LAHORE: In the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan faces the gravest threat to its unity since the country was born amid bloodshed 60 years earlier.
Although the security of the whole world is at stake from the way power is transferred in this nuclear weapon state, world leaders can do little but look on helplessly as Pakistan’s cowed political establishment and dispirited military face the threat of a determined Al Qaeda–backed Islamic extremists. While enormous public anger and mistrust swells in the nuclear-armed nation, both President Pervez Musharraf and his leading backer, the US, have lost all credibility over managing free and democratic elections, combating extremism or delivering stability to the troubled region.
Musharraf, in clinging to power, cracked down on Pakistanis who demanded reform and democracy, and appeased extremists. The US, shrill in its “war on terror,” spent billions propping ally Musharraf and then, in the face of growing isolation of the general, hurriedly pressured Bhutto to go along with a power-sharing deal with him.
Evidence is emerging that Musharraf fooled both the Americans and Bhutto about the power-sharing deal. Until the last moment Washington wanted to believe that Musharraf was amenable to sharing power with Bhutto if she became prime minister after winning the January elections – even though it was clear by November that Musharraf had no intentions of doing so.
Instead Musharraf, the army and the intelligence services planned to rig the elections to reelect the same alliance of pro-army politicians who sustained him in power since the last rigged elections in 2002. After imposing emergency rule on November 3, Musharraf packed the Supreme Court and the Election Commission with his own nominees, stifled the press and put 10,000 civil-society activists in jail. No state institution was willing to hear complaints from any political party about rigging.
US diplomats refused to accept that the deal was dead or that Musharraf may have double-crossed them. US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte traveled to Islamabad in late November, urging Bhutto to continue collaboration with Musharraf, insisting that the general was sincere about the deal. In a private conversation I had with Bhutto three weeks before her death, she made it clear that she trusted neither the military regime nor Musharraf, that evidence of rigging was everywhere. But the US applied immense pressure, with Negroponte ringing her frequently.
During our conversation, Bhutto observed that the US put little pressure on Musharraf, that the Americans were taking him at his word, but there was enormous US pressure on her.
In Pakistan, scathing criticism targets the Bush administration for its naivety. The US role as interlocutor between the army and the political parties has been shaken by the series of miscalculations by the US State Department, and the Pakistani government has lost all credibility with its own people. Opposition political parties now refuse to have anything to do with Musharraf and call on him to resign.
Musharraf, long supported by the US, is considered the biggest obstacle to moving the country towards greater stability.
Mourning for Bhutto is marked by seething anger and bitterness. The entire country was bought to a standstill for three days as trains, planes, cars stopped operating and all business and bazaars shut down. Tens of thousands of people buried Bhutto in her ancestoral village in Sind province, and millions of people said prayers for her for several days running at mosques and open grounds around the country.
Most Pakistanis are convinced that the government was either directly responsible for Bhutto’s death or at the very least failed to provide her with adequate protection. Bhutto’s own appeals for increased security as she campaigned for the 8 January elections were ignored, even ridiculed by government agencies.
So when just 24 hours after her death the government claimed to have cracked the case, the media and Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party greeted the announcement with ridicule. Interior Ministry Spokesman Brig Javed Iqbal Cheema told a press conference on the evening of December 28 that Bhutto had fatally cracked her head on the lever of a sun roof, after bullets were fired and a bomb exploded near her vehicle. He then released a telephone intercept of Baitullah Mehsud, the emir of the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, congratulating the leader of a suicide squad for carrying out the bombing.
Despite a heavy crackdown against the media by the regime, Brig Cheema’s comments were met with derision and even abuse by the press. His comments sounded particularly hollow in the light of demands by politicians across the country for an independent and international investigation into Bhutto’s death – something that US presidential contender Hillary Clinton has endorsed and the Bush administration is weighing. Cheema subsequently retracted some of his remarks, saying he had been misquoted.
During the past six months, suicide bombers have killed some 700 Pakistanis, but the Musharraf regime has failed to track down a single culprit behind the blasts. Now it claims to have resolved the Bhutto murder in 24 hours.
Anger and grief at Bhutto’s death is exacerbated by a crisis in which no political party is willing to accept an election under Musharraf’s auspices. Nobody is willing to accept the government’s explanations for Bhutto’s death. And no general or politician has Bhutto’s courage, to stand up to the growing militancy that has gripped Pakistan.
The insurgency launched by the Pakistani Taliban has now spread from the mountainous tribal areas into the valleys and plains of the North West Frontier Province, where more than 30 million people live. Hundreds of soldiers have surrendered, deserted their positions or fled rather than fight the militants. Al Qaeda uses the Pakistani Taliban to expand their area of influence and make territorial conquests so that a liberated area for the new Caliphate, comprising the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, can be won.
Restoration of political stability is no longer possible under Musharraf. But he will not resign unless the army pushes him out, the US withholds support or Pakistanis organize sustained street protests. New army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani is still a novice, feeling his way around and surrounded by generals promoted by Musharraf and loyal to him. The former head of the ISI led the intelligence services during the past three years as the threat of fundamentalism expanded across Pakistan, both in tribal areas adjacent to Afghanistan and urban areas. It is the first time in the history of the Pakistan army that an ISI chief has become army chief, but Musharraf has always heavily depended on ISI chiefs for principle advisers. Kiyanai is American-trained.
The military regime has become a master at playing divide and rule among the political parties, fragmenting them. It is essential that all the major parties form a common front, seeking to create a national government and pledge not to become victim to ISI machinations.
The parliamentary elections will likely be postponed and we must wait to see if political parties accept any new date. Few Pakistanis want another round of military rule. What they would prefer is that sustained public pressure forces Musharraf to step down and that the caretaker prime minister, with support from the military, set up a new national government of all the political parties, which could then organize fresh elections under acceptable ground rules. A change at the top is essential if even minimum stability is to return.
Ahmed Rashid is the author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia" and a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.
© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization