In Conversation

SONGS OF CORRUPTION: Christian Parenti with Fatima Bhutto

Jacket photograph © Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Image.

Fatima Bhutto, the 28-year-old niece of Benazir Bhutto, has just published Songs of Blood and Sword, a memoir about the Bhutto family and their central role in the high politics of Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state, serving as Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 – 1990 and again from 1993 – 1996. Benazir was in exile after that but returned to Pakistan and was assassinated in 2008 while campaigning for office.  Fatima’s uncle by marriage, Asif Zardari, is the current President.

Wealthy feudal landlords, the Bhutto family has been central to Pakistani politics since the nation’s birth in 1948. Fatima’s grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a prominent politician, founded the Pakistan Peoples Party (P.P.P.) in 1967 as a secular, socialist organization. The P.P.P. has since drifted rightward and become infamous for the extreme corruption of its leaders. Songs of Blood and Sword focuses particularly on Fatima’s father, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, who was murdered by police in 1996 while his older sister Benazir was Prime Minister.

Christian Parenti (Rail): Why did you write the book? What did you want to achieve by it?

Fatima Bhutto: We have this history of political assassinations in the country. There is a legacy, a history of violence in Pakistan, specifically a history of assassinations, whether they are public figures or journalists or activists, and part of that history is also a history of silence. We are not allowed to talk about how, two years into the country’s history, its first appointed prime minister was killed. And 63 years later we don’t know by whom or why. That’s a history I’ve watched through my family very closely.

So part of the reason for this book was to break that silence.  And the other is that it was one of the last things I promised my father before he was killed—that I would write his story. Although I always knew that I would have to do it, it occurred to me that if I didn’t start writing when I did I was going to lose access to a lot of information, to a lot of people, and it became an urgent sort of quest to preserve that history.

Rail: Tell us about the class structure of Pakistan. This is important to the story of your family. And it is important to the country in particular at this moment, with the floods.

Bhutto: Pakistan is structured along feudal lines. The last comprehensive land reforms were in the 1970s under my grandfather, but they were not completed because he was overthrown. Then you haven’t had any effort at pushing through land reform in the country. So you have a country that at the time of its founding was said to have the wealth of its entire nation controlled by 20 families. And now, 63 years later, that number has increased to
27 families.

It is an incredibly rich country, not just agriculturally, and it’s the agricultural food belt that has been devastated by these floods. Pakistan grows all the food it needs to eat. It also has gas, oil resources, and 118 million people.

That said, you still have a country—and this is one of the strangest facts—that was unable to eradicate polio because they couldn’t refrigerate the vaccines. So it’s a nuclear-armed country that doesn’t provide the most basic health services to its people. It’s got a literacy rate that hovers around 30 percent, officially. Unofficially, it’s higher because the only criterion for literacy is the ability to sign your name.

Rail: And it’s heavily in debt despite this wealth.

Bhutto: Absolutely. Not only has Pakistan taken billions of dollars from America over the last 10 years, but from the I.M.F. [International Monetary Fund], from the World Bank, from the European Union.

Rail: And where has this money gone?

Bhutto: That’s the big question. It tends to go into private Swiss bank accounts. In 2005, we had a devastating earthquake in the Northern regions of Pakistan and Pervez Musharraf’s government raised $6.7 billion through a donor conference. Five years later, we have no accounting of where that money’s gone. We have no accounting of how much was spent on the reconstruction effort. Or really, if any of it was spent at all. The government currently in power is infamous for its graft.

Rail: This is a perfect segue to the current president, your uncle by marriage, Asif Ali Zardari, a k a “Mister Ten Percent”—which a lot of people say is an underestimate of his cut of government contracts.

Bhutto: Well, he does do better than that. 10 percent was under his wife’s first term. Upward of 50 percent was under her second, and now under his first term, he is called “Mister Hundred and Ten Percent.” [Laughter.] Also, the New York Times says the first couple was estimated to have taken between $2 billion and $3 billion during Benazir’s first two governments.

