Jeremy Hardy think about greed

Jeremy Hardy thinks… about greed

‘In a market-driven society, it is a tribute to human decency that anyone behaves with any morals at all’

Judging the rich is like judging the poor: if you’ve never been in their situation, you don’t know what you’d do if you were. But we like to think that the reason people have too much money is that they are morally flawed, and that the world of finance is so morally flawed that it’s almost impossible to understand. You’d have to be incredibly greedy or have a personality disorder even to find it interesting.

And we all like to hear of a big pot of unpaid tax that could be put to good use. All we have to do is lever it out of the hidden hands of the morally repugnant. Just as the left pretends that every penny of dodged tax would otherwise have been spent on hospitals (by George Osborne?), the right, I presume, has it earmarked for weapons and the bankrolling of the private sector.

Because conservatives especially bemoan immorality. They would have us believe that a creeping and recent venality is blighting capitalism’s good name. Greed and sharp practice have replaced philanthropy and propriety, goes the narrative.

In fairness to conservatives, they have a long tradition of economic intervention that stands in contrast to the economic-liberal theory that everything sort of sorts itself out somehow. Tories are close enough to capitalism to know that it doesn’t actually work – not without a lot of help. They also know it has nothing to do with morals. In a market-driven society, it is a tribute to human decency that anyone behaves with any morals at all.

Furthermore, while it’s fun to point out that the worst tax-dodgers are always Tories, when Conservatives put financial gain before everything else, they are being entirely true to their principles.

Jeremy Hardy is a comedian and writer who regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

A degree is not enough

The popular careers website sets future graduates straight about exactly what three or four years of hard struggle and financial strain have won them: ‘A degree is not a guarantee of a good job. In selecting employees, employers will look at what else graduates have to offer, including their skills, work experience (providing desirable commercial awareness) and overall potential. Quite simply, a degree is not enough on its own.’

Final-year students are caught in a bind: their degrees are not yet fitting them out for appropriate employment in Britain’s emerging tertiary sector economy, leaving them to make up the deficit in training and knowledge by themselves – but they still need a degree to progress beyond junior level in most professions.

The current university skills crisis is plain to our political leaders. According to skills minister David Lammy: ‘Britain’s future is as a knowledge economy, creating high-value products and offering innovative services. Low and unskilled work won’t disappear, of course, but our competitiveness depends on a sophisticated workforce who are world-leaders in finance and IT, in engineering and the creative industries. The skills dimension to this new reality requires us to raise our game, and to operate differently … to ensure sustainable economic growth.’

Since higher education is no longer entirely state-funded, most students graduate with a great deal of debt – but the scale of that debt and the impact it makes on their future lives varies hugely with social class. While local education authority (LEA)-sponsored student loans are still low-interest and need only be repaid when the student is earning a decent wage, many students without subsidies from wealthy parents find themselves with overdrafts and ‘career development loans’ to pay off as well. This drives many students from poorer backgrounds into immediate low-level employment in an effort to assuage their creditors. These students, whatever their talents and drive, cannot afford to devote the extra funding and hours of free work (‘work experience’) needed to develop a graduate career, to enhance the skills their degree has given them, or to pursue postgraduate study.

Rhian Jones, 26, grew up in the former mining community of Tredegar, in south-east Wales. ‘Academic research is always what I’ve been best at,’ he says. ‘This led me to get a first from London, and I then went on to do two postgraduate degrees at Oxford, where I focused on popular protest in 19th-century Wales. In order to enable myself to go to Oxford, because I had no means of support or income other than working part-time, I took out a professional studies loan of £25,000. The loan covered my tuition and college fees over three years and in order to pay my rent and bills I worked six part-time jobs over that time.

‘If I hadn’t had to do that work,’ he continues, ‘I would have been able to spend far more time and energy on my research, which would have allowed me to gain the funding I so desperately needed. As it was, having failed to gain sufficient funding to complete a doctorate, I had to cut my degree short and immediately take up work to pay back the loan. Because my part-time employment had lacked a cohesive focus, the only jobs I could get were relatively low-paid.’

Simple privilege

Let’s look at this picture from the other side. I’m no slacker. I was raised in the sure knowledge that if you believe in your dreams, trust your heart and follow your star, you will still get beaten every time by the kids who worked harder than you. I was lucky enough to win a place at, and eventually a degree from, an ‘elite’ university. But what has made a difference to my career since is not talent, nor motivation, nor even my degree: it is simple privilege.

