Daughter of the West

December 27, 2007 at 9:03 pm (assassination, Pakistan, TWP)

This was published in the December 13th edition of the London Review of Books. It’s a good background piece from a left-wing perspective from Tariq Ali on Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated today:

Daughter of the West

Tariq Ali

Arranged marriages can be a messy business. Designed principally as a means of accumulating wealth, circumventing undesirable flirtations or transcending clandestine love affairs, they often don’t work. Where both parties are known to loathe each other, only a rash parent, desensitised by the thought of short-term gain, will continue with the process knowing full well that it will end in misery and possibly violence. That this is equally true in political life became clear in the recent attempt by Washington to tie Benazir Bhutto to Pervez Musharraf.

The single, strong parent in this case was a desperate State Department – with John Negroponte as the ghoulish go-between and Gordon Brown as the blushing bridesmaid – fearful that if it did not push this through both parties might soon be too old for recycling. The bride was certainly in a hurry, the groom less so. Brokers from both sides engaged in lengthy negotiations on the size of the dowry. Her broker was and remains Rehman Malik, a former boss of Pakistan’s FIA, who has been investigated for corruption by the National Accountability Bureau and who served nearly a year in prison after Benazir’s fall, then became one of her business partners and is currently under investigation (with her) by a Spanish court looking into a company called Petroline FZC, which made questionable payments to Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Documents, if genuine, show that she chaired the company. She may have been in a hurry but she did not wish to be seen taking the arm of a uniformed president. He was not prepared to forgive her past. The couple’s distaste for each other yielded to a mutual dependence on the United States. Neither party could say ‘no’, though Musharraf hoped the union could be effected inconspicuously. Fat chance.

Both parties made concessions. She agreed that he could take off his uniform after his ‘re-election’ by Parliament, but it had to be before the next general election. (He has now done this, leaving himself dependent on the goodwill of his successor as army chief of staff.) He pushed through a legal ruling – yet another sordid first in the country’s history – known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, which withdrew all cases of corruption pending against politicians accused of looting the national treasury. The ruling was crucial for her since she hoped that the money-laundering and corruption cases pending in three European courts – in Valencia, Geneva and London – would now be dismissed. This doesn’t seem to have happened.

Many Pakistanis – not just the mutinous and mischievous types who have to be locked up at regular intervals – were repelled, and coverage of ‘the deal’ in the Pakistan media was universally hostile, except on state television. The ‘breakthrough’ was loudly trumpeted in the West, however, and a whitewashed Benazir Bhutto was presented on US networks and BBC TV news as the champion of Pakistani democracy – reporters loyally referred to her as ‘the former prime minister’ rather than the fugitive politician facing corruption charges in several countries.

She had returned the favour in advance by expressing sympathy for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lunching with the Israeli ambassador to the UN (a litmus test) and pledging to ‘wipe out terrorism’ in her own country. In 1979 a previous military dictator had bumped off her father with Washington’s approval, and perhaps she thought it would be safer to seek permanent shelter underneath the imperial umbrella. HarperCollins had paid her half a million dollars to write a new book. The working title she chose was ‘Reconciliation’.

As for the general, he had begun his period in office in 1999 by bowing to the spirit of the age and titling himself ‘chief executive’ rather than ‘chief martial law administrator’, which had been the norm. Like his predecessors, he promised he would stay in power only for a limited period, pledging in 2003 to resign as army chief of staff in 2004. Like his predecessors, he ignored his pledge. Martial law always begins with the promise of a new order that will sweep away the filth and corruption that marked the old one: in this case it toppled the civilian administrations of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. But ‘new orders’ are not forward movements, more military detours that further weaken the shaky foundations of a country and its institutions. Within a decade the uniformed ruler will be overtaken by a new upheaval.

Dreaming of her glory days in the last century, Benazir wanted a large reception on her return. The general was unhappy. The intelligence agencies (as well as her own security advisers) warned her of the dangers. She had declared war on the terrorists and they had threatened to kill her. But she was adamant. She wanted to demonstrate her popularity to the world and to her political rivals, including those inside her own fiefdom, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). For a whole month before she boarded the Dubai-Karachi flight, the PPP were busy recruiting volunteers from all over the country to welcome her. Up to 200,000 people lined the streets, but it was a far cry from the million who turned up in Lahore in 1986 when a very different Benazir returned to challenge General Zia ul-Haq. The plan had been to move slowly in the Bhuttomobile from Karachi airport to the tomb of the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, where she would make a speech. It was not to be. As darkness fell, the bombers struck. Who they were and who sent them remains a mystery. She was unhurt, but 130 people died, including some of the policemen guarding her. The wedding reception had led to mayhem.

The general, while promising to collaborate with Benazir, was coolly making arrangements to prolong his own stay at President’s House. Even before her arrival he had considered taking drastic action to dodge the obstacles that stood in his way, but his generals (and the US Embassy) seemed unconvinced. The bombing of Benazir’s cavalcade reopened the debate. Pakistan, if not exactly the erupting volcano portrayed in the Western media, was being shaken by all sorts of explosions. The legal profession, up in arms at Musharraf’s recent dismissal of the chief justice, had won a temporary victory, resulting in a fiercely independent Supreme Court. The independent TV networks continued to broadcast reports that challenged official propaganda. Investigative journalism is never popular with governments and the general often contrasted the deference with which he was treated by the US networks and BBC television with the ‘unruly’ questioning inflicted on him by local journalists: it ‘misled the people’. He had become obsessed with the media coverage of the lawyers’ revolt. A decline in his popularity increased the paranoia. His advisers were people he had promoted. Generals who had expressed divergent opinions in ‘frank and informal get-togethers’ had been retired. His political allies were worried that their opportunities to enrich themselves even further would be curtailed if they had to share power with Benazir.

What if the Supreme Court were now to declare his re-election by a dying and unrepresentative assembly illegal? To ward off disaster, the ISI had been preparing blackmail flicks: agents secretly filmed some of the Supreme Court judges in flagrante. But so unpopular had Musharraf become that even the sight of judicial venerables in bed might not have done the trick. It might even have increased their support. (In 1968, when a right-wing, pro-military rag in Lahore published an attack on me, it revealed that I ‘had attended sex orgies in a French country house organised by [my] friend, the Jew Cohn-Bendit. All the fifty women in the swimming-pool were Jewish.’ Alas, this was totally false, but my parents were amazed at the number of people who congratulated them on my virility.) Musharraf decided that blackmail wasn’t worth the risk. Only firm action could ‘restore order’ – i.e. save his skin. The usual treatment in these cases is a declaration of martial law. But what if the country is already being governed by the army chief of staff? The solution is simple. Treble the dose. Organise a coup within a coup. That is what Musharraf decided to do. Washington was informed a few weeks in advance, Downing Street somewhat later. Benazir’s patrons in the West told her what was about to happen and she, foolishly for a political leader who has just returned to her country, evacuated to Dubai.

On 3 November Musharraf, as chief of the army, suspended the 1973 constitution and imposed a state of emergency: all non-government TV channels were taken off the air, the mobile phone networks were jammed, paramilitary units surrounded the Supreme Court. The chief justice convened an emergency bench of judges, who – heroically – declared the new dispensation ‘illegal and unconstitutional’. They were unceremoniously removed and put under house arrest. Pakistan’s judges have usually been acquiescent. Those who in the past resisted military leaders were soon bullied out of it, so the decision of this chief justice took the country by surprise and won him great admiration. Global media coverage of Pakistan suggests a country of generals, corrupt politicians and bearded lunatics: the struggle to reinstate the chief justice had presented a different picture.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a prominent member of the PPP, minister of the interior in Benazir’s first government and currently president of the Bar Association, was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. Several thousand political and civil rights activists were picked up. Imran Khan, a fierce and incorruptible opponent of the regime, was arrested, charged with ‘state terrorism’ – for which the penalty is death or life imprisonment – and taken in handcuffs to a remote high-security prison. Musharraf, Khan argued, had begun yet another shabby chapter in Pakistan’s history.

Lawyers were arrested all over the country; many were physically attacked by policemen. Humiliate them was the order, and the police obliged. A lawyer, ‘Omar’, circulated an account of what happened:

While I was standing talking to my colleagues, we saw the police go wild on the orders of a superior officer. In riot gear . . . brandishing weapons and sticks, about a hundred policemen attacked us . . . and seemed intensely happy at doing so. We all ran.

