| INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR |
PopMatters: You’ve obviously made extensive visits to Pakistan. How long were you actually researching and writing the book?|
Mary Anne Weaver: I first started reporting on Pakistan in 1982. My husband and I were based in New Delhi for four years, ‘82-‘86. This was before I joined The New Yorker. I was the Southeast Asia regional correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and the Christian Science Monitor. During those four years, I spent, on average, one week per month in Pakistan. I then went back in 1988 for The New Yorker. I’ve been coming and going since then. As far as the book is concerned, I had an Alicia Patterson fellowship last year (2001) to do research for the book.
PM: The book is very much focused on political aspects of Pakistan. What are your opinions about the Pakistanis, and the Pakistani society at large?
MAW: I am very fond of the Pakistanis; I always have been. And I feel one of the greatest tragedies of Pakistan is that Pakistanis have not deserved the governments they have had. In 55 years of independence, they have had four military dictators?both prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif who were twice elected, twice deposed?the only popularly elected leaders in the last quarter of a century?.both of them were ousted on charges of corruption. Pakistanis just deserve more, and at this point, after the October elections which were so flawed, Pakistanis are just fed up.
PM: So what does this spell for the future? Do you believe that Pakistan is on the brink of chaos?
MAW: I do, and it’s very sad. It just doesn’t have to be that way. Military rulers may be able to wage war and wage battles, but nothing really qualifies them to govern a country. And since Musharraf seized power in October 1999, the economy has plummeted, the institutional meltdown continues, the war on terrorism has divided the body politic in Pakistan, and I just see more chaos which will have a profound and negative impact on the Bush Administration’s war on terror.
PM: Do you feel that Pakistan could follow in the footsteps of Iran?
MAW: Pakistan is Sunni, and Iran is Shiite, and in Shia Islam there is a definite hierarchy whereas in Sunni Islam there is not. Whether Pakistan could “go” Islamist is a fear of a lot of people, including Pakistan’s secularists. The Pakistani military, particularly the ISI, really helped spawn these militant Islamist groups 20 years ago during the first American war in Afghanistan and since that time the Pakistani military has maintained continuing close ties to the Islamist groups. In the October elections, for example, the six-party religious alliance called the MMA was actively assisted by the ISI in its campaign. And of course it backfired, because the ISI and Musharraf himself thought that if the MMA made a respectable showing, this would be splendid vis a vis being able to use the religious right as a device with which to prick the United States. But in fact, the religious right did far more than make a respectable showing. They captured nearly 70 seats, almost 25 percent of the vote, and this was compared to their showing in the last parliamentary election in 1997 when they got only four seats. So, basically it’s been the Pakistani military to a great extent that has created and given sustenance to the religious right, and I see no evidence that they’re going to disengage.
PM: Is there any personality in the current political arena who stands a chance of preserving order and preventing Pakistan from heading towards possible chaos?
MAW: Not at the moment. There simply is no national figure. The closest that Pakistan comes to having a national political figure is the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto who, in fact, based on the popular vote, got the largest percentage of votes in the October elections. But she has also been severely tarnished by a series of corruption cases that have been brought against her - a number of charges still pending against her and her husband who most Pakistanis say is her greatest political liability.
PM: You have written that “although the theatre of operation against them [meaning al-Qaeda] is now once again in Afghanistan, the real battleground in the years to come will be Pakistan.” Could you please elaborate on this theory?
MAW: There is very compelling intelligence information that al-Qaeda is regrouping in the border areas of Pakistan, in the North West Frontier province and in Balochistan. According to a Pakistani intelligence official to whom I spoke, as long ago as this Spring, Pakistani intelligence at that point believed that at least 5,000 members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban had slipped across the Afghan border into Pakistan, including perhaps Osama bin Laden himself. Since that time, we have seen a frightening escalation in acts of violence and terrorism in Pakistan. We’ve seen sectarian violence in Karachi which has claimed scores of lives in January of this year; the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped and killed brutally; five foreigners, including two Americans, died in a grenade attack in March in a church in a heavily guarded diplomatic enclave of Islamabad. Then in May, there was a suicide car bombing in Karachi which killed 16 people, nearly all of them French; the following month, 12 more died in a car bombing at the American consulate.
