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Pakistan and Military Dictators

Anthony McIntyre • 12.9.02

On the 4th of April 1979, in a H-Block cell, putting in one more tedious day, the ennui was broken by someone returning from a visit with the news that the deposed first elected leader of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been hanged. Earlier the high court in Lahore, crammed with acolytes of the military dictator, Zia ul Huq, in a trial described as being of ‘doubtful judicial propriety’, had convicted him and passed the death penalty. The country’s Supreme Court approved the findings with Zia alone holding the power to exercise clemency. Bhutto was chair of the Islamic Summit. He had good relations with Pakistan’s four financial backers in the Islamic world, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Abu Dhab and his personal relationships with the leaders of each were excellent. He also had good relations with the Chinese and Soviet states. All of this was reinforced by considerable international pressure but it failed to break the malign resolve of Zia.

Most on the wing in H-Block 4 seemed indifferent - it was just another item of news from one of the world’s many trouble spots. It didn’t feature in the after hours (when officialdom in the jail went into hibernation for the night) chit-chat as many other items would such as the Sandinista Revolution three months later or the attainment of Zimbabwean Independence the following year.

My own interest in Pakistan, limited as it was, had been generated two years earlier in Cage 11. There, political documentaries, through popular interest rather than ideological imposition, took preference over all TV viewing apart from soccer. Exposure to current affairs at home and elsewhere was frequent. We watched as Zia ul Huq deposed the democratically elected Bhutto in a military coup and declared himself president.

Even then, before we became familiar with his bottomless deceit, Zia exuded the demeanour of a ruthlessly ambitious man governed by what Air Marshal Mohammad Asghar Khan referred to as the ‘influence of unbridled power, the effects of which increased with every day that passed.' In terms of anti-democratic sentiment there seemed little to distinguish him from Argentina’s Videla and Chile’s Pinochet both of whom ruled the roost in their own respective countries at the time. Consequently, there was nothing vaguely amazing when he manoeuvred to have the deposed Bhutto tried for the 1974 assassination of a political opponent. A move described many years later by Asghar Khan as ‘motivated by political considerations … not the action of an impartial head of state‘.

In my cell, Bhutto’s death shocked me. There was no need to be familiar with the thoughts of Asghar Khan to conclude that the decision to execute ‘smacked of a biased mind rather than that of an impartial referee.’ It reminded me of the similar fate that befell Salvador Allende of Chile six years previous. A political leader democratically endorsed and who had brought much needed relief to poorer sections of society, being done in by the right wing military. At least the Chilean generals made no pretence at due process, simply murdering the president in his palace on the day of the coup.

Nine years after Bhutto’s execution, when Zia fell out of the skies like a stone after his plane had been bombed, I instinctively abided by Salman Rushdie’s stricture (whether he had yet issued it I do not know) that 'when a tyrant falls, the world's shadows lighten, and only hypocrites grieve'. Zia had been promising the return of democracy from the day and hour he had overthrown Bhutto. Eleven years after the first promise it took a bomb to remove the biggest obstacle - himself. With him now out of the picture there existed a genuine chance that civilian elections rather than military coups would determine the future government of the country. For a while it appeared to be so when Bhutto's daughter, Benazir led his party back to office. It was a temporary respite which collapsed amid a welter of allegations about corruption.

Not really surprising in a country which for roughly half of its history since it was officially founded in 1947 had been subjected to the rule of military dictators. Much of it was an inheritance from the colonial era. Britain took control of the Indian sub-Continent in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey in which its military might defeated Mughal forces in Bangal. When it packed its bags, its influence went on the wane but was replaced by that of the Americans. According to Tariq Ali, by 1954-55 the United States military was closely liasing with the Pakistan officer class. By the turn of the decade the country’s key officers were being trained in Fort Bragg rather than Sandhurst. In his view there took place ‘a very clean transition from loyalty to one imperial power to another.’ By the time of the 1958 US organised military coup ‘the links with the United States were very firm.’ The army according to Tariq Ali was the one institution that the US felt it could trust. Decades later this would come to haunt the Americans when in the only victory ever won by the Pakistan Army it established the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Ironically, it was under Zia that the Taliban mushroomed in religious schools throughout Pakistan. According to Tariq Ali ‘the United States and Saudi Arabia were fully involved in the funding and financing of these schools. I mean, the United States used the Saudis as a conduit to do it.’ Even more ironically Zia was supported by the US while Bhutto believed that Washington had given the nod to his execution. In his last written communication from prison he referred to a meeting with Kissinger, at which the roaming war criminal told him ‘if you do not desist on the nuclear question, we will make a horrible example out of you.’ A horrible example indeed was made which saw Bhutto go to his grave while Zia, with US support, moved his finger even closer to the nuclear button. Seemingly military dictators with nuclear bombs are to be trusted in a way that democratically elected politicians are not.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, equipped with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of California at Berkeley and master of arts from Oxford, was president of Pakistan from 1971 to 1977 and prime minister from 1973. Earlier, as foreign minister in the government of Ayub Khan from 1963 he set out to reverse the reliance on the US and develop a ‘nonaligned neutrality’. In 1967 when he formed the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) he emulated the style of dress of the Chinese Communist Party and called for the introduction of "Islamic socialism" in Pakistan. After the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971, which saw the Pakistani military humiliated by the Indian Army in East Pakistan, Bhutto became president.

