The country was bom in conflict, but now— even as it hopes for true democratic change— it is spiralling into something like chaos

PAUL WELLS November 5 2007


The country was bom in conflict, but now— even as it hopes for true democratic change— it is spiralling into something like chaos

PAUL WELLS November 5 2007



The country was bom in conflict, but now— even as it hopes for true democratic change— it is spiralling into something like chaos


As startling and almost inconceivably vicious as it was, the suicide attack that spared Benazir Bhutto while killing at least 140 of her fellow Pakistanis had one dubious virtue: if she wanted to see first-hand what is new in Pakistan since she left in 1999, this was it.

Pakistan was bom in ethnic and sectarian strife and its history has never been entirely peaceful, but it had managed to avoid suicide bombing as a routine occurrence until barely five years ago. Now the tempo and the death toll are mounting. Fifteen killed in Karachi on May 7, 2004Thirty-one in Sialkot, five months later. Twenty-five at the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad on May 27,2005. Thirtynine in Hangu. Forty-two at Dargai. Fortyseven at Nishtar Park, Karachi.

Then Bhutto, a former prime minister who

hopes to seek an unprecedented, and for the moment legally forbidden, third term in office, returned to Pakistan from her selfimposed exile in Dubai. On Oct. 18, a motorcade carrying her through crowds of supporters in Karachi was hit by one or two suicide bombers. Their ball-bearing-packed device or devices cut so brutally through a crowd of supporters that it will be difficult to pull any coherent story from the wreck. But given Pakistan’s recent history, the Bhutto attack was noteworthy mostly only for the ambition of the murderers and the prominence of the target. Pakistan is not unacquainted with pain, but now—even as it hopes for true democratic change—it is simultaneously spiralling into something like sheer chaos.

To a great extent this is simply a case of nasty chickens coming home to roost. Throughout the 1980s, Pakistan’s governments and main intelligence agency worked diligently, with Washington’s help, to export the tools

and philosophies of terror to Pakistan’s neighbour, Afghanistan. Western allies,

Washington first among them, saw Pakistan as a source of disruption in a neighbouring country fallen into Soviet hands. Cynically they turned that tap open wide. When Pakistan-bred murder finally spilled outside that country’s borders and into Washington and New York on Sept. 11,2001,

Washington and its allies sought just as frantically to turn the tap off. That effort has met, at best, with mixed success: a handful ofTaliban and al-Qaeda leaders killed or captured on the eastern side of the Afghan-Pakistani border, at a cost of more than 1,000 Pakistani army dead.

During a week in Afghanistan, a Maclean’s reporter heard from Afghans at every levelordinary villagers, soldiers, politicians—who are convinced that Pakistan still supports the insurgency that threatens Afghanistan’s hopes for long-delayed stability. “Absolutely,” Afghan Interior Affairs Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel said in his office in Kabul. “We have clear evidence, including documents and confessions, that they [captured insurgents] were trained by ISI,” the Pakistani intelligence service.

Others believe the Pakistani influence in Afghanistan is more mixed. Gen. Dan McNeill, the American commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, said he has seen countless cases, not only of Pakistani army co-operation with NATO, but of genuine courage in confronting Islamist extremists in the wild mountainous border zone between the two countries. “The Pakistanis are in this,” McNeill told Maclean’s. “They understand what the stakes are, and they are trying to do their part.”

If those two viewpoints are contradictory, so, chronically, is much of Pakistan’s leadership. That institutional schizophrenia, and the worst instincts behind it, were encouraged by powerful outsiders for years. In his magisterial 2004 book about the Afghan history behind the 9/H attacks, Ghost Wars, then -Washington Post reporter Steve Coll writes that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan was born almost whole only two days after the Soviets’ Christmastime invasion of Kabul in 1979. “It is essential that Afghanistan’s resistance continues,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, wrote in a memo to the president on Dec. 26,1979. “This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and some

technical advice. To make the above possible, we must both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels.”

The Pakistani dictator at the time, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, wanted nothing more. Bom on the Indian side of what became the India-Pakistan border, he was a practising but hardly obsessive Muslim. But when he became Pakistan’s military dictator in 1977, he saw religion as the best cement to bind together a poor, ethnically diverse young nation whose borders were open to dispute, both from India on the east and from Afghaistan on the west.

Zia tried and hanged his predecessor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—Benazir Bhutto’s father. He promoted devout Muslims within the Pakistan army’s general staff. He built countless madrasas, Muslim doctrinal schools, near the Afghan border. “We were created on the basis of Islam,” he said, much as Judaism was the basis of Israel. Islam was no mere distraction from the corruption and economic stagnation of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto years. To Zia, it was the precondition for progress. He could always import more wheat, he told an interviewer. “I cannot import proper moral values.”

But before long he set about trying to export them. Jimmy Carter was eager to help, Ronald Reagan vastly more so. Billions of dollars in direct U.S. aid and military equipment flowed to Islamabad. Zia’s nuclear weapons program was no longer any kind of hindrance. And crucially, for years, every dollar of U.S. aid to the Muslim opponents of Soviet rule in Afghanistan was delivered, not directly, but via Pakistan. Which meant it was Zia’s right-hand man—Gen. Akhtar Abdur Rahman, director-general of Pakistan’s military

spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI—who decided which Afghans would get the guns and money.

