Politics & Policy

Pakistan Primer

A compendium to recent news.

Pakistan has been in the news even more than usual with the attempted return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from exile, and the predicted return of equally disgraced former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Here is a quick Pakistan Primer for NRO readers.

The key things to understand about Pakistan are:

  • Everyone in the Pakistani political class is steeped in conspiracy theory. This may be because that class engages in an amazing amount of conspiring. The political class is also viscerally anti-American. Rather depressingly, English-speaking, educated, secular, pro-democracy Pakistanis are just as anti-American as the peasants of Punjab or the Pathan tribesmen of the frontier. Given that the Indian elite also hates America partly for having supported Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 wars, this may be seem bizarre. However it is universally believed in Pakistan that General Zia’s fatal plane crash in 1988 was in fact a CIA assassination, and that the U.S.-NATO-led overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan is merely an Indo-American plot to undermine Pakistan’s influence in its own backyard.


  • Benazir Bhutto may be the darling of the New York Times (she’s a woman, and she went to Harvard!). But even more than her predecessor Nawaz Sharif, and certainly more than President Musharraf, she is a member of the feudal elite that has misruled Pakistan since independence in 1947. The feudals, as they are known, are more than huge landowners. This is especially of Sindh, where the Bhutto family comes from; They field private armies, run private prisons and force their tenants to vote for whichever party they choose to support (many feudal families have a child involved in both of the main political parties). One reason why Pakistan has such a low literacy rate compared to India is that it is not in the feudals’ interest to have a peasant population that can read.


  • Benazir Bhutto seems like a plausible and attractive partner or replacement for General Musharraf.  But her two periods in office as Prime Minister (1988-90 and 1993-96) were marked by economic collapse, suppression of the press, human rights abuses, and appalling corruption. Her husband Asif Zadari – popularly known as “Mr. Ten percent” — was spectacularly corrupt even by South Asian political standards. After Benazir was replaced as Prime Minister by arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani courts indicted her husband for heroin smuggling, and also for arranging the murder of Benazirs half brother Murtaza – an assassination that harked back to traditional intra-dynastic slayings of the region. (It is possible that husband-of-Benazir was framed for these particular crimes. But it was Swiss federal prosecutors as opposed to Pakistan’s who revealed that the Bhuttos and their Pakistan People’s Party had imported 20 million Swiss francs – the alleged proceeds of bribery, money laundering and possibly even drug deals.) At the height of Benazir’s second administration, Transparency International ranked Pakistan the second most corrupt country in the world. Americans should also remember that it was Benazir who persuaded North Korea – via Beijing – to supply Pakistan with medium and long range ballistic missile technology, in return for nuclear weapons technology. The A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network was at its height during her time in power, though it continued to flourish under Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf.


  • The reason that Benazir is the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party — despite her extreme handicap of being a female in one of the most misogynistic countries in Asia — is that in Pakistan, as in India and Bangladesh, dynasty trumps gender. The monarchical instinct is extremely strong here, even stronger than in the Kennedys’ Boston. Benazir’s father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was overthrown and then executed by General Zia al Haq.


  • Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – Bhutto Senior — was originally the protégé of Pakistan’s first military dictator General Ayub Khan. As President and then Prime Minister, he turned against his fellow aristocrats and moved left, wrecking the Pakistani economy with nationalization and ‘Islamic Socialism’. Even before that, as Ayub Khan’s Foreign Minister in the early 60’s, Bhutto had rejected US support in favor of a client relationship with Communist China. (He was apparently infuriated by U.S. aid to India after Sino-Indian war of 1962 and seduced by the anti-American rhetoric of “non-alignment”). It was the Chinese who built the spectacular Karakoram highway between the two countries, and China’s cousin regime in North Korea that later supplied Pakistan with key missile technology. Despite the media’s focus on US aid and influence in to Pakistan, China continues to be its largest supplier of arms. It was Chinese pressure that prompted Musharaff to assault the Islamist controlled Red Mosque earlier this summer). Zulfikar Bhutto’s progressive credentials won him favorable treatment by the Western media, even though he brutally suppressed a 1973-77 revolt in Baluchistan with the assistance of helicopter gunships supplied by the Shah of Iran. His eventual execution after a coup and shoddy trial, cemented his image as a martyr of Pakistani democracy.


  • Everyone at the top Pakistani politics – apart from the “bearded ones” of the Islamic Extremist parties that now control the North-West Frontier Province– knows everyone else and has at one point or another been in cahoots with the Army and the feudals.  For instance, Nawaz Sharif who has just been sent back into Saudi exile after a premature attempt to seize the Pakistani throne from Musharaff, now talks a good democratic game, but he too began his career as a protégée of a military dictator. (General Zia made him finance minister and then chief minister of Punjab province.) Like Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz and his supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League Party have been happy to forge anti-Musharraf alliances with various fiercely anti-American Islamist groups.


