Is the port of Gwadar doomed

Not against, but through Islam


Pakistani People's Party activists light candles in front of a photo of Benazir Bhutto. The politician was assassinated on December 27, 2007.

“The most dangerous country in the world.” This is how Benazir Bhutto described her Pakistani homeland when she returned from exile. She was murdered on December 27th. Ms. Bhutto, leader of the Pakistani People's Party, was due to run against current Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf in the January 8th presidential election - an election campaign that was brutally put to an end by the gunfire of the Rawalpindi killers. The murder plunged the country into deep chaos and gave it agonizing days in which the West kept wondering what would have happened to Pakistan's nuclear warheads in the event of a civil war. Pakistan is the only Muslim state in the world that has nuclear weapons. Weapons that are too dangerous for such an unstable, complicated and contradictory country, an ally of the USA, but also the home of the Taliban and a refuge for the Islamic Legion? We wanted to understand how the murder of Benazir Bhutto could come about, which scenarios are emerging due to the international imbalances in one of the most unstable areas in the world. Read our interview with Sergio Romano, former diplomat, historian, writer and expert on world politics. His most recent book, Con gli occhi dell’islam [Through the Eyes of Islam], on the history of the Middle East over the past 50 years, takes a broader look at these events. Something the US administration may have missed in preparing the return of former Prime Minister Bhutto to her homeland. After the authoritarian interlude Musharraf, the US's most loyal ally after September 11, 2001, it was hoped that she would return her country to democracy.

Can the US strategy be justified?
SERGIO ROMANO: Unfortunately, this strategy failed to take into account the fact that Pakistan is still an unstable country. A country where life is uncertain, full of contradictions and internal divisions that forced those who ruled it to constantly walk a tightrope. The country was constantly “on the brink” until September 11, 2001. But then the Americans demanded that the Allied countries - and Pakistan is one of them - make a clear decision, wanting them to take their side. Although this was the exact opposite of the policies Pakistan had pursued until then, Musharraf relented. Of course, the Pakistani President was dependent on US support, and Pakistan had received $ 10 billion from the US at the time, most of which was invested in the armed forces. But there must have been a reason for not finally taking the side of the USA by then. And what we are experiencing today are the consequences of this “change of side”: the drastic exacerbation of the contradictions that have always shaped the country.
Why is Pakistan doomed to uncertainty?
ROMANO: Mainly because its limits have always been uncertain. The state of Pakistan emerged from the predominantly Muslim parts of British India in 1947 after the end of British colonial rule. And the first unsolvable problem of the country was to define the borders after this division of the subcontinent into the two independent states India and Pakistan. There was a crossed exodus of entire peoples and tribes. The country was born out of a war, and its borders were instantly the bone of contention for its neighbors. A dispute broke out around almost all border areas from Baluchistan to Kashmir - triggered by separatist movements or neighboring countries.
Second factor: Pakistan exhibited the same contradictions from the beginning as India, but to an exacerbated extent: a leadership class trained in the West was faced with a poor broad mass of the people with a radical religiousness that was unsuitable for the necessary modernization measures. So in one and the same country you have a leadership class that speaks English and military academies in the British style, but also ten thousand Koran schools and the imams of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. So whoever ruled Pakistan had to take these two worlds into account. The military has done this by making many concessions to the more conservative and religious component with the aim of appeasing them and pulling them to their side. So they became a kind of allies, neighbors of the Taliban. This also explains the complicity and “collegiality” between the Taliban and the security services. But one must not forget that back when Pakistan appeared as the rising power of Asia, the novelty was precisely those “divine students” who were trained in the Pakistani mosque schools financed by Saudi Arabia.

Missiles for the transport of nuclear warheads to Karachi.