At 18, I inherited a sum of money from my grandmother, and that money has meant that I’ve been able to put in hours working for free, holding down only part-time paid work and concentrating on gaining extra qualifications and work experience, while many of my more talented and deserving classmates still find themselves paying off debts in jobs way below their personal and educational capabilities. As the possession of a degree becomes less and less of a social leveller, the privileges and opportunities conferred by wealth continue to differentiate graduates entering the job market, entrenching the very social inequalities that Labour’s notion of higher education for all was meant to erase.

The dialectics of progress are changing in the UK today, and our education system has not yet adapted itself for the transition to an economy based on tertiary-sector employment. Our higher education machine does not deliver the skills and training needed for the 43 per cent of young people who now graduate from university to enter the workforce with ease. However, the aggressive expansion of higher education under late Thatcherism and New Labour has meant that a majority of employers looking for ‘skills’ still require a degree as an entrance ticket to ‘knowledge-based’ careers – leaving graduates with no choice but to find some way of making up the deficit themselves.

The apparatus of post-Thatcherite market ‘meritocracy’ has destroyed the vestiges of social democracy that allowed a minority of our parents’ generation to overstep the economic barriers of their class. It is now harder than ever for new graduates to escape the dictates of their socio-economic background, as a degree loses what value it had as a social leveller. 

Laurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


Pakistan after Bhutto

With 160 million people, 600,000 soldiers and 50 nuclear warheads, what happens in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has ramifications worldwide. Graham Usher reports from Islamabad 

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi on 27 December brought home the gravity of Pakistan’s crisis. That she was its latest martyr added a terrible poignancy, and not just because she was the third of her family to have been politically murdered.*

For her followers Bhutto offered the hope of deliverance from military rule, religious bigotry and pauperisation. On her return to Pakistan on 18 October – met with the slaughter of 137 people in dual suicide attacks – she said ‘education, employment and empowerment’ were the arms to defeat Pakistan’s evil axis of military dictatorship and Islamic militancy.

To the Bush administration and Britain she was a saviour of a different kind. They had engineered her return to deliver President Pervez’s Musharraf’s military regime the civilian legitimacy it so palpably lacked. In the caustic description of Pakistan historian Ahmed Rashid a ‘loveless marriage’ had been arranged so that ‘the General can combat terrorists and the Lady play democracy’.

Washington also assumed that Bhutto would endorse augmented US military operations in Pakistan, especially on the border areas with Afghanistan where the Taliban and, according to US intelligence, Al Qaeda are entrenched.

Which will be her legacy? The American surrogate who, in return for office, was prepared to rent Pakistan as a forward Nato base for the war in Afghanistan? Or the martyr who was killed because she alone could mobilise the nation’s poor against the military’s stranglehold on the state?

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) her father established and she led embodies the contradiction. For it is a mass party, aspiring to modernity, whose leadership are feudal landlords – Pakistan’s most reactionary social class. 

Done deal
Washington and London orchestrated her return but she owed it to a man – Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. On 9 March 2007, Musharraf sacked him, ostensibly for ‘misconduct’.

The real reason was judicial rulings that thwarted the army’s illegal acquisition of state power. These concerned dodgy privatisation deals that sold off state assets cheap to cohorts in Pakistan’s capitalist class; the illegal ‘disappearance’ of hundreds of regime dissidents, especially from the subject provinces of the Frontier, Sindh and Balochistan; and, perhaps most importantly, Chaudhry’s ‘legal opinion’ that it would be unconstitutional for Musharraf to be president for another term.

The sacking turned out to be the biggest blunder of the general’s political life.

Lawyers took to the streets in protest, buoyed by a resurgent civil society, assertive judiciary and committed media. Following a snowballing campaign, on 20 July the supreme court restored Chaudhry to his post. For younger generations his cause was their first taste of political activism. For the older it was the first time a strategy of collective action had taken on the regime and won.

‘The lawyers’ movement was a remarkable event,’ says political scientist Rasul Baksh Rais. ‘It was nonviolent, it was popular and it echoed the sentiments of the middle classes and other new classes forged by modernisation: that we need the rule of law.’