Some of us who were not as nimble on their feet as others were caught by the police and beaten mercilessly. We were then locked in police vans used to transport convicted prisoners. Everyone was stunned at this show of brute force but it did not end. The police went on mayhem inside the court premises and court buildings . . . Those of us who were arrested were taken to various police stations and put in lockups. At midnight, we were told that we were being shifted to jail. We could not get bail as our fundamental rights were suspended. Sixty lawyers were put into a police van ten feet by four feet wide and five feet in height. We were squashed like sardines. When the van reached the jail, we were told that we could not get [out] until orders of our detention were received by the jail authorities. Our older colleagues started to suffocate, some fainted, others started to panic because of claustrophobia. The police ignored our screams and refused to open the van doors. Finally, after three hours . . . we were let out and taken to mosquito-infected barracks where the food given to us smelled like sewage water.

Geo, the largest TV network, had long since located its broadcasting facilities in Dubai. It was a strange sensation watching the network in London when the screens were blank in Pakistan. On the very first day of the emergency I saw Hamid Mir, a journalist loathed by the general, reporting from Islamabad and asserting that the US Embassy had given the green light to the coup because it regarded the chief justice as a nuisance and wrongly believed him to be ‘a Taliban sympathiser’. Certainly no US spokesperson or State Department adjunct in the Foreign Office criticised the dismissal of the eight Supreme Court judges or their arrest: that was the quid pro quo for Washington’s insistence that Musharraf take off his uniform. If he was going to turn civilian he wanted all the other rules twisted in his favour. A newly appointed stooge Supreme Court would soon help him with the rule-bending. As would the authorities in Dubai, who suspended Geo’s facilities.

In the evening of that first day, and after several delays, a flustered General Musharraf, his hair badly dyed, appeared on TV, trying to look like the sort of leader who wants it understood that the political crisis is to be discussed with gravity and sangfroid. Instead, he came across as a dumbed down dictator fearful for his own political future. His performance as he broadcast to the nation, first in Urdu and then in English, was incoherent. The gist was simple: he had to act because the Supreme Court had ‘so demoralised our state agencies that we can’t fight the “war on terror”’ and the TV networks had become ‘totally irresponsible’. ‘I have imposed emergency,’ he said halfway through his diatribe, adding, with a contemptuous gesture: ‘You must have seen it on TV.’ Was he being sarcastic, given that most channels had been shut down? Who knows? Mohammed Hanif, the sharp-witted head of the BBC’s Urdu Service, which monitored the broadcast, confessed himself flummoxed when he wrote up what he heard. He had no doubt that the Urdu version of the speech was the general’s own work. Hanif’s deconstruction – he quoted the general in Urdu and in English – deserved a broadcast all of its own:

Here are some random things he said. And trust me, these things were said quite randomly. Yes, he did say: ‘Extremism bahut extreme ho gaya hai [extremism has become too extreme] . . . Nobody is scared of us anymore . . . Islamabad is full of extremists . . . There is a government within government . . . Officials are being asked to the courts . . . Officials are being insulted by the judiciary.’

At one point he appeared wistful when reminiscing about his first three years in power: ‘I had total control.’ You were almost tempted to ask: ‘What happened then, uncle?’ But obviously, uncle didn’t need any prompting. He launched into his routine about three stages of democracy. He claimed he was about to launch the third and final phase of democracy (the way he said it, he managed to make it sound like the Final Solution). And just when you thought he was about to make his point, he took an abrupt turn and plunged into a deep pool of self-pity. This involved a long-winded anecdote about how the Supreme Court judges would rather attend a colleague’s daughter’s wedding than just get it over with and decide that he is a constitutional president . . . I have heard some dictators’ speeches in my life, but nobody has gone so far as to mention someone’s daughter’s wedding as a reason for imposing martial law on the country.

When for the last few minutes of his speech he addressed his audience in the West in English, I suddenly felt a deep sense of humiliation. This part of his speech was scripted. Sentences began and ended. I felt humiliated that my president not only thinks that we are not evolved enough for things like democracy and human rights, but that we can’t even handle proper syntax and grammar.

The English-language version put the emphasis on the ‘war on terror’: Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln, he said, would have done what he did to preserve the ‘integrity of their country’ – the mention of Lincoln was obviously intended for the US market. In Pakistan’s military academies the usual soldier-heroes are Napoleon, De Gaulle and Atatürk.

What did Benazir, now outmanoeuvred, make of the speech as she watched it on TV in her Dubai sanctuary? Her first response was to say she was shocked, which was slightly disingenuous. Even if she had not been told in advance that an emergency would be declared, it was hardly a secret – for one thing, Condoleezza Rice had made a token public appeal to Musharraf not to take this course. Yet for more than 24 hours she was unable to give a clear response. At one point she even criticised the chief justice for being too provocative.

Agitated phone calls from Pakistan persuaded her to return to Karachi. To put her in her place, the authorities kept her plane waiting on the tarmac. When she finally reached the VIP lounge, her PPP colleagues told her that unless she denounced the emergency there would be a split in the party. Outsmarted and abandoned by Musharraf, she couldn’t take the risk of losing key figures in her party. She denounced the emergency and its perpetrator, established contact with the beleaguered opposition, and, as if putting on a new lipstick, declared that she would lead the struggle to get rid of the dictator. She now tried to call on the chief justice to express her sympathy but wasn’t allowed near his residence.

She could have followed the example of her imprisoned colleague Aitzaz Ahsan, but she was envious of him: he had become far too popular in Pakistan. He’d even had the nerve to go to Washington, where he was politely received by society and inspected as a possible substitute should things go badly wrong. Not a single message had flowed from her Blackberry to congratulate him on his victories in the struggle to reinstate the chief justice. Ahsan had advised her against any deal with Musharraf. When generals are against the wall, he is reported to have told her, they resort to desperate and irrational measures. Others who offered similar advice in gentler language were also batted away. She was the PPP’s ‘chairperson-for-life’ and brooked no dissent. The fact that Ahsan was proved right irritated her even more. Any notion of political morality had long ago been dumped. The very idea of a party with a consistent set of beliefs was regarded as ridiculous and outdated. Ahsan was now safe in prison, far from the madding hordes of Western journalists whom she received in style during the few days she spent under house arrest and afterwards. She made a few polite noises about his imprisonment, but nothing more.

The go-between from Washington arrived at very short notice. Negroponte spent some time with Musharraf and spoke to Benazir, still insisting that they make up and go through with the deal. She immediately toned down her criticisms, but the general was scathing and said in public that there was no way she could win the elections scheduled for January. No doubt the ISI are going to rig them in style. Had she remained loyal to him she might have lost public support, but he would have made sure she had a substantial presence in the new parliament. Now everything is up for grabs again. The opinion polls show that her old rival, Nawaz Sharif, is well ahead of her. Musharraf’s hasty pilgrimage to Mecca was probably an attempt to secure Saudi mediation in case he has to cut a deal with the Sharif brothers – who have been living in exile in Saudi Arabia – and sideline her completely. Both sides deny that a deal was done, but Sharif returned to Pakistan with Saudi blessings and an armour-plated Cadillac as a special gift from the king. Little doubt that Riyadh would rather him than Benazir.

With the country still under a state of emergency and the largest media network refusing to sign the oath of allegiance that would allow them back on air, the polls scheduled for January can only be a general’s election. It’s hardly a secret that the ISI and the civilian bureaucracy will decide who wins and where, and some of the opposition parties are, wisely, considering a boycott. Nawaz Sharif told the press that in the course of a long telephone call he had failed to persuade Benazir to join it and thereby render the process null and void from the start. But now that he is back in the country it’s unclear whether he will still go ahead with the boycott or try and negotiate a certain number of seats with the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, who had betrayed him by setting up a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PML-Q, to support Musharraf. Perhaps a shared bout of amnesia will bring them together again.

What will Benazir do now? Washington’s leverage in Islamabad is limited, which is why they wanted her to be involved in the first place. ‘It’s always better,’ the US ambassador half-joked at a reception, ‘to have two phone numbers in a capital.’ That may be so, but they cannot guarantee her the prime ministership or even a fair election. In his death-cell, her father mulled over similar problems and came to slightly different conclusions. If I Am Assassinated, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s last will and testament, was written in semi-Gramsci mode, but the meaning wasn’t lost on his colleagues:

I entirely agree that the people of Pakistan will not tolerate foreign hegemony. On the basis of the self-same logic, the people of Pakistan would never agree to an internal hegemony. The two hegemonies complement each other. If our people meekly submit to internal hegemony, a priori, they will have to submit to external hegemony. This is so because the strength and power of external hegemony is far greater than that of internal hegemony. If the people are too terrified to resist the weaker force, it is not possible for them to resist the stronger force. The acceptance of or acquiescence in internal hegemony means submission to external hegemony.

