Pakistan cannot fail

The murder of Benazir Bhutto has further weakened a fragile Pakistan, and only free elections can be

The killing of Benazir Bhutto is widely regarded as a devastating loss for Pakistan, leaving a fathomless void which cannot easily be filled. But perceptions of her varied wildly within the country; from leader who had given hope to the helpless masses, to traitor to Islam and American stooge.

She certainly had many potential enemies, and speculation as to who killed her is the talk of the town here in Islamabad. The Musharraf Government has accused Pakistani Taliban groups and other radical Islamists of the murder, whilst her own Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have pointed the finger at the Musharraf government itself.

The government, with its reputation at an all-time low, is not currently receptive to the idea of an international inquiry, along the lines of that conducted into the death of slain Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.

Why would Islamic radicals kill Benazir? What would they gain from her death? The debate in Pakistan seems endless. Those with the most to gain from Benazir’s death are the leadership of Musharraf's PML (Q), which stood to be vanquished by her entry into Pakistan’s electoral politics. Does this suggest that the PML (Q) leadership actually killed her? It is too early to speculate, and the government remains adamant that al-Qaida and the Taliban are responsible. There is of course a possibility that the assassins did receive assistance from some of Pakistan’s many extremist Islamists. Others speculate that she was killed by her political opponents in connivance with elements in the secret services.

Meanwhile, the upcoming parliamentary elections have been postponed until February 18th. The Musharraf government had been warned to proceed in the parliamentary elections very carefully, because the current political situation poses a potential threat to the federation of Pakistan. Following Benazir’s assassination, there is reportedly a new perception in her family's province of Sindh, that Punjabis have “killed another Bhutto”. Perceptions matter in politics and this one is dangerous for the federation, even if it is likely to fade with time. What is certain is that the delayed elections must take place as promised, and must be fair and free, otherwise the country will suffer another serious period of instability and disorder. The western powers, especially the US, must ensure that this happens.

President Bush had been a firm supporter of Musharraf, considered resolute ally in the war on terror. Since 9/11 the US has provided some $10 billion in military and financial aid to Pakistan. More recently, the US supported the idea of a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf. But the domestic turmoil spawned by Bhutto's assassination has prompted widespread fear in Western circles, particularly concerning the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Whilst maintaining that they are the real enemy, the Musharraf government rejects suggestions that Islamic militants might attack or infiltrate secret nuclear storage facilities. It seems likely though, that in the current instability, the war against terrorism in tribal and border areas will slow down, as Musharraf is obliged to focus on the issue of domestic tranquility.

So what next for Pakistan? The country is in serious political crisis and free and fair elections are the only safe exit possible. Nothing else will work. And Pakistan cannot fail, it is simply too important. A failure of Pakistan will have unimaginable consequences in the region. We dread to even speculate on that at the moment. But a timely intervention may avert another crisis in. Much depends on how the west acts, especially the US, and how soon. Let this be clear to all.

Sohail Mahmood is Professor of Political Science at the International Islamic University, Islamabad. He is widely published on Pakistani politics, and recently authored Good Governance Reforms Agenda in Pakistan: Current Challenges (Nova Science Publishers)
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.

Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.

Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.

Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.

Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”

Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.

In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.