers may have had about the military takeover were set aside when the communist PDPA movement took power in Afghanistan in 1978. The US government sensed an opportunity to drag the Soviet Union into a costly engagement and began funding the mujahideen fighting the Afghan Communists. Fearing their Afghan proxies would be ousted, the Soviet leadership ordered an invasion by the Red Army, and Washington escalated its support for the Islamist / monarchist opposition. This military aid would be supplied through Pakistan, and General Zia became a trusted ally. His execution of Zulfiqar Bhutto after a sham trial was greeted with indifference by the West. Hundreds of millions of dollars were sent towards the Afghan border (some of these dollars were lost along the way – Ali notes cynically that many Pakistani generals took care to open foreign bank accounts at the time).

The Afghan war further strengthened the grip of the army over Pakistani society, in partnership with the ISI secret police. The Soviet government soon began looking for ways to get out of the bloody trap (Ali notes in passing that many of his comrades on the Pakistani Left eagerly supported the Red Army in Afghanistan, and could not understand why he opposed the invasion – the same people, he tells us, now tend to support the presence of US troops on Afghan territory). By the end of the decade, the last Soviet troops had left and the PDPA regime was left to fend for itself for a couple of years before the western-backed militias were able to finish it off. The various mujahideen factions immediately began fighting amongst themselves and demolished Kabul in the process.

General Zia’s dictatorship formed an alliance with the Islamic fundamentalist parties and introduced a number of puritanical and misogynist laws to satisfy their demands. The Pakistani army also began using extreme jihadists as proxies in Kashmir, hoping to bleed the Indian army and avenge the humiliation in Bengal. By the time the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan, Zia himself was no more: the general was killed in a plane crash in 1988, along with the US ambassador. Ali ventures a few theories as to who was responsible, suggesting that a Soviet-Indian revenge operation lay behind the fatal plunge. Whatever the truth may have been, Zia’s death made another return to civilian rule possible, and once again the People’s Party was triumphant – this time under the leadership of Zulfikar’s daughter Benazir Bhutto.

The cycle continues

According to Ali, Bhutto was immediately hemmed in by pressure from the army and the traditional Pakistani elite, and made even less headway than her father in responding to the needs of her mass base for social reform. The internal life of the People’s Party was no more democratic than it had been under the first Bhutto. Benazir’s first government was short-lived, and by the time she returned to power for the second time, any thought of changing Pakistan seems to have been abandoned. Benazir’s husband Asif Ali Zardari took advantage of the access he enjoyed to the highest levels of power and accumulated a massive fortune ($1.5 billion by some estimates). In one of the most sensational charges of the book, Ali accuses Zardari of responsibility for the murder of Benazir’s brother Murtaza, who had denounced the stench of corruption and called for a return to the original programme of the People’s Party. It was also during Benazir’s second term as prime minister that the ISI brought its Afghan creation, the Taliban movement, to power in Kabul.

The corruption of Benazir Bhutto and her main rival Nawaz Sharif made it possible for yet another military coup under the leadership of General Musharraf. As ever, Musharraf took over with promises of reform and renewal to be followed by a swift return to civilian rule; as ever, the promises were soon forgotten and the period of “emergency” stretched indefinitely into the future. In another echo of past experience, events in Afghanistan helped wipe the slate clean after the coup. In response to the 9/11 attacks, Musharraf aligned himself with the “war on terror” and stood back as the Taliban leadership was driven from the Afghan capital. In return, Pakistan was given billions of dollars in military aid by the Bush administration and Musharraf even found a western publisher for his self-serving memoirs.

That was the point at which Ali presumably expected to close the story, when opposition to military rule suddenly flared up after Musharraf attempted to remove judicial critics from their posts. The movement in support of the judges changed the balance of forces radically and drove Washington to broker an “arranged marriage” between Musharraf and the exiled Benazir Bhutto. This uneasy alliance was destroyed by Benazir’s assassination soon after her return to Pakistan, but the People’s Party went on to contest the elections of 2008 under the leadership of Asif Ali Zardari, routing the pro-Musharraf groups. Zardari took office as prime minister at an especially fraught time, with the Afghan conflict growing bloodier by the month and Indian officials blaming the ISI for terrorist attacks in Mumbai. If even half of the charges Ali levels against Zardari are true, he is probably the worst man who could find himself at the wheel in the midst of these crises.

The focus on high politics throughout this book ends up giving a fairly depressing picture of Pakistan’s likely future: we come away with the strong impression that the cycle will go on repeating itself, as corrupt politicians give way to autocratic generals and back again, dragging the Pakistani state from one shambolic episode to another while the basic social needs of its people remain unattended. It would perhaps have been a little more encouraging if Ali had given some attention to Pakistani civil society and suggested where the potential for a different future might lie.

The reforms he advocates are simple: peaceful co-existence with India, allowing the transfer of resources from the inflated military machine to basic health and education programmes; comprehensive land reform, breaking the power of the big semi-feudal landowners in the countryside and giving the rural poor a livelihood; economic diversification away from reliance on cotton and textiles; and democratisation of the political system that will finally remove the dead weight of the British colonial power structure that was inherited unchanged by the new state. Nobody with their head screwed on could dispute any of those proposals, but it’s hard to see where the agents of such a programme can be found.

Ali appears somewhat optimistic, however. He points to the movement which brought down Musharraf as proof that the Pakistani people can always throw up pleasant surprises. Let’s hope there are more surprises to come before Pakistan’s ghoulish elites drag its people into another disaster.