After he was hanged in April 1979, the text acquired a semi-sacred status among his supporters. But, when in power, Bhutto père had failed to develop any counter-hegemonic strategy or institutions, other than the 1973 constitution drafted by the veteran civil rights lawyer Mahmud Ali Kasuri (whose son Khurshid was until recently the foreign minister). A personality-driven, autocratic style of governance had neutered the spirit of the party, encouraged careerists and finally paved the way for his enemies. He was the victim of a grave injustice; his death removed all the warts and transformed him into a martyr. More than half the country, mainly the poor, mourned his passing.

The tragedy led to the PPP being treated as a family heirloom, which was unhealthy for both party and country. It provided the Bhuttos with a vote-bank and large reserves. But the experience of her father’s trial and death radicalised and politicised his daughter. She would have preferred, she told me at the time, to be a diplomat. Her two brothers, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, were in London, having been forbidden to return home by their imprisoned father. The burden of trying to save her father’s life fell on Benazir and her mother, Nusrat, and the courage they exhibited won them the silent respect of a frightened majority. They refused to cave in to General Zia’s military dictatorship, which apart from anything else was invoking Islam to claw back rights won by women in previous decades. Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto were arrested and released several times. Their health began to suffer. Nusrat was allowed to leave the country to seek medical advice in 1982. Benazir was released a little more than a year later thanks, in part, to US pressure orchestrated by her old Harvard friend Peter Galbraith. She later described the period in her memoir, Daughter of the East (1988); it included photo-captions such as: ‘Shortly after President Reagan praised the regime for making “great strides towards democracy”, Zia’s henchmen gunned down peaceful demonstrators marking Pakistan Independence Day. The police were just as brutal to those protesting at the attack on my jeep in January 1987.’

Her tiny Barbican flat in London became the centre of opposition to the dictatorship, and it was here that we often discussed a campaign to take on the generals. Benazir had built up her position by steadfastly and peacefully resisting the military and replying to every slander with a cutting retort. Her brothers had been operating on a different level. They set up an armed group, al-Zulfiqar, whose declared aim was to harass and weaken the regime by targeting ‘traitors who had collaborated with Zia’. The principal volunteers were recruited inside Pakistan and in 1980 they were provided with a base in Afghanistan, where the pro-Moscow Communists had taken power three years before. It is a sad story with a fair share of factionalism, show-trials, petty rivalries, fantasies of every sort and death for the group’s less fortunate members.

In March 1981 Murtaza and Shahnawaz Bhutto were placed on the FIA’s most wanted list. They had hijacked a Pakistan International airliner soon after it left Karachi (a power cut had paralysed the X-ray machines, enabling the hijackers to take their weapons on board); it was diverted to Kabul. Here Murtaza took over and demanded the release of political prisoners. A young military officer on board the flight was murdered. The plane refuelled and went on to Damascus, where the Syrian spymaster General Kholi took charge and ensured there were no more deaths. The fact that there were American passengers on the plane was a major consideration for the generals and, for that reason alone, the prisoners in Pakistan were released and flown to Tripoli.

This was seen as a victory and welcomed as such by the PPP in Pakistan. For the first time the group began to be taken seriously. A key target inside the country was Maulvi Mushtaq Hussain, the chief justice of the High Court in Lahore, who, in 1978, had sentenced Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to death, and whose behaviour in court had shocked even those who were hostile to the PPP. (Among other charges, he had accused Bhutto of ‘pretending to be a Muslim’ – his mother was a Hindu convert.) Mushtaq was in a friend’s car being driven to his home in Lahore’s Model Town area when al-Zulfiqar gunmen opened fire. The judge survived, but his friend and the driver died. The friend was one of the Chaudhrys of Gujrat: Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi, a dodgy businessman who had ostentatiously asked General Zia to make him a present of the ‘sacred pen’ with which he had signed Bhutto’s death warrant. The pen became a family heirloom. Zahoor Elahi may not have been the target but al-Zulfiqar, embarrassed at missing the judge, claimed he was also on their list, which may have been true.

It is the next generation of Chaudhrys that currently provides Musharraf with civilian ballast: Zahoor Elahi’s son Shujaat organised the split with Nawaz Sharif and created the splinter PML-Q to ease the growing pains of the new regime. He still fixes deals and wanted an emergency imposed much earlier to circumvent the deal with Benazir. He will now mastermind the general’s election campaign. His cousin Pervez Elahi is chief minister of the Punjab; his son, in turn, is busy continuing the family tradition by evicting tenants and buying up all the available land on the edge of Lahore. It has not been divulged which member of the family guards the sacred pen.

The hijacking meanwhile had annoyed Moscow, and the regime in Afghanistan asked the Bhutto brothers to find another refuge. While in Kabul, they had married two Afghan sisters, Fauzia and Rehana Fasihudin, daughters of a senior official at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Together with their wives they now left the country and after a sojourn in Syria and possibly Libya ended up in Europe. The reunion with their sister took place on the French Riviera in 1985, a setting better suited to the lifestyles of all three siblings.

The young men feared General Zia’s agents. Each had a young daughter. Shahnawaz lived in an apartment in Cannes. He had been in charge of the ‘military apparatus’ and life in Kabul had exacted a heavier toll on him. He was edgy and nervous. Relations with his wife were stormy and he told his sister that he was preparing to divorce her. ‘There’s never been a divorce in the family. Your marriage wasn’t even an arranged one . . . You chose to marry Rehana. You must live with it,’ was Benazir’s revealing reply, according to her memoir. And then Shahnawaz was found dead in his apartment. His wife claimed he had taken poison, but according to Benazir nobody in the family believed her story; there had been violence in the room and his papers had been searched. Rehana looked immaculate, which disturbed the family. She was imprisoned for three months under the ‘Good Samaritan’ law for not having gone to the assistance of a dying person. After her release she settled in the United States. ‘Had the CIA killed him as a friendly gesture towards their favourite dictator?’ Benazir speculated. She raised other questions too: had the sisters become ISI agents? The truth remains hidden. Not long afterwards Murtaza divorced Fauzia, but kept custody of their three-year-old daughter, Fatima, and moved to Damascus. Here he had plenty of time for reflection and told friends that too many mistakes had been made. In 1986 he met Ghinwa Itaoui, a young teacher who had fled Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982. She calmed him down and took charge of Fatima’s education. They were married in 1989 and a son, Zulfiqar, was born the following year.

Benazir returned to Pakistan in 1986 and was greeted by large crowds who came out to show their affection for her and to demonstrate their anger with the regime. She campaigned all over the country, but felt increasingly that for some of the more religious-minded a young unmarried woman was not acceptable as a leader. How could she visit Saudi Arabia without a husband? An offer of marriage from the Zardari family was accepted and she married Asif in 1987. She had worried that any husband would find it difficult to deal with the periods of separation her nomadic political life would entail, but Zardari was perfectly capable of occupying himself.

A year later General Zia’s plane blew up in midair. In the elections that followed the PPP won the largest number of seats. Benazir became prime minister, but was hemmed in by the army on one side and the president, the army’s favourite bureaucrat, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, on the other. She told me at the time that she felt powerless. They wouldn’t let her do anything. ‘Tell the people,’ was my advice. Tell them why you can’t deliver on your promises to provide free education, proper sanitation, clean water and health services to improve the high infant mortality rate. She didn’t tell them; in fact she did nothing at all apart from provide employment to some of her supporters. Being in power, it seemed, was satisfaction enough. She went on state visits: met and liked Mrs Thatcher and later, with her new husband in tow, was received politely by the Saudi king. In the meantime there were other plots afoot – the opposition was literally buying off some of her MPs – and in August 1990 her government was removed by presidential decree and Zia’s protégés, the Sharif brothers, were back in power.

