Pakistan elites turn blind eye to war
By Fatima Bhutto
With governments like Pakistan's current regime, who needs the strong arm of
the US Central Intelligence Agency? According to Bob Woodward's latest
bestseller, Obama's Wars, when Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, an
obsequiously dangerous man, was notified that the CIA would be launching
missile strikes from drones over his country's sovereign territory, he replied,
"Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It doesn't worry
Why would he worry? When his wife, Benazir Bhutto, returned to Pakistan in 2007
to run for prime minister after years of self-imposed exile, she was already
pledged to a campaign of pro-American engagement. She promised to hand over
nuclear scientist and international bogeyman Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the
"father" of the Pakistani atomic bomb, to the International Atomic Energy
Agency. She also made clear that, once back in power, she would allow the
Americans to bomb Pakistan proper, so that George W Bush's global "war on
terror" might triumph. The Americans had been involved in covert strikes and
other activities in Pakistan since at least 2001, but we didn't know that then.
This has been the promise that has kept Zardari, too, in power.
According to the recent cache of US State Department cables released by
WikiLeaks, his position and those of his colleagues in government haven't
wavered. In 2008, for example, Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani
enthusiastically told American ambassador Anne Paterson that he "didn't care"
if drone strikes were launched against his country as long as the "right
people" were targeted. (They weren't.) "We'll protest in the National
Assembly," Gilani added cynically, "and then ignore it."
In fact, protests by the National Assembly have been few and far between and
yet, by the end of November, Pakistani territory had been targeted by American
unmanned Predator and Reaper missile strikes more than 100 times this year
alone. CIA drone strikes have, in fact, been a feature of the American war in
Pakistan since 2004. In 2008, after Barack Obama won the presidency in the US
and Zardari ascended to Pakistan's highest office, the strikes escalated and
soon began occurring almost weekly, later nearly daily, and so became a
permanent feature of life for those living in the tribal borderlands of
Obama ordered his first drone strike against Pakistan just 72 hours after being
sworn in as president. It seems a suitably macabre fact that, according to a
United Nations report on "targeted killings" (that is, assassinations)
published in 2010, Bush employed drone strikes 45 times in his eight years as
president. In Obama's first year in office, the drones were sent in 53 times.
In the six years that drone strikes have been used in the fight against
Pakistan, researchers at the New America Foundation estimate that between 1,283
and 1,971 people have been killed.
While the dead are regularly identified as "militants" or "suspected militants"
in newspaper stories and on the TV news, they almost never have names, nor are
their identities confirmed or faces shown. Their histories are always vague.
The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) took a careful look at
nine drone strikes from the last two years and concluded that they had resulted
in the deaths of 30 civilians, including 14 women and children. (Perhaps
superior American military intelligence classified them as "militants in
training".) Based on this study, an average rate of error can be calculated:
3.33 civilians mistakenly killed in each drone attack. The dead, Pakistanis
will assure you, are largely unnamed, faceless, unindicted and unconvicted
Pakistanis are considered irrelevant, however, and collateral damage, as it
turns out, doesn't seem to worry anyone in the governing elite.
Think of it this way: this summer, monsoon rains and floods submerged one-fifth
of Pakistan, affecting 20 million people. It was the country's worst natural
disaster in its history. Although the body count, under the circumstances, was
considered comparatively low - 2,000 killed - the United Nations concluded that
the destruction caused by the floods surpassed the devastating Asian tsunami of
2004, the Pakistan earthquake of 2005, and the recent earthquake in Haiti
Two million homes were destroyed and the crucial food belt in the key
agricultural provinces of Punjab and Sindh was ravaged. Millions of children
were left homeless or at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery and other
water-borne diseases. According to the World Heath Organization, 1.5 million
potentially fatal cases of diarrhea and another two million cases of malaria
are still expected.
During what UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon termed the worst disaster he'd
ever seen, with the country desperate and prostrate, the CIA launched its most
extensive drone campaign yet. Over the 30 days of September, as Islamabad
rushed to assure Washington that it would not divert too many troops from the
war effort to help with flood relief, 20-odd drone strikes were called in. They
would produce the highest number of drone fatalities for a single month in the
past six years.
In 2009, in one of the many State Department cables WikiLeaks loosed on the
world, US ambassador Paterson confirmed that key player and Chief of Army Staff
General Parvez Ashfaq Kiani directed his forces to aid those American drone
strikes. Various US operations in the country's northern and tribal regions
were, the ambassador wrote, "almost certainly [conducted] with the personal
consent of ... General Kiani".
The Pakistani media have welcomed the release of the State Department documents
because much that reporters and pundits have long claimed (and which Washington
has long denied) has now been confirmed: that, for instance, the mercenary
private contractor Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) has been operating in
Pakistan at the behest of the Americans, that the country's military high
command has given the green light for drone strikes on its own people, and that
the government of President Zardari has turned the country over to the
Americans for money.
