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Clinton’s South Asian Tour: The Pakistan Afterthought

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For months, the White House stalled on whether Clinton should go to Pakistan. Islamabad has after all been a long time faithful ally of Washington — during the Cold War and especially during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But the military take over in Islamabad, Pakistan’s refusal to use its influence to extradite Osama Ben Laden from Afghanistan or ban the Harkat-ul Mujahideen, an armed Pakistani group the U.S. lists as a terrorist organization, have strained traditionally strong ties. The White House was worried that a visit to Pakistan would be seen as endorsing the military regime in Islamabad. But barely two weeks after a 50,000 dollar fund-raiser by Pakistani-Americans for Hilary Clinton’s Senate race last month, Clinton reversed himself and announced he would visit Pakistan after all. So was the campaign contribution a factor in influencing the president? [includes rush transcript]


  • Tariq Ali, London based Pakistani writer and journalist. E-mail: Tariq Ali.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And we are now going to London, as well, as we are in Delhi, Minnesota and London, to talk about this historic visit of President Clinton to the Indian subcontinent. For months, the White House stalled on whether Clinton should go to Pakistan. Islamabad has, after all, been a longtime faithful ally of Washington during the Cold War and especially during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

But the military takeover in Islamabad, Pakistan’s refusal to use its influence to extradite Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan or ban the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, an armed Pakistani group, the US lists as a terrorist organization, has strained traditionally strong ties. The White House was worried that a visit to Pakistan would be seen as endorsing the military regime in Islamabad, which just came to power as a result of a coup.

But barely two weeks after a $50,000 fundraiser by Pakistani Americans for Hillary Clinton’s Senate race last month, Clinton reversed himself and announced he would visit Pakistan after all. Was the campaign contribution a factor in influencing the President? Well, that’s not clear, but joining us now from London to talk about the issue, Pakistani writer and journalist, Tariq Ali. Welcome to Democracy Now!

TARIQ ALI: Hi, there.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. I wanted to read you a little piece from Maureen Dowd’s column last week in the New York Times. It’s an excerpt where she says, “Pakistani Americans and Indian Americans were watching his decision whether to stop in Pakistan on his upcoming visit to the Indian subcontinent. The Pakistani community encouraged the stop. Indians staunchly opposed it. According the _Times_’s Raymond Bonner, a group of Pakistani American donors moved up the date of a fundraiser for Hillary so they could press her to support the stop in Pakistan.

“They were told she would not appear unless they raised at least $50,000. They prepared spicy goat curry, but she did not stay long enough to eat. She told the donors she hoped her husband would to go Pakistan. Last week he announced he would. Pressed about the story, Mrs. Clinton said, 'If anybody thinks they can influence the President by making a contribution to me, they are dead wrong.'” What’s your thought on this, Tariq Ali?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think they’re probably dead right. I think this has been one of the more venal administrations we’ve seen in the United States for a long time. And we know the donors’ money helps. We’ve seen it in the case of Chinese millionaires. And I think it’s sort of generally well accepted that one way to get policy slightly modified is to give large amounts of money to election funds. So I think that the US Pakistani Americans who helped her out knew exactly what they were doing. And they’ve succeeded. Best of luck to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what have been the most recent developments in Pakistan? For example, the new leader — I just heard early this morning on the BBC that the new leader is calling for the death penalty for the leader he just opposed, who is now on trial.

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think the military takeover of Pakistan was a deeply regrettable act, despite the fact that the politicians of both major parties were incredibly corrupt. A better thing to do would have been to organize a transition period and have a new general election. But this they refused to do. And I think that the army takeover is not going to solve any fundamental problems confronting that country.

And one of the central problems have been a total breakdown in law and order, because fundamentalist Islamic groups, armed by the intelligence wing of the army, hold sway in several cities. That’s within Pakistan.

On the borders of Pakistan, you have a Taliban regime backed by Pakistan and tacitly staying in power with the approval of the United States, which is probably the most horrific regime in the world, which totally wipes out equality for women. Women are treated just — as worse than slaves. They’re treated as sub-humans in that country.

And so, we have a very critical situation there, for which the United States during the Cold War was largely responsible. I think it would be very educative for Madeleine Albright to spend a week in Kabul and just see what’s going on.

This is the outcome of Brzezinski’s policy in that part of the world some years ago. So, we are now seeing all the chickens coming home to roost in Pakistan. I mean, Musharraf, the leader of the coup, who rules Pakistan today, claims to be liberal and secular. Well, perhaps he is. We don’t know. But he is certainly flanked on either side by two fundamentalist generals very close to the Taliban and close to the armed groups.

And if there’s anything to talk about with these guys, it’s to say when are you retreating to barracks, when are you cutting down the size of your army, when are you decreasing military expenditure, which is hundreds of times more than that spent on health and education, and when are you permitting democracy again?

AMY GOODMAN: What about General Pervez Musharraf, the new leader, calling for the death sentence for previous prime minister, Nawaz Sharif?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think it is utterly appalling. I mean, you know, regardless of the merits or demerits of the case, I think to get rid of a politician by executing him never pays. Of course, it has been done in Pakistan before. The previous military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, ordered the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and got away with it, because he was helping the United States and Afghanistan, and they wanted a military regime in power in Islamabad, so no one objected. This time I think he will not be allowed to get away with it. I don’t think Nawaz Sharif will be executed, and the fact that Musharraf has called for it, if he has, is deeply retrogressive.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Pakistani prosecutors are urging they impose the death sentence.