By the time she was re-elected in 1993, she had abandoned all idea of reform, but that she was in a hurry to do something became clear when she appointed her husband minister for investment, making him responsible for all investment offers from home and abroad. It is widely alleged that the couple accumulated $1.5 billion. The high command of the Pakistan People’s Party now became a machine for making money, but without any trickle-down mechanism. This period marked the complete degeneration of the party. All that shame-faced party members could say, when I asked, was that ‘everybody does it all over the world,’ thus accepting that the cash nexus was now all that mattered. In foreign policy her legacy was mixed. She refused to sanction an anti-Indian military adventure in Kargil on the Himalayan slopes, but to make up for it, as I wrote in the LRB (15 April 1999), her government backed the Taliban takeover in Kabul – which makes it doubly ironic that Washington and London should be promoting her as a champion of democracy.

Murtaza Bhutto had contested the elections from abroad and won a seat in the Sind provincial legislature. He returned home and expressed his unhappiness with his sister’s agenda. Family gatherings became tense. Murtaza had his weaknesses, but he wasn’t corrupt and he argued in favour of the old party’s radical manifesto. He made no secret of the fact that he regarded Zardari as an interloper whose only interest was money. Nusrat Bhutto suggested that Murtaza be made the chief minister of Sind: Benazir’s response was to remove her mother as chairperson of the PPP. Any sympathy Murtaza may have felt for his sister turned to loathing. He no longer felt obliged to control his tongue and at every possible opportunity lambasted Zardari and the corrupt regime over which his sister presided. It was difficult to fault him on the facts. The incumbent chief minister of Sind was Abdullah Shah, one of Zardari’s creatures. He began to harass Murtaza’s supporters. Murtaza decided to confront the organ-grinder himself. He rang Zardari and invited him round for an informal chat sans bodyguards to try and settle the problems within the family. Zardari agreed. As the two men were pacing the garden, Murtaza’s retainers appeared and grabbed Zardari. Someone brought out a cut-throat razor and some warm water and Murtaza shaved off half of Zardari’s moustache to the delight of the retainers, then told him to get lost. A fuming Zardari, who had probably feared much worse, was compelled to shave off the other half at home. The media, bemused, were informed that the new clean-shaven consort had accepted intelligence advice that the moustache made him too recognisable a target. In which case why did he allow it to sprout again immediately afterwards?

Some months later, in September 1996, as Murtaza and his entourage were returning home from a political meeting, they were ambushed, just outside their house, by some seventy armed policemen accompanied by four senior officers. A number of snipers were positioned in surrounding trees. The street lights had been switched off. Murtaza clearly understood what was happening and got out of his car with his hands raised; his bodyguards were instructed not to open fire. The police opened fire instead and seven men were killed, Murtaza among them. The fatal bullet had been fired at close range. The trap had been carefully laid, but as is the way in Pakistan, the crudeness of the operation – false entries in police logbooks, lost evidence, witnesses arrested and intimidated, the provincial PPP governor (regarded as untrustworthy) dispatched to a non-event in Egypt, a policeman killed who they feared might talk – made it obvious that the decision to execute the prime minister’s brother had been taken at a very high level.

While the ambush was being prepared, the police had sealed off Murtaza’s house (from which his father had been lifted by Zia’s commandos in 1978). The family inside felt something was wrong. At this point, a remarkably composed Fatima Bhutto, aged 14, decided to ring her aunt at Prime Minister’s House. The conversation that followed remains imprinted on her memory and a few years ago she gave me an account of it. It was Zardari who took her call:

Fatima: I wish to speak to my aunt, please.

Zardari: It’s not possible.

Fatima: Why? [At this point, Fatima says she heard loud wails and what sounded like fake crying.]

Zardari: She’s hysterical, can’t you hear?

Fatima: Why?

Zardari: Don’t you know? Your father’s been shot.

Fatima and Ghinwa found out where Murtaza had been taken and rushed out of the house. There was no sign on the street outside that anything had happened: the scene of the killing had been wiped clean of all evidence. There were no traces of blood and no signs of any disturbance. They drove straight to the hospital but it was too late; Murtaza was already dead. Later they learned that he had been left bleeding on the ground for almost an hour before being taken to a hospital where there were no emergency facilities of any kind.

When Benazir arrived to attend her brother’s funeral in Larkana, angry crowds stoned her limo. She had to retreat. In another unusual display of emotion, local people encouraged Murtaza’s widow to attend the actual burial ceremony in defiance of Islamic tradition. According to Fatima, one of Benazir’s hangers-on instigated legal proceedings against Ghinwa in a religious court for breaching Islamic law. Nothing was sacred.

Anyone who witnessed Murtaza’s murder was arrested; one witness died in prison. When Fatima rang Benazir to ask why witnesses were being arrested and not the killers she was told: ‘Look, you’re very young. You don’t understand things.’ Perhaps it was for this reason that the kind aunt decided to encourage Fatima’s blood-mother, Fauzia, whom she had previously denounced as a murderer in the pay of General Zia, to come to Pakistan and claim custody of Fatima. No mystery as to who paid her fare from California. Fatima and Ghinwa Bhutto resisted and the attempt failed. Benazir then tried a softer approach and insisted that Fatima accompany her to New York, where she was going to address the UN Assembly. Ghinwa Bhutto approached friends in Damascus and had her two children flown out of the country. Fatima later discovered that Fauzia had been seen hobnobbing with Benazir in New York.

In November 1996 Benazir was once again removed from power, this time by her own president, Farooq Leghari, a PPP stalwart. He cited corruption, but what had also angered him was the ISI’s crude attempt at blackmail – the intelligence agencies had photographed Leghari’s daughter meeting a boyfriend and threatened to go public. The week Benazir fell, the chief minister of Sind, Abdullah Shah, hopped on a motorboat and fled Karachi for the Gulf and thence the US.

A judicial tribunal had been appointed by Benazir’s government to inquire into the circumstances leading to Murtaza’s death. Headed by a Supreme Court judge, it took detailed evidence from all parties. Murtaza’s lawyers accused Zardari, Abdullah Shah and two senior police officials of conspiracy to murder. Benazir (now out of power) accepted that there had been a conspiracy, but suggested that ‘the hidden hand responsible for this was President Farooq Ahmad Leghari’: the intention, she said, was to ‘kill a Bhutto to get rid of a Bhutto’. Nobody took this seriously. Given all that had happened, it was an incredible suggestion.

The tribunal said there was no legally acceptable evidence to link Zardari to the incident, but accepted that ‘this was a case of extra-judicial killings by the police’ and concluded that such an incident could not have taken place without approval from the highest quarters. Nothing happened. Eleven years later, Fatima Bhutto publicly accused Zardari; she also claimed that many of those involved that day appear to have been rewarded for their actions. In an interview on an independent TV station just before the emergency was imposed, Benazir was asked to explain how it happened that her brother had bled to death outside his home while she was prime minister. She walked out of the studio. A sharp op-ed piece by Fatima in the LA Times on 14 November elicited the following response: ‘My niece is angry with me.’ Well, yes.

Musharraf may have withdrawn the corruption charges, but three other cases are proceeding in Switzerland, Spain and Britain. In July 2003, after an investigation lasting several years, Daniel Devaud, a Geneva magistrate, convicted Mr and Mrs Asif Ali Zardari, in absentia, of money laundering. They had accepted $15 million in bribes from two Swiss companies, SGS and Cotecna. The couple were sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to return $11.9 million to the government of Pakistan. ‘I certainly don’t have any doubts about the judgments I handed down,’ Devaud told the BBC. Benazir appealed, thus forcing a new investigation. On 19 September 2005 she appeared in a Geneva court and tried to detach herself from the rest of the family: she hadn’t been involved, she said: it was a matter for her husband and her mother (afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease). She knew nothing of the accounts. And what of the agreement her agent Jens Schlegelmilch had signed according to which, in case of her and Zardari’s death, the assets of Bomer Finance Company would be divvied out equally between the Zardari and Bhutto families? She knew nothing of that either. And the £120,000 diamond necklace in the bank vault paid for by Zardari? It was intended for her, but she had rejected the gift as ‘inappropriate’. The case continues. Last month Musharraf told Owen Bennett-Jones of the BBC World Service that his government would not interfere with the proceedings: ‘That’s up to the Swiss government. Depends on them. It’s a case in their courts.’

In Britain the legal shenanigans concern the $3.4 million Rockwood estate in Surrey, bought by offshore companies on behalf of Zardari in 1995 and refurbished to his exacting tastes. Zardari denied owning the estate. Then when the court was about to instruct the liquidators to sell it and return the proceeds to the Pakistan government, Zardari came forward and accepted ownership. Last year, Lord Justice Collins ruled that, while he was not making any ‘findings of fact’, there was a ‘reasonable prospect’ that the Pakistan government might be able to establish that Rockwood had been bought and furnished with ‘the fruits of corruption’. A close friend of Benazir told me that she was genuinely not involved in this one, since Zardari wasn’t thinking of spending much time there with her.