Rail: So, Zardari is President, plundering the nation, in the midst of the crisis going off to his château in the south of France. But in relation to your book, do you think that he ordered the murder of your father, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, back in 1996? You say that Zardari and Benazir are “morally responsible,” but what do you
think happened?

Bhutto: At the time that my father was killed, Benazir’s government had empowered the police forces and the security agencies under the aegis of Operation Cleanup to “cleanup” Karachi. In the year-and-a-half to two-year period that Operation Cleanup was in effect, some 3,000 men were murdered in Karachi, in exactly the same way, in these extrajudicial killings. So there’s no doubt that that government—and specifically the first couple—oversaw, condoned, and celebrated the incredible use of violence and force.

Rail: And these were political associations or sort of social, like— —

Bhutto: They were mainly members of an opposition party who were killed under Operation Cleanup. But they also included activists, dissidents, journalists, community organizers.

Rail: Which opposition?

Bhutto: The M.Q.M. [Muttahida Quami Movement, a right wing mainstream Islamic party]. It was part of a long-running feud between the P.P.P. and the ethnic Muhajir party in Sindh. They were targeted through Operation Cleanup. At the time that my father was killed, some 3,000 men were killed in exactly the same way. When the murder took place, it was Benazir’s government that allowed the police to clean the scene of the crime immediately afterwards. All the witnesses were arrested, and they were kept in police custody in jail until Benazir’s government fell, without access to lawyers or to their own families, while at the same time the police were internally cleared and put back on their beats. We also know that, as president, Zardari awarded a national medal to one of the men accused in my father’s murder case. Not usually a thing you do to someone you’re accused alongside of in a murder case.

It was also Benazir’s government that stopped us from filing a police case after the murder. Benazir’s government stopped us from filing a criminal case, instead putting it before an “advisory tribunal” with no real power, and it was that tribunal that said that the order to assassinate Murtaza Bhutto could not have happened except with approval from the highest level of government.

Rail: You paint a vivid picture of your father, but you have been criticized for glossing over his own use of violence. There’s the Pakistan International Airline hijacking of ’81: Was he involved? Were the hijackers members of your father’s armed group, Al Zufikar Organization [A.Z.O.], or weren’t they? In the book you essentially say you think he was not responsible.

Bhutto: It’s strange to be accused of that, because the same courts that accused my father and his brother of the hijacking also honorably acquitted them in 2003. And those same courts that then acquitted him of the hijacking have refused to take the case forward. A plane was hijacked, we know, but it appears that if it’s not Murtaza Bhutto in charge of it there’s no interest in carrying on the case and in continuing to investigate who ordered it. It all ended with my father’s acquittal. I, for one, want it to go forward.

In terms of the hijacking, I interviewed Suhial Sethi, who was there at the time, who is a first-hand witness to the event. It’s not just my opinion that my father was not involved in the hijacking, but also the very courts which had more than 90 cases placed—you know, 90 cases of terrorism, sedition, treason—placed against the two brothers. And all those cases continue now. Normally, in the event of a death, the case ends. But in Murtaza Bhutto’s case they have continued. So he’s been posthumously acquitted and cleared of these cases until last year, really, we had a case come up. I was very clear in saying that it was not a path that I glorify, or that I wish to romanticize. I think it was the path of two young men who were younger than I am now, 28, when they formed an armed resistance movement. And I was also clear in talking about, you know, the SAM6 [surface to air missile] attack on the general’s plane. A.Z.O. did make attempts like that one, but the hijacking just wasn’t one of them. I didn’t clear my father; the courts cleared him.

Rail: Right. How did he talk about that episode in his life? It was a different time, you know; it was “the age
of evolutions.”

Bhutto: Yes. Well I was very young. I wasn’t born when the hijacking happened.

Rail: Not just the hijacking, but the whole idea of violent resistance against what was admittedly a really
atrocious government.

Bhutto: I remember he used to quote Thomas Jefferson, who said, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” I think that’s how they viewed it; they had spent two years, him and his brother, and his family and many of the people affiliated with and in support of the party, travelling across the globe, meeting with presidents, senators, media organizations, to push for clemency for their father [who was court marshaled by General Zia’s regime]. They held law conferences; Ramsey Clark came and spoke at a legal conference. And all that diplomatic effort amounted to nothing. [Ali Zulfikar Bhutto was hanged by the regime on  April 4, 1979.]

