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from issue no. 12 - 2007

The potential scenarios after the kiling of Benazir Bhutto

Not against, but through Islam

An interview with Sergio Romano, leader writer of the Corriere della Sera, expert on international politics: “The US plan of shunting Pakistan back to democracy has destabilized it even further”. An analysis of a country of strategic importance that is always tottering on the edge. The only way out from uncertainty is to follow the model of Erdogan’s Turkey

Interview with Sergio Romano by Roberto Rotondo

Militants of the of the Pakistan Peoples Party lighting candles before a portrait of Benazir Bhutto, killed on 27 December 2007

Militants of the of the Pakistan Peoples Party lighting candles before a portrait of Benazir Bhutto, killed on 27 December 2007

“The most dangerous country in the world”. So said Benazir Bhutto of her homeland Pakistan shortly before her assassination on 27 December last a few days after returning from exile. Bhutto, leader of the Pakistani People’s Party, intended to challenge the current premier Pervez Musharraf for the premiership in the elections that were to be held on 8 January, but, as we know, her election campaign came to an end when she was shot by killers in Rawalpindi. A killing that pushed the country to the edge of chaos for several days. Delicate days in which the West worried insistently about what might become of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads in the case of civil war. Because Pakistan is not a country like any other: it is the only Muslim State in the world with the atomic bomb. Aren’t these weapons too dangerous for an unstable, complicated and contradictory country such as this, ally of the US but homeland of the Taliban and refuge of the Islamic legion? To understand where and what led up to Bhutto’s killing and what potential scenarios are being shaped in one of the areas decisive for international equilibrium, we interviewed Sergio Romano, former diplomat, historian, author, expert on international politics. His last book, Con gli occhi dell’islam [With the eyes of Islam], devoted to the history of the Middle East over the last fifty years, is an attempt to set events in a wider context. Something that the US administration perhaps failed to do in preparing Bhutto’s return to her native land, backing the former Pakistani premier to restore her country to a more ample democracy, after the authoritarian turn taken by Musharraf, the US’s most faithful ally after 11 September 2001.

A justifiable strategy?
SERGIO ROMANO: Fundamentally a strategy that pays no heed to the fact that Pakistan has always been an unstable country, with an uncertain existence, with deep contradictions and internal divisions that have constantly kept the authorities on the see-saw. The country has continued to survive on the edge till 11 September 2001, when the balance was lost because the Americans asked its allies– and Pakistan was an old ally – to make the clear and determined choice of aligning with them. Exactly the opposite of the policy that Pakistan had pursued up to then, but Musharraf accepted. Of course, the president needed the support of the United States and let’s not forget that Pakistan has received ten billion dollars from the USA over these years, most of it going to the military. But if that tactic was not chosen before, there must have been a reason. And now we are suffering the consequences of that choice: the violent heightening of the contradictions that have always defined the country.
Why is Pakistan condemned to uncertainty?
ROMANO: Primarily because its borders have always been uncertain. Pakistan’s main unresolved problem – created in 1947 by the demand of the Muslim peoples of the area to have a national Islamic state – results from drawing up the borders between the Indian and the Muslim populations of the great subcontinent that worked free of the English colonial empire. There was a territorial cross-over of peoples and tribes. The country was born out of a war, and after its birth its borders were immediately challenged by its neighbors. Almost all the border areas, from Baluchistan to Kashmir, are disputed by separatist movements or neighboring countries.
Second factor: from the start Pakistan featured the same contradictions as India, but on a larger scale: a ruling class educated in the West and a vast and much poorer populace swayed by radical religious feeling, little responsive to the need to modernize the country. The English-speaking ruling class, the military colleges based on the British model and, on the other hand, the ten thousand Koranic schools, the Imam of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, are all to be found in the same country but they belong to different worlds. Hence, the rulers of Pakistan have had to take account of these different mindsets. The military has done so by conceding a lot to the more conservative and religious component, in the aim of taming it, of canalising it. They have thus to some extent become allies, fellow-travelers, of the Taliban. That’s why there is a relationship of complicity, of fellow-feeling, between the Taliban and the Internal Security Services. But don’t forget that in the years when Pakistan looked like an emerging power in Asia, the novelty was represented precisely by these ‘students of God’, themselves trained in the Pakistani madrasas financed by Saudi Arabia.
Missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads on show in Karachi

Missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads on show in Karachi

And what has further destabilized the country?
ROMANO: The belated desire of President Bush to be remembered as the agent of the democratization of the Middle East in general and of Pakistan in particular. As we know, it was Condoleezza Rice who set the Bhutto operation in motion: the former Pakistani premier, in fact, returned from exile in the framework of an American strategy to restore democracy. A project in which Musharraf was also to have had a role as president of the Republic. But it all tragically failed.
The American request to the Islamabad government to be allowed to install new US military bases on Pakistani territory along the border with Afghanistan, therefore not far away from Iran, has also made news. It would have raised the tension with the border populations and radical Islam...
ROMANO: One shouldn’t give more than relative credence to the rumours. At this moment the Americans are in no position to open up new fronts. They don’t have men to put into the field. They are having such huge problems with Iraq that they can’t even increase their detachment in Afghanistan, and if there is a war going badly at the moment it’s that one. But the Americans have scraped the bottom of the barrel for recruits. There is now a species of Foreign Legion in the American army in Iraq, mostly made up of Latin Americans persuaded to enlist by the promise of American citizenship at the end of their service. Moreover the US has contracted private companies to perform tasks that were once the prerogative of the specialized army corps, such as intelligence, health, back-up, military engineering itself. Imagine if they could handle the opening of another front.
The fact that Islamabad has the atomic bomb seems to be causing a lot of worry. What chance is there that the nuclear warheads end up in the wrong hands?
ROMANO: It’s always been my view that the nightmare story of nuclear weapons in terrorist hands was spin, a media exaggeration often enough blared outside Pakistan. Of course, were it to happen, it would be a real mess, but I don’t think safeguarding the nuclear arsenal is a problem for the Pakistani military. From the moment that America tolerated Pakistan becoming a nuclear power, it has certainly been taking precautions, making sure that the military circles particularly close to them, also heavily backed financially, are in a position to control the nuclear warheads.
Let’s return to the killing of Benazir Bhutto. Al-Qaida’s claim to responsibility came almost automatically, but there are still many points that have not been cleared up. What idea have you formed?
ROMANO: The killing will be argued about for a long time, but I believe that at this moment it’s more important to understand the factors that have mainly contributed to the destabilization of the country and so created the conditions for Bhutto’s killing. And so we come back to the demand to take sides that the Americans imposed on Pakistan after 11 September. An error that linked the situation of Pakistan to that of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, as matters in Afghanistan grew worse, a species of ghost state came into being in 2002-2003 between Pakistan and Afghanistan, that nobody is in a position to control. The Afghanistan Taliban find refuge there away from the fighting; it’s said that Osama bin Laden is hiding there; there is a grey area in which the Pakistani military authorities negotiate their own presence there. The grey area has also resulted in allowing the reorganization in Pakistan of the militant Islamism that is very probably responsible for the killing of Bhutto. Of course, there will be unending argument about the instigators, but we can basically say that the American project does not appeal to the Islamic militants for a thousand reasons and that Bhutto was a blasphemy even on the anthropological level for militant Islam: a woman in politics and in addition a westernized woman...
Then what might happen at the next elections?
ROMANO. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party remains an important Party, but I don’t believe that the elections, if they are held in February, will produce the results they hope for. Both because they could be tamed, and because Musharraf today is in a stronger position than he was a month ago. Then he felt dogged by the United States asking him for proofs of democratic virtues that he couldn’t or wouldn’t give; for the United States the choice is now no longer between democracy and dictatorship, but between Musharraf and worse. So they’ll back him and if he manages not to founder in the elections, naturally the most delicate stage, he will emerge stronger and, along with him, the authoritarian regime.
The US is not the only power with a strategic interest in Pakistan. China, for example, aiming at expanding into the Persian Gulf, financed the big, recently opened, Pakistani port of Gwadar. But faced with this new phase of instability in the country, what will it do?
ROMANO: Over recent years China’s foreign policy – apart from its two well-known nationalistic obsessions with Taiwan and Tibet – has been dominated overall by concerns of an economic character. It has not engaged in imperialistic politics, its policy has been dictated by economic priorities. China’s great problem is that of guaranteeing raw materials and energy resources for a production that has maintained an annual average growth of 10% per year for three decades. And in the region under discussion the two countries that can best guarantee them access to large oil resources are Iran and Pakistan.
The Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf with Chinese Minister of Communications Li Shenglin during the inauguration of the port of Gwadar, in Pakistan, 20 March 2007

The Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf with Chinese Minister of Communications Li Shenglin during the inauguration of the port of Gwadar, in Pakistan, 20 March 2007

Your book concludes saying: “The solution of the Middle Eastern problems will not come about against Islam but through Islam”. What does that mean for Pakistan?
ROMANO: Pakistan was embarked on a path similar to the one Turkey is pursuing with success: that of absorbing Islam in some way into national politics, of rendering it a legitimizing, not a divisive factor. To shape a fundamentally secular state but one responsive to the problems of religion, in which Islam would be a sort of civil religion. Let’s not forget that under Musharraf and his predecessors, who were substantially all secular, ten thousand madrasas financed by Saudi Arabia were opened. In other words, there is an attempt to reach agreement with the religious element in the country, but also to absorb it, make it functional to a secular plan. In Turkey it is working, whereas in Pakistan the project is failing, because the contradictions are greater, and because it’s very difficult to achieve objectives of the kind when the borders are uncertain and in a state of permanent conflict. But I am convinced that this scheme of using Islam and not opposing it is the only way. And, then, ask yourself: why should Islamic countries have to renounce this religious element when there is a strong religious revival all over the world? Why should they do so when millions of new-born Christians in the United States are influencing political decisions, when the concept of the secular state in Europe is in question in certain ways, when Putin is using Orthodoxy as the civil religion of the State? So we shouldn’t be surprised if in the Middle East, where the processes of modernization that brought secularization have almost always failed, Islam gains followers, not only among the militants of radical extremism, but also among the common people. Enough to look at Cairo or Damascus to see how many women, who aren’t wearing a suicide-bomber belt around their waist, behave as they would not have behaved thirty years ago, even in the way they dress. Thus, those who want to modernize those countries have to accept things they would not have accepted before. Thirty years ago, the Egyptian government imprisoned the militants of the Muslim Brotherhood, today they are to be found in Parliament. Hamas in Palestine is another case. That is why the most interesting example is the Turkish one.
Why is Erdogan succeeding where other Muslim Parties are not?
ROMANO: Turkey has the advantage deriving from a very healthy and promising economic situation. But above all it plays the game by the rules of democracy. The head-on clash last summer between the secular Kemalist tradition and Erdogan’s Party was of extraordinary interest. A very tough clash, but in the public squares, rallies, political battles, the polls: a clash in which not a drop of blood was spilled. Moreover Erdogan’s policy is open towards Europe, something that enables Turkey to breathe with larger lungs. Finally it is important to note that in Turkey progress, economic development, is today driven by classes other than the traditional social ones. There are new social classes that come from less cosmopolitan areas of the country, less steeped in Western secularism and much more naturally Musli.

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