Daniel Markey, formerly of the State Department and currently senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained why Washington had pushed the marriage of convenience: ‘A progressive, reform-minded, more cosmopolitan party in government would help the US.’ As their finances reveal, the Zardaris are certainly cosmopolitan.

What then is at stake in Pakistan as far as Washington is concerned? ‘The concern I have,’ Robert Gates, the US secretary for defense, recently said, ‘is that the longer the internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be in terms of the internal situation rather than focusing on the terrorist threat in the frontier area.’ But one reason for the internal crisis is Washington’s over-reliance on Musharraf and the Pakistani military. It is Washington’s support and funding that have given him the confidence to operate as he pleases. But the thoughtless Western military occupation of Afghanistan is obviously crucial, since the instability in Kabul seeps into Peshawar and the tribal areas between the two countries. The state of emergency targeted the judiciary, opposition politicians and the independent media. All three groups were, in different ways, challenging the official line on Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’, the disappearance of political prisoners and the widespread use of torture in Pakistani prisons. The issues were being debated on television in a much more open fashion than happens anywhere in the West, where a blanket consensus on Afghanistan drowns all dissent. Musharraf argued that civil society was hampering the ‘war on terror’. Hence the emergency. It’s nonsense, of course. It’s the war in the frontier regions that is creating dissent inside the army. Many do not want to fight. Hence the surrender of dozens of soldiers to Taliban guerrillas. This is the reason many junior officers are taking early retirement.

Western pundits blather on about the jihadi finger on the nuclear trigger. This is pure fantasy, reminiscent of a similar campaign almost three decades ago, when the threat wasn’t the jihadis who were fighting alongside the West in Afghanistan, but nationalist military radicals. The cover story of Time magazine for 15 June 1979 dealt with Pakistan; a senior Western diplomat was quoted as saying that the big danger was ‘that there is another Gaddafi down there, some radical major or colonel in the Pakistani army. We could wake up and find him in Zia’s place one morning and, believe me, Pakistan wouldn’t be the only place that would be destabilised.’

The Pakistan army is half a million strong. Its tentacles are everywhere: land, industry, public utilities and so on. It would require a cataclysmic upheaval (a US invasion and occupation, for example) for this army to feel threatened by a jihadi uprising. Two considerations unite senior officers: the unity of the organisation and keeping politicians at bay. One reason is the fear that they might lose the comforts and privileges they have acquired after decades of rule; but they also have the deep aversion to democracy that is the hallmark of most armies. Unused to accountability within their own ranks, it’s difficult for them to accept it in society at large.

As southern Afghanistan collapses into chaos, and as corruption and massive inflation takes hold, the Taliban is gaining more and more recruits. The generals who convinced Benazir that control of Kabul via the Taliban would give them ‘strategic depth’ may have retired, but their successors know that the Afghans will not tolerate a long-term Western occupation. They hope for the return of a whitewashed Taliban. Instead of encouraging a regional solution that includes India, Iran and Russia, the US would prefer to see the Pakistan army as its permanent cop in Kabul. It won’t work. In Pakistan itself the long night continues as the cycle restarts: military leadership promising reforms degenerates into tyranny, politicians promising social support to the people degenerate into oligarchs. Given that a better functioning neighbour is unlikely to intervene, Pakistan will oscillate between these two forms of rule for the foreseeable future. The people who feel they have tried everything and failed will return to a state of semi-sleep, unless something unpredictable rouses them again. This is always possible.

30 November



  1. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks for posting that fascinating piece: I heard Tariq Ali on Cannel Four News this evening (within an hour or so of confirmation of Bhuttos death), making many of the same points, down to describing Negraponti as “the ghouslish go-between” hes obviously pleased with that phrase): he trouble was, as is so often the case with Ali, he sounded as though he simply wanted to blame the West. Ultimately, what the US and UK govenments tried to do was to broker a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf. It was a deal that most of us on the Left would oppose, but that’s not remotely the same thing as holding the US and UK responsible for her assassination…which is either simply crazy or politically disingenous to degree that is pretty extraordinary even for Ali.
    When news of the assassination first came through I started wondering who would be the first commentator or political group to work out a way of blaming the West. I predicated (to myself) Galloway, the SWP or perhaps Seamas Milne. I reckoned without Tariq Ali’s acceess to the media and his penchant for “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”- type reasoning.
    Oh yes; Ali also said, in the course of the same interview (with Jon Snow) that the “US prefers a miltary government” (in Pakistan)…a claim which I would have thought is rather contradicted by his claim that sending Bhutto back to Pakistan was the US’s idea. But, of course, whatever the US does it will always be in the wrong, and whatever nasty things happen in the world will always be the US/UK/Israel’s fault, if you see the world through the eyes of T. Ali.

  2. Jules said,

    From Farooq Tariq, Party Spokesperson of the Labour Party of Pakistan

    “I was going to Karachi and postponed all activities planned in
    connection with boycott of election.

    Here a short statement we issued just now

    Labour Party Pakistan demands immediate resignation of Musharaf
    dictatorship. The dictatorship is directly responsible for the
    killing of Benazir Bhutto. It failed to provide security to PPP

    Labour Party Pakistan spokesperson Farooq Tariq and general
    secretary Nisar Shah in a joint statement call for a three days
    general strike nationwide to protest the killings and to demand the
    dictatorship must resign now.

    Farooq Tariq”

  3. johng said,

    An excellent article not in the least damaged by Jim’s curious obsessions. That the US has been centrally involved in managing Pakistan’s politics for the last thirty years surely means that it bears a degree of responsibility for the state of her internal politics. And the assassination flowed out of that internal politics.

  4. twp77 said,

    There’s another good piece from a Pakistani woman which is carried on the Boston.com website which gives some impressions of her impact on women in Pakistan and the change that occured after the corruption accusations:


  5. Jim Denham said,

    John G: who do you think pulled the trigger / set off the bomb: the US / UK…or pro-AQ / pro-Taliban elements, probably backed by sections of the ISI?
    But of course, John regards Islamists as political children – not really responsible for their actions. Only the “adults” of the West are responsible for anything, in the eyes of patronising “anti-imperialists” like Mr G. It’s a sort of racism, really.

  6. voltaires_priest said,

    I think it’s more the Kevin Bacon theory of politics; if John can make enough connections (A knew B who had lunch with C, who once went to church with George Bush etc) then he can try to sustain his “everything bad is the USA’s fault” theory of geopolitics. Of course, in terms of who is responsible for Bhutto’s murder it is a nonsense: the murderer is responsible, as is whatever organisation sent him in. But if you’re trying to sustain John’s collapsing political model (remember, the coalition manifested from the theory, “Respect”, has exploded and is on the political junk heap) then it’s the only route left.

  7. twp77 said,

    I think it is being wilfully ignorant of the facts to pretend that there is no responsibility which lies with Washington here. I tend to agree with Tariq Ali that the US tried to force these elections through regardless of the danger of the situation on the ground in Pakistan. They knew Bhutto was in danger yet supported her returning and left the security up to a very dodgy military dicatatorship – a dictatorship that they also supported.

    I am not so certain that it was indeed Al Qaeda – and I doubt we will ever know. This isn’t out of the good of their scummy hearts but because it may have been much easier for Pakistani government elements to carry out such an assassination in the ciurcumstances (ie given the location so close to military HQ and so forth). It could very well be that Musharraf was in fact responsible for this.

    Tariq Ali correctly points out that there was an attempted meddling in Pakistani affairs by Washington in their attempt to create a political “marriage” between these two which resulted in this failure. It would have most likely been a failure even if Bhutto had lived.

    There is nothing wrong with John’s view that Washington bears a degree of responsibility for this mess. I don’t think John is in any way trying to “defend” right-wing Islamists by making this simple claim anymore than Tariq Ali is.