I think as children of the ’70s, who grew up idolizing people like Patrice Lamumba and obviously Che Guevara, it seemed that force was the language that was understood when diplomacy was not, and they faced too large a force to fight back against. A government versus whom? Just people.

Rail: So the book in many ways is your story, it’s your father’s story, it’s Pakistan’s story, and it’s the story of the Pakistan Peoples Party that is now in power. What is your responsibility as an heir to this political tradition? It must be very hard. At one level I can imagine you would just want to avoid it completely, because if you step into it you’re taking on a certain responsibility. Is one of the goals of this book to rehabilitate the spirit of the P.P.P.? Is there another party that could properly govern Pakistan? What is the role of the Bhutto family and that party? The party has been criticized for having become a family heirloom of your aunt’s side of the family. Is the P.P.P. salvageable? What is your responsibility as an heir to the family and the story?

Bhutto: You know, I think the P.P.P. as it stands today is a wholly bastardized form of that original party. It doesn’t bear any semblance to its original foundation, in that the original Peoples Party was founded upon socialist lines. It was against tying Pakistan to the commonwealth and CENTO [Central Treaty Organizaion]. It sought closer ties with Muslim and Third World countries rather than First World powers. And now it’s a party of bureaucrats and businessmen. It’s the only party that has ever opened up Pakistan’s skies to a foreign power, to bomb as it may. Pakistan is a very young country; it’s only 63 years old. But like any other nation-state, it’s got a particularly amnesic history. It’s a country whose politics now runs on ghosts, on photographs, not on platforms.

 I think part of my responsibility is to pull away that shroud and talk about the failings. I’ve been criticized a lot in Pakistan for criticizing some of the things the P.P.P. did during the 1970s. But I think if we don’t criticize and we don’t talk about these things, we have this amazing ability to revise our history, and it’s landed us in this position today.

Rail: But what is your role? I mean, you’ve said you’re not going to go into politics, but this is clearly a political book, and you’re taking responsibility for the bastardization of the party, which is so closely associated with your parents. So what is your responsibility politically? For example, do you support other parties?

Bhutto: Well, I wouldn’t take responsibility for the bastardization because it was done— —

Rail: No, not in the sense of guilt, but some sort of responsibility must be addressed.

Bhutto: Well, I think this is a political book and I am a political person, but I’ve never been inclined or interested in perpetuating this dynastic system. Because the one thing, to my mind, that dynasty does above all else, is it negates participation. We’ve had 60 years of dynasty ruling in Pakistan—okay, 30 years, let’s say, of intensive dynasty. And we know that it doesn’t strengthen democratic institutions. It doesn’t strengthen political participation and it doesn’t foster any kind of inclusivity in the system; it does the opposite of all three. The only thing that I can do then is to refuse to further it, to perpetuate it. I am political in my writing and always have been, and I am politically active. But I am not affiliated with any party.  What I think is interesting is the wonderful community organizations or parties that work on a local body level. Those I would be interested in supporting.

Rail: What are some of those? I ask you to be specific in part because it’s one of my great pet peeves with the American media that we don’t even, in talking about Iraq or Afghanistan, use the names of local politicians or parties other than the top one or two. The texture of politics elsewhere is never even conveyed. So what are some of these movements you support?

Bhutto: Well, there was a very brave man in Baluchistan, named Habib Jalib, who was killed in Quetta, Baluchistan in July. Habib Jalib was named after one of our most beloved poets. He was with the Baluchistan National Party. It’s a provincial party, secular and Marxist-socialist. And it’s a party that speaks to issues pertaining to the Baluchi people. The Baluchistan National Party is very concerned that the army and the political establishment control the gas resources of that province, but that none of the profits come back to the province. If I were a 28-year-old living in that region, I would be interested in the Baluchistan National
Party’s views.

