By Asad Ismi
The February election in Pakistan makes no difference to United States and military dominance of the country. The Pakistan army has never allowed any elected politician to rule the state, even when they had won a majority of the vote. No party gained a majority in the February election. The biggest share of the 268 National Assembly seats—87–went to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated last December. The second largest bloc of seats—66—went to its main rival, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
Such a weak and divided legislature will be no match for the country’s powerful military forces, which will continue to rule Pakistan under U.S. direction, as they have done since 1947, usually playing off the rival politicians against one another.
The “victories” of the PPP and PML-N do not represent any significant improvement for the Pakistani people. Both parties have proven to be little more than corrupt U.S. puppets when they have ruled in the past–and they will no doubt continue to play the same servile role in future. This is the main reason 65% of the Pakistani electorate did not bother to vote in thee most recent election.
The story of the Bhutto dynasty shows how the United States controls Pakistan—not just through the military, but also through the weakening of its political system. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination last December underlines the danger of being a U.S. puppet in Pakistan, where competition for this post can be fierce within the national élite. Bhutto was sent back to Pakistan by U.S. President George Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last fall. She was told to provide the hated military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf with a democratic façade in the impending elections.
With public opposition to Musharraf mounting due to his declaration of martial law, dismissal of the Supreme Court, arrest of thousands of opposition members, and suppression of the media, this was the U.S. administration’s latest attempt to prolong an oppressive reign—if not by Musharraf, then by someone equally compliant with U.S. wishes. Bhutto had always done the U.S.’s bidding during her two terms as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, but the problem this time was that there already was a U.S. puppet ruling the country: Musharraf. The General had no wish to share power with Bhutto, who he knew could ”out-puppet” him in terms of the extremes she would engage in to please Pakistan’s American masters. This battle of U.S. clients could only have one end: the better-armed and more ruthless one would win.
Several factors point to the involvement of the Pakistan military’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in Bhutto’s assassination; the ISI, in turn, takes its orders from the CIA. As Milton Bearden, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, put it, “[Pakistan is] the only country in South Asia that always did what we asked.”
The killing took place at a political rally in Rawalpindi, a garrison town tightly controlled by the Pakistan army, which has its headquarters here. Two assassins were involved. The first was the shooter, who fired three shots at Bhutto as she waved at supporters, her head emerging from the sun roof of her Land Cruiser. One bullet hit Bhutto in the head, killing her. Then the second assassin, who was standing behind the shooter, blew himself up with a bomb, killing 20 people. Police abandoned many of their posts during the speeches leaving Bhutto with mainly private security guards to protect her.
One hour after the assassination, the authorities hosed down the crime scene, thus destroying all potential evidence. No autopsy was performed on Bhutto’s body. Doctors who attended Bhutto in her last hours say that the government ordered them to keep silent and to destroy records of her treatment. The weapon used to kill Bhutto was a Steyr 9mm handgun, issued only to Pakistan Army Special Forces.
Musharraf quickly blamed al-Qaeda for the murder. He came up with the bizarre explanation that Bhutto died not from bullet wounds, but when the force of the bomb caused her to hit her head on the lever of the Cruiser’s sun roof. Musharraf later added that she should not have emerged out of the sun roof, thereby blaming her for her own murder.
Given all this, it is not surprising that in Pakistan, Musharraf, the ISI and the army are widely blamed for the killing and that officials from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) accuse the government of covering up evidence of its involvement in the assassination. Having received $10 billion in U.S. military aid for being an ally in Washington’s “war on terror,” the astoundingly corrupt and genocidal Pakistan military élite had no intention of sharing their massive wealth and power with any civilian politician, especially not one they had thrown out of power twice and whose father they had hanged in 1979.
Bhutto’s killing served U.S. objectives in Pakistan. The Bush administration wanted a major increase in U.S. military operations in the country to expand its “war on terror,” and the murder of Pakistan’s most prominent politician, supposedly by al-Qaeda, gave Washington a pretext to carry out this aim.
As author William Engdahl explains, “Were Musharraf to agree to the stationing of U.S. Special Forces inside Pakistan… the democratic farce with Bhutto could be put aside in favour of the continued Musharraf sole rule.”