Bhutto viewed the lawyers’ campaign through the prism of her own redemption. She had been in self-exile since 1999, fleeing a raft of corruption cases from her two periods as prime minister. She understood the protests had exposed how small was the civilian base of the Musharraf regime, including among Pakistan’s westernised elite, once the general’s core constituency. But she was fearful mass agitation would trigger martial law, destroying all prospects for her return.

She told cadres in the PPP – the largest party in Pakistan and the strongest amongst the lawyers – to tail the protests, not lead them. She also shunned PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan, Chaudhry’s defence counsel and the brain behind the mass, nonviolent campaign that saw him restored. She viewed him as a threat, and not only for his profile in leading the lawyers’ movement. He was from the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and the leader of the PPP’s urban, middle class and modernist wing. Bhutto was from Sindh, drawing strength from the rural masses, but a scion of the landed aristocracy.

She offered Washington a deal. In return for an amnesty on the corruption cases and a third stab at the premiership, she would withdraw the PPP from a cross-party alliance predicated on ending the army’s role in governance. She also pledged her party to back a civilian Musharraf presidency. She was to deliver on both counts.

Washington had other reasons to give her time. CIA intelligence reported that the Taliban and Al Qaeda had regrouped in North Waziristan, a remote tribal area on the Afghan border. From this redoubt the Taliban was powering the Afghanistan insurgency and, said the Americans, Al Qaeda was training cadre to launch attacks in America, Europe and North Africa.

The resurgence was the spawn of a peace deal struck between the army and the ‘Pakistan’ Taliban in September 2006. Musharraf had sold it as a ‘holistic’ solution to the menace of ‘extremism’. In fact it was a treaty of surrender, brought on by US-driven campaigns in the tribal areas that served to demoralise the army and strengthen the militants. Ten months after it was signed, Bush wanted Musharraf to scrap the deal and go back to military might.

The advice wasn’t only verbal. In June and July US/Nato special forces launched several raids into Pakistan’s borderlands that left dozens dead and one clear message: if the Pakistan army did not go after the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the US army would. Bush signed a law predicating $1 billion in annual US military aid on the army acting against the Taliban. And Democrat presidential hopeful Barak Obama said he would send in the marines if he had ‘actionable intelligence’ that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan.

Weakened at home, Musharraf buckled. After six months of dithering he authorised a commando assault on Islamabad’s Red Mosque, long a sanctuary for pro-Taliban clerics and jihadist militia. More than one hundred were killed, mostly seminary students. He sent two divisions to north Waziristan, inflaming a Taliban-led insurgency that so far has cost 1,600 lives, including 345 soldiers.

Bush lionised both moves. So did Bhutto, the only Pakistani politician to do so.

In July the Americans invited her to Dubai, where she met Musharraf. They agreed the logistics of her return and a post-election power sharing deal. The tryst confirmed the experience she learned as prime minister: that the road to even partial power in Pakistan lies less through the people than Washington and the army. Both said they would not forget the risks she had taken for the ‘war on terror’. Neither would her enemies.
Deal undone?
Did her return change her fealty to the deal? Like so much with Bhutto it depends who you ask. Tanvir Ahmad Khan was foreign secretary in her first government. He says the tumultuous reception in Karachi – as well as the savagery of the attempt to kill her – ‘re-radicalised’ her.

‘She knew under the American plan she was to play second fiddle – that as far as Washington was concerned it was Musharraf and the army who were indispensable to Pakistan, not she and the PPP,’ he says. ‘But she believed the dynamics set off by her return would enlarge the political space available to her and her policies. This is when the barrier between her and Musharraf came up. He and the army had suspicions she would go beyond her allotted role.’

Bhutto’s rhetoric certainly became shriller on home turf. Following the regime’s imposition of martial law on 3 November – ostensibly to tame the Taliban, actually to purge the judiciary, including, again, the chief justice – she declared famously, ‘It’s over with Musharraf!’

She also threatened to pull the PPP’s ranks onto streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi, both heartlands of Musharraf’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q). It took a phone call from US assistant secretary of state John Negroponte to douse the ire.

But on the crucial issues of Musharraf’s presidency, the centrality of the army in political life and a restoration of the pre-emergency judiciary, she kept to the script set by Washington. She called for none of them.

A PML-Q leader explains: ‘Prior to her return she promised the Americans that Musharraf would keep control of the national security issues, especially the war on terror and Pakistan’s nuclear arms. Benazir wanted to be prime minister and travel to Davos as the democratic face of Pakistan.’

