Pakistan: Notes on a Tragedy

In the next few weeks we shall witness a torrent of sorrow and regret, as any such horrific loss of life should provoke.  But clearly the story is unfinished, despite the seeming finality of Benazir Bhutto’s murder.

In two suicide attacks inside Pakistan since October, at least 160 have been slaughtered, including the country’s former prime minister: a demonstration yet again of the economies of scale governing the peripheries of empire, where life appears cheaper the farther one is from the center.

In the next few weeks, certain questions will be asked over and over.  Who is responsible for the evil deed?  Who pulled the trigger and the pin?  Who hatched the plan and who allowed it to come to fruition?

Before the December 27 Rawalpindi bombing, a grotesque political marriage was still being engineered by wedding planners in Washington, which has been troubled by the tide of social discontent threatening strategic US interests in the region.

On one side of the aisle, the reluctant groom: Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a self-decorated political midget who came to power via a military coup in 1999 and who has since, having allied himself with America’s War on Terror, enjoyed everything that a US-propped dictator could ask for, from IMF loans, humanitarian aid, to debt rescheduling involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

On the aisle’s other side, the reluctant bride: Benazir Bhutto, once upon a time the Cory Aquino of Pakistan, who eventually degenerated into a nano-minded Gloria Arroyo version, complete with her own Mike Arroyo in the person of Asif Ali Zardari, the ex-Prime Minister’s nationally reviled husband.

But arranged marriages don’t often work, as the London-based writer Tariq Ali noted in a prescient article written two weeks before Bhutto was slain.  In fact, Ali wrote, they tend to be messy.  Where “both parties are known to loathe each other, only a rash parent, desensitized by the thought of short-term gain, will continue with the process knowing full well that it will end in misery and possibly violence.”

With predictable dispatch and duplicity, Washington responded to Bhutto’s assassination by condemning the “murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy.”  The US establishment, which always prefers not one but two, if not three, numbers to call in its client states, grieved the loss of Bhutto who, like Musharraf, had tied her fate to Washington’s largesse.

The attack on Bhutto’s rally, said the Bush administration, “demonstrates that there are still those in Pakistan who want to subvert . . . efforts to advance democracy.”  Washington urged the people of Pakistan “to honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life.”

How exactly are we to chew these words?  With sympathy, perhaps, if we have already forgotten who it was that channeled a cackling river of weaponry to Afghan rebels fighting the USSR in the 1980s.

In its desire to give the Soviet Union a Russian version of the Vietnam quagmire, the US government induced the Soviets to intervene in Afghanistan, supplied $3 billion to the Afghan mujahideen, and in the process produced one of the more significant spikes in the global narcotics trade.  America put Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) “in charge of actually distributing this vast flow” particularly to radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan, which formed the main engine of the anti-Soviet jihad, the ideological and political heirs of which, years later, would be known as the Taliban.

The ISI was then under the baton of the dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who had allied himself with America’s War on Communism and who came to power via a military coup that ousted, and then executed, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir.  This is the same Zia who once “ordered Pakistan’s embassies across the Muslim world to issue visas to anyone who wish to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan” and who was once welcomed by Reagan at the White House with a 21-gun salute.

By 1996, “strategy over pipelines had become the driving force behind Washington’s interest in the Taliban.”  Afghanistan had become another kind of feasting ground.  Among the vultures counted Unocal, which had on its payroll the likes of Henry Kissinger and former US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, along with Amoco, another oil giant, which had as its hired hand ex-US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

It’s a complicated world.

“Pakistan did not create the Taliban,” said the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the leading authority on the politics of Central Asia.  But “the Taliban could not have survived amongst Afghanistan’s warring factions without the support of Islamabad.”  In fact, it was from Pakistan’s madrassas — bankrolled largely by Saudi money — that the Taliban had imported their extremist interpretation of Deobandi Islam, which Rashid considers “foreign to Afghanistan’s Islamic traditions.”

In Pakistan’s North West Frontier province, a madrassa that had schooled all the Taliban leadership that had once ruled Kabul continues to operate, and more such schools continue to proliferate.  Yet in 2002 the US asked the world to believe that Saddam had backed the terrorist attacks of September 11, a claim burnished with “solid evidence” — Rumsfeld called it “bulletproof” confirmation — of the links between al-Qaeda and Iraq.  Not Pakistan, for Musharraf was by then Washington’s friend.

Renato Redentor Constantino is a writer and painter based in Quezon City.  Constantino is the author of The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire.  He can be reached via  This essay is the first part of a two-part series run in the Business Mirror.

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