  8. modernity said,

    TWP77 wrote:

    There is nothing wrong with John’s view that Washington bears a degree of responsibility for this mess.

    indeed it does, but the blame game as a theory of geopolitics works both ways.

    suppose instead of pushing for early elections that the US administration hadn’t

    if US admin hadn’t pushed for early elections they’d would be accused of caving in to the dictatorial Musharraf?

    so cuts both ways, push and you’re accused of destabilising the situation, don’t push and you are supporting the continuation of the Musharraf dictatorship

  9. voltaires_priest said,

    TWP – whilst it’s plainly true (I’m certainly not seeking to deny it anyway) that the USA has played politics with military dictators in Pakistan such as Zia ul-Haq and Musharraf, just as it has everywhere else in the world, I don’t think it’s logical to “drill down” that fact to make the White House ultimately responsible for a suicide bombing in Pakistan. It’s the same sort of over-egged “root causes” argument that led people to argue that 9/11 was the US’ fault because of its support for Israel, and that 7/7 was Blair’s fault because of the Iraq war. It’s a gross simplification of a very complex political matrix, which cannot simply be defined in Star Wars style terms where the Evil Emperor Bush controls everything from within the Washington Death Star, and all bad things in the world therefore emanate from Him.

    As an argument it also infantilises in a highly patronising fashion all political forces outside of the western world. The idea that the ultimate agency in terms of killing Benazir Bhutto lay with the White House and not with the guy in the bomb belt (or whatever group of nutters put him up to it) is a nonsense. It’s as though “root cause” theorists think people outside of the west are incapable of taking decisions for themselves, and are somehow imprisoned like lotus eaters inside a web weaved by the USA.

    Ultimately therefore the standpoint from which John is arguing takes a single element of the political situation and tries to turn it into the whole picture. It’s partial at best and misrepresentative and patronising at worst.

  10. twp77 said,

    Volty – maybe I missed it but I don’t see where Johng, Tariq Ali or myself has claimed that the White House is “ultimately responsible” for the attack in Pakistan.

    In addition I think the fact that we don’t know whether or not Al Qaeda did this thereby leaves open the question as to whether Musharraf’s government did the actual killing. This could mean the cynical “friendship” the US had with a dictator such as Musharraf ultimately did have an impact on what he felt he could get away with. Of course the ultimate responsibility lies with the Musharraf regime but the US support of his regime cannot be discounted. The fact that they wanted to stick Bhutto into power with Musharraf also had an impact on how much of a threat she was perceived to be by the existing dictatorship. In essence, they either felt strong enough because of previous US support to carry out an assassination of an opponent OR they felt too weak in the face of dwindling US support to allow this forced “marriage” to go ahead. It could’ve been either reason.

    Finally, if it was Al Qaeda – which apparently have now denied it (doesn’t mean they didn’t do it obviously) – I wouldn’t blame their actions on the US – but I would note that the completely bankrupt relationship that the US had with the oppresssive Musharraf regime in as much as it supported his “war against terror” did in fact play a role in creating further instability in Pakistan – and the reality is that rightist-Islamists love and thrive on such political instability. However, you’ll notice that it’s not by and large the rightist Islamists rioting and lighting fires throughout Pakistan but a number of the same people who were locked up during his so-called “state of emergency” from the PPP and other organisations, including trade unionists.

    I understand the arguments that you and Jim are putting forward but I think in this instance you are fighting against a straw man. No one is making that claims that you say they are.

  11. voltaires_priest said,

    I don’t nececessarily think that Jim and I are making the same argument. 😉

    I’d be interested to see whether John does or doesn’t think that “imperialism” is ultimately responsible for Bhutto’s death. I would guess actually that he does – hence my original comment. However I’m always willing to be pleasantly surprised…

  12. Jules said,

  13. johng said,

    I have to begin by expressing some consternation as to why you keep putting ‘imperialism’ in quotation marks. It might be helpful if, as a socialist, you explained how you understood contemporary imperialism (I’d be willing to be pleasently surprised, but i have somehow gathered that you don’t really think there is such a thing). I have to go and eat, but i’ll come back and answer your question. When you answer yours, imagine your not talking to me, but answering someone interested in socialism who asks you what imperialism is.

  14. modernity said,

    it is a poor state of affairs when intellectual members of the SWP need imperialism explained to them, particularly when they are professional political scientists and such definitions and concepts should be trivia to them, in the same way that a sparks knows what a fuse is, or a baker knows about flour

  15. Jim Denham said,

    John, here’s your free educational: present-day imperialism *is*global capitalism. No more and no less. The world is *not* structured as ir was when lenin wrote “Imperialism – The Highest Stage” in 1916. Two main political conclusions follow:
    1/ That the working class must make progress *through* capitalist globalisation, exploiting the class contradictions within the process, but not adopting the reactionary/utopian stance of attempting to halt or reverse the process;
    2/ In the conflicts between US hyper-imperialism and local ‘sub-imperialisms’, the working class must remain independent – in the Third Camp.
    For more detail, have a look at:

  16. modernity said,

    I hope that the AWL launches an educational series “Basic political ideas for SWPers, and how to avoid becoming entangled with demagogic Stalinists and their Islamist allies”

    there is a clear and urgent need for this, after the breakup of Respect, many, hitherto intellectually docile, SWPers seem to crave discussion and debate now that the shackles of Respect have been thrown off, unwillingly

    even the most loyal SWPer must appreciate the chain of disastrous political judgements made by the SWP’s Central committee

  17. voltaires_priest said,

    Damn – Jim beat me to it. Well, now it’s your turn, John…

  18. johng said,

    Part 1-Imperialism

    Marxist theories of Imperialism attempt to relate the economic logic of global capitalism to the geo-political logic of inter-state competition. As Jim points out these relationships have varied through the course of capitalism’s history and Marxist theories of Imperialism have saught to provide some historically coherent account of the history of these changes related to the development of Capitalism. Despite liberal theories which see the growing inter-connections of global markets leading to the eclipse of traditional geo-politics, and in some cases even the eclipse of the state, leading not just to Kant’s dream of perpetual peace but ‘global governance’ etc, the last decade makes such a vision seem increasingly chimerical.

    Marxists are therefore stuck with the difficult business of attempting to relate the economic dimensions of the development and extension of capitalist social relations to the geo-political logic produced along with this development and extension. In other words Marxist theories of Imperialism (David Harvey has recently made a very heroic effort in his account of the ‘New Imperialism’). Jim in attempting to equate imperialism with global capitalism runs the risk of simply collapsing these logics into each other rather then attempting to explain them. Indeed its rather hard to work out why anyone would bother using the term ‘imperialism’ at all if what he says is right (this perhaps accounts for Volty’s use of quotation marks).

    Its also true that, as a consequence of Jim’s effacing of the geo-political dimension of global capitalism (its perhaps not a co-incidence that David Harvey is a geographer) his account of the ‘contradictions’ attendent on the development of capitalism is fated to be a bit thin. Hence I think his tendency to see the war on terror as somehow a contest between non-capitalist feudal forces and progressive modern democratic capitalist forces, and then to map this onto his analyses of societies whose internal constitution is both considerably more complex then this at the same time as intimately related to the history of how actually existing capitalism has developed in these parts of the world and produced actually existing (rather then merely imputed) contradictions.

  19. johng said,

    The US

    Once the scope of a Marxist theory of Imperialism is understood properly (ie an attempt to bring togeather analyses of world economy with the structure of geo-politics) it becomes clear why in the post-war period analyses of the role of the US in world affairs was central to many Marxist theories of imperialism. At the close of the second world war something like 70 per cent of global capitalist production took place inside US borders and US foreign policy was quite consiously directed at shaping its international enviroment to preserve its pre-eminance. This involved not only the forging of state to state alliances and the excercise of regional hegenomy but the setting up of both political and economic international institutions which remain central to the formal organisation of international politics to this day.

    From the mid-1970’s onwards Marxist and non-Marxist theorists have become pre-occupied with the relative decline of US power in the world and how the resulting imbalence between the US’s geo-political and economic hegenomy might find expression in conflict and tensions. At the other pole some theorists who tended to downplay the importance of geo-politics tended to believe that ‘globalisation’ had simply eclipsed these questions and that this marked a return to a simpler kind of capitalism. Hence one saw bourgoise commentators of various kinds ‘rediscovering’ Marx, shorn of the predictions of proletarian revolt and the imminant demise of capitalism, and sans the theories of imperialism developed by Marxists after his death.

    Sometimes when I read Jim I’m not sure if he hasn’t been a bit influenced by all this stuff, and certainly its often seemed to me that the AWL has been rather credulous about the neo-liberal account of the nature of capitalism, if at the same time obviously hostile to neo-liberalism itself. Another path taken by some in the AWL has been to drop any over-arching theory of imperialism and simply point to the development of sub-imperialism’s to counter-balence what they see as an unfair focus on the US. I don’t find this very compelling either poltically or as an explanatory tool.

