The Washington Post said recently that the United States is getting restless with the situation in Pakistan and would prefer military rule, perhaps military rule in civilian clothes, that a takeover is in the offing. What’s your take?
Every period of martial law that Pakistan has ever had has seen America support it. Financial aid, military aid and political assistance. That’s no surprise to us. (America) tolerated the dictator Pervez Musharraf for eight years because they believed him to be the best way of controlling the country. The longer that America seeks to have this influence on our country, we will be condemned to repeat this cycle. There is no doubt that America doesn’t speak to human rights or respect for sovereignty. When the country uses those words, it’s really only talking about its self-interest.
Does your strident opposition to the current [Asif Ali] Zardari government feed into the hands of people who are anti-democratic?
This government would have to be democratic for it to feed into the hands of the people who are anti-democratic. We have seen his government perpetuate extraordinary censorship including the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act that provides jail sentences to people who don’t have email addresses registered to their full name and makes the crime of character assassination or spoofing or satirizing the president punishable by three to 14 years in jail. So there is nothing democratic about this government.
Whether it’s at risk of falling, I don’t know if that is true yet. We know what keeps the regime of Asif Zardari in power, even though it’s corrupt and ineffectual, is American support. As long as America backs the man who allows their planes to fly overhead and kill with impunity, he will remain president.
The Pakistani government recently threatened to withdraw support [for the U.S. war on terror] when some soldiers were killed by drone attacks. Is it showing some spine?
It seems very much to be posturing. We have seen over 1000 Pakistani civilians killed in drone attacks over the last year and a half. And not one of those deaths prompted any kind of response from the Pakistani state that not only allows the drones to fly over our air space and kill our citizens but facilitates those attacks. Then we see three soldiers killed in a so-called mistake by NATO and Pakistan is making noises!
What has been the impact of the floods?
We know that 20 million people have been directly affected, 2 million homes have been destroyed, over 2 million acres of agricultural land in the food belt have been completely destroyed. The land continues to be water logged. So this crop is gone. When the cash crops and food crops can be replanted is anyone’s guess. So what that means is upwards of 6 million people are in desperate need of food aid. You also have according to the WHO, 6 million children at risk of fatally contracting cholera and dysentery and 1.5 million children at risk of dying from diarrhea. We are still watching the devastation continue.
Will the floods be an opportunity as well? For example to deal with issues like feudalism through land reform?
It seems not because we know that what furthered the devastation was that feudal lords who are members of the ruling party broke the embankments of the river, protecting their own lands but devastating nearby villages. It was that feudal power that allowed them to save hundreds of acres of personal property, but destroy homes and hundreds of businesses.
Do you think feudalism is at the root of much of Pakistan’s current problems?
We have to acknowledge it’s been a cause of great injustice whether economic or political. It’s been one of the greatest blocks to democratic progress in Pakistan and it continues to be.
This is a country that grows more than enough food to feed its people and yet millions go hungry every day outside of the floods. We can also look at the absolute unequal distribution of resources, and feudalism plays a strong role there. Take Tarik-e-Taliban in Pakistan. We didn’t have an indigenous Taliban before 2008. They have been very astute at tapping into this injustice. In the Punjab province, the Taliban has made inroads by coming in and talking about bonded labor, by talking about feudalism. They are very able to mutate according to the area they are in. In the northern part of Pakistan, they are speaking to the injustice of the war on terror, in the Punjab area they have been talking about land mafias.
But the Bhuttos are one of the premier feudal families in Pakistan?
They certainly began as one of the premier feudal families. And under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the family returned a great amount of their lands. But certainly a portion of the family remains a strong feudal power.
So you benefit from it?
The land that is in my name is like 30 acres. My upbringing didn’t include this feudal comfort zone.
Your father fell out with your aunt Benazir Bhutto. Why was this not just a feud over power between brother and sister in one of Pakistan’s most elite and feudal families? Just a story about the corruption of power.
It’s a story about the corruption of power, certainly. But if it was just the story of a family feud, it would be a very small book and it would be a very personal book. But this is a story that spans the period before Partition, and Pakistan’s history as an independent nation and Pakistan’s history as a client state, a proxy government for American interests in the region, to the founding of Pakistan’s first socialist progressive party and the dismantling of that party, and the impact of martial law. Part of the story is the story of the family. In no way is it solely the story.
Why did you become such a critic of Benazir Bhutto?
The Pakistan that Benazir presided over was a country marred by gross corruption. There is this notion of different Benazirs. The Benazir people knew in the West was a feminist, a democratic champion. The Benazir that we lived with in Pakistan was the Benazir that allowed the Hudood ordinances. These laws were put into place by Gen. Zia ul Haq, the military dictator, in 1979. The Hudood laws criminalize the victims of rape. If you are a woman, and you are found guilty of adultery you can and should be put to death. If you engage in premarital sex you can and should be put to death. So we had a woman prime minister two times who did not remove the Hudood ordinances.
Also Benazir’s government presided over one of the worst periods of extrajudicial murders. It was at the end of her second government that the Taliban came into power in Afghanistan. And it was not only funded and supported by Pakistan, but Benazir’s Pakistan was one of three governments in the world that recognized the Taliban.
After power happened, she became not a person who had suffered under political violence but a person capable of imposing that violence on others. She became one who could no longer tolerate difference or dissent in her government.
Why was Benazir not able to put the army back into its barracks?
She made the fatal mistake of working with the army, the same army that hanged her father, at the start of her career. She enters into power sharing discussions with the army in 1986. At that point, Benazir didn’t need the army. The army needed her. But she also understood to get to the pinnacle of power, they were a fast avenue and she chose to compromise on that front.
So, what can the West do to curb the role of the military? Should it earmark aid for infrastructure?
The Kerry-Lugar bill would give $7 billion as development aid but the problem is the money is given without strings. And it’s given to an absolutely corrupt regime. This government is infamous for its corruption. There is no accountability. According to Transparency International, 70 percent of the money given to Pakistan for dam maintenance was siphoned off.
So are you optimistic about Pakistan? What’s the hope?
I always feel optimistic about Pakistan because there is a huge distinction between the Pakistani state and the people. It’s a country of survivors. I hope there’s not a limit on hope. I have no hopes for the present government; I have no hopes for Nawaaz Sharif, no hopes for Musharraf. They have all devastated the country with their political malfeasance. We are a country of 180 million people. We must have more choices. We must open up what has been such a closed system. You have to choose between dynasty and democracy. I think they are completely incompatible. We are a country of 180 million people. The notion that we are held hostage by one or two families is insulting.
Fatima Bhutto discusses her latest book, Songs of Blood and Sword, which discusses what it was like to be raised in a time of intense turmoil and in a family that rose to power and corruption, amongst themselves.
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