As Coll writes, ISI’s Afghan bureau, largely staffed by ethnically Pashtun Pakistanis who could infiltrate Afghanistan’s southern communities without difficulty—became one of the most formidable arms of the Pakistani government. In 1984 alone, the U.S. Congress authorized $200 million for the CIA’s Afghan program. The money went to the ISI. Saudi intelligence matched the donation dollar for dollar.

After 2001, the global war on terror would be led by hard-right Washington Republicans, but in the early days of the Soviet Afghan occupation, the hard right was an Islamist’s best friend. Reagan’s CIA director William Casey saw Pakistan as a partner in a religious coalition against godless Communism. At the ISI’s suggestion, the CIA printed thousands of Qurans in assorted Afghan dialects and shipped them to the mujahedeen. Pakistan served as a haven for exiled anti-Soviet Afghans like the northern rebel zealot Gul-

buddin Hekmatyar, whose early recruits included the disowned scion of a wealthy Saudi family, Osama bin Laden. The ISI schooled Afghan rebels in the use of explosives, including car bombs. The CIA obligingly provided tons of C-4 explosive and detonators and, eventually, the shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft rockets that turned the tide against the Soviets. Hardly oblivious, the Red Army tried to plug the Afghan-Pakistan border. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev sent 50,000 soldiers for the task. It wasn’t nearly enough. Up in those endless mountain ranges, where peaks sometimes topped 7,000 m, it was hard enough to find the border, much less close it.

By 1988, the Soviets had given up and started their withdrawal. The entire Communist bloc and the Soviet Union itself would collapse soon after. And the ISI, Coll writes, “had been transformed by CIA and Saudi subsidies into Pakistan’s most powerful institution. Whatever unfolded now would require ISI’s consent.”

Indeed, it became increasingly apparent

that army intelligence could trump any other power in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto first became the country’s prime minister in 1988. The ISI, heirs to the officers who hanged Bhutto’s father, tapped her phones and propped up her parliamentary opponents. Yet she managed to hang on. By the time of her re-election in 1993, Coll writes, she would hold her most important meetings in Islamabad parks where the ISI could not eavesdrop. She never dared confront the intelligence chiefs direcdy; she hoped to co-opt them while she sought a quick route to prosperity for her country.

One possiblity was truck trade through southern Afghanistan, which her government began to encourage. That country by now was a morass of warring post-Soviet Islamist factions. In the south was a new faction, austere, unusually doctrinaire, even by Afghan Islamist standards. They called themselves the Taliban: literally, the students. They had graduated from Zia’s madrasas in the Pakistan mountains. History does not record whether it was the ISI or private Pakistani trucking interests who let the Taliban into a massive ISI-built weapons depot near the Afghan border town of Spin Buldak. It matters little. The depot held enough weapons to equip an army. The Taliban used them to take Afghanistan’s vital southern city, Kandahar. Benazir Bhutto’s devout truck-route mercenaries turned out to have ideas of their own.

At first, Bhutto supported the virulent Taliban movement, partly in the hope it could serve her foreign relations purposes in Afghanistan, and partly because she still feared a direct confrontation with the IST “I became slowly, slowly sucked into it,” she told Coll. By the time she had decided the Taliban were a wholly pernicious influence, she was out of power, forced to leave the country under serious charges of massive corruption in her government.

It fell to Gen. Pervez Musharraf to try to put the genie back in the bottle after 9/11, at the urging of the traumatized Americans. It was far from his only problem. The eternal border dispute with India to the east and Pakistan’s perennially underperforming economy competed for his attention. But despite the suspicions of many in Afghanistan and the West, close observers say Musharraf has put genuine effort, muscle and courage into trying to deny insurgents safe haven. His problems are that no force on earth can plug that sprawling, mountainous border; and that his generals like to play the long game.

“I think they’re hedging their bets,” one Western diplomat in Islamabad said of the ISI leaders. The current massive NATO military intervention in Afghanistan is at least the fourth major Western policy initiative for that country in a quarter-century, after the ’80s mujahedeen proxy war, the indifference of the 1990s, and the Clinton administration’s early, distracted attempts to curry favour with the Taliban regime. “I think the generals are saying to themselves, ‘How long before you guys take off again?’ ” the diplomat added.

The downward spiral of violence is accelerating even as there seems to be genuine hope for democratic progress in Pakistan. Late this summer, Musharraf and Bhutto struck a deal by which he would quit the army if he stood for re-election as president. Musharraf, an inconstant ally of democracy and the rule of law at best, has had his hand forced by increasingly assertive Pakistani courts. His future as president is in limbo while Pakistan’s high court rules on whether he has the right to keep both his uniform and his government post.

“Pakistan is going through a time of change,” another diplomat said. “We hope it will be a transition to an effective democratic state, but there’s no guarantee of that.” In the meantime, brutal violence and cruel political uncertainty seem certain to continue. What can outsiders do to help? The obvious answer seems pitifully slight next to the challenge, but it would be a start: for nearly 30 years, Western governments saw Pakistan as no more than a lever to effect change in Afghanistan. The results have been unmitigated disaster. It is long past time to start trying to understand and deal with Pakistan, for all its frailties and mysteries, in its own right. M