    However the term ‘sub-imperialism’ does capture something in relationship to Pakistan and it is to this that I will return after I’ve had a sandwich and a fag.

  20. voltaires_priest said,

    Whilst you’re at it John, if you could address my question about whether or not you primarily hold the USA responsible for the death of Benazir Bhutto, that would be good.

    I’ll have a read thoroughly once you’re done. However, briefly, my use of quote marks in that point about imperialism refers to the growing habit that people on the left have, of using the politically specific (whether appropriate or not) term “imperialism” as a synonym or shorthand for “the USA”, “the UK”, “Europe”, “the West”, “Israel” or any combination of the above. In its current colloquial usage by activists, it even sometimes straddles the boundaries with conspiracy theory (in terms of being used to refer to a nebulous body that controls every political event worldwide by heinous means), hence my wariness about others’ use of the term. I would also certainly say that the world’s political structures have changed massively since the term was first used – as, therefore, has what we refer to as “anti-imperialism”. The dichotomy is now, it seems, used to divide the world into a (bad) “imperialist” west on the one side, and any movement, progressive or reactionary that opposes it, on the other. That doesn’t fly for me as a basis for building political strategies – alliances between progressives and reactionaries don’t work, as the example of Respect’s explosion shows us.

  21. johng said,

    I’ll return to the question of US culpability in the final section (give me a chance to draw breath i’m trying to keep it concise and not rambly) but suffice to say in so far as responsibility this would be the outcome of structures not intentions. Whilst some of what Tariq has to say about the shifting priorities of the US (these priorities it might be said having entrapped Bhutto in an impossible situation) its fairly obvious to me that the death of someone they hoped could provide a client state with a broader base is clearly yet another marker on the road of the complete collapse of the coherence of US foreign policy. This can hardly have been intended by them. Similarly the US did not will the deinstitutionalization of Pakistani politics but they certainly share responsibility for it (note the emphasis on the term ‘share’). Capitalism is a bit like that. Unintended consequences are still consequences.

    But I’ll return to these and other points in my final summing up of my hopefully concise position.

  22. johng said,

    A historical detour and relapse into ramble.

    “If you can put it in a nutshell its probably not worth saying”

    Berti Russel.

    The question isn’t whether ‘liberal democracy’ or capitalism would be good for Pakistan, but why liberal democracy has not turned out to be the dominant political phenomenan in most of global capitalism.

    If we look at the history of Pakistan we see the development of a state where the democratic institutions were subordinated to undemocratic ones. Why was this?

    Well, in order to develop capitalism in societies whose development had previously been subordinated to the development of various colonial powers a premium was placed on centralisation of the State.

    In India the nationalist movement was concerned above all to seize the existing centralised bureacratic machinary and by and large this was successfully done. In Pakistan this machinary had to be built from scratch.

    In addition whilst in India the nationalist movement had effectively marginalised the old feudal classes politically (if not socially: the implementation of limited land reforms were still a decade away at independence) in Pakistan it was these classes who had solidly backed the idea of partition (as their Hindu counterparts in Bengal had done and largely for the same reasons).

    This meant that Pakistan was much more dependent on external aid in its development programs and lacked a support base for the even limited land reforms that were to be pushed through in India. The consequences were that the military itself became heavily involved in development projects and the development of capitalism.

    By the 1970’s right across the sub-continent political regimes faced a crisis of legitimacy accruing both from the disapointments of sections of the urban middle classes and the urban working class and, paradoxically, insofar as land reforms had been successful, sections of new elites emerging in the country side.

    Pakistan was torn apart by these tensions (which typically took the shape of regional movements which challenged the legitimacy of official nationalism and the official elite, and centred around uneven development of different areas), whilst in India the response of the regime was further centralisation of the state and a new populism which sought to mobilise the very poor in an alliance with the old elite, in order to marginalise new challenges coming both from urban centres and from emerging classes in the 1970’s. The crisis provoked by this was eventually to lead to the suspension of democracy in India during the Emergency.

    Populism emerges in Pakistan as a serious force AFTER the break-up of the old State, but essentially attempts the same operation. Hence the confusing amalgom of feudal elites, populist socialist langauge, and on the other hand fervent nationalism (Indira Gandhi had her ‘hidden hand’ the Pakistani state stepped up the rhetoric against the auld enemy India).

    Both flirted rather unconvincingly with different brands of anti-Americanism but this was never a rhetoric which anyone who deployed it took particularly seriously.

    In Pakistan the initial greater weight of undemocratic institutions as against democratic institutions meant that populism was extremely vulnearable to military intervention, whilst the initial conditions of dependence on feudal elites meant that there were plenty of social forces resistant to the limited social changes implied by the populist programs. Bhutto was executed and Zia embarked on his thouroughly reactionary program.

    In India populism was revealed for what it was (a fairly narrow strategy to mantain the status quo at the same time as a desperate attempt to overcome insurmountable difficulties with existing development strategies) and was defeated in elections. The resulting amalgation of socially very different kinds of discontent proved terrifically unstable however and in the early 1980’s Indira Gandhi was, amazingly, swept back into power before these contradictions caught up with her and she was assassinated.

    In Pakistan Zia’s regime, initially very vulnerable to challenges from both left and right, proved much more resilient, firstly because of the initial conditions described, both institutionally and socially, and secondly due to the growing symbiosis between pakistan’s military and US geo-political interests fuelled by the growing importance of proxy war in the Soviet Union.

    So we see a story where, despite differences in initial conditions, remarkably similar patterns of political development occur in both India and Pakistan, with however different results. However in both countries the problems of both populism and reaction come to take a different shape in the era of ‘economic reform’, in both countries for a variety of reasons giving a new fillip to the politics of religous fundementalism.

    Why this historical detour? Because all of the above phenomenan are part of the story of how capitalism developed in these two countries and the shape of politics is very much a part of that story. Hence its quite right to point out that neo-liberalism is not capitalism but equally important to point out that capitalism not embodied in particular institutions and in particular histories exist nowhere.

    Proponents of capitalism play the strange trick of trying to pretend that there is some pure capitalism out there which if adopted would solve the problems of actually existing capitalist states.

    No such pure capitalism exists, and the contradictions described above are the contradictions of actually existing capitalisms, inserted in particular ways into a global division of labour and a global hierarchy of nationstates (referred too by Marxists as Imperialism).

    That is actually existing capitalism in the world today and what we are discussing.

  23. johng said,


    With Independence South Asia saw the emergence of a number of independent centres of capital accumulation more or less strong. The main political content of this transition was to allow both bureacratic and economic elites to choose their own strategy of capitalist development and negotiate a better deal in the international order and also push through domestic changes thought to be neccessary to achieve that end.

    These states were therefore no longer politically subordinated to Colonial powers and pursued strategies to prioritize their own development as both economic and political powers. However if Imperialism is viewed as a hierarchy of competing nation-states it needs to be understood that their ability to shape their enviroment was vastly truncated by the international architecture of global capitalism dominated by institutions overwhelming run by the great powers. Each choice was structured by this enviroment but different choices could be made, from non-alignment to integration into one or other network of alliances associated with the great powers. That these choices could be fateful is indicated by the different trajectories of development seen in Pakistan and in India.

    However this is not to say that great powers do not excercise regional hegenomy and do not function, at that level, as regional powers in their own right. But it is a mistake to equate such powers with the US, simply because their remains a difference between regional and global powers, and this difference is qualitative. For sub-imperialism’s every challenge is also an offer. Each seeks to use its regional power base to improve its position viz-a-viz the global powers. The results can range from military clashes to successful trade negotiations.

    But in the struggle for socialism we have to oppose not simply an imaginary ‘pure capitalism’ but the hierarchical systems of geo-politics within which actually existing capitalism is embedded. That the future of Pakistan is debated in Washington is asymmetrical to any possible discussion in Lahore. For socialists this does not involve a chimerical ideal of absolute independence and autarky but opposition to capitalism both as a hierarchical system of class relations and the concrete embodiement of this in a hierarchical system of nation-states: what we call imperialism.

    And, to return via another route to Jim’s otherwise unsatisfactory formulation, this just IS global capitalism as currently constituted. Its unsurprising therefore that challenges to the one imply challenges to the other as well. Therefore despite the Stalinist deformations of the actually existing left in these parts of the world (which generally involved subordinating their politics to the populists mentioned above) it is not at all wrong for them to be concerned with challenging both capitalism and imperialism. The latter being merely the concrete expression of the former in any internationalist socialist perspective.

