Interview with Tariq Ali, By Wajahat Ali, CounterPunch, October 3-5, 2008
A country once callously shrugged off simply as India’s “lesser” neighbor, now commands global attention and scrutiny as the next, crucial battleground on the never ending “war on terror.” Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama discussed Pakistan in last week’s Presidential debates as they detailed their policy initiatives for pacifying the region of its Taliban stronghold. Even Sarah Palin received a surreal crash course in U.S.-Pakistan relations due to a memorable and friendly meeting with newly elected Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari. However, as respected and prolific commentator, author and critic Tariq Ali observes in his new book “The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power,” the selfish, inequitable relationship between both countries has far reaching, historical roots directly contributing to the tenuous geopolitical stability of modern day Central Asia. In this exclusive interview, TariqAli, a seasoned journalist and Pakistani insider, focuses on all major players, including the Bush Administration, Bhutto, Musharraf, the Pakistani military, and a self centered and oppressive elite as prime contributors to Pakistan’s current volatility.
W.Ali: Let’s start with a quotation from a PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] spokesman, Farahnaz Ispahani, who recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
“Zardari is the best hope for Pakistan. Mr. Zardari suffered 11 years in prison on politically motivated charges without having been convicted. He went on to lead his party to victory in democratic elections and then skillfully helped to craft a viable democratic coalition. As president he will lead our nation decisively forward in its transition to a stable democracy.”
What’s your response to that quote?
Tariq Ali: My response to that quote is that it’s fantasy politics. The only reason Zardari is where he is, is because of who is he was married to [Benazir Bhutto.] It is well known - even within People’s Party circles – that had Benazir Bhutto survived he would’ve had no rule whatsoever within the government. He is a figure who was wanted in Swiss courts for money laundering and corruption. He is someone who has, over the years, utilized his wife’s Prime Minister-ship on two occasions to become one of the richest people in the country. And to present him as the best hope for Pakistan is an incredibly sad reflection on the state of Pakistan.
W.Ali: At the same time we’re seeing both McCain and Obama saying that the US will work with Zardari. Essentially, they welcomed him in the international community. Why is the US warming up to a man with such a dubious past?
Tariq Ali: Well because they put him in power. They did a deal with his wife. They hoped he would fulfill the terms of that deal. It would be very surprising given that Pakistan is supposedly a crucial ally in this so called “war against terror” that they would not work with Zardari. I hope both guys – Obama and McCain - are aware of his checkered track record and the fact he is not very popular in the country.
It has to be remembered he was elected indirectly by the parliament and the national assembly. Were there to be direct elections of the presidency in Pakistan and were they to be free, it is unlikely Zardari would win. That’s the first point. The second point is that as far as the US is concerned essentially there is only one serious institution in Pakistan and that is the Pakistan army. They have done business with this institution for a long period of time, and the Pentagon knows fully well this is the only institution that they need and on which they have to rely in that country. So, officially, Zardari will be the official president, but the main force of the country remains the army.
W.Ali: Aren’t we seeing some tension right now? Zardari remains mostly silent on America’s offensive, which killed 20 people recently, and pilot-less drones carried out 4 more missile attacks in Waziristan. Pakistan said US didn’t ask their permission. General Kiyani had harsh words for US, and America pretty much said they will do what they have to do to battle extremism. How will this tension play out between the Pakistani military, the United States and Zardari?
Tariq Ali: Well, I think the tension is between the US and the Pakistan military. Zardari will probably be the fall guy, that is if the tension mounts and were there to be something as foolish and irrational as a US troops entering Pakistan, then the military would be forced to resist. So then what Zardari wants or doesn’t want or what deal he made is completely irrelevant, because at that point the army would be in charge.
You’ve probably heard the news that the largest 5 star hotel in Islamabad, the Marriott, has been blown sky high. It was incredibly well coordinated. I’ve been to that hotel. The security there is incredible. So how that has happened, it remains to be seen. But certainly they’ve created the impression that Pakistan is becoming ungovernable.
W.Ali: Steven Hadley, the head of the NSC, made an interesting comment: “Pakistan is not equipped to combat the militant threat.” He said this officially. What is the repercussion of that? Do you believe it first of all, and does Pakistan need outside help?
