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The letter

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FOR days ‘the letter’ has triggered unending speculation and intrigue. Our teetering-on-the-brink prime minister has become the subject of yet more memes amongst his opponents, while his supporters’ siege mentality has only hardened. Lost in the mix is the very real question of foreign intervention and Pakistan’s ruling classes.

One does not have to subscribe to the standard state-nationalist narrative of the ‘foreign hand’ to acknowledge that this is a country with a garrison inheritance in which Western powers — the US especially — as well as players closer to home like Saudi Arabia and China are entrenched within the body politic and economy.

So how does one place in its rightful context the role of imperialism in our nominally sovereign affairs? How does one state the facts and at the same time force PTI supporters who posit reactionary ‘Western culture is ruining us’ arguments to acknowledge that the rot starts at home?

One would start with the 1958 coup d’état, which, the historical record confirms, was very much in the knowledge, and took place with the approval of, the US ambassador in Islamabad. It was thus that Gen Ayub Khan later called his American patrons “friends, not masters”.

Then there was Gen Ziaul Haq, who overthrew the country’s first elected prime minister and was welcomed into office by Washington. The latter poured dollars into his lap and helped him foment militant jihad in Pakistan and the Muslim world at large.

Most recently, Gen Musharraf signed onto to the US-led war on terror, boasting in his autobiography that he earned ‘bounties’ by handing over ‘terrorists’ (mostly the same ji­­h­adis that were patronised during the Zia era) to the Americans. This was the same Mush­ar­raf that Imran Khan supported in the 2002 presidential referendum and whose support base eventually metamorphosed into the PTI.

Of course, Imran Khan also benefited from ‘foreign intervention’ — the Americans and British certainly did not dislike him, and there is a line of argument which suggests Pakistan under the PML-N between 2013 and 2018 had tilted too far towards the Chinese orbit. And then there was the role that Tahirul Qadri played in dharna politics from 2014 on, parachuting in from Canada whenever required.

No matter which Pakistani government one analyses, however, foreign support doesn’t last forever. Gen Zia’s tryst with the ‘free world’ soured after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Ultimately, a measly mango crate put paid to the navigation system of the plane in which he perished.

Gen Musharraf’s end was less gory. But Washington’s role was no less prominent. The Americans facilitated a negotiated return to power for Benazir Bhutto, a process that eventually culminated in her widower, Asif Zar­dari, replacing Musharraf in the presidency.

And what about Imran Khan? Not surprisingly for a desperate man in desperate circumstances, he is now comparing his predicament to that of Z.A. Bhutto, who of course wrote a book on death row in which he clearly named the US empire as having conspired with Gen Zia to engineer his downfall.

Yet Bhutto came to power in an era when left-wing movements were at their peak. Workers, peasants and students not only understood the destructive role played by Western imperialism in our country but also called out the home-grown Mir Jaffers and Mir Sadiqs that facilitated empire. Popular mobilisations of the people compelled Bhutto to cut ‘fat and flabby’ generals down to size, promulgate land reforms, nationalise big industries and discipline the Anglicised ‘mandarins’ who ran our colonial civil servi­­ce. Mr Bhutto’s fall began when he started victi­mising trade and student unions, farmers’ associations and political workers whilst also ord­ering military action in Balochistan.

Both before he came to power and during almost four years in the saddle, Imran Khan has done anything but articulate a left-of-centre politics rooted in the grassroots. He certainly has a captive support base, but the latter has only imbibed superficial sloganeering about corruption and national security without actually naming and challenging neoliberal economics, colonial statecraft and the sacred cows who have served as the primary clients of imperialism in our history.

Rather than fanciful slogans and hateful rhetoric, we need a genuinely anti-imperialist politics that starts at home. This is the only way there can be a progressive alternative to the right-wing populism of Imran Khan, and, even more concerningly, militant formations like the Taliban and TLP. We need land to be redistributed from rural and urban landlords to the people. We need to dismantle the virtual apartheid that exists between the military and ‘bloody civilians’. We need to make peace with India and Afghanistan. We need much more. And when such a popular politics gains ground, rest assured that foreign powers will do everything in their power to nip it in the bud.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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