Where she differed with the regime was on the contours of the post-election share. Musharraf and the PML-Q wanted her to be a junior coalition partner and were rigging the polls to make it happen. But Bhutto was reinvigorating the PPP as the most powerful party political machine in the land.

In any halfway straight contest it was clear who would win, says a former PPP man who is now an ally of Musharraf: ‘She harried the PPP to so enlarge its base that by the elections she would be able to form the largest political bloc. She was convinced that would have been the moment the political centre of gravity would return to her. She may have been right. When it came to pure political skills she could outmatch Musharraf and ten other generals. In that regard she was a giant.’

The choice
If there is to be a halfway straight contest in the elections on February 18, the PPP will be the largest political party. It will then face the choice Bhutto evaded ever since she returned.

It could form a national government with Pakistan’s other parties based on Musharraf’s resignation, the removal of the army from governance and a political consensus on policies to do with democracy, provincial autonomy and Pakistan’s stance towards the US/Nato war in Afghanistan. Such a government would command the support of the larger part of the Pakistani people. ‘It could seal an alliance with those parts of civil society mobilised by the lawyers’ movement and resolve tensions within the PPP,’ says the lawyer and analyst, Babar Sattar. It may even help re-found the PPP as modern, social democratic movement that could address – as well as air – promises of education, employment and empowerment.

Alternatively the PPP could keep to the deal brokered in Dubai. This would win it the blessings of Bush, Brown, Musharraf and the army. It would grant it access to state resources, vital to rent the loyalty of its core and impoverished constituencies in Sindh.

But ‘it would cause the break-up of the PPP’, says Sattar. It is unimaginable that cadres like Ahsan could remain in a party that not only shored up Musharraf but did nothing to restore Chaudhry to his position. Sooner or later the PPP would become what many in the military establishment have long wanted it to be: a rump provincial party that represents Sindh, but no more.

The auguries are not good. Many had hoped Bhutto’s death would mean elections throughout the PPP to determine a new national organisation, a new leadership, policies and ethos. In fact policy, resources and power were passed to Bhutto’s widower, courtesy of her will, a feudal rite of passage that belonged more to the 16th century than the 21st.

As for the inheritor, Asif Zardari, the least that can be said of him is that he too is a feudal scion. ‘And a basic feature of feudalism is that power is important. Principles are not,’ says Rais.

Already there are some in Pakistan’s ruling circles who see him as a more pliable interlocutor than his wife, ‘who could be difficult’, says one.

They are living a fool’s vision. The PPP’s national base and espousal of democracy are potentially threats to the army’s hegemony of the state. They are not threats to the existence of Pakistan, except for those, like Musharraf and Washington, who equate the nation with the state and the state with the army.

The real subversives are rather Pakistan’s sub-nationalist movements, which are themselves responses to a failed state and years of military rule. And these will be bolstered by the PPP’s collapse. That can be seen Bhutto’s native Sindh province, where violent protestors blamed Pakistan’s ‘Punjabi’ army for Bhutto’s murder. It is well developed in Balochistan, where for the last three years a separatist insurgency has been in armed struggle with the state. And it is there in the Talibanisation of the tribal areas and Frontier province, for the Taliban is a Pashtun nationalist movement almost as much as it is an Islamist one.

Sindhi and Baloch nationalists view the Pakistani army as a colonial power. The Taliban sees it as mercenary force acting on US orders. Both views have popular resonance. And all three movements in different ways are challenging the decrepit, feudal orders of their societies. But none can redress the immense problems of poverty, illiteracy, deprivation, backwardness and de-institutionalisation that are the real blights of their people. What they actually prefigure is Pakistan’s dismemberment and a regional implosion that would make Afghanistan seem a summer squall.

For, unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has 160 million people, 600,000 soldiers and 50 nuclear warheads. It cannot implode.

* The Islamist and pro-American dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq hanged Bhutto’s father, prime minister Zulfiker Ali Bhutto, in 1979. Her brother, Shahnawaz, was posioned in France in 1985, probably by Pakistan’s intelligence services. Her other brother, Muntazer, was shot dead in a police ambush in Karachi in 1996.