What else has affected the stability of the country?
ROMANO: President Bush's belated wish to have his presidency go down in history as a democratizing factor in the Middle East region, and particularly in Pakistan. As is well known, Operation Bhutto was worked out by Condoleezza Rice: the return of the former Pakistani Prime Minister from exile was part of the American strategy to restore democratic conditions in Pakistan. A plan in which Musharraf would also have played a role: as president. But that all tragically failed.
The Americans are said to have asked the government in Islamabad about the establishment of American military bases on Pakistani territory, more precisely on the border with Afghanistan, not far from Iran. That would have exacerbated the tensions between the peoples at the national borders, especially those with the most radical forms of Islam ...
ROMANO: You have to be careful with rumors like that. The Americans are currently unable to operate on new fronts. They have run out of troops and Iraq has enough on their hands. So much so that they cannot even increase their troop contingent in Afghanistan. And if there is a war that is currently going very badly, then it is the latter. But the Americans have now exhausted their last resources when it comes to recruiting as well. In the US Army in Iraq there is a kind of Foreign Legion, consisting mainly of Latin Americans, who could be lured with the prospect of American citizenship (after the end of the war, of course). In addition, the United States has entrusted private companies with tasks that were previously the responsibility of the Army Special Corps, such as services, health care, assistance and the expansion of military structures. And should you be able to create a new front? I really don't think so!
The fact that Islamabad has nuclear weapons seems to be a headache for many. What is the likelihood that nuclear warheads will fall into the wrong hands?
ROMANO: I have always considered this nightmare of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the terrorists to be an instrumentalization, a propagandistic exaggeration,> Let's come back to the murder of Benazir Bhutto, which Al-Qaeda carried out almost immediately afterwards Has taken account. However, many aspects are still unresolved. What is your opinion?
ROMANO: This murder will be talked about for a long time. In my opinion, it would be much more important to find out which factors are responsible for the destabilization of the country and what ultimately created the conditions for the murder of Ms. Bhutto. And there we are again at the "change of sides" that the Americans demanded of Pakistan after September 11th. A mistake that made Pakistan dependent on the war in Afghanistan: when things got worse and worse in Afghanistan, at the turn of the year 2002/2003, a kind of phantom state emerged between Pakistan and Afghanistan that no one can control. There the Afghan Taliban find comfortable places of refuge; Osama bin Laden is said to be hiding there; and there is a gray area in which the Pakistani military leaders also have to fear for their presence. Thanks to this gray area, the militant Islamism that is probably the cause of the murder of Benazir Bhutto has been able to revive in Pakistan. Certainly, one will speculate about the client for a long time, but we can already say that the American project displeases the Islamic activists for a variety of reasons and that Ms. Bhutto was a thorn in the side of militant Islamism, also on an anthropological level: a woman in the Politics, and also a visibly western tint ...
So what can happen in the next election?
ROMANO. Ms Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party remains an important party, but I do not believe that the elections, if held in February, will produce the results we were hoping for. Both because they could be manipulated and because Musharraf is in a stronger position today than it was a month ago. At that time, he was pressured by the United States if he should produce evidence of democratic virtues that he could not or would not do. Today the US no longer has a choice between democracy and dictatorship, only between Musharraf and a greater evil. So you will support him, and if he survives the elections - which is of course the most delicate phase - he will emerge even stronger, and with him the authoritarian regime.
The US is not the only one to consider Pakistan a strategic country. When China wanted to assert itself in the Persian Gulf, it financed the deep-sea oil-and-container port in Gwadar, Pakistan. What will happen now, given this new phase of instability in Pakistan?
ROMANO: In recent years, China has pursued a foreign policy that was primarily guided by economic considerations. Apart from its two well-known "Achilles' heels" Taiwan and Tibet. So it did not pursue an imperialist policy, but one in which the economy dictated what had priority and what did not. Chinese production has been growing at an average annual rate of 10% for three decades - so China’s biggest problem is getting the raw materials and energy sources it needs. And the two countries that guarantee access to important oil sources are Iran and Pakistan.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf with Chinese Communications Minister Li Shenglin at the inauguration of the port in Gwadar (Pakistan, March 20, 2007).

Your book ends with the words: "The solution to the problems in the Middle East region will not be against, but through Islam." What does this mean for Pakistan?
ROMANO: Pakistan has taken a similar path as Turkey, which is successfully pursuing its own: to let Islam “flow” into domestic politics, in other words to make it a legitimation and not a separating factor. A fundamentally secular state model, but receptive to the problems of religion. And a model in which Islam is a kind of “civil religion”. We must not forget that under Musharraf and his predecessors, ten thousand mosque schools funded by Saudi Arabia opened their doors. So one tries to come to a common denominator with the religious component of the country, but also wants to absorb it and adapt it to a secular model. It works in Turkey, but not in Pakistan. The contradictions are simply greater there, and besides, it is very difficult to envisage such goals in a state at a constant state of war, especially with uncertain national borders. I am convinced that this project of using Islam instead of opposing it is the only way. And why should the Islamic countries forego this religious component, when a strong revival of religion is underway all over the world? Where millions of New Evangelicals in the US influence political decisions; the conception of a secular state in Europe is under discussion under certain aspects and Putin uses orthodoxy as a civil state religion? So we should not be surprised if Islamism in the Middle East, where the modernization processes that led to secularization almost always failed, finds more and more supporters - and not only among the ranks of radical extremist activists, but also among them simple people. One only has to look around Cairo or Damascus to see how many women who do not wear a kamikaze belt around their waists exhibit behaviors that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago - including what their clothes are concerns. So if you want to modernize these countries, you have to accept things that you would not have accepted before. Thirty years ago the Egyptian government threw the activists of the Muslim Brothers in prison; today they are in parliament. Another such case is Hamas in Palestine. And that's exactly why Turkey is the most interesting example.
Why is Erdogan successful where other Islamic parties fail?
ROMANO: Turkey has the advantage of an economically very healthy and very promising situation. Above all, however, it adheres to the democratic rules of the game. The last round of the dispute between Kemal's secular tradition and Erdogan's party last summer was extremely interesting. It was a relentless fight, but one that was fought in the squares, in the polling stations, in political debates, at the polls: a dispute in which not a single drop of blood was spilled. Erdogan also pursues a policy that is open to Europe and that makes Turkey catch more breath. It is also important that progress in Turkey, especially economic progress, is no longer being driven by the traditional social classes, but by new, less cosmopolitan areas of the country. Zones that are not so much shaped by Western secularism, but that are Muslim in a much more natural way.