My father founded a reform movement just a year-and-a-half before he was killed, and it still runs, again on this very small level, and again it’s a secular party; it doesn’t have these sort of autocratic foundations; they have internal elections. And I think there are also a lot of informal organizations. During General Pervez Musharraf’s precidency it came to light that some 10,000 people had disappeared in the Baluchistan province under the War on Terror. We knew about those disappearances, not from the courts, but only because of the families who stood with the photographs. They were beaten and arrested; it was a huge issue in Pakistan in 2005 – 2006. They’re not a political party, as such, but that kind of movement I think is very promising.

Rail: The lawyers and judges come to mind. At least from the outside they look like a functioning institution.

Bhutto: It’s trickier, because Pakistan has a history of lawyers’ movements, and part of researching this book—I was always very interested in the 1980s and Zia ul Haq’s period. And you really saw tremendous movement from the legal community then. Of course, Benazir brutalized the constitution, put in place blasphemy laws and all these kinds of things. So I think there have been stronger movements. What I find particularly worrying about this recent lawyers’ movement is that it was in many ways very tribal, in the sense that it was about one man’s job: reinstating Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. And it was supposed to be a fight for the independence of the judiciary, but it was sponsored by the P.P.P. and the P.M.L. [Pakistan Muslim League]. That doesn’t sound particularly independent to me, especially since both those parties have histories of sacking the courts and filling the courts. And in the end, Musharraf, in negotiation with Benazir, signs the National Reconciliation Ordinance, which essentially wipes out 20 years’ worth of corruption cases—against politicians, bankers, and bureaucrats—and includes stipulations that would make it virtually impossible to file future charges against sitting parliamentarians.  There was not a peep from the lawyers’ movement about that.

Rail: In terms of the U.S. coverage of Pakistan, you know, it’s a country of just beards and bombs, but your book resurrects this secular left tradition. And you’ve mentioned some of those movements, but what is the situation now with extremism in the context of the floods, in the context of the P.P.P. being the morally bankrupt vessel for progressive secular ideas?

Bhutto: The P.P.P. hasn’t been a vessel for those ideas since the ’70s. This is the third time they’ve been in power since Zulfikar. They’ve made no efforts to remove the blasphemy law, which means that anyone who looks sideways at a Koran can be put to death. They haven’t removed the Hudood Ordinances—

Rail: Are people actually punished under the
blasphemy laws?

Bhutto: Yes, they can be. And the blasphemy laws are so vague that if you—this is an example of how they use it, a shopkeeper neighbor will come say, “I saw my competitor/neighbor yesterday rip the Koran and set it on fire in his garden.” End of story. And the punishment can be death.

Rail: Have people been killed for this?

Bhutto: They have been. If it gets any kind of attention, usually there is some outcry and then things can be salvaged. But on a micro level, it’s used often and it’s used violently. The Hudood laws are the same, pertaining specifically to women. So if a woman commits adultery or engages in premarital intercourse, she can be put to death. I can’t think of a time when a woman was put to death, but they are still jailed.

Rail: I imagine these laws function as a wink and a nod of approval to informal justice, among families, in villages and stuff like that.

Bhutto: Absolutely. Also, the P.P.P.’s perpetual election allies are the Jamaat-e-Islami [an Islamic party]; the two parties are constantly allied in elections. This doesn’t make the papers, but it’s a fact in the country. Not that the P.P.P. needs Jamaat-e-Islami; the P.P.P. doesn’t need them because they’re a humongous party, and the Islamic parties are very small.

Rail: And Benazir hosted the fundamentalist Afgahn [Hizb-ul-] Mujahideen during 1980s.

Bhutto: Exactly, absolutely. And during her last government only three countries in the world recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan: Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. [United Arab Emirates], and Benazir’s Pakistan. In terms of fundamentalism or extremism, I think it’s always been very clear that these parties are only recently popular, and not because of their sophisticated political philosophy, but because they fill a vacuum.

Rail: Also, what about the Taliban moving out of the Northwest Frontier and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and into Sindh? There is a kind of—superficial, at least—class element to this; the Taliban are calling for land reform, they’re playing on class grievances.