Pakistan amidst the storms

Graham Usher reports from Islamabad on the problems besetting Pakistan’s new coalition government

Islamabad, 27 June 2008 Less than three months after being formed, Pakistan’s coalition government is in trouble. The leader of one of its constituent parties, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), is awaiting a decision from the country’s Supreme Court about whether he can run in parliamentary by-elections that began on June 26. The court is packed with judges appointed by President Pervez Musharraf, the ex-general who overthrew Sharif, a two-time prime minister, in a 1999 coup.

But this is only one squall rocking the government. There are others. One emanates from the country’s powerful lawyers’ movement, whose self-titled ‘Long March’ concluded on June 13 in a cacophony of rage as thousands rallied outside Parliament in Islamabad. Another is growing discontent over US military actions, not only in Afghanistan, but also, increasingly, inside Pakistan. On June 11, US Special Forces killed 11 Pakistani soldiers at their base on the Afghan border, the most lethal instance of ‘friendly fire’ since the Pakistani military became an unwilling convert to the US war on radical Islam in October 2001.

The lawyers’ demands have been consistent since Pakistan’s parliamentary elections on February 18: reinstatement of the 63 judges Musharraf sacked in 2007 during a bout of martial rule, and impeachment of a president most Pakistanis believe lost his mandate with the drubbing ‘his’ party received in the suffrage. Yet if the Long Marchers’ anger was expressed against Musharraf, their true target — symbolized by the destination of Parliament — was the government, particularly its main component, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the slain ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her widower and political heir Asif Ali Zardari.

For eleven weeks the PPP has dithered over the fate of Musharraf and the judges, creating the spectacle of a government adrift and in crisis. In a sign of the times, the PML-N was the largest contingent on the march, protesting its own coalition partner. PPP lawyers and cadre had slunk away from the capital.

Contradiction is also the source of the US-Pakistani imbroglio. Cajoled and rented by Washington, the Pakistani army since 2003 has engaged in a low-intensity war against its own people in a futile attempt to dislodge Taliban fighters and al-Qaeda fugitives ensconced on the Pakistani-Afghan border. These military operations have swelled the ranks of the Taliban, transforming it from an insurgency in Afghanistan into an indigenous Pakistani movement that now rules not only much of the tribal borderlands but also large parts of the ‘settled’ Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

Since the elections, the government — led by the army — has tried to wrest back some of this lost territory via peacemaking and negotiation rather than war and incursion. Alarmed at the impact these policies could have on NATO’s counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, US forces have responded by increasing the number of cross-border strikes into Pakistan. For many Pakistanis the killing of the soldiers was thus an ‘accidental’ death foretold. And Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s warning on June 15 that his troops may also be forced to invade Pakistan in ‘self-defense’ — an alarm bell few in Pakistan believe could have been rung without some American tugging — is a harbinger of battles to come.

Interminable judicial crisis

The Long March, actually a ragged motorcade, took six days to reach Islamabad from the capital cities of Pakistan’s four provinces. The crawl was an apt metaphor for the judicial impasse that inspired it. Most Pakistanis believed the crisis had been resolved on March 24, when their new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, freed from house arrest the ousted judges, including Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. In fact, the crisis only deepened.

The recent career of this stocky jurist with hooded eyes had become a symbol of the change most Pakistanis want for their country. In March 2007 Musharraf tried to fire him, ostensibly for ‘misconduct,’ but actually because he had called to account the army’s illegal use of state power. The lawyers’ movement flowered in Chaudhry’s defense, forcing his reappointment and, eventually, Musharraf’s resignation as army chief of staff.

During martial rule in November, Musharraf sacked Chaudhry again, together with 62 other judges. Five thousand lawyers were interned, including leaders like the head of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan. Musharraf charged all of the attorneys with ‘conspiracy.’ But the real crime was clear: The Supreme Court had been about to rule invalid his presidential ‘election’ in October. The incarceration of the judges cast a pall over the February elections — darker, in fact, than the cloud formed by Bhutto’s murder in December 2007. Although the PPP emerged as the largest force in the new assembly — the only party with a base in all four provinces — it polled no more votes than it had in the 2002 elections.

The PML-N was the real wildcard. It swept aside all comers in Punjab, the richest and most populous province, and did so on the back of one uncompromising demand: full reinstatement of the judges. ‘Sharif made the judges’ issue his own and defeated the blood of Bhutto. That is the power of the chief justice,’ said Ahsan, a PPP leader in Punjab. He is also the major strategist behind the chief justice’s various campaigns for reinstatement, including the Long March.