Tariq Ali: No, I think if the Pakistani military wished to do it they could certainly crush the organizations. But then again it is something controversial within the army. A) These people are citizens of Pakistan; B) every time the army has engaged action against them a lot of innocents have died; C) whenever the military has attempted to do this, it has created tension inside the military especially amongst the ordinary soldier and junior officers who say they don’t like killing their own people.
So, there is a problem with the Pakistani military doing this. However, were the US to go in and try to do it, they’ve met similar results: they’ve killed innocents, women; children have died. People not connected in anyway to the militants have died. Presumably, I assume we have no real information that some jihadis have died as well. But to transform the North-West Frontier of Pakistan into a large killing field isn’t going to help anyone. Essentially what we are seeing is spillage from the Afghan war, a war that has gone badly wrong. And a war which is being supported by consensual politicians of the Democratic and Republican parties of the US; a war which the politicians contending to power have not paid serious attention to.
W.Ali: Several say that Central Asia, and not Iraq, is the major hot zone right now and needs to be contained. What can be done to destabilize the Taliban who are resurgent both in Afghanistan and now Pakistan? Isn’t any type of offensive going to cause a significant reaction in the form of violence for both countries?
Tariq Ali: Well, look; I don’t accept that Iraq is quiet. You had US raids just last week that killed innocents in that country. And the notion that even Petraeus isn’t saying that the surge is succeeding for all time to come, that there is still a great deal of unrest. The majority of Iraqis don’t want foreign bases there at all. It’s not that Iraq is being pacified successfully; it would be an illusion to imagine that.
However, it is true that the presidential contenders are concentrating on Afghanistan. But here we have a classic situation, a military occupation led by NATO, led by the US, which is killing too many civilians in its bombing raids. I mean even [Afghan President] Karzai has said too many civilians are being killed. Secondly, you have Hamid Karzai and his cronies running Afghanistan. A situation in which Karzai’s brother is reputed to be the country’s largest drug smuggler and arms bearer. [A situation] in which the people around Karzai are milking the country, milking the money coming in, milking the foreign agencies; growing rich at the expense of the bulk of the population, which has made the occupation very unpopular for all these reasons.
The result of this has been a big rise in Pashtun nationalism. And this rise in Pashtun nationalism takes the form at the moment of swelling the ranks of the old Taliban, which is why it is being called the neo-Taliban by many, many British observers on the ground. They see the composition and character of this organization has changed as a result of the NATO occupation, that is what is going on and the support for the neo-Taliban is increasing every single day. In order to confront this, it is no use that the US and the West say it is the fault of Pakistan.
I’m not saying the Pakistani state is exempt from all blame, it probably isn’t. But the central issue is the war inside Afghanistan going badly wrong and expanding this war into Pakistan won’t help matters; it would make it much worse. Pakistan is much larger country than Afghanistan, it is a country of 200 million strong with nuclear weapons, so it’s foolish to try to destabilize this country.
W.Ali: Here’s a question many don’t ask. Talk to me about the future response of China and Russia. They are bordering countries that have a vested interest. What should we see, strategically, as their next move in the region?
Tariq Ali: The NATO officials, including the NATO Secretary General, are very open with what they say. They say we’re in Afghanistan for geo political reasons and military reasons. This is a strategically open country which borders China, Central Asia, i.e. Russia and Iran: three crucial countries for the US for different reasons and that there is no way we’re leaving here. This has been said, by the way, publicly and written about that the occupation is not about good governance or even about destroying Al Qaeda or wiping out Al Qaeda.
In effect, we know the Western countries and Western agents are talking to Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan regularly to try and see if a deal can be sorted out. The Taliban is refusing to play ball until the foreign troops withdraw. Behind all this is a view to try to create a government which would accept foreign military bases in Afghanistan in perpetuity – which no one wants. I mean Karzai has agreed to that but he is not the most popular figure in the country and were Western troops not there he would fall very quickly and that is the problem. And Russia and China is very angry, and so is Iran at the notion that Afghanistan could be occupied permanently or semi permanently. They have been talking to each other about it and the Chinese have made this very clear to the Pakistani military as well
W.Ali: In your book, it seems to imply that since the beginning of Pakistan’s nation-state, Jinnah and his advisors have been following a policy dictated by the US, in the sense that in their relationship, the US has been the one giving the orders and Pakistan has been the one following it. Has this been the case from the beginning and is this what has led to our current situation? This type of mentality?
