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Benazir Bhutto: A death foretold

Thursday 3 January 2008, by Aijaz AHMAD

Barely 54 at the time of her death, Benazir Bhutto had been Pakistan’s most charismatic politician for over a quarter century, since the judicial assassination of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, on April 5, 1979, under Pakistan’s previous military dictator, the infamous General Zia-ul-Haq. With her own assassination on December 27, 2007, a turbulent chapter in the country’s history has been closed. For one thing, we shall now never know whether she would have emerged an ally or a foe of the former General and continuing autocrat, President Pervez Musharraf, had she been allowed to live long enough to participate in the elections that were scheduled for January 8, 2008, and may or may not take place in the aftermath of the assassination. Turbulence itself has been compounded, however, and even the severest of her critics are naturally shocked by the brutality of this hideous murder.

Benazir has been cut down in the prime of her life. The personal tragedy is immense enough, in a family that has suffered too many spurious deaths – of her father, her two brothers, now herself – in less than three decades. Only an ailing mother and an apolitical younger sister, Sanam, now survive, aside from her very young children and a husband about whom nothing good can be said. In a broader perspective, this assassination may turn out to be part of the ongoing unravelling of Pakistan as a society, polity, and even perhaps as a country. Yet, it is too early to say just who killed her. Worse still, we may never know.

An Al Qaeda spokesperson, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, is quoted in The Asia Times as saying, “We terminated the most precious American asset.” The Pakistan government seems to hold the same view, although its way of putting it is rather different: “We have intelligence intercepts indicating that Al Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud is behind her assassination,” Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said on Friday. Maybe they did; maybe they are just taking credit for the work of some other forces and it is just convenient for the Musharraf regime to agree with them. Western capitals, the United States media, even the United Nations Security Council are at any rate all abuzz with the conclusion that the assassination is the handiwork of ‘extremists’ who wish to undermine ‘democracy’. The striking fact here is that even as the Musharraf regime is accused by many – Benazir’s husband, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leaders, human rights activists, and others – of not having provided Benazir with enough security, no one has come forward to accuse the regime of any direct role in the assassination itself. Consensus seems to be that it was the work of ‘extremists’, whoever they may be. That the gunman who shot her also turned out to be a suicide bomber seems to have clinched the issue.

Two opposing rhetorics seem to have been joined in this context, however. In the Western rhetoric, there is a global confrontation between “moderation” and “extremism”, “secular modernity” and “Islamic fundamentalism”, “democracy” and “theocracy”, and Benazir is said to have been killed for her courageous commitment to moderation, modernity, democracy and “Western values”. The opposing rhetoric engages none of those terms of the Western discourse, simplifies matters in millenarian terms of a confrontation between infidels and Islam, but also raises the uncomfortable question of what they call “precious American assets”– i.e., powerful individuals who help facilitate U.S. occupation of Muslim lands, among whom they would mention Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine, Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and so on. In their view, Musharraf and Benazir both belong in this category.

“American asset”

This identification of Benazir as an “American asset” has an odd echo in the West as well. A whole range of newspapers, from The Wall Street Journal to The Guardian have argued, copiously, that Benazir’s death spells a crisis for America’s foreign policy, since she was expected to join Musharraf in America’s “war on terror”. Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as the American proconsul in Afghanistan and Iraq and currently serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., was quick to issue a statement wistfully describing Benazir as a “personal friend”. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a condolence phone call to Benazir’s husband, Asif Zardari, who is known to most of the world as a criminal and a fugitive from the law. Rudy Guliani, the leading Republican contender in the U.S. presidential electoral campaigns, prides himself for being the first of the candidates to issue a statement of condolence and condemnation. Not to be left behind, Hillary Clinton publicly recalls taking her daughter, Chelsea, to listen to Benazir many years ago, in London. Similarly mournful words have come from Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, who had played a role in clinching the deal between Benazir and Musharraf, which was already under stress even before she passed away.

Who, then, was Benazir? Valiant soldier for modernity and democratic rectitude? Or a “precious American asset”? Things are, as is usual in such matters, more complicated than that.