Since 1999 — when Musharraf deposed Sharif’s second government — the PPP has been allied with the PML-N in opposition to military rule. But in government, in the 1990s, the two parties were adversaries. That they came together in a coalition in 2008 was thus seen as a new dawn, and one that most Pakistanis welcomed. Again, Sharif had only one condition for the alliance: reinstatement of judges. ‘The ouster of Musharraf can wait,’ said Ahsan Iqbal, a PML-N minister.

Reinstatement did not happen, despite negotiations, two missed deadlines and ‘crisis’ meetings between Sharif and Zardari in London and Dubai. On May 12, nine PML-N ministers resigned over the impasse. ‘We will not be part of any conspiracy to strengthen the dictatorship,’ said Sharif.

On the surface, the difference between the two coalition parties is not about whether the judges will be restored but how. The PML-N believes it can be done through an executive order. The PPP believes reinstatement requires an act of Parliament since there are legal issues — like Musharraf’s appointment of 17 new judges — that have to be accommodated.

But there is another reason for the PPP’s tardiness. Reinstatement could rend the delicate understandings stitched together between Musharraf and Bhutto in 2007. She had agreed to back him as a civilian president if he agreed to grant amnesty to her, Zardari and her party on a raft of corruption cases pending from their periods in government. Zardari fears that a reinstated independent judiciary would annul the amnesty. And Musharraf insists he has delivered on his side of the pact: He let Bhutto return from exile, withdrew the government’s cases against her family, resigned as army chief and allowed free elections on February 18 — so free that his own ‘king’s party,’ the PML-Q, was routed. He now expects the PPP to reciprocate. So does Washington.

But Zardari cannot reciprocate — not without tearing his coalition, and perhaps his party, apart. On May 4, Musharraf proffered a ‘historic compromise,’ mediated by the United States. He would give up certain executive powers in return for indemnity for his actions under martial law, especially the sacking of the judges. But he would keep the president’s right to appoint chiefs of the armed forces and preside over the extra-parliamentary National Security Council, two powers that essentially formalize the army’s role in governance.

The PPP wants him to give up all powers save those of a figurehead. Musharraf has refused. The PPP’s latest compromise is a convoluted ‘constitutional amendment’ whereby the president is indemnified, the judges are reinstated and power to appoint the heads of the armed forces is shared with the prime minister, but all other executive powers are surrendered. Musharraf said he would resist all attempts to reduce him to a ‘useless vegetable.’ The PML-N has said it will resist all ruses to indemnify him. So will the lawyers. ‘President Musharraf will not be given safe passage,’ Sharif thundered before the Long Marchers in Islamabad. ‘He will be impeached and held accountable for his deeds.’

The script seems written for confrontation between the three arms of the state. In the past such paralysis was the trigger for military intervention. Will Pakistan’s 600,000-strong army intervene again?

The message from army headquarters is that it will not accept Musharraf’s ‘humiliation,’ and that includes impeachment. Washington has intimated the same. But the army will not bring down an elected government at Musharraf’s bidding, says a source: ‘The army paid its dues to Musharraf in 2007: when he sacked the chief justice, imposed martial law and tarried over stepping down as army chief. Its message now is, ‘You’re on your own.” Under its new head, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army seems serious about disengaging from its historical role as political arbiter. But that does not mean it is removing its hand from politics entirely. On the contrary, it is the army that is taking the lead in the peace process with the Pakistan Taliban.

Peace and America

Preaching peace, the new government inherited war. In February, the army was reconquering cities from the Taliban in Swat in the NWFP and South Waziristan, a tribal agency on the Afghan border. In reprisal, the Taliban and its allies were striking throughout Pakistan. In 2007’s first three months there were 17 suicide attacks leaving 274 civilians, police and soldiers dead, including blasts in major cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi. Pakistan felt like Iraq.

Two actions brought the violence to heel. One was a choking siege in South Waziristan on the tribes belonging to Baitullah Mehsud — leader of the Pakistan Taliban and the man Musharraf (though not the PPP) says killed Bhutto. In collective punishment, the army also evicted 150,000 tribesmen and their families from their homes. The siege and expulsion ‘bankrupted Mehsud and forced him to negotiate,’ says Khalid Aziz, a former first secretary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and now an analyst.