PM: How do you see U.S. - Pakistani relations in the near future?
MAW: There has been an incredible backlash vis a vis our war against terror, in Pakistan particularly. In Balochistan and the North West Frontier, which are the most critical and the most sensitive areas of Pakistan, anti-Americanism was already on the rise in these areas and in Pakistan generally before the war in Afghanistan began. And this war is perceived in Pakistan as it is in much of the Muslim world as not a war against terror, but a war against Islam. If we escalate the stakes even more, if we go to war against Iraq, I think you are going to see an outcry in Pakistan, not just from the militant Islamists, but also from the army, from the ISI, and from the man on the street.
PM: What are your thoughts on the Kashmir dispute, and do you think that this issue will ever be resolved?
MAW: It’s got to be resolved. As long as Kashmir remains disputed ground between India and Pakistan, we are going to be faced with the perspective scenario of two nuclear-armed neighbors going to war again for the fourth time. Kashmir is a legacy of the Partition of British India, a legacy with a history of 55 years. There are countless UN Security Council resolutions which have lain dormant for 53 of those 55 years which have called for India and Pakistan to hold a plebiscite and to agree to allow the Kashmiris themselves to decide whether or not they want to be a part of India or Pakistan. There has been very little attention paid to Kashmir by the United States or by the European Union or generally by the world at large. We have gone in in a “crisis management” sense as we did this May and June when a million Pakistani and Indian troops faced each other across the border in Kashmir. But we have not had a sustained long-term policy on Kashmir.
PM: Is the Bhutto popularity still in tact?
MAW: If the elections are an example, then absolutely yes, because she did capture the largest percentage of the popular vote. Much of it is loyalty to the Bhutto name, to the memory and/or legacy of her father. Some of it is also dynastic politics, but a lot of it is loyalty to the personage of Benazir herself.
PM: Is there a possibility for a Bhutto comeback?
MAW: I would never rule out anything in Pakistan. This is one of the most wonderful things about Pakistan for me as a journalist: nothing in Pakistan is predictable.
Sound and Fury Signifying Much
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Recently, a friend—a diehard film buff—remarked that Hollywood’s eternal search for the next great villain should lead directly to Osama bin Laden, and the Islamic world at large, who, in this post-September 11th world, have come to symbolize all that was and is evil.
However, he added, there was a catch: Depicting Muslims and Islamic nations in this fashion could pose a dangerous threat. Somehow, it was all right for James Bond to wage war against the Russians, but taking on the Islamic world is a different ball of wax. The slightest off-color remark, and who knows? The rules, it seems, are different, and evident in the U.S. and the rest of the world’s cautionary dealings with Islamic nations and their supporters.
Even prior to September 11th, the Islamic world had been a ticking bomb, and its roots (putting the Palestinian-Israeli issue aside) can be traced to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, when a septuagenarian cleric toppled a 2,500-year-old monarchy and firmly placed himself in power. The seeds of fundamentalism may have been already strewn, but Iran?s revolution added more fuel to a smoldering fire. And if the bomb started ticking with Iran, it eventually exploded with a deafening roar on September 11th, 2001, when a group of hijackers slammed airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
In the wake of the horrendous attacks, the U.S. drew a line in the sand, demanding, rightly, that nations make their allegiances known: “You’re either with us, or against us,” was the cut-and-dry Washington message, and in particular, Pakistan (which had long championed the Taliban) fell under serious scrutiny.
In Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan, journalist Mary Anne Weaver offers a brilliant and insightful account of an important nation that is in the midst of a serious identity crisis, and its role as the “playground” of Muslim terrorists.
Established as a Muslim state by the British (as a result of India’s Partition of 1947), Pakistan has had a strife-ridden history. Its continuous conflicts with India over the Kashmir province nearly brought the two nuclear-missile-savvy nations to the brink of war in mid-2002. Pakistan’s long-standing interest in Afghanistan—first in aiding the mujaheddin (who were also funded and supported by the U.S.), then helping to empower the Taliban regime—have confirmed the nation as a thorn in the side of the U.S., who now fear that Pakistan may be harboring al-Qaeda operatives who have filtered through the Afghan-Pakistani border. The brutal kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl helped seal this sentiment in stone. (Not to mention that many believe that bin Laden is actually hiding somewhere in Pakistan.)