Daughter of a famous and powerful Prime Minister, Benazir was educated at Harvard and Oxford, hoping to become a diplomat rather than a politician. She was a young woman of 25 when her father’s government was overthrown and, alongside her mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, she was forced to take up the leadership of the PPP under the most adverse conditions of a brand new military dictatorship, imposed by Zia, which hounded the Bhutto family, launched a predominantly secular Pakistan on the path of Islamisation and turned the country into the base from which the U.S. launched its jehad against the communist government that had emerged in Afghanistan that same year. She fought the dictatorship bravely and suffered persecutions of many kinds. No American came to her aid during all those years, personally very difficult for her, when Zia was America’s favourite dictator, as Musharraf was to become after September 2001.

Her father was sentenced to death by a supine High Court and was killed by hanging in prison grounds in the darkness of the night. She fought on, her mother fell ill, and she eventually retreated to a modest self-exile in London, promising to lead her party back to power. The party itself was no longer what it had been at its inception: a left-leaning, quasi-socialist mass party of anti-feudal, anti-clerical and anti-imperialist sentiments. Her father had used that party to ride to power with populist, visionary rhetoric and then subdued all its radicalism, carrying out one purge after another as he ruled with an iron hand. But the mass base of the party had kept that vision alive and Benazir spoke often and wistfully to that vision. Those were the best years of her life.

Zia-ul–Haq – devout tormentor of the country; spiteful tormentor of the Bhutto family – died in a mysterious airplane crash in 1988 along with some of his favourite generals. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) immediately took charge of the investigations and made sure that the truth behind the crash would never be known. By then, it is said, the Americans had become unhappy with the man who had served them so well and had come to regard him as a petty client grown too big for his shoes, pretty much as they are said to have come to regard Musharraf now, as one who served them well for seven years but has outlived his usefulness. This coincided with the rise of a popular movement against the military rule of Zia-ul-Haq despite its civilian façade, and Benazir, never lacking physical courage and possessing a fine sense of timing, had returned to Pakistan from her self-exile in April 1986, with a fanfare and mass outpourings far greater than the 200,000 who greeted her in Karachi recently upon her second return from yet another self-imposed exile, on October 18, 2007.

With Zia and his close military associates conveniently out of the way, everyone, including the Americans and the new set of generals, got very enthusiastic about a “democratic transition” for Pakistan. The generals who succeeded Zia allowed the elections to be held and the PPP to win the largest number of seats in Parliament but also made sure that their favourite bureaucrat, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, would occupy the office of President. The chorus of “democratic transition” that came to dominate Pakistan-U.S. relations as well as internal Pakistani politics in 2007 has some interesting parallels with the politics of the 1986-88 “transition”, even though the military dictator of today is still alive, unlike Zia, and it is Benazir, the beneficiary of 1988 and the hopeful of 2007, who is woefully dead.

During those years in the political wilderness, 1979-86, Benazir had learned a bitter lesson. She knew that the Americans had been at least very relieved at the elimination of her father; whether or not they were also directly involved in that elimination, only history shall judge. From that personal knowledge alone, if not in keeping with the views held by the rank and file of her party, she might have become an anti-imperialist. She did not, and drew the opposite lesson. She concluded, instead, that anybody who wanted to be Prime Minister of Pakistan, a client state if there ever was one, had to be on the side of the Americans, not ranged against them. The same applied to the military institution domestically: they had killed her father but it was only by coming to terms with the Armed Forces that she could successfully bid to become Prime Minister. Channels were opened in both directions, leading to mutual accommodation.

Prime Minister in 1988

In 1988, at the age of 35, Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan and thus the first elected woman head of state in any Muslim country. Her party was understandably euphoric. Generally in Pakistan, which was still an overwhelmingly secular country much troubled by the creeping Islamisation of the Zia years and the rise of the madrassa culture, there was a widespread sense of pride at having elected to be ruled by a woman. The woman in question, however, learned to cover her head and speak the language of public piety and “moderation”, pretty much in the fraudulent tones that Musharraf was to adopt in more recent years. Moreover, the U.S.-sponsored Islamic jehad was still in full bloom and Pakistani Armed Forces were riding high on their status as guardians of the “frontline state” in that apocalyptic confrontation between Islam and communism; flush with money and weapons, they had their own plans for not just Afghanistan but also Kashmir. Benazir learned to live within the parameters of those policies and abandoned what little left-wing populism was still left in her own party.