TARIQ ALI: Yeah, well, I think it’s appalling if they are. I mean, it’s an open question what’s going on in this trial, in any event. But to call for a death penalty for this guy on sort of charges which seem to be somewhat manufactured is simply grotesque. And, I mean, you know, there’s absolutely no doubt that Clinton’s visit to this capital will be seen as a de facto endorsement of this regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, whether or not Nawaz Sharif gets the death penalty, clearly his lawyer did, Iqbal Raad, who was gunned down in a daylight attack in Karachi last week.

TARIQ ALI: Yeah, certainly was. And 'til this day, we don't know who was behind that attack. I doubt very much whether it was the military regime, because it wasn’t in their interest. But what the gunning down of Nawaz Sharif’s lawyer Raad shows is that the law and order situation is really not under control. And in the old days people used to say, the army’s in power, at least law and order will be better. But that has not happened this time, because large numbers of people are armed with weapons, which were flooded into the country at the time of the war in Afghanistan, and we’re still paying a price.

I mean, Pakistan is, at the moment, a military dictatorship largely funded by narco money. I mean heroin is still being produced in massive quantities in Afghanistan and funneled through the port of Karachi to the rest of the world. So this is the situation we confront.

The fact that this regime has now got nuclear weapons is further cause for concern, because if the Taliban types were ever to take over the army, one would need to be extremely worried. This is why I think the Indians have to take some positive initiative.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, joining us from London, a Pakistani writer and journalist. Among his books, Masters of the Universe.

Professor Jayati Ghosh in New Delhi, this issue of nuclear weapons, first India testing nuclear weapons, followed immediately by Pakistan testing nuclear weapons, the US sanctioning India, though it’s not clear that it had much effect. But what are the views of the US, considering this country has not signed onto the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? Meaning the United States.

Are you there?

Let me see if S.P. Udayakumar is still there.

S.P. UDAYAKUMAR: Hi, hey. [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: What are the views of Indians, considering, while the US is pressuring India and Pakistan on the issue of nuclear weapons, the US has not signed onto the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty?

S.P. UDAYAKUMAR: That’s right. That’s right. Of course, I think there is unanimity among all the Indian political parties that we shouldn’t sign CTBT, although just one thinks the conversation with Talbott, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, has been having this as the main goal, having India sign the CTBT and possibly NPT. But the BJP government would definitely like to please their newfound lovers and sign the treaties and get on with life. But the Indian political opinion is completely against the signing in such treaties, so because of that pressure, I think the BJP government is kind of holding back a little bit. And now, this visit will definitely highlight that issue. Reports indicate that President Clinton and his team will definitely bring this up, although they are embarrassed by the fact that the senate here hasn’t ratified any of those treaties — I mean CTBT, I mean.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think, Tariq Ali, is most important for people to understand right now, as President Clinton makes this trip, about Pakistan? And what about President Clinton going for four hours to a military base in Pakistan?

TARIQ ALI: As we were discussing earlier, I think Clinton changed his mind and decided to go and see these guys for four hours. That’s — what is important is what he’s going to say to them, because what you’ve got to understand is that the Pakistani military, over the last twenty-five to thirty years, has largely been trained, armed, encouraged by the United States of America. The United States has been behind every single coup d’etat in Pakistan, bar this one. I think this one did take them by surprise, even though they thought something was coming.

So there’s a total mess in that part of the world, and the question is, how can it be cleared up? I can’t see Clinton offering them anything, because the IMF and the World Bank are suggesting economic prescriptions, which do not improve the condition of the poor there. Unless the condition of the poor is improved by democratic regimes, I think the tendency will be to try and find salvation somewhere.

And that’s why I’m deeply worried that if Musharraf fails, I think there is a real chance the country could be sort of engulfed in a civil war, and a fundamentalist-style regime could come to pass. The Taliban make no secret of their views. They say, “We are in Kabul, but we’re internationalists. We want to take Islamabad, and we want to take Central Asia.” So what is going to happen? And this is where the nuclear question becomes paramount.

Now, there’s no good Western leaders moralizing and telling a country as large as India, “You can’t have nuclear weapons.” But Britain, which is a tiny little state, carries on having them. France carries on having them. I think an international initiative is needed to really restrict and begin to disarm nuclear weapons. This is what is needed. It won’t happen just with the West lecturing third world states in Asia, which are much larger than most of Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for joining us. We’ll be bringing people specials throughout the week on India, on Bangladesh, on Pakistan, as President Clinton makes this historic trip. We’ve been speaking with Tariq Ali, who is a Pakistani journalist in Britain, one of his books, Masters of the Universe. Jayati Ghosh was with us, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and S.P. Udayakumar is with the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota.

Is there a website people can go to, Mr. Udayakumar? Well, he’s just left us. But what about Tariq Ali, for further information? Well, we will break now, and when we come back — we’ll give you some websites at the end of the program — we’ll be speaking with the Reverend Al Sharpton.

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