Pakistan already receives approximately US$2 billion in military aid a year,
and that's just for the army. Under the Kerry Lugar Bill passed by the US
Congress, if Pakistan plays nice, opens up its nuclear secrets, and the army's
internal documentation on how it selects the chief of army staff and other
matters, the country will get $7.5 billion of "civilian aid" over five years -
and this is just the tip of the financial iceberg, which, of course, offers the
present leadership the chance to extend their incompetent rule just a little
One newspaper baron and government chamcha - apple polisher in Urdu -
became the laughing stock of the country's new media when he went on television
to suggest that revelations about how Pakistan's government had lied to its
people, subverted its national sovereignty, and coordinated foreign attacks
didn't faintly measure up to those about leaders in other countries. Look at
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi!
The Pakistani political establishment has always believed that the West is
best. It has, after all, been the ultimate source of their power; and so, on
December 3, Gilani called a meeting of the Joint Chiefs, the defense minister,
and various cabinet ministers, including the finance minister, to discuss the
WikiLeaks scandal and strategies for dealing with any potential embarrassments
in yet-to-be-released cables. (Lie, undoubtedly. It worked so well before.)
Tariq Ali, a Pakistani writer and historian, reacted to the WikiLeaks
revelations swiftly and with a frustration and anger felt by many Pakistanis:
WikiLeaks confirm what we already know: Pakistan is a US satrapy. Its military
and political leaders constitute a venal elite happy to kill and maim its own
people at the behest of a foreign power. The US proconsul in Islamabad, Anne
Patterson, emerges as a shrewd diplomat warning her country of the consequences
if they carry on as before. Amusing, but hardly a surprise, is that Zardari
reassures the US that if he were assassinated, his sister would replace him and
all would continue as before. Always nice to know that the country is regarded
by its ruler as a personal fiefdom.
Still, that elite carries
on with little sense of the grim absurdity of recent events. As the WikiLeaks
documents pour out, various members of parliament are queuing up to have their
names put forward as possible replacements for the prime minister. Since the
only person capable of replacing the president is his sister, there's no need
for debate there.
Like many military chiefs in the past, Kiani is putting forward his own set of
favored names, overstepping the official limits of his office with impunity,
while the unelected dark overlord of the government, Interior Minister Rehman
Malik, has been offering himself for another unelected posting.
Malik came to public notoriety as Benazir Bhutto's security adviser - until her
assassination in December 2007. The job of policing the nation was always a
peculiar reward to offer a man who couldn't keep his one charge safe. Malik,
for whom Zardari issued a presidential pardon and who had all corruption
charges against him dropped under the National Reconciliation Ordinance (an
odious law pardoning 20 years worth of graft carried out by politicians,
bankers and bureaucrats) was also given a senate seat by his friend the
Zardari, it is worth noting, did not stand for elections either, has no
constituency, and was made president in the very same manner as Pakistan's
previous ruler, General Pervez Musharraf: he was selected by his own
What will Pakistan's elite learn from WikiLeaks? Undoubtedly nothing. And if
we're going by the White House's response so far, nor will Washington feel more
constrained than it ever has been when it comes to choosing its allies and
running the South Asian arm of its informal global empire.
The Zardari government makes no secret of its gratitude for American support.
They have, after all, watched as a foreign power bombs its land, illegally
detains or renders its citizens, and turns a blind eye to Pakistan's flagrant
censorship and abuse of human rights.
This obeisance to power is the key to Zardari's American engagement. And so it
will remain. While we wait for WikiLeaks to reveal the rest of the cables,
which are unlikely to have any bearing on Washington's future dealings with the
governments of Zardari in Pakistan or President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan (or
anywhere else for that matter), we watch as American officials argue for
expanding their drone attacks southwards into the natural-gas-rich province of
Balochistan. That it shares a border with Iran hardly seems a coincidence.
The Zardari regime's essential acquiescence has recently been acknowledged via
a multi-year "no strings attached" offer of a military aid package by
Washington. At the height of the devastation wreaked by the summer floods, the
health secretary of Balochistan and the deputy chairman of the Pakistani senate
both alleged that aid could not be airlifted out of an air base in the city of
Jacobabad on the border between Sindh and Balochistan, two flood-ravaged
provinces, because it was being used by the Americans for their drone strikes
in Pakistan. The American Embassy issued a swift and suitably hurt-sounding
denial, but the damage was done - and the message was clear: the war against
Pakistan continues unabated, with its own government at the helm.
Fatima Bhutto, an Afghan-born Pakistani poet and writer, is most recently
the author of
Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir(Nation Books, 2010). Her
work has appeared in the New Statesman, the Daily Beast, and the Guardian,
among other places. Her father, Murtaza Bhutto, son of Pakistan's former
president and prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and an elected member of
parliament, was killed by the police in 1996 in Karachi during the premiership
of his sister, Benazir Bhutto. Fatima lives and writes in Karachi, Pakistan. To
listen to a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview in which Fatima Bhutto
discusses the unequal US-Pakistani relationship, click
here or, to download it to your iPod,