Pakistan’s biggest city of Karachi is completely shut down after rioters burned dozens of cars and set fire to stores in outrage at the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. All the city’s petrol stations are sealed off and street lights were turned off. Protestors exchanged fire with the police in some parts of the city. Bhutto was killed along with at least 20 others in a suicide blast on an election rally in Rawalpindi. More than 60 were also injured in the attack. (Bloomberg, Dec. 27) At least five are reported dead in the Karachi violence. A passenger train was set on fire at Hyderabad, in Bhutto’s stronghold of Sindh province. At Bhutto’s home town of Larkana, Sindh, crowds set two banks on fire. In Multan some protesters fired shots into the air, and police fired teargas into crowds in Peshawar. When the hundreds of Bhutto supporters outside the hospital in Rawalpindi got word of her death, some smashed the glass door of the emergency unit, threw stones at cars and clashed with police, shouting: “Killer, killer, Musharraf!” (London Times)
While conceding that “it’s too early at this point” to assign blame, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said: “Whoever perpetrated this attack is an enemy of democracy and has used a tactic which al-Qaeda is very familiar with, and that is suicide bombing and the taking of innocent lives to try to disrupt a democratic process.” (AFP) Bruce Riedel, a former US intelligence official who helped make South Asia policy in the Poppy Bush and Clinton administrations, says the assassination “was almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s Pakistani allies.” (Newsweek) Gen. Musharraf has issued the requisite condemnation of the assassination, calling it “a great tragedy.” (PTI) Few mainstream sources today are recalling that Bhutto herself repeatedly invoked official complicity by Musharraf’s security services in the previous attempts on her life.
Writing in the online edition of New York’s The Nation, Aziz Huq in “A Death in Rawalpindi” recalls the long incestuous relationship between Pakistan’s reigning strongman and the radical Islamists now conveniently dubbed “al-Qaeda”:
[T]he assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Liaqut Bagh in Rawalpindi, along with more than a dozen others, echoes back into Pakistan’s troubled history…
It was at Liaquat Bagh that Pakistan’s second prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was killed as he addressed a public meeting in October 1951; four years later, martial law would be declared, even before a first constitution could be promulgated.
And it was close to the site of today’s bombing at Liaqat Bagh, in the Rawalpindi Central Jail, that Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged at 2 AM April 4, 1979. Executions were usually held at dawn, but the military government wanted to avoid public protests. Neither Zulfiqar’s wife nor his daughter was notified in time to be present at Zulfikar’s death, or at his burial.
Like his daughter, Zulfiqar had also been an elected prime minister of Pakistan. Indeed, he had set in motion Pakistan relatively fair elections in March 1977–only to see his victory snatched away by a military coup (“Operation Fairplay”) by his former friend and ally Army-General Muhammad Ziaul Haq. With no little irony, the United States-supported Zia struck on the night of July 4, 1977.
Like today’s American-sustained generalissimo Pervez Musharraf, Zia relied on the mullahs and on machine guns from America to make up the deficit of democracy. Thanks to the intermediating role that Pakistan’s secret services, the ISI, played in the Afghan mujahideen’s war against the Soviet occupation, Zia could rely on American support even as he postponed elections (first slated for 1979), hounded the judiciary into subservience and then elevated puritanical religious factions into national political actors. For it was Zia who first created a federal Shariat Court and a national council, or Majlis-e-Shoora, to preside over his conceit of an “Islamic democracy.”
At his death in August 1988, Zia left behind what political scientist Ayesha Jalal accurately describes as “a subservient, fragmented, highly monetized, corrupt and violent political system”–a system that apparently merits American fealty to its dying day.
