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 me.”
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 northern Pakistan.
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 civilians.
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 combined.
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 longer.
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:
The 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 president.
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 parliament.
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.