Musharraf agreed, of course. One day before Bhutto was shot, The Washington Post reported in an article titled “U.S. Troops to Head to Pakistan”: “Beginning early next year, U.S. Special Forces are expected to vastly expand their presence in Pakistan, as part of an effort to train and support indigenous counter-insurgency forces and clandestine counterterrorism units, according to defense officials involved with the planning. These Pakistan-centric operations will mark a shift for the U.S. military and for U.S.-Pakistan relations. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the U.S. used Pakistani bases to stage movements into Afghanistan. Yet once the U.S. deposed the Taliban government and established its main operating base at Bagram, north of Kabul, U.S. forces left Pakistan almost entirely.
“Since then, Pakistan has restricted U.S. involvement in cross-border military operations as well as paramilitary operations on its soil. But the Pentagon has been frustrated by the inability of Pakistani national forces to control the borders or the frontier area. And Pakistan’s political instability has heightened U.S. concern about Islamic extremists there.
“According to Pentagon sources, reaching a different agreement with Pakistan became a priority for the new head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Admiral Eric T. Olson. Olson visited Pakistan in August, November, and again this month, [December 2007], meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf… Now, a new agreement has been finalized. And the first U.S. personnel could be on the ground in Pakistan by early in the New Year,  according to Pentagon sources.”
Only 50 U.S. military personnel were present in Pakistan before this new agreement. Given the fierce hatred of the U.S. government among the Pakistani people, a major catastrophe attributable to al-Qaeda would be required to make a significantly expanded American military presence in the country acceptable to the public. The murder of Pakistan’s leading politician certainly fit this requirement. Some puppets are more useful dead than alive.
However, the Pakistani people do not believe that al-Qaeda killed Benazir. They blame the ISI, which works closely with the CIA. So the CIA/ISI intelligence plan for widening the U.S. war within Pakistan appears to have backfired: Bhutto’s killing only increased the Pakistani people’s hatred of the U.S. and its other client, Musharraf, instead of focusing public anger on al-Qaeda. All over the country, people reacted to Bhutto’s murder by burning government offices. As Hassan Abbas, a former official in the Bhutto and Musharraf governments, put it, “My view is that this [the assassination] was a combination of elements from the intelligence agencies with people from the extremist groups with whom they have working relationships.” Abbas is author of the book Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda were both set up by the CIA and ISI, and the agencies have long-standing links with these and many other Islamic fundamentalists, whom they have routinely used against secular progressive parties and movements in Pakistan and other Muslim countries.
The Western mainstream media portrays Bhutto as a martyr for democracy, but she was far from that. She returned to Pakistan not to promote democracy, but to serve the U.S. by providing a fig-leaf of legitimacy for a murderous and corrupt military dictatorship. Bhutto’s own two tenures as Prime Minister (1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996), were also marked by autocratic rule, official violence, and widespread corruption. She appointed her husband, Asif Zardari, Minister for Investment and together they stole $1.5 billion from the public treasury. She faced corruption charges in Spain and England, and was convicted in Switzerland of money laundering and taking bribes. Zardari was known as “Mr. Thirty Percent” in Bhutto’s second term for demanding “commissions” when granting government contracts. During this time, security forces in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, killed thousands of innocent people while fighting armed militants opposed to Bhutto.
Bhutto’s violence extended even to her own family. While Prime Minister, she was implicated in the murder of her brother, Murtaza, who was killed by police outside his residence in Karachi in September 1996. Murtaza had denounced Benazir’s and Zardari’s corruption and wanted to take the PPP in a left-wing direction, thus making a split in the party likely. Benazir, who had declared herself “Chairperson for life” of the party, would not tolerate any opposition to her absolute rule. A judicial inquiry set up to investigate Murtaza’s murder concluded (without naming names) that the orders for it had to have come from the highest official levels, thus making the culprit obvious. Witnesses to the murder were arrested, but not the senior police officers who carried it out. All this is particularly relevant now that the PPP has returned to power, led by the notoriously corrupt Asif Zardari.