As Pakistani leader Bhutto introduced progressive economic policies which included nationalising major industries, life insurance companies, and private education faculties. He also legislated to ensure tax relief for the poorest farm employees and placed an upper limit on the amount of land an individual could own. He withdrew Pakistan from the British Commonwealth of Nations and from the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), sponsored by the United States.

One of Bhutto’s many miscalculations lay in thinking he could trust Zia whom he had appointed to chief of staff over others considered higher in the pecking order. Zia transmitted all the right signals and the Pakistan president misread him as reliable. He was oblivious to the fact that he was feeding a megalomaniac who, in the words of Khan, would prove determined ‘to hang on to power and to remove from his path any impediment, that could create difficulties for him or endanger his position in the future.’

In spite of all these lessons Pakistan, at present, is subject to yet another bout of military rule. And on the basis of recent events there is little cause for optimism that such dictatorial power is to be lessened. The tendency is even further toward the anti-democratic concept of an ever greater leadership-led country.

'Transition' is a word loved by political charlatans and entrepreneurs, eager to justify breaking with previous understandings and jettisoning earlier undertakings. It conceals a multitude of political sins. General Pervez Musharraf - totally consistent with the power lusting rather than the principled - declared that ‘Pakistan is passing through a very crucial transitional period’. And with unashamed doublethink he claimed the country was under ‘democratic dictatorship’ advancing toward ‘guided democracy’. One of his first moves has been to emulate Zia before him by granting himself the authority to dissolve parliament. According to the New York Times ‘the changes will also institutionalise the political role of the military in politics by allotting it some seats on a newly created National Security Council.’ Musharraf has also assumed the power to appoint judges to the Supreme Court.

In a country with a population of 140 million, the latest opinion polls show that a majority of Pakistanis oppose most of the amendments enacted by Musharraf. Some within the country’s opposition have called upon the US to pressurise Musharraf to desist from the present course. In this they either ignore or fail to see that Musharraf is doing what he does precisely because of American support. When he initially seized power in a coup d’etat in 1999 the US treated him as a pariah. He has since exploited US strategic desperation in the wake of September the 11th based on an awareness of the fulcrum that his country has become. The Pakistan Times has claimed he is one of the pivotal men in the U.S. 'war on terrorism'. All of which dilutes any sense of surprise when George Bush approves Musharraf on the grounds that 'he's still tight with us in the war against terror.’

Other political and human rights groups in Pakistan are justifiably more cynical about the chances of the US acting as a force for positive change within the country. They feel that by not restraining Musharraf, the American administration would be following a long-established pattern of approving military dictators against democratic forces when the interests of the generals would dovetail with those of the US. As Tariq Ali recalls from the days of his youth spent growing up in Pakistan:

We used to be very hostile to the United States as kids because we felt that the United States was backing the military dictatorship in our country. W e knew that without American support these military dictators couldn't exist, and yet whenever a choice was offered - democracy or dictatorship - the United States backed the military.

The absence of any real ethical dimension to US foreign policy, perennially subject to the imperatives of naked raison d’etat, must in some way help explain the infusion of life into a pool of fundamentalism where theocratic fascism invites Arab and Islamic youth to drink from. The result is that American citizens are subject to the same murderous frenzy that their own government helps to visit onto others.

US citizens are particularly laudatory about the vibrancy of the democracy that exists in their country. But as had been said elsewhere the price of the liberty which that democracy offers is eternal vigilance. And it is incumbent upon those most in danger of attack from theocratic fascism to behave most vigilantly in respect of their own government. Such vigilance requires that military dictators such as Musharraf are deprived of all sustenance. Democratic America at home, fortunately graced by ethical stalwarts such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, should exercise democratic accountability over its government’s anti-democratic activities abroad.






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When you struggle, that's when you realize what you're made of, and that's when you realize what the people around you can do. You learn who you'd want to take with you to a war, and who you'd only want to take to lunch .
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Index: Current Articles

26 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


IRA Volunteer Charlie Hughes and the Courage of the Brave
Brendan Hughes


A Question of Identity

Billy Mitchell


Road Kill
Liam O Ruairc


Pakistan and Military Dictators

Anthony McIntyre


Baghdad's Think-Tank Bomb
John Chuckman


Solidarity: 2 Notices
Sam Bahour and Fred Schlomka


22 September 2002


Pipedream Peace
Joe Graham


Can The Course of Labour Afford to Wait?
Billy Mitchell


Easily Annoyed
Peter Urban


Academics on Independence, Part 1

Paul Fitzsimmons


Sabra & Shatila

Anthony McIntyre


Palestine & Iraq
Brendan Hughes


Not In Our Name
Davy Carlin


Death Fasts and Oppression Continue in Turkey




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