The other move was the government’s commitment to political rather than just military solutions to the revolt, including the repeal of British-era colonial laws in FATA that permitted abuses like mass expulsion and the razing of villages. The Taliban wanted their replacement with Islamic law, and for the FATA to become a separate province. ‘We did not want to fight the government,’ said Taliban commander Maulvi Faqir Mohammed in March. But, he warned, ‘The country would suffer as long as Pakistan remained an ally of the US.’ Peace talks began in South Waziristan and Swat.

Pakistan’s insurgents are not one group, but at least four, loosely allied. There is the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban. There are the ‘Kashmiri mujahideen,’ native jihadist groups once nurtured by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to fight a proxy war with India in the disputed Kashmir province but which have now cut loose from their handlers. And there is al-Qaeda and its affiliates: between 150 and 500 Arab, Uzbek and other foreign fighters who have found refuge in the FATA and use the remote tribal enclave for planning, training, rearmament and recruitment.

There are differences between the factions. The Pakistan and Afghan Taliban are still overwhelmingly ethnic Pashtun movements with a focus on Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and the jihadists have a more global reach, including targets within Pakistan, such as the bombing on June 2 of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. But all are united in the war against the US and NATO in Afghanistan. And all are committed to extending the Taliban’s territorial reach beyond the FATA to the NWFP as a whole, including Peshawar, the provincial capital. Such Talibanization ‘gives the Taliban more security, territory, recruits and bargaining power,’ says a source. ‘It allows them to talk peace in Swat while waging war in Waziristan.’

The government’s response to Talibanization has been to temporize. In 2007, before her return, Bhutto spoke of devolving democratic power to the tribes while integrating the FATA into Pakistan proper, in effect doing away with its special ‘tribal’ status. The focus of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which heads the NWFP Provincial Government, is economic: It has drawn up plans for a crash program of schools, colleges, rehabilitation centers and jobs to wean young tribesmen from an emerging Taliban polity that is well ‘on the way to primitive state formation with its own tax system, paid bureaucracy and dispute resolution,’ says Aziz. For him — and many in the NWFP government — the Taliban represents less an Islamist movement than a ‘class revolt expressed in a religious idiom. The closest analogy is the Maoists in Nepal,’ he says. It can only be addressed by the ‘transformation and integration’ of a derelict tribal system.

Such a project ‘will take years,’ says Aziz. It is also understood that no peace will hold in the NWFP without a resolution of the conflict with the Taliban in the FATA, which is under the remit of the federal government. And the PPP and Awami Nationalist Party have passed that buck to the army: an abdication frankly admitted by the government’s decision on June 25 to entrust the use of force in FATA entirely to Kayani. The army’s strategy for now is to secure localized peace deals that will keep the territorial advantage it obtained in February while playing divide-and-rule with the Taliban’s different tribal leaderships. It is ‘the policy of the breathing space,’ says Afghanistan expert Ahmad Rashid.

In South Waziristan, this means extracting a pledge from the Taliban to end attacks on the army and government-sponsored development projects. In return, the army will release prisoners and ‘reposition’ its units outside the cities. In Swat in the NWFP, the tradeoff is that the Taliban end attacks on government institutions, including girls’ schools, in return for implementation of Islamic law, seen principally as a means to coopt hundreds of jobless seminary students who may otherwise join the militants. ‘It’s an agreement,’ says Aziz, ‘but not in the Western sense. In the FATA an agreement is an arrangement to coexist. It means shutting your eyes to many things.’

The Taliban have closed their eyes to the army camps that now nestle permanently in the mountains above them. And the army is looking away from a steady flow of guerrillas across the border, or at least is not acting overtly to intercept them. Peace in Pakistan, in other words, may translate into intensified warfare in Afghanistan.

Or so the Americans allege. In January, just prior to the elections, US commanders seconded to NATO met with Musharraf in Islamabad. They sought permission to increase overflights of the FATA by pilotless drone aircraft to kill al-Qaeda fugitives. The aim was to ‘shake down’ the al-Qaeda command to get a better steer on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, preferably before the end of Bush’s tenure in January 2009. Musharraf agreed, on the condition that the quarries were al-Qaeda, not Taliban. He feared blowback.

Since then, there have been several drone sorties into Pakistani airspace, leaving more than 50 people dead. According to US and British intelligence, the slain have included ‘high-value’ senior al-Qaeda commanders, like the Libyan Layth al-Libi and Algerian Sulayman al-Jaza’iri, the latter allegedly responsible for planning attacks in Europe. According to locals, the majority of those killed were tribesmen, women and children. But the drones are also being flown to punish the Pakistani government for a policy Washington opposes.