Bhutto: Yes, in Punjab the Taliban have become very popular because they’ve played on the issues of bonded labor and the whole feudal structure. This speaks to a lot of people. It’s not only that they fill a vacuum, in the sense that they set up madrasahs, which may be your child’s only chance for literacy. But with the flood and massive earthquake of 2006, the fundamentalist parties have been incredibly efficient: they come in with mobile medical vans, set up tent villages, distribute food; and they’re seen as trustworthy, they’re seen as dependable, they’re seen as not corrupt.

They also provide in terms of access to justice. Speedy justice. Well, it’s not justice, but you can come, have your grievance heard, decided, and finished. That has made them popular. Also the War on Terror makes them extraordinarily popular. They are a small bunch of men fighting against the first-largest army in the world and the seventh-largest army, Pakistan’s. You know, why does Pakistan allow these predator drones to
fly overhead?

Rail: Are civilian casualties an issue in popular opinion?

Bhutto: In popular opinion, you read on the BBC, it will say it’s about a thousand people killed in drone attacks from 2009 to this point in 2010. 700 last year, I think, and just about 300 or so, maybe more, now. The BBC will say largely civilian, but in Pakistan it will say it’s all civilians. Because if they are killing non-civilians, who are they? Because we never see names, we never see photographs. They’re unindicted, unconvicted people. If they are guilty of crimes, they should be picked up and arrested. All this makes them incredibly popular. When America also says—when the White House says, when 10 Downing Street says—that they are allied with democracy in Pakistan, and they throw their lot in with corrupt criminal governments that sanction these predator drone attacks, the language then that they connect for people is when they say they are pro-democracy, they just mean proxy government. They don’t mean anyone who is genuinely interested in things like freedom of speech, which we don’t have in Pakistan, or mobility.

Rail: Also, what do you see as potentially the best possible scenario for Pakistan coming out of the floods, and the worst possible scenario?

 Bhutto: Well, the worst possible scenario we are already living. We have quite phenomenal censorship initiatives: the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which was passed last summer, that makes it a crime punishable by jail time to satirize the president. It makes having an e-mail address not registered in your full name a crime worth six months in jail. That was last year. This year we saw that the government sanctioned the banning of 500 websites, including Google, YouTube, Facebook, under the pretenses of un-Islamic content found on these websites.

Rail: They banned them completely, or they just banned the elements— —

Bhutto: No they banned them, they shut them down.

Rail: You cannot use Google in Pakistan?

Bhutto: They have it now, because of the outcry within the country—what’s phenomenal about Pakistan is that you’ve got the highest cell phone user rates in the world. Internet usership, for an illiterate country, is phenomenally high. When you close down Facebook, you crash the system in Pakistan. You shut YouTube, it’s a problem. The Lahore High Court—when was it?—in about May, the beginning of May, banned 500 websites, and slowly started then to let them be let back on, although Facebook and one or two others they kept shut down for longer. This is a government that, while there are censorship initiatives, you also have 300 murdered in Karachi just until August, so the first eight months of 2010, in extra-judicial killings. That’s eerily similar to the last time this party was in power. Thousands of people killed in drone attacks.

Rail: Is this really the worst-case scenario? I mean
what about— ­—

Bhutto: We’re living the worst-case scenario.

Rail: What about the possibility of
national disintegration?

Bhutto: I don’t think that’s an immediate threat. You know I think that’s always a tricky thing, you always hear, “Oh well, what about if the nukes get into someone else’s hands?” I’m already worried about whose hands the nukes are in, you know? I think that’s frightening enough already. But if one province splits from the other, you know India’s in trouble. How will India keep its states together? I think we’re currently living the worst-case scenario. The best-case scenario is that foreign interference is pulled out of Pakistan. And people are allowed to have a say in their country’s affairs.

Rail: What do you think the U.S. role should be?

Bhutto: Look at the Kerry-Lugar bill: it would give $7 billion over five years. But if you look at the fine print of what we have to sign on to to get that aid money, it is absurd: we’ve got to open our hiring and firing records of the army, open nuclear paperwork.

