By Scott Ritter
The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has prompted much instant analysis and Monday morning quarterbacking by observers of that volatile region. Early assessments agree that public sentiment in Pakistan has turned decisively against both President Pervez Musharraf and the Islamic parties that oppose him (parties from which the assassins allegedly were recruited). President Musharraf himself has given weight to such assessments by reaffirming Pakistani sovereignty (he says he would treat any unilateral American military incursion into the Northwest Frontier as an invasion which he would oppose by force) and by projecting his own personal political vulnerability (he says he expects opposition parties to make gains in the coming elections and if a newly empowered majority seeks to impeach him he will resign).
Musharraf’s pro-American posturing and the material support Pakistan has provided in the so-called global war on terror have been decidedly unpopular among the Pakistani population. Islamabad has always tried to tread lightly when it came to an American military presence on Pakistani soil. The quick “victory” of the U.S.-led Northern Alliance over the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan allowed inconvenient American military bases in Pakistan to be transferred to the newly conquered territory inside Afghanistan. However, continued resistance in Afghanistan from the Taliban and al-Qaida, which depend on support networks throughout the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, has prompted the United States to pressure Pakistan’s government to crack down, and even in some cases to allow direct action on Pakistani soil, either in the form of the CIA or a military intervention.
Musharraf has acted against pro-Taliban militants in the Northwest Frontier, but with negligible results. Indeed, much of the Islamic militancy in Pakistan today has been stirred up by the regime’s continued support of American-inspired operations in Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf’s recent statement opposing unilateral American military intervention in Pakistan sends a clear signal that the ongoing opposition in Pakistan to continued support of U.S. military activity targeting Pakistanis has resonated politically.
The political unrest created by Musharraf’s support of the U.S. “war on terror” prompted the Pakistani dictator to seek stability by firing Pakistani Supreme Court justices he disagreed with and to suspend the constitution. Both actions have left him vulnerable to impeachment if political opposition parties are able to assemble a viable majority in the Parliament in upcoming elections, expected in February. Musharraf has indicated he will not be a political pawn in any resultant call for accountability. The question remains whether he will resign and depart Pakistan as a political exile, or resign and reassert himself as dictator, or resign and throw his support behind a new military dictatorship which will enable him to remain in Pakistan as a behind-the-scenes power broker.
Some would scoff at the notion that Musharraf would seek to reimpose military dictatorship in the face of a growing demand for democracy and the rule of law. While Pakistan plays lip service to the notion of parliamentary democracy, the reality is that it is first and foremost a Muslim nation born more from a call for Islamic identity than a desire to embrace the Magna Carta-driven democracy of its colonial masters, the British. The secular nature of Musharraf’s dictatorship disguises this.
Pakistan from its inception was supposed to bring together the Muslim populations of the former British Indian colony into a viable nation-state. While many of those who oversaw the formation of the new governmental structure were moderate, even secular lawyers trained in the British tradition, the overwhelming population of what was to become Pakistan traced its loyalty to a system of local elders and religious figures who more often than not referred to sharia, or Islamic law, when pronouncing decisions of government. This duality is reflected in the resolution passed by Pakistan’s early leaders on the eve of what was to become the country’s constitutional convention. It proclaimed “[s]overeignty under the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone” and characterized Islamic values as essential in any new government.
But Pakistan is no homogeneous Islamic state. Its roots are deeply seated in tribal, familial and ethnic realities that most non-Pakistani observers are ill-equipped to comprehend. An illustration of this can be found in the fact that Benazir Bhutto, the martyred symbol of democratic reform, sat at the head of a political party, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party), which was born not from Pakistani society in general but rather from the ranks of the 700,000-strong Bhutto tribe. The Bhuttos, an ethnic Sindhi group, possess an insularity that belies the image of democratic reform embraced by Benazir Bhutto herself. An ongoing rift within the PPP over Bhutto’s successor illustrates this: Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, together with their son, Bilawal, has claimed the leadership of the party, citing a controversial and challenged will which emerged after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Neither Asif Ali Zardari nor Bilawal is considered to be part of the Bhutto tribe, because Zardari is of Baluchi heritage and the son is traditionally linked to the family tree of the father. It is not the history of corruption that surrounds Zardari or the inexperience of Bilawal (a student in the UK) that the Bhutto tribe finds objectionable but simply the fact that a political party founded by and for the Bhuttos is now in the hands of someone outside the tribe.