The last deadly attack was on May 15 in Damadola, a village in the Bajaur tribal agency. At least 15 were killed, including perhaps al-Jaza’iri and an 11-year old child. They were reportedly in a house owned by Mullah Obaidallah Akhund, the former Afghan Taliban defense minister captured in 2007 by the Pakistani army at the behest of Washington. There are rumors that Akhund has or will be freed as part of the South Waziristan prisoner exchange. Unusually, the army condemned the strike as ‘completely counterproductive.’ So did Gilani and the NWFP governor.

The killing of the 11 Pakistani soldiers on June 11 comes from this well of distrust. The day before Afghan soldiers, backed by US Special Forces, had tried to set up a post near the Afghan border but inside Pakistani territory. The army ordered them out. As the Afghan and American soldiers retreated, the Taliban ambushed them. Artillery and air-to-surface missiles were fired at or near the army base in Pakistan. US commanders knew the risk of ‘collateral damage’ was high: They fired in any case. That was why the Pakistan army — in a ferocious communiqué — called the US missile strike an ‘act of aggression.’ In the eyes of most of Pakistan, it was.

Subsequent incursions by US helicopters and drones into Pakistani airspace — as well as very public statements by US NATO Commanders that a recent hike in Taliban activity in eastern Afghanistan is ‘directly attributable to the lack of pressure on the [Pakistani] side of the border’ — has convinced many in Pakistan that Washington is about to shift strategy: away from relying on the Pakistani army to ‘do more’ against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in FATA and toward a preemptive policy whereby the US and/or NATO go into Pakistan alone.

Centrism cannot hold

Why has the dawn broken by the February elections dimmed so rapidly? The short answer is that the political aspiration voiced by those elections has been gagged by extra-parliamentary agreements that preceded them.

When Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October 2007, she did so as part of a deal underwritten by Washington and the army. If elected prime minister, she promised, her party would ensure continuity, not change, in policy, whether in terms of the army’s mercenary role in the ‘war on terror’ or Musharraf’s continuation as a ‘civilian’ president for another five years. This vow was why Washington prevailed on Musharraf to allow her back, especially as the lawyers’ protest had stripped away the last vestiges of his ‘civilian’ legitimacy.

But, on February 18, the Pakistani electorate voted for change — and against Musharraf, Islamabad’s participation in what most Pakistanis see as an American war and the army’s involvement in governance. Prior to her murder, Bhutto had confected the idea of a ‘moderate middle’ to obscure the contradiction at the heart of her return. With her party in government, the contradiction stands naked. Whether on Afghan borderlands or in the federal capital, the centrism of the PPP’s politics — appealing to the masses while trying to toe the US line — cannot hold. Very simply, there is no center in Pakistani politics, no ‘moderate middle’: There is policy decreed by Washington and an electorate, including now large parts of the army, that rejects it.

Storms lie in wait for Pakistan — aside from the fallout of a judicial crisis that may yet bring the coalition government to an early shipwreck. By the end of June, the government will almost certainly pass a budget that aims to narrow yawning deficits by withdrawing subsidies from basic commodities, including wheat, gas and electricity. This move will deeply hurt the poor: Nearly 50 percent of Pakistanis — 77 million people — are already ‘food insecure,’ according to UN surveys. With Pakistan suffering from the same pressures on food prices that have depressed living standards worldwide, such austerity measures could end in food riots.

And the summer thaw in the Hindu Kush, with the attendant rise in Taliban attacks, could prove the final tripwire for a full-fledged US incursion into the FATA. Aziz is mordant about the consequence of that collision. ‘If there is a peace agreement [with the Taliban] followed by a major NATO attack inside Pakistan, it would stretch the US-Pakistani alliance to the breaking point. It would destroy everything.’

Is there shelter from the gathering storms? The government could return to its election pledges. It could reinstate the judges and, concurrent with dialogue with the Taliban, commit to a mass investment for ’empowerment, education, employment’ for the poor in all of the smaller provinces, but especially the FATA and the NWFP. But for all this to transpire, Musharraf would need to stand down, the army would need to stand back and Washington would need to exhibit a ‘strategic patience’ unseen since September 11, 2001. None of these eventualities is likely. 


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