That she could defy neither the Americans nor the Pakistan Army was clear enough. Only time was to show that she had no capacity to defy her husband either, the infamous Asif Zardari, a corrupt Karachi businessman of feudal origins whom she had adopted in an “arranged marriage”, and who soon came to be known as “Mr. Ten Percent,” in view of the deals he was making and the cuts he was taking in his capacity as the Prime Minister’s spouse. Legends grew quickly around the purported personal integrity of a Prime Minister who was beset by the unforeseen misfortune of having wedded a massively corrupt man. There was, however, no public evidence of the wife objecting to the husband’s wheeling and dealing, or of refusing to partake of the profits thus garnered. Eighteen months after taking the oath of office, Benazir was dismissed on charges of corruption and incompetence by Ghulam Ishaq Khan, whom the Army had kept in the President’s house for just such purposes.

Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif was waiting in the wings. He was the son of a notoriously corrupt and strong-armed businessman from the Punjab and had been a political non-entity until the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), so good at fixing elections, picked him up when Zia, the dictator, was looking to overhaul his military regime into a civilian one and needed a weak, pliant Prime Minister. Sharif had served the purpose, was made the presiding officer in the moribund Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and, following in Zia’s footsteps, had started hobnobbing with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the leading Islamist party which had some following, primarily among the urban petty bourgeoisie in Punjab as well as the Urdu-speaking ‘muhajir’ sections of this class in Karachi and other cities of southern Sindh. With Benazir’s ouster, this tried-and-tested friend of the ISI was brought back.

Benazir then staged a comeback in 1993 and was allowed to rule for three years before being dispatched again, on the same but even more extended charges of corruption and incompetence, this time by a President, Farooq Leghari, a member of her own party whom she had regarded as a friend. Two features of Benazir’s second stint as Prime Minister are worthy of note. First, her husband now emerged as the Minister of Investment and set about amassing wealth on a much more serious scale; it is generally agreed that the couple was worth roughly $1.5 billion by the time Benazir was dismissed a second time. Second, it was under her stewardship that the Pakistan Army installed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, with the covert assent of the Americans who had by then become disenchanted with the government of the ‘mujahideen’ they had foisted there after the Soviet withdrawal and the cornering of the Najibullah government there. It is well to recall that America’s own Islamist jehad in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil – as well as the ISI-sponsored jehad in Kashmir – reached their zenith precisely during the period when Benazir and Nawaz Sharif had alternated as Prime Ministers of that unfortunate country.

Deal with Musharraf

The corruption cases against Benazir and her husband were filed and assiduously pursued by the Sharif government as well as the succeeding Musharraf regime. Thus it came to pass that when Musharraf staged his coup against Sharif in 1999, on credible grounds that the Prime Minister had sought to kill his own Chief of the Army Staff, landing Sharif first in prison and then in Saudi exile, Benazir too realised which way the wind was now blowing and departed swiftly for her own self-exile in Dubai and London, taking her entire family with her. She returned from that self-exile only on October 18, 2007, by virtue of a deal with Musharraf, which had been sponsored by the U.S. and Britain but was directly negotiated, on Musharraf’s behalf, by none other than General Parvez Ashfaque Kiyani, the then head of the ISI and now Chief of the Army Staff, who had also served as Benazir’s military secretary when she was Prime Minister.

For Benazir, the deal consisted of two crucial components. The first was that she be the first prime ministerial choice in the new political set-up that the Americans were seeking in Pakistan in pursuit of a “democratic transition” and a military-civilian coalition that would re-dedicate itself with enhanced vigour to America’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Pakistan itself. To that end, she hobnobbed with luminaries of the U.S. political establishment, hired expensive PR firms in Washington to lobby for her, lunched with the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., and adopted shrill rhetoric, in view of the altered U.S. priorities, against those same Taliban whom she had once helped to come to power, in those days past when the U.S. was not averse to the idea. She successfully mobilised an impressive array of individuals, from Khalilzad to Gordon Brown, in this endeavour.

The second component of the deal was that she had been living as a fugitive from the law and was faced with court cases not only in Pakistan but also in Swiss, Spanish and British courts. Indeed, she had been convicted in Switzerland and the appeal against that conviction was pending. Interpol was to issue a red alert against her upon the request of the Pakistan government as late as 2006. When she announced in September that she would be returning to Pakistan the next month, the Paris office of Interpol asked the Pakistan government if she still was on the list of “wanted persons”. The Riyadh office of Interpol submitted that same inquiry barely two weeks before she was so atrociously gunned down. Al Qaeda was by no means the only outfit for whom Benazir was a “wanted person”.