Sound familiar? It should. In his years as President and Army Chief, Musharaff gradually chipped away at the political space for PPP and its main electoral competitor, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-Q, as well as imposing increasing pressure on a fiercely independent press. Instead, he relied on the six-party Islamist party alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, which today governs two of Pakistan’s four federal units, Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan. In the past year, he has gutted again the judiciary of independent-minded judges such as Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. And during Musharraf’s tenure, the military leadership has extended its control, kudzu-like, into more and more sectors of the economy, from construction to breakfast cereals. Today, estimates military analyst Ayesha Siddeque, the five conglomerates, or “welfare foundations,” under military control own about $20 billion of assets and twelve billion hectares of land. This stake in the nation’s economic life means the military necessarily has a large and persisting interest in control of the political process…
Since 1955, Pakistan has been ruled by generals with only brief intervals. In the wake of lawyers’ protests, judicial resistance and international pressure, it seemed the thread of democracy might be recaptured. However imperfect Benazir and PPP might have been, at least they relied on the ballot box, and not on the Kalashnikov and the Qur’an. However corrupt the PPP might have been, at least they could be booted out in one election or other.
The death of the major opposition leader will make it easier for Musharraf to assemble a parliamentary coalition to do his bidding in the coming January elections. It renders more distant the possibility of elections that are not manipulated and leaders who respond to the people rather than to bosses in uniform. And it makes it less likely that the Pakistani military will shift from its symbiotic entanglement with religious hardliners at the polls and in the streets…
It should escape no one’s attention that Musharaff has relied so far on the openly pro-Taliban religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), particularly in the troubled province of Balochistan. News reports have consistently and plausibly identified Balochistan as the hiding place for high-level Al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, who can rely on sympathetic tribal and religious leaders. Musharraf depends for his political survival on political factions that are at minimum sympathetic to America’s core enemy, and at worst are abetting the terrorist leadership’s continued evasion of detection and arrest. In the muck of Pakistan’s domestic politics, the friend of our friend may well be our enemy. Ironically, the Bush Administration has been backing a military leader who, even as he claimed to rein in religious militants, depends on them for his electoral success.
Without democracy, though, there is not even a remote possibility of severing this fatal bond, and putting an end to sanctuary for Al Qaeda’s leadership. Without democracy, there is scant chance that the tribal and religious leaders who have provided the Taliban with a strategic sanctuary can be won over. Without democracy, there is little chance for reform of madrassas that spew out “martyrs” not only for Kashmir and Afghanistan, and also give aid and comfort to the very small number in the West looking for justifications of violence…
The Bush Administration’s policy with respect to Pakistan, in short, is a train wreck. As usual, the White House has assumed that military force–here deployed by a vassal state–could clamp down on terrorism. As usual, it has utterly failed to understand complex relations, here the links between ISI and Al Qaeda going back to the Afghan war, and the way in which corruption and a drift to purely “faith-based” politics push more and more people toward the violently eschatological ideology of our enemies…
The death of Benazir Bhutto shows that the Bush Administration has left itself no way out. Beyond the tragedy of Pakistan’s history cruelly replaying itself, today should go down as the day it became clear how badly the Bush Administration has failed in the region. For on September 12, 2001, there was one failed state that could be a terrorist haven. Today, it is violently and tragically clear, that the Administration’s policies have wrought two more failed states that could, and likely will, sustain terrorist activities in the future.
The two more failed states are, of course, Iraq and Pakistan. Today everyone takes it for granted that the “mission accomplished” victory in Iraq was a sham. We’ve warned before that the quick victory over the Taliban in November 2001 could also prove horrifically Phyrric if the fallout is destabilization of (nuclear-armed) Pakistan.
In her New York Times op-ed piece of Nov. 7, Benazir Bhutto wrote that Nov. 3—the day Musharraf declared martial law—”will be remembered as the blackest day in the history of Pakistan.” It may prove that was only a prelude to the darkness to follow Dec. 27, the day of her own assassination.
See our last post on Pakistan.
ERRATA: Contrary to Aziz Huq’s text, the PML-Q is not Nawaz Sharif’s party but Musharraf’s. Sharif’s is the PML-N.