    It still structures the shape of struggles and Lenin’s formulations about those expecting ‘pure revolutions’ with one class obediantly lining up against the other, is as pertinent as it ever was. Its only by understanding that it is possible to avoid collapsing either into the arms of populism or imperialism. In my view the failure to develop such an analyses lies at the heart of the instability of the AWL’s brand of third campism which has progressively shifted into a form of lessor evilism premissed on a wholly mistaken view of the progressive potentiality of capitalist development in the 21st century.

  24. modernity said,


    have you finished ? or are you going to add anything to the above?

  25. johng said,

    No I’ll respond to questions and contributions.

  26. modernity said,


    it is interesting to discuss these manifestations of imperialism but if we only see events from the contemporary perspective then we miss out so much and gain a rather garbled view of the world, and so it is with the above (which I must say, is better than I have read for ages. or expected)

    what is missing? history, and a view to the Stalinist states

    the last 90 years has been shaped by events in Russia, and subsequently the Soviet Union, and to try to describe imperialism without the historical perspective of those entities is perverse

    equally, to solely ascribe imperialism to capitalist states is factually inaccurate and bereft of historical content, not least China’s influence on neighbouring states, and the annexation, subjugation and settlement of Tibet, etc

    it is all very messy, but historically factual, so to concentrate on the misdemeanours of Western countries is to paint less than half a picture

    and to do so without any context of the USSR or power plays between Stalinist states is to recount events as if the Cold War didn’t occuer, or its influence was unimportant

    thus any explanation of imperialism needs a historical context not constrained by current thinking and current alliances but incorporating the events of the last 90 years in a non Orientalist way

  27. johng said,

    You are quite right that Soviet Imperialism was missing from my account although I made an indirect reference to it through ‘non-alignment’ given that the balence of power between the superpowers was one factor which allowed smaller powers to attempt to carve out their own patch. However the ability to utilize this space effectively did depend on other factors as any comparison between India and Pakistan would show. Pakistan at various points entered into alliances with China for example but in the end some of the factors referred to above made it much more dependent on the US then India was.

    Its also true however that I was chary about going into great depth on this as my own mode of analyses of Imperialism during the cold war involves theories about a face off between bureacratic and monopoly state capitalism’s which opens up a whole other can of worms for most on the left. Suffice to say though that it is not possible to equate the various sub-imperialisms which emerged under the umbrella of the cold war system with the two major players in that system.

    There were however differences between Soviet and US modes of operation within global capitalism (partly related to the different kinds of capitalism I believe both represented). Soviet Imperialism was primarily territorial in the sense that it was dependent on State power for excercising its hegenomy. Thus Soviet Empire could be fairly neatly deliniated in terms of those territories directly under its control. Thus the doctrine of ‘containment’ formulated in the post-war period by Kennan was premissed on recognising Soviet influence in these areas on the basis of allowing a section of the earths surface to go awol in terms of global capitalism. However for the US its informal Empire was essentially everywhere else.

    There is the old joke about the Monroe doctrine in Latin America:

    1) No great power may intervene or excercise influence in America.

    2) Apart from us.

    3) Ha ha ha.

    In terms of managing the framework of international institutions both economic and political, the US advantage in areas of the world outside of the Soviets formal Empire was fairly pre-eminant.

    The Soviets did use their smarts in terms of recognising early on that its relative weakness in this sphere could be turned to its advantage when it came to questions of non-alignment (unlike the US which adopted an ‘either with us or against us’ approach (hence the enourmous hostility one encounters to third world regimes with most of the many US interventions being in what was then called the third world, the equivilant perhaps of invading Hungary).

    But the US dominated the major centres of global capitalism geo-politically from Washington to Bonn to Tokeyo and its arguable that the existence of the Soviet Union was rather handy in terms of providing a rationale for this (without understating the reality of the superpower conflict).

    At the end of the cold war one theorist has noted ironically that the cold war appeared to be a two horse race in which one horse fell down and the other just kept on running.

    There was no sign of any US roll back at the end of the cold war and its therefore implausible that US foreign policy can be seen as simply a response to the actions of the other superpower.

    On the question of Afghanistan it seems to me that the US was quite eager to drag the Soviets into that quagmire. And indeed it proved the Soviets Vietnam, just as today the region is becoming a quagmire for the US and its allies. The major point being however that, as was ever the case, weaker powers pay a very heavy price as a consequence of the hegemonic ambitions of the great powers.

  28. johng said,

    Its probably worth adding in terms of the superpower conflict that much of US foreign policy revolved around ensuring that the key centres of global capital accumulation remained under its hegenomy and that a steady supply of raw materials to facilitate the pattern of global growth predicated on this remained in place. This did however represent something of a shift in the nature of imperialism with the attempt to construct a solid northen ‘bloc’ (something which probably underwrote some of the more third worldist accounts of imperialism which tended to move away from older accounts of imperialism which centred around intra-imperialist relations rather then north-south relations as the motor of the global system). The Soviets were engaged in a similarly centralizing endeavor but attempted to remain self sufficiant. The whole period however witnesses a decline in the importance of north-south relations as trade becomes densely concentrated between the major centres of capital accumulation in the west and inside the Soviet bloc in the east.

    That the US strategy won out is hardly a surprise in this context but it was premissed on ensuring that alternative models of development (including non-soviet models) were destroyed (or at least that one paid a very heavy price for embarking on such a project). Vital exceptions to this general pattern of horizontal rather then vertical trade relations within the hierarchy of Imperialism included of course Oil producing countries. During the Cold War period Geo-politics drove the state capitalist model. When the contradictions of that system unfolded in both camps the more bureaucratically oriented state capitalism’s could not adjust without complete political collapse (although the degree of political turbulence in the west and especially in the south should not be understated either: the 70s in the advanced capitalist countries, the 80’s elsewhere, the decade of debt and in some areas complete collapse in the south, and of course the final disintergration of the eastern bloc).

    But this is an enourmously complicated story to weave togeather. In some ways the precise shape of the new order is still being formed. We know to our cost however that the end of the era of state capitalism did not bring an end to the era of geo-politics as some had hoped.

    Quite the contrary. The demons linking war and accumulation are still very much with us.

  29. johng said,

    This centralization incidently is one reason why the cold war centred on Europe, outside of North America the biggest centre of capital accumulation. The development of major centres of accumulation outside this area involved this horizontal linkage between the three centres referred to, with even China being integrated (trickily and tensely) into this system more recently. The dreams of viable ‘non-aligned’ development died, one reason why the old non-aligned powers all gravitated towards being re-integrated into the neo-liberal model and with it, the global patterns of accumulation associated with US pre-eminance.

  30. johng said,

    having unleashed the dogs of war may i wish all a happy new year.

  31. tim said,

    As you know, the Bhutto Government was corrupt.
    Yet you supported one of the recipients of that corruption, George Galloway, until recently.

  32. johng said,


    as you know i never answer any of your questions.
    yet you keep writing in with these inane questions.


  33. tim said,

    I didn’t know that.
    Last time I asked you if you supported Hamas whether or not they aimed to kill all Jews in Palestine,you answered in the affirmative.

    On the subject of Galloways receipt of bent money,you always denied it.
    So you are not telling the truth.

  34. voltaires_priest said,


    Do you want me to cut and paste your comments above into a guest post? The debate could carry on from there, seems a shame for them simply to disappear after what clearly was a fair amount of time and effort being put in.

  35. Jim Denham said,

    I agree that we should post John’s comments as an article in its own right.

    A brief, interim comment of my own, in response: fighting through Game’s usual pretentious, post-modern prose, his essential message seems to be that the Anti-Monopoly Alliance, on an international scale, still holds good; ie: socialists should support the small capitalists against the big ones. It’s a concept that Trotskyists have always oposed as class collaboration, and it’s interesting to find a member of the (nominally) “Trotskyist” SWP reviving it – thus confirming my view that since the Rees leadership, the effective ideology of the SWP has been Stalinism.

  36. modernity said,

    I agree that would be a good idea, it is an interesting topic and I thought JohnG was very expressive.

    however, I feel that the idea of a SWPer doing a guest post would go against the SWP political culture of closed discussion and parroting of the line, and thus won’t be countenanced, shame tho.

    what say you, JohnG? will your political masters allow you to do a guest post at Shiraz Socialist?

    and if not, why not?

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