Tariq Ali: What I argue in my book is that for the first two to three years, it was the Pakistani elite which was pursuing the United States. Because most of the people in charge of Pakistan for its first 10 years were people who collaborated with the British politically and militarily. And once the British left Pakistan, they were desperate for someone else to replace [them]. I cite chapter and verse of the pleas made to the United States in ’47, ’48, ’49, but turned down by the US, who regarded India as a much more important power.
Then, with the heightening of the cold war, and the Indians becoming the central players in the Non-Aligned Movement, then Pakistan was, more or less, taken over by Washington and incorporated in all the security beds along with Iran and Turkey.
Since that time, the Pakistani military has been a very prominent player in the country’s politics. And I sort of argue in my book that Pakistan, being on the flight path of American power from the ‘50s onwards, has actually wrecked the organic development of politics in that country, leading to one crises after another.
Now, after the end of the Cold War, the US abandoned both Afghanistan and Pakistan and left them to their own devices. That was the period in which Benazir Bhutto pushed through the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the Pakistan army got what they called a strategic depth, because without logistic support, there’s no way a ragtag army like the Taliban could have taken Kabul. This is a well-trained force, including many Pakistani officers and soldiers.
Now, with 9/11, the US is back in the region again and the Pakistani military, which had gotten used to taking some of its own decisions, had to cow tow to them. And this is what began to create the tensions inside the country. During the time when the Pakistanis were strong, staunch allies in the war against the Russians, as is well known, that is the time that all these jihadi groups were spawned by the state and sent in to fight in Afghanistan.
W.Ali: We both know the Pakistani mentality when they’re talking about whoever is running the country, they say, “At least he’s the lesser goonda [thug/gangster] than the other.” That seems to be the psyche of the people. Explain to me how Pakistani people can rise up and restore a semblance of a functioning democracy. Or is it impossible? Should we not expect this in the near future?
Tariq Ali: I don’t think so. I think that one of the things you pointed out, aside of Pakistan, which was very under covered in the Western media for a variety of reasons, was the big constitutional movement led by lawyers to demand the separation of the judiciary from the government, as exists in the US Constitution. This movement grew and grew and grew. And Musharraf’s strike against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on two separate occasions just fueled this movement.
This movement has now been crushed, but not by the Army but by Zardari, who split the Supreme Court, refused to accept the Chief Justice back and got some of the other chief judges of the Supreme Court, who had also been sacked, to break ranks and come back. So this movement suffered a very heavy blow.
But what it showed was a desire on the part of the people for a different order. And there is no doubt in my mind that that is what the people of Pakistan want. But unfortunately, the political parties on top who represent them are corrupt to the core. Most of them – all the major parties – are corrupt.
Now you have a situation, again which I haven’t seen reported in the Western media, that the party of the Bhutto family, the PPP as its official name is, is negotiating behind the scenes with these politicians from Gujarat, who were the lynchpin of the Musharraf regime, pleading with them for a coalition so that they can get rid of the Muslim League Sharif brothers’ government in the Punjab. So it’s back to business as usual in that country and it is extremely depressing because the country is at a critical state at the moment.
W.Ali: It is disappointing that we have the same players. You mentioned Nawaz Sharif in Punjab, who now seems to be spearheading democracy even though his record doesn’t reflect that. And we have Zardari and the PPP, again another feudal dynasty. And we have the Pakistan military. Are these the three players who the US has to play with now?
Tariq Ali: They are the three players. There’s no one else on that level in the country. By the way, Nawaz Sharif is not a feudal guy at all. He represents urban business interests. That has always been. They are not a landed family. The PPP still has a great number of landlords in them, especially from Sindh, but not exclusively. And the Army – these are the three players in Pakistan. You know, there’s no good wishing… of course I wish there were others. These are the people there at the moment and so whoever is talking to Pakistan has to talk to them. You can’t avoid it.
W.Ali: A statement made by many in the West, and also many Pakistani expats is, “See, we should have kept Musharraf. If we had Musharraf, this wouldn’t have happened. Even though he wasn’t the best, at least he fought against the extremists.” What’s the truth in that statement? What’s the legacy of Musharraf in your opinion?