Rail: None of which will happen. I was reading that 70 percent of U.S. military aid to the Pakistani army is totally unaudited.

Bhutto: I mean 70 percent sounds low.  If they’re auditing 30 percent, I’d be impressed, but I doubt that’s even
the case.

Rail: So Pakistan will just agree to this, and then not do it.

Bhutto: And then not do it and take the money.

Rail: In this interesting relationship between Pakistan and the U.S., it is not so simple as Pakistan as client- state just does Uncle Sam’s bidding. Pakistan has very much played and used the U.S. over all these years, since the anti-Soviet jihad. It is hard to say which country really has the upper hand.

Bhutto: Yes, certainly it’s a dirty relationship both ways. We do the bidding—for a fee. And that fee is unaudited and goes into the account of whoever is in charge at the time. And now Pakistanis think of America as standing for oppression, corruption, and criminality. All four of our military dictators were close friends of the White House. There’s not one instance where the White House came out and said, “No, sorry, we won’t be funding this dictatorship.” But the one democratically elected government, the first democratically elected government, saw its president executed.

Rail: That being your— —

Bhutto: Grandfather, and America did not do a thing about it.

Rail: What about Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence [I.S.I.] having long supported the Taliban? What do you think the real relationship is now?

Bhutto: It seems to me ridiculous that one can create a monster and then be surprised when it grows out of control. The Pakistani army and intelligence services were the funnel for C.I.A. money in the 1980s going to the Afghan Mujahideen. Now we are to be surprised, 20 years later, that they kept up those ties?

Rail: What do you suppose the situation is now? There is a Pakistani Taliban, which has been nurtured, but has also slipped the leash. Yes?

Bhutto: I think it definitely slipped the leash. If you look at the attacks that have taken place over the last three years in Pakistan, they have predominantly been against the state—army barracks, police stations, government buildings. People talk even now with the floods, people say, “Well is there a chance of a coup coming in, of the army stepping in?” The army can’t step in, because they’ve lost such a tremendous amount of goodwill. I think they lost that goodwill when they entered the War on Terror, when they agreed to do whatever was needed of them. But especially since we’ve opened up for the drones. Especially since people now have proof. Where they had always felt before that their government did the bidding of a foreign power, now we know that they do. So I think in that sense certainly they’ve slipped the leash. How does one rein them back in? Are they closely connected? I don’t particularly think, as much as we might have thought a year ago or two years ago. After the Swat war, where you had the Pakistani army on the ground and the American army in the sky fighting this ragtag bunch of people that, before they went to war, they gave them a peace deal that said they could impose Sharia on this area. It solidified the popularity of those groups, I think. It’s no small feat to be fighting those two huge armies and to come out without a clear defeat. I think what’s amazing also is the way the Pakistani government has handled these wars. That, at the height of the Swat war, they tried to mimic, I guess, what they see abroad, the support our troops, and the yellow ribbons and it didn’t work at all in Pakistan, because the last time we saw our troops kill our own people was Bangladesh. It didn’t make the P.R. move they thought it would. But what was equally bizarre was there was no mention that three million people were turned into an I.D.P. [Internally Displaced Persons] population, and god knows how many people killed. At the same time, give or take a month, Michael Jackson dies, and the Sindh assembly holds a minute of silence for Michael Jackson’s death.  But not for anyone killed in the Swat war.

Rail:  That’s totally insane. That’s like something from a Gary Shteyngart novel.

Bhutto: It is, and it’s true! You can look at it online. It’s absurd, but I think this is the position of the Pakistani state now: they’ve reached the heights of absurdity.

Rail: In closing, any suggestions about how to help with the floods?

Bhutto: Yes, I suggest supporting Merlin U.S.A. They do emergency medical relief and they’ve been in Pakistan since 2005. They’ve done a lot of work with the earthquake, with the I.D.P.s from the Swat war, and they work on pre- and anti-natal care, fight malaria, and do wonderful, wonderful medical work. Their web address is merlin-usa.org.

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