Pakistan’s population of 170 million people is made up of three major ethnic groups, the Punjabi, Pashtun and Sindhi, which account for some 44 percent, 16 percent and 14 percent of the population, respectively. Indian Muslim immigrants, or Mujahirs, make up about 8 percent of the population, while the Baluchi make up 4 percent. The remaining population is divided among other minorities, including the Kasmiri and the various tribes of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. There are also some 3 million Afghan refugees still residing in Pakistan today, a tragic remnant from the time of the Soviet invasion and occupation of that land. Pakistan’s historical roots led in part to three major wars (in 1948, 1965 and 1971) and several skirmishes between Pakistan and India. The historical turmoil surrounding the creation of Pakistan, as well as the inconsistent ability of its federal system to hold together the wide variety of ethnic and religious groups brought together to form the country, created a system imbued with a spirit of distrust between the various ethnicities. The animosities caused by this distrust are manifest in Pakistan’s special intelligence service, which was formed to deal with not only threats from abroad but threats from within. The highly politicized nature of this intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI, has only caused further intrigue and uncertainty for the nation.
The ISI played an instrumental role in using Islam as a tool during its struggle against India, as well as its opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Makhtab al-Khidamat, or MAK, was one of many Islamic organizations which were funded and supported by the ISI. Operating out of bases inside Pakistan, the MAK was founded in 1984 by Abdullah Yussuf Azzam, a Palestinian Islamic scholar and theologian, and a Saudi follower, Osama bin Laden. Using money provided by bin Laden, and working closely with the Pakistani ISI, Azzam and the MAK established a base of operations in the Northwest Frontier city of Peshawar, a scant 15 miles from the historic Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. Azzam and the MAK put into operation a system of logistics and communication between the Northwest Frontier and Afghanistan which provided material and financial support to the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviet army. The MAK was also able to funnel a few Arab mujahedeen into Afghanistan, although this number never rose above a few hundred. With the assassination of Azzam in 1989, the leadership of the MAK was transferred to Osama bin Laden, who in 1988 formed an alliance with the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that today is known as al-Qaida.
The links between bin Laden and the Pakistani ISI were deep. The MAK lines of communication between Peshawar and Afghanistan, established during the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, were continued and strengthened during the 1990s, this time as part of the al-Qaida organization, with the full knowledge and support of the ISI. Pakistan had been taken aback by the violent infighting between the various Afghan mujahedeen forces in the aftermath of the Soviet defeat and withdrawal in 1989. In an effort to achieve stability in Afghanistan, the ISI supported the rise of the Taliban, and went along with the support of the Taliban by the Arab mujahedeen of bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Pakistan was one of only three nations to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
The al-Qaida-Taliban connection was also seen by the ISI as a means of maintaining contacts with Saudi and other Gulf Arab sources of funds needed not only to sustain stability inside Afghanistan but to promote instability inside Indian-occupied Kashmir. Training camps set up by al-Qaida in Afghanistan to recruit and prepare foreign mujahedeen for operations worldwide were supported by the ISI as a means of training covert operatives for activity in Kashmir. Al-Qaida and its Arab funders returned the favor by assisting the ISI in establishing mirror-image facilities inside Pakistan which were used to train paramilitary forces for operations in Kashmir. In 1999 Pakistan sent a large force of paramilitary operatives across the border into Kashmir disguised as Kashmiri rebels. This gambit failed, and in doing so exposed the reality that the ISI was heavily involved in training Islamist extremists to do its bidding, in Kashmir as well as Afghanistan.