Tariq Ali: Well, I think the legacy of Musharraf is very mixed. It’s not the case at all that he could deal with the militants. Essentially he reached an agreement with them. “Don’t hit us and we won’t hit you.” After the three attempts on Musharraf’s life, that’s basically what happened. These people were called in and were told, “Keep away from us and we will keep away from you and maybe the time will come when we will need you again to do something else.” So the notion that Musharraf was very effective in this regard was, of course, completely false. Secondly, once Musharraf had imposed a state of emergency on the country, just to remove the judiciary from the Supreme Court, his standing completely fell. There was no one who wanted him to stay on. His own power base in the Army no longer existed, because he had been compelled to leave the Army and get out of his uniform. So he was led to be stranded. The only people who kept him in power was the United States. And John Negroponte said that he wanted Musharraf to stay in power at least as long as Bush was in the White House.
But then behind the scenes, a big factional struggle erupted within the American establishment with Cheney’s office and (Zalmay) Khalizad negotiating directly with Zardari, sidelining Musharraf and helping organize the campaign which removed him without informing the State Department, which created real anger. If you read Richard Boucher’s e-mail of Khalizad, it’s very clear that he was very angry at what was being done.
I think the reason Khalizad got rid of Musharraf was that Musharraf and Khalizad’s protégé in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, loathed each other. Musharraf made no secret of it. And Khalizad probably felt that in Zardari, he could have another Karzai figure. Because given the charges against Zardari in a number of foreign courts and his assets abroad, he is a perfect creature for the United States because they can control him.
W.Ali: You have an interesting quotation in your book, which says, “Pakistan has a permanent insecurity complex regarding India.” How do you define that and how will that play out in current affairs, which are very volatile of course?
Tariq Ali: I mean the fact is the Pakistani elite certainly has [an inferiority complex.] Interestingly enough, the last big opinion poll survey in Pakistan carried out by the New America Foundation found that a majority of people regarded the United States as the biggest danger to world peace and only 11 percent of the population regarded India as the enemy. This represents, as far as India is concerned, a massive shift, which I think is very positive. My argument is that Pakistan should shift from Washington time to South Asia time. The future of the subcontinent requires a degree of commonality and collaboration between all the South Asian powers to build that region and help solve some of its problems. That is what needs to be done.
But this permanent enmity with India is dangerous. It’s dangerous for India and Pakistan as nuclear powers. War that is fought between them could easily generate into a nuclear conflict leading to millions and millions of deaths. I think this is recognized now by both sides.
W.Ali: Last question. Let’s discuss the rise of “fundamentalism” in Pakistan. Pakistan is a religious country. People do espouse religious and spiritual beliefs. How do you see the role of religion being played in Pakistan and how should it be played?
Tariq Ali: I think that Pakistan as a Muslim state is beyond dispute. The bulk of its population are Muslim. But the fact is that the dominant image of Pakistan in the West is that of jihadi terrorists threatening to take over the nuclear facilities is just wrong. The bulk of the country is not in favor of jihadi terrorism. It’s been made clear in election after election.
The religion of people in the countryside in the Punjab, in Sindh is essentially still, to a large extent, a reflection of Sufi existentialism, of each one finding the Creator as an individual, general hostility to organized religion as such, which is still strong in the countryside. It’s your middle and upper-middle classes, like those in India and, not to mention, the United States, who become very religious, attracted to religiosity, joining the Tablighi Jamaat organizations.
But the common people don’t show any signs of that. A tiny minority is attracted to jihadi terrorism, but given the size of the country, this is infinitesimal. So the real problem that confronts Pakistan is not a big rise of religion, but the total and complete failure of a corrupt and callous Pakistani elite to do anything for its people.
The education system is languishing. The health system barely works. There are problems of shelter. There are now large problems of feeding the population with the price of wheat extremely high. We have the UN statistics which tell that malnutrition has reached such levels that 60% of Pakistani kids born are being born stunted. This is the real problem confronting the country.
Unless we have a government that is capable of dealing with this, the country will continue to be in crisis. There is real anger now at the gap between the haves and the have nots, between rich and poor in the country. And it spills over into violence at the slightest excuse. People are really angry now about this.
Wajahat Ali is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org