  • At any time, at least one major province of Pakistan is inflamed by ethnic separatism and sectarian violence, or reeling under brutal military suppression of the same. Currently this is happening in two places: The first is the autonomous tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province where the Taliban and probably Osama bin Laden hide from U.S., NATO and Afghan forces. The second is Baluchistan on the Iranian border. Baluchi separatists have been fighting the Pakistani state for decades, and the separatist struggle has also spilled over into Iran where Baluchi tribesmen have attacked and killed Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards. There is also periodic violence between Sunni majority and the Shia minority, and Sunni Muslim violence against Christians and Buddhists. The former strife is blamed by the elite on the “foreign hand” ie the CIA or Indian Intelligence.


  • Elections in Pakistan are usually unfair and corrupt. Even if they weren’t, it is far from clear that a “return to democracy” would do anything to stem the country’s internal strife – Baluchi separatism, tension between Sunni and Shia,  Pashtun tribal violence etc., or to halt the country’s drift to extremism. Indeed it might well encourage the former and enable the latter. The country’s growing middle and lower middle classes are essentially excluded from power. Their political frustration fuels the Islamist movement, as does the government’s failure to provide basic core services like education to the urban poor.


  • Because of the failure of the Pakistani elite to govern fairly, efficiently, or in any interest but its own, the Pakistani Army continues to be the most progressive institution in the country. This may not be saying much. But like the armies of Central American countries, it has traditionally provided one of the only routes of social mobility for the poor and unconnected. (A “Mohajir” or refugee from India like General Musharraf could only have become a major political figure via an army career.) Also, like a Central American army, the Pakistani military has massive business interests all over the country, worth at least $20 billion. Some senior officers still cleave to traditions inherited from the British Indian Raj – the British influence is obvious in everything from Regimental names to the tidy cantonment gardens and afternoon tea (or whisky) at military bases. Though some senior officers like Musharraf himself admire the secular traditions of the Turkish military, the Pakistani army has long had an Islamist element. This has grown much stronger in recent years as Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, has used various fundamentalist militant groups to conduct proxy warfare against enemies like India, the Soviet Union and now Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan.


  • Musharraf has been good for the Pakistani economy which is growing at more than 8-percent a year. You can see evidence of the boom in construction and foreign direct investment even in Peshawar. Automobile ownership has increased by 40-percent since 2001. However, revolutions tend to take place in countries where the population is beginning to improve after long periods of impoverishment. Musharraf has signally failed to do anything about the key problem of education and secularism in Pakistan. Thanks to General Zia, who stopped paying for public schools, it is has long been impossible for all but the rich in Pakistan to get even a basic education – outside the Madrassas. Basic literacy in Pakistan is at 49-percent and falling. More than two thirds of women are illiterate.


  • Many observers are beginning to realize that Musharraf’s big problem is that he’s simply not that smart. It is true that he has cleverly played on US fears that his overthrow might mean a nuclear Pakistan run by actual fundamentalists rather than a regime that supports terrorists for reasons of state.  But Musharraf’s suspension of Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury earlier this year was a disastrous miscalculation, alienating liberals and secularists just when he needed them as allies against the Islamists and tribals.


  • How vulnerable is Pakistan to take-over by jihadis? The governing elite of Islamabad is all too aware that the fundamentalist Pashtun tribals of the North-West Frontier are just two hours away on the super highway from Peshawar. Fortunately the headquarters of the Pakistani Army is in neighboring Rawalpindi, and at the moment the army remains under the control of relative secularists like Musharraf and his appointees. However, there are many Pashtun tribals serving in the Pakistani armed forces and some of them feel stronger loyalty to their tribal kin than to the Pakistani state. Although the Pakistani Army’s efforts to chasten some of the rebellious, Taliban-supporting and al-Qaeda-hosting Pashtun tribes in the Tribal Area look feeble and spasmodic to outsiders, they have been firm enough to infuriate men like the Pakistani special forces officer who set off a suicide bomb at his base this week.
  • On the other hand, while Pakistan has lost some 700 soldiers in battles against warlike Pashtun tribesmen in the border area with Afghanistan, other parts of the Pakistani military are actively aiding Taliban forces and anti-government terrorists in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government always hated the Afghan Northern Alliance – seeing it correctly as a Russian, American, Iranian and Indian-sponsored rival to the Taliban government it had helped install in Kabul. Even non-Islamist officials in the ISI – Pakistan’s shadow government – believe that Afghanistan is supposed to be a kind of Pakistani colony. And Pakistanis of all political stripes have told me that the ISI’s sponsorship of anti-NATO and anti Karzai attacks in Afghanistan is justified as a means of thwarting India’s machinations there. (That’s right, they believe it’s OK to pay Afghan farmers to take potshots at Canadian, German or U.S. convoys, to get back at the Indians.)

 — Jonathan Foreman, a former film critic for the New York Post, was an embedded reporter

with U.S. troops in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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