Pressed by the Americans to adopt her as his partner in the famous “war on terror”, Musharraf obliged by suspending the Constitution, assuming Emergency powers, dismissing the non-cooperating judges of the Supreme Court, and issuing a shameful National Reconciliation Ordinance which withdrew cases against all politicians, notably Benazir, who had robbed the national treasury and otherwise used high office for personal plunder. Half of her battle against corruption charges had been won by fiat of the autocrat whom she continued to criticise in a well-choreographed political soap opera.

But even Musharraf could not save her from the European, particularly Swiss, courts – and he said so. She hoped to become Prime Minister and thus gain parliamentary immunity against any request for extradition. That was not to be.

What were the American imperatives in sponsoring the deal? This is too complex a matter and we shall return to it at some length in a future piece. Two aspects of the deal were noteworthy. First, all of America’s talk of bringing democracy to Muslim societies had turned into mere farce. All the major Arab clients – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt – remained monarchies and autocracies. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Hamas gained a parliamentary majority through elections so fair that even the Carter Centre certified them as genuine; the U.S. and its allies retaliated against that democracy by cutting off aid to the Palestine Authority and demanding that the elected government be dismissed forthwith. In Afghanistan, the writ of the Karzai government does not run much beyond Kabul and full-fledged NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) occupation is required to guarantee even that limited reach.

In Iraq, U.S. occupation produced a Constitution written in Washington, a government in which each participating entity rules by the power of its sectarian militia, and the whole country teeters on the brink of collapse into ethnic and sectarian enclaves; with about five per cent of the population killed and a fifth of the population made refugee, a country still occupied by some 200,000 troops and mercenaries can hardly be called a “democracy”.

“Democracy project”

Transition to civilian rule in Pakistan, under U.S. aegis, was to be the showpiece of America’s purported “democracy project” and Benazir was to be projected as the moderate, modern, cosmopolitan face of it. This “transition to democracy” was then to be wedded to the more central objectives of the “war on terror”.

In the original project, Musharraf was to forego his uniform but retain his presidency; Benazir, a westernised Muslim woman at the head of the country’s largest political party, was to be the Prime Minister; ISI chief Kiyani was to take charge of the Army in order to supervise the serious business of the “war on terror;” the two major political outfits of the northwestern province, where Islamic militancy is chiefly based, the Jami’at-ul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Awami Nationalist Party (ANP), were to bring up the rear in support of the ruling troika.

No love was lost between Benazir, who well remembered the zeal with which Musharraf had previously pursued the cases against her, and Musharraf, who was deeply unhappy at the prospect of losing much of his personal power. Nor was the deal welcomed by those whom it left out, such as Nawaz Sharif; or much of the rest of the country where America’s policies throughout West Asia, and indeed across the world, are generally greeted with scorn. Yet, America’s hold on the country’s political and military elites is such that the deal was trundling along even as the election campaigns gained momentum. Until this assassination!

Benazir had been warned by her friends, by Pakistan’s own intelligence agencies as well as foreign intelligence services that she faced mortal danger in returning to Pakistan and leading massive public rallies. On the very day that she returned, she narrowly escaped an attempt that left over a hundred dead and several hundred injured. In the early days of December, the ISI claimed to have discovered a massive plot aimed at methodical killings, through the use of dozens of suicide squads, of all the major political personalities participating in the U.S.-sponsored projects, starting above all with Benazir and Musharraf. Never lacking in physical courage but also driven by demons peculiarly her own, Benazir pressed on and paid for it with her own life.

Whatever her failings, she was loved by millions who continued to attach to her their own dreams of a better life and a better society. Aside from the corruptions in which she colluded with her husband, her principal failing was that she hitched her personal star to American power. She thought America would save her; but it was precisely her American connection which became the cause of her untimely death. Millions of her followers fondly called her “Daughter of the East”. Little did they know that she would pay, unwittingly, with her life for those temptations of Western imperialism which she, like so many in our part of the world, found so irresistible.

A woman in the prime of her life, she might have lived on and perhaps, some day, she might have returned to those promises with which she had begun her political career, to redeem herself as well as a whole people who had come to love and trust her. Now that she is so wastefully dead, even that possibility is no more.

* From Frontline, Volume 25 - Issue 01 :: Jan. 05-18, 2008. INDIA’S NATIONAL MAGAZINE from the publishers of THE HINDU.

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