Monday, December 31, 2007
The next Washington Consensus posted by Richard Seymour
Pakistan is axiomatically central to Washington's expansionist 'war on terror'. Musharraf, the military despot in charge of Islamabad's portion of that expansion, has disappointed his handlers. While his security services were good enough to instruct the bulk of Taliban fighters to withdraw from Afghanistan, thus giving Washington an easy early victory, he has not since been able to crackdown sufficiently on the various Islamist groups that support the insurgency in Afghanistan. Further, his policies - both his support for the 'war on terror' and those that have increased the immiseration of the people of Pakistan - seem to have galvanised precisely the sort of unrest that Washington doesn't need. The old hands spotted an opportunity. Nawaz Sharif, the crooked Prime Minister overthrown by Musharraf, attempted a glorious return and was ingloriously deported (although he now looks to be re-staging his glorious return). Benazir Bhutto, chairwoman of the Pakistan People's Party, daughter of the murdered former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, daughter of the West and flawed and feudal princess had more luck. She had worked out a deal in advance to save Musharraf's regime and allow her re-admittance to Pakistani politics after a long self-imposed exile. Some of her frozen funds were released and Musharraf issued a pardon on 5th October last year, removing the possibility of Bhutto being prosecuted on outstanding corruption charges. In return, her Pakistan People's Party agreed not to boycott the parliamentary election for president, which Musharraf went on to win. On 18th October, therefore, Benazir Bhutto returned in triumph. Though publicly critical of Musharraf's party, the PMLQ, she continued to negotiate with them behind the scenes for a power-sharing arrangement. Favoured by Washington because of her vocal support for the 'war on terror' and her right-wing policies, she enjoyed considerable leverage, but was an immediate target of right-wing Islamist groups opposed to Washington's policies - and probably elements of the Pakistani secret police. Today, Bhutto's supporters largely attribute her murder to the Pakistani government, and insist that she was shot in the neck and chest before the suicide attacker struck.
All US presidential candidates are making much hay in this heat. Hillary Clinton refers to Musharraf's failure to tackle 'Al Qaeda', while Mitt Romney wonders if the general is capable of keeping a lid on the unrest in his country. Rudi Giuliani, the favoured horse of the neocons, demands more military funding, while Mike Huckabee simply reminds voters that American democracy may be flawed, but it stands as a shining beacon to the rest of the world etc.
So, what's new? Well, they're moving up and moving on, taking it to the next level: it's time for Special Forces to drop in and say hello. Moving troops to Pakistan and Afghanistan is a strategy particularly favoured by the Democrats. Such a move would be extremely risky - unlike, say, bombing Pakistani targets from afar and killing dozens of civilians - and would contain an inherent "quagmire" dynamic, catalysing the famous law of entropy. But, then, perhaps the alternative of waiting for this spoilt brat to finish his studies at Oxford and take over the dynasty is not too appealling either.
The current US relationship to Pakistan is, obviously, the culmination of some murky history. The Pakistani state was, after all, practically an auxiliary to the US government since 1951 until the election of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party in the 1970 elections, following the wave of revolt against the Ayub regime. When Bhutto pursued a classical nationalist set of policies, opting for non-alignment, nationalising many industries and - most importantly - developing his own nuclear capacity, the US helped destroy his government. Henry Kissinger had warned Bhutto that "we can destabilise your government and make a horrible example out of you" - a typical Kissingerian threat, and one that was carried to fruition. General Zia ul-Haq's coup, one effected in alliance with right-wing religious groups such as the Jamaat e-Islaami in 1978, saw a decade of the most brutal rule, with the military increasingly dominating civilian life. Under his rule, the Pakistani secret police (ISI) nurtured the most fanatical reactionary zealots whom we now refer to as the Taliban as part of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and as a counterweight against the appeal of socialism in Pakistan. Negotiating with Brzezinski, Zia insisted that all aid, finance, training and so on would be channelled through Pakistan, thus turning the country into a throughfare for all of the intelligence bandits, reactionary warriors and mercenaries that are now operating across Pakistan and Afghanistan. With the Soviet Union effectively defeated, Zia was killed in an airplane crash in 1988 that was probably a professional assassination. Successive Prime Ministers tried to ram home Pakistan's successful war on behalf of the US in Afghanistan, and Benazir Bhutto would oversee the successful march of the Taliban across Afghanistan - the bleatings of the avaricious, upper crust Bhutto dynasty about democracy and terrorism are so much fodder for gullible Western liberals. The Pakistan People's Party has long since become the private property of a bourgeois Anglocentric dynasty, and any leadership it produces will hop in and out of bed with the military and the mullahs depending on what the US requires.
Times change, priorities change, but interests don't. Russia has extricated itself from the West's deadly embrace and is pursuing its own local hegemonic project with some limited success (notably, the embarrassment of the US in Uzbekistan). China is a potentially enormous power whose current friendly disposition toward Washington doesn't preclude competing for a cut of the action in Iran, Sudan, Venezuela, or any number of other geopolitically sensitive points for Washington. The Central Asian energy republics, held for a long while under pro-US dictatorships, are increasingly exposed to instability, rival wooing, and potential rebellion. As Iraq goes under and the US foreign policy establishment splits over the prospect of expanding the war to Iran, controlling Afghanistan and Pakistan become increasingly important. The American empire's overreach now demands new, more flexible tactics. Do more to win over rivals, bring allies further into the fold, induce greater troop commitments with financial bribery and threats, reduce any seriously draining commitments and turn the war over to proxies (as in the 'Sunni Triangle'). And while the Taliban are no longer 'our' friends, they are no longer quite 'our' enemies. Unable to hold Afghanistan, the occupying powers are negotiating vigorously with the Taliban fighters, hoping to break of a section of them to co-govern with the warlord kleptocracy. Soon, a war that was initially sold as a war to hunt down Al Qaeda, and then became a humanitarian deliverance from the Taliban, will be an expanding regional war against something as nebulous as "extremism". And then, if local Islamist insurgents can be coopted, they will become part of a war against 'Al Qaeda'. When neither Bhutto junior or Nawaz Sharif can deliver, they'll be back to relying on General Musharraf as one of 'our' guys, moving in the right direction and so on. The empire can shift between narratives with such dexterity that no one in the press corps notices or cares when it happens. The next Washington Consensus is emerging from the flux even as you read.