The support provided by the ISI to bin Laden was extensive. When American cruise missiles struck al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan in 1998, in retaliation for the terror bombings carried out against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, among the casualties were Pakistani ISI agents working with al-Qaida. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan was forced to reconsider its public support of the Taliban. The ISI made an effort to convince the Taliban to turn Osama bin Laden over to a neutral third party so he could be tried for the 9/11 attacks, but this offer was rebuked by the Taliban leadership. The collapse of the Taliban as a military force was so rapid in the fall and winter of 2001 that when al-Qaida forces were surrounded in the northern Afghan city of Konduz, a large number of ISI agents and operatives were trapped with them. One of the secret annals of the Afghan war is the story of how the Pakistani government negotiated with the United States to permit the evacuation by air of several hundred Pakistani ISI personnel who had been working with al-Qaida in Afghanistan. It is alleged that in addition to the Pakistani evacuees, numerous high-level al-Qaida fighters were likewise withdrawn, in particular those with intimate knowledge of the ISI activities involving Kashmir and the Central Asian republics.
The ISI also plays an important role in the internal politics of Pakistan, monitoring various ethnic and tribal groups who are deemed to be questionable in terms of their absolute loyalty to Pakistan, or at least the Pakistan supported by the ISI. In doing so, the ISI has established relationships with all the major tribal and ethnic groups, and is thus able to play one off against the other in a giant game of divide and conquer. One of the targets of the ISI was, and is, the PPP, the party of Benazir Bhutto. The intelligence agency had made use of its considerable links with the Islamist elements of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier to generate an Islamic opposition to the return to power of Benazir Bhutto, and there is good reason to believe that the ISI was involved, either directly or indirectly, in her assassination.
The unfortunate reality of Pakistan today is that it is a barely functioning nation-state. Federalism, designed to bring together a disparate band of ethnic groups and religious movements, is failing. Democracy, the dream of Western-trained lawyers, is foreign to the majority of the population, which largely continues to defer to tribal elders and religious leaders. The nefarious activities of the Pakistani ISI only highlight the reality that Pakistan, today, is not only an untrustworthy member of the erstwhile “global coalition against terrorism” but actually a deep-rooted supporter and instigator of the very violence the United States has sworn to oppose since 9/11. Far from being a close ally, the truth is that, if anything, Pakistan is the personification of the enemy we have supposedly pledged to defeat.
Does this mean that the appropriate policy direction of the United States should be to wage war against Pakistan, as we have against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Absolutely not. The experience of Afghanistan shows that without a doubt the policies embraced by the Bush administration in pursuing its war on terror were fundamentally flawed. In the cause-and-effect world of reality, as opposed to the never-never land of neoconservative fantasy, any continued push against Pakistan in the name of the war on terror would be extremely counterproductive. Let’s not forget that Pakistan has the bomb.
The fact of the matter is that the chief enemy in America’s fight against terrorism, Osama bin Laden, is a mere propaganda source who is given more legitimacy the more we pursue him. The continued instability in Afghanistan caused by the ongoing American and NATO occupation is the source of much of Pakistan’s current problems. If we truly want to eliminate bin Laden, we would do well to withdraw from Afghanistan and work with Iran, Pakistan and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as well as the Taliban, to bring a sense of normalcy back to this tortured country. In doing so, it would become self-evident to all parties that any continued role on the part of bin Laden would be self-defeating, and he would be dealt with appropriately by those best equipped to do so.
This, of course, is the last policy direction being pursued by any of the candidates seeking election to the office of president of the United States. The bravado of the respective candidates’ “hunt Osama down until he is brought to justice” rhetoric is as empty as their promises to seek stability inside Pakistan, for the two are inherently contradictory policy directions. To pursue one is to fail in the other. But, as has been the case with Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran beforehand, one would be foolish to believe that the people of the United States, let alone those they elect to higher office, would deign to formulate policy with the reality of a given region and not the American domestic political dynamic in mind. Today, in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, America flounders in a sea of uncertainty and sorrow. Sadly, there is no good reason to believe that any future captain of our ship of state will be any more successful in navigating the challenges of the Pakistan conundrum.
AP photo / David Guttenfelder
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf wipes sweat from his brow as he takes questions from the international media in Islamabad.