Extreme violence and corruption define the triumvirate that rules Pakistan: the U.S. government and its proxies–the Pakistan army and the feudal land-owners. A CIA agent called the Bhuttos “our feudals,” and Benazir and her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, never rose above this shameful position. The family owns vast tracts of land in Sindh province. Zulfiqar is credited with being Pakistan’s first democratically elected leader, but this is not true. He was never elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, and only came to power by encouraging the breakup of the country.
Pakistan’s first national election, held in 1970, was won by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, leader of the Awami League, a party dominant in East Pakistan. Mujib won all but one of the seats in East Pakistan, which, with 55% of the population, had more seats than West Pakistan. Mujib was thus Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won most of the seats in West Pakistan, which made him leader of the opposition. This was not good enough for Zulfiqar, who warned that he would “break the legs” of anyone from West Pakistan who went to the eastern half for the meeting of the National Assembly.
Zulfiqar then encouraged military action against Mujib and the majority ethnic Bengalis who made up the population of the east. The army, which was dominated by the Punjabi ethnic group (from Punjab province) had, of course, no intention of handing power to the Bengalis–not just because they were ethnically different, but also because they were left-wing, wanted autonomy, and would have ended the military’s control of the country.
In March, 1971, the army unleashed a genocide on East Pakistan that killed up to three million Bengalis in eight months. Zulfiqar was in Dhaka, East Pakistan’s main city, when the killing started. In his own words, he watched the city burn from his hotel window and said, “Pakistan is saved.”
East Pakistan was liberated from the Pakistan military’s bloodbath by the Indian army, which invaded the territory in December 1971 and defeated the Pakistani troops in a week. East Pakistan then became the independent nation of Bangladesh. The horrifying loss of half the country allowed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to become Prime Minister of the remaining half in 1972. Thus Zulfiqar became the leader of Pakistan not through elections, but due to the genocide in which he was complicit.
Once Prime Minister, he personally continued the slaughter of civilians by sending the army into Balochistan province in 1973. Like the Bengalis, the elected Baloch provincial government also wanted autonomy. Bhutto dismissed this democratic government and the army killed 5,000 Balochis and brutally tortured more than 4,500. The killing restored the military’s confidence, which it had lost after the East Pakistan defeat and, ironically, emboldened it to overthrow Zulfiqar himself in 1977 and to hang him two years later. The army had no more intention of sharing power with Zulfiqar than it did with Mujib (or later with Benazir Bhutto).
Benazir continued her father’s violent legacy, adding massive corruption to the family misdeeds. She also encouraged the growth of religious fundamentalism by helping create the Taliban in league with the ISI and CIA during her second term. One of the main architects of the Taliban strategy was Naseerullah Babar, Benazir’s interior minister. The Bhuttos have long shared with the army the desire to take over Afghanistan, which Benazir used the Taliban to do. Thus Benazir had much to do with creating the religious extremism that she decried on her return to Pakistan in 2007.
The question remains, though: why were the Bhuttos popular? Why did the people of West Pakistan vote for them? The plausible answer is because Zulfiqar promised a socialist system which he never delivered. The PPP’s slogan was “Roti, Kapra, aur Makan” (“Bread, Clothes and Housing” — for the people) but none of these amenities was provided. Instead, the people got genocide, corruption, and dynastic despotism.
Propping up the Pakistan army and feudals like the Bhuttos, of course, is the U.S government, which is the real power in Pakistan. Washington’s destruction of the political process in the country and its backing of one military dictatorship after another has today brought the remaining western half of Pakistan to the brink of disintegration. There are four different insurgencies raging in the country that threaten to tear it apart. This is in addition to the now weekly suicide bombings that killed 400 people in 2007. The insurgencies are located in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan, Swat district in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Gilgit (near the Himalayas), and Balochistan province. The first two conflicts involve Pashtuns fighting against the army. Pashtuns are the majority ethnic group in the NWFP.
