Has US Policy Failed in Muslim South Asia?
By Sikder Haseeb Khan
Monday, 07 January 2008
Source: The Progressive Bangladesh
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto can only be seen as a setback for pro-democracy forces in South Asia. And with it, efforts to put a positive spin on US foreign policy post September 11 are looking increasingly feeble. Nothing short of a reversal is needed to rescue American interests from the dangers in Pakistan, and increasingly, in Bangladesh.
Pakistan’s situation has become complex, but the danger is plain and simple. Regardless of which militant group carried out the attack, most in Pakistan will continue to implicate, some directly and some indirectly, Pervez Musharraf’s administration. Bhutto was killed in a garrison town—and that too in a heavily militarized state. She complained regularly of living under threat, and noted frequently the lapses in the security detail that the government provided her.
Bhutto said as much also in her final email, written to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer with instructions to make it public in case she is killed. That was her coda to a grim family legacy: her father titled his memoirs, If I Am Assassinated. He was executed in 1979 by General Zia-ul Haq, who went on to rule Pakistan in a style emulated by General Musharraf, as well as by eager followers in Bangladesh, the other Muslim-majority country in South Asia.
Musharraf will continue to deny any involvement, and probably rightly so. But what’s more important is that Pakistan’s general populace will not buy that. The general’s hands are tied. If he takes a harder-line toward extremism, he will ignite greater violence all-around, losing more support of his military, which has become weary of fighting its own people. If he does not take a hardline approach, his government’s complicity will only seem “proven” in the eyes of Pakistanis. On top, he will stand to betray further the hope that the US administration had pinned on him.
But in the bigger picture, his complicity is through his policies, which were devised essentially to serve the bidding of the US war on terror. American use of a primarily offensive approach to win hearts and minds has hardly ever generated any goodwill, let alone favorable outcomes in the longer term. But the logic was exported to Musharraf with a generous dose of aid, and applied wholesale in Pakistan, alienating an increasingly larger group of people in the most volatile part of the world.
Copy in Bangladesh
The last two years, the US administration continued to ignore more democratic possibilities and kept on shoring up the general in Pakistan. And despite the growing signs of failure in that policy, the administration has been replicating it in Bangladesh, supporting another group of generals and their large-scale political purging there.
Under the rule of a center-right party (BNP) that the Bush administration initially supported, Bangladesh experienced a surge of bomb attacks and assassinations between 2001 and 2006. One attack blew up a well-respected former finance minister; another grenade attack, aimed to obliterate the entire leadership the main secular opposition party, claimed the lives of twenty-one, including many senior party members. These attacks were carried out under the connivance of the BNP government; investigations were deliberately stalled or derailed.
With violence increasing, the military took over, supported by Western diplomats. Generals have been ruling Bangladesh under a state of emergency since January 2007. Almost half-a-million have been detained in a massive political purge, many of them summarily convicted by special tribunals to long sentences. But the US continues to support the regime, at times displaying a type of naivete in its choice of allies and adversaries that harks back to the Chalabi era in Iraq.
There is a difference between Bangladesh and Pakistan, and it is this: Bangladesh’s rulers since 2001 have been protecting Islamist extremists, openly. So the outcome, which baffles most analysts, is that US policy has been nurturing the same type of extremist enemy in Bangladesh that it has been fighting directly in Pakistan. Over the years, this enemy has grown; confronting it head-on would be a tricky affair now.
Dictators or democracy? Choose now
The only way out of the policy failure in South Asia is to keep the original American promise: support democratic movements; don’t support dictators, including the type that glibly promises the ‘restoration’ of democracy at some convenient future date. US policy should become transparent and consistent, along the lines of its own founding principles. Dictators should be declared unwelcome, plain and square.
The calculative, interventionist alternative is messier—and as surveys of foreign policy experts show—it has just not worked. So instead of trying to create a moderate movement using a heavy hand, the US should back existing progressive movements. They exist in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, for example, despite the military government’s discomfort, a strong movement has sprung up to expose and try the Islamist war criminals, who brutalized many thousands of Bangladeshis during the 1971 liberation war. The key to the hearts and minds of the majority of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are progressive movements such as these. If now is not the time to abandon support for dictators, once and for all, then when is?