All Power

4 mins read
Power

Salman Tarik Kureshi      Power

With the Doha talks between the representatives of President Trump’s loud, blustering government and the guerrilla bands known as the Taliban said to be “proceeding constructively”, it would be instructive to ask exactly what these talks are about. Clearly, the intention is to give the Taliban some kind of share in the government of Afghanistan and the “negotiations” are about how much and where. It would occur to neither Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, nor to these erstwhile holy warriors, that they should openly participate in a constitutional process and seek a fair share in power through the votes of the Afghan people. No, they are revolutionaries, “holy warriors”, and not politicians. No elections for them. Their power grows, as in Mao’s famous dictum, from the barrel of a gun and these “negotiations” are actually armistice talks, held beneath the shadows of guns.
Force of arms was how the Taliban originally came to power in Afghanistan, back in 1993, how they were driven from power by the Americans in 2001, and how they have been sustaining themselves since.
Whatever may transpire at Doha, my purpose in today’s little essay is to reflect briefly on the period when Mullah Omar and his cohorts actually held power and how they used it. Could the former rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan be in any sense described as benevolent? Just? Kindly? Their rule was unabashedly iron-fisted, violent, and (their declared policies towards women, minorities, liberals, and dissenters of any kind being no secret) highly unjust and unequal. In later years, in Swat, we saw a microcosm of this kind of rule during Mullah Fazlullah’s bloody period of holding power in Swat.
Corruption is often seen as a central political problem in Pakistan
Let me now subject my readers to a major shift of focus in place and time. 15th-century Spain saw the fall of Granada and the triumphant rule of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. It was during their reign that the notorious Spanish Inquisition was unleashed. The Inquisition’s purposes were simple: the elimination of Islam and Judaism by forced conversion of the Muslims and Jews of Al-Andalus to Catholicism and the slaughter of those who refused to convert, and, later, the further winnowing of those who had been converted to ensure a narrow, rigid band of belief. The people of Spain – and especially of the region of Andalusia – suffered oppression, violence, torture, terror, and massacres…all “in the name of God”.
By now, my readers may well wonder where all this is going. Let me confound them a little longer by visiting the Soviet Union, as it then was, during the reigns of Iosef Jughashvili, more commonly known as Josef Stalin, and his successors as Secretaries-General of the Communist Party of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Communist Party, the single political party permitted in the USSR, was tasked with building the new socialist state. The functionaries of this Party’s Apparat, or ‘Organization’, came to be known as Apparatchiks. Now, while capitalist inequalities through private accumulation of wealth were not possible, there emerged what one can refer to as a Two Class system. While every Soviet citizen enjoyed the benefits of the most all-embracing welfare state yet seen, the Apparatchiks, the party functionaries, enjoyed a lot more. Their officially sanctioned benefits included larger homes, motor cars, special provision of various household appliances, overseas travel, dachas (holiday homes) in the countryside or by the sea, special stores for their shopping where imported goods at subsidized prices were available, and much else besides. It should be noted that all these privileges were absolutely legal and were given to these functionaries as a matter of entitlement. The average Soviet citizen, of course, had to suffer the continuing injustice of shoddy products, continual shortages, and long queues that were the hallmark of life in Communist countries.
So, there we have three completely different regimes with one thing in common: whether Taliban Afghanistan, Inquisition Spain, or the Soviet Union, all of these regimes can be characterized as being completely corrupt. I term them corrupt because the persons who ran them oppressed others and denied them freedom, property, or wealth, while effectively arrogating everything to themselves. Did these various kinds of official take bribes? Commissions? Kickbacks? They almost certainly did, at the very least extorting bhatta from victims trembling before them in fear of death, torture, or imprisonment. But, let’s face it. Bhatta or other forms of pecuniary extractions are not the most repulsive features of such regimes. It is the sheer arrogance of their power, the cynical callousness of their assumption that they are justifiably entitled to hold the control they do over others.
This is what constitutes real corruption: the arrogance of power. As Lord Acton famously said, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The rest follows and, in real terms, is less significant.
Beyond the three regimes I have mentioned, three different faces of corruption, there are of course many other examples. From our own sorry history, the thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy during the regime of Field Marshal Ayub Khan is a relatively benign example. These were able people who did an excellent job of building an economic framework for the country. And yet, as we know, their Licence Raj was a notorious means to financial corruption. In contradiction of Mohammad A. Qadeer’s earlier piece in these pages, there is no nexus between corruption and incompetence. Perfect villains may be dead honest in financial terms and the honest fool may cause immense damage through naivete.
Consider the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. That was the time when mega-corruption struck deep roots in the country and grew to monstrous size. Look back over the history of those days and you may recall the regular ministerial changes that took place. It almost seemed as if Zia periodically permitted another and then another group to occupy office and enjoy the spoils thereof. And the spoils were plenty. On one side, American and Saudi aid was pouring in because of the war in Afghanistan and there were plenty of juicy commissions around for the sharing. On the other hand, were the enormous fortunes being made in the illegitimate weapons and drugs rackets? One began to hear of numbered Swiss accounts and of generals and others who were reputed to be dollar billionaires.
And the centre, the source, of all the corruption was the self-styled “simple soldier of Islam”. Zia, in addition to opening up the floodgates of mega-corruption in this country, also set in motion other, still more deadly processes. Even today, more than thirty years after he plummeted in flames to the ground, the malignant processes he set in motion are still rotting the vitals of our state and society.
Yet nobody has ever accused Zia of bribes, kickbacks or commission. (TFT)

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