The Baloch struggle is the most significant one, as the province comprises 43% of Pakistan’s land area and holds most of its natural resources. It is rich in oil, natural gas, coal, copper, gold, silver, platinum, aluminum, and uranium. Also, a large part of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are launched from two American bases located in Balochistan. The province declared independence 24 hours after Pakistan’s creation in 1947, only to be occupied by the latter’s army in 1948. The Balochis, who form a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture, have long been oppressed by the Punjabi-dominated army which has kept them the poorest people in Pakistan and stolen their natural riches. Two-thirds (63%) of Balochis live below the poverty line, and only 2% of them have access to clean water. Natural gas from Balochistan is crucial to Pakistan’s economy, and the province produces more than 40% of the country’s primary energy (gas, coal and electricity); yet only 6% of Balochis have access to gas and the province gets only 12.4% of the gas royalties due to it.
Given such deprivation, there have been five Baloch insurgencies against the central government since 1948, the latest one starting in 2005. Musharraf responded with what The Guardian (U.K.) called a “scorched-earth military campaign,” killing more than 900 Balochis, displacing 140,000, disappearing 450 political activists, and arresting 4,000 others. Many detainees are tortured. “Musharraf’s terror tactics,” says The Guardian, “include bombing and burning down more than 200 houses, schools, and clinics. The often indiscriminate attacks on civilian settlements… involve the deployment of heavy artillery, fighter aircraft, and helicopter gunships.”
Mehran Baloch, the Baloch representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council, warns that “Pakistan is determined to kill the Baloch people and has deployed its entire state machinery to crush and eliminate the Baloch nation. This is state terrorism.” According to Selig Harrison, the leading Western expert on Balochistan, the Pakistan army’s attack on the Balochis is “slow-motion genocide.”
The Baloch people want independence, and the well-armed and organized Baloch Liberation Army and other nationalist groups have carried out hundreds of attacks on army units, police barracks, oil and gas pipelines and railway tracks with mortars, rockets, and bombs. Between January 3 and February 10, 2008, Baloch insurgents killed 54 Pakistani soldiers and blew up 11 gas pipelines and 17 electricity pylons. The guerrilla war is pinning down entire army divisions and has stopped industrial production in Punjab for long periods (due to gas service interruptions).
It is unlikely that the Pakistan army will be able to crush this insurgency, especially given the other three it also faces, as well as the frequent suicide attacks. The military has similarly failed to defeat Pashtun tribesmen near the Afghan border, where it has been fighting for five years and lost 700 soldiers. The PPP’s return to power will only worsen the situation, given its preference for violence in both East Pakistan and Balochistan.
The perilous condition of Pakistan is a direct result of Western imperialism. The creation of Pakistan itself was a British ploy to divide and weaken India. The function of Pakistan in Western imperial strategy has been to attack and destabilize India and Afghanistan (in the Soviet era), since these countries would not bow to Western dictates. For this reason, the U.S. has ensured that the army remained paramount in Pakistan.
The Pakistani people have usually voted for progressive policies when they have been given the opportunity to do so. They have wanted a welfare state that would eradicate poverty and provide free education, medical care, subsidized housing, and political rights. Instead, the U.S. has unleashed a 60-year reign of terror on them through the Pakistan army.
Commentators in the Western mainstream media worry about what they call Islamic terrorists taking over Pakistan. The fact is that U.S.-backed terrorists have been running the country for decades. The Pakistan army has always been an instrument of U.S. terrorism, killing millions of people and ensuring that most Pakistanis remain mired in massive poverty and illiteracy. This has driven people in four different areas of the country to fight for their independence.
The ruinous results of U.S. strategy are clear in Afghanistan as well: the country is occupied by 45,000 troops from 47 Western countries, unable to defeat the Taliban even after six years but still killing thousands of civilians to support a brutal warlord regime that is the world’s biggest heroin trafficker. The horrendously bloody and criminal failure of the West in Pakistan and Afghanistan is overlooked by its mainstream journalists, who regularly call Pakistan a “failed state.” But Pakistan is only one in a long line of states devastated by U.S. imperialism, from Iraq to the Congo to Vietnam.
As the Persian saying advises: “If you look in the mirror and do not like what you see, don’t smash the mirror. Smash your face.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, March 2008.
Asad Ismi is The CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent and has written extensively on Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. This article is dedicated to the Baloch people.