As Weaver explains: “[A]lthough the theater of operation against them [al-Qaeda] is now, once again, in Afghanistan, the real battleground in the years to come will be Pakistan.” While unraveling the tale of Pakistan’s woes, Weaver cleverly connects all the dots, so to speak, tying in lucid analyses of Osama bin Laden and the role of al-Qaeda in the region, and Pakistan’s strategic importance to the U.S. government. The significant question, as Weaver writes, is:
What are the increasingly dangerous scenarios facing Pakistan if General Pervez Musharraf [the Pakistani ruler] fails in his attempts to reform his ancient land? The country’s true military hard-liners will take over; the religious hard-liners will take over, and Pakistan will become a theocracy like Iran; or the country will be faced with complete chaos and fall apart. Pakistan could well become the world’s newest failed state—a failed state with nuclear weapons.
Weaver’s descriptions of Musharraf depict a devout military man who has been positioned between a rock and hard place, and the question remains whether Musharraf can steer Pakistan on the right track and prevent impending chaos. In Pakistan’s elections in October 2002 (which were reputedly rigged), fundamentalist Islamic parties and secularists boasted a strong showing, indicating the country’s growing anti-American/pro-Islamic sentiments. Pakistani-U.S. relations are touchy at best, and the nuclear weapons issue has been a long-standing bone of contention between the two nations. In addition, the surge of fundamentalist popularity can only further strain diplomatic relations.
Pakistan is depicted as a nation of contradictions, replete with pockets of thriving gun and drugs cultures and prone to acts of terrorism. (According to Weaver, “As early of 1987, of 777 terrorists recorded worldwide, 90 percent took place in Pakistan.”) The author also portrays the inner turmoil of Pakistan, delving into its turbulent political history, with memorable chapters devoted to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first “popularly elected prime minister in the history of Pakistan,” who was cruelly executed by the order of Zia ul-Haq who had replaced him by staging a military coup. The Bhutto legacy, however, not only lived on, but gained full momentum when, after Zia’s death in a plane crash, Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, would emerge as Pakistan’s second popularly elected prime minister. One of Pakistan‘s best chapters is devoted to the Bhutto legacy, which includes the author’s in-depth interviews with Benzir Bhutto.
In a land where tribal laws and Islamic traditions hold sway, the irony of Benzir Bhutto’s victory offers another side of Pakistan seldom seen. As Weaver writes, Bhutto has “an extremely well-stocked mind, full of feminist literature, peace marches, the Oxford Union, and with a very liberated social life. She is also part feudal Sindh, a haughty aristocrat, the daughter and granddaughter of immensely wealthy landlords, whose inheritance gave her the right to rule.” In defining Pakistan, however, it’s important to note whether Benazir’s victory was due to her father’s looming legacy, or if her popularity was based on her own merits.
Weaver makes an excellent point of drawing our attention to the bin Laden-Pakistan connection, referring to the U.S. worry that “al-Qaeda was regrouping not only in the tribal lands but also in the major urban centers of Pakistan.” She presents a vivid (albeit disturbing) portrait of the Saudi multimillionaire who has taken on the ” political mantle of militant Islam,” and how he transformed himself (and became the bin Laden of today) after visiting Pakistan in 1980. The gaunt, bearded, reclusive militant, whose trail of destruction has stunned and angered the world, is the Bush Administration’s number-one foe—an enemy whom the U.S. believes can be captured and punished with the cooperation of Pakistan.
As a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker and author of A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam, Weaver is very much in her element, and her expertise of the region and her subject is apparent. Washington policy wonks should read Pakistan to develop a clear understanding of not only Pakistan and its significant role in the region, but the “why’s” and “how’s” of bin Laden and his followers, and the peculiar powers of Islamic militancy. Everyone should read the book to make some sense of a troubled and misunderstood region of the world whose jarring rage and fury are in dire need of immediate attention.