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Benazir’s Last Battle

Wednesday 9 January 2008, by Economic and Political Weekly

Benazir Bhutto died battling the “state within the state”. Can Pakistan rid itself of the cancer?

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister and opposition leader, on December 27 at the conclusion of an election rally in Rawalpindi has sent shockwaves across the world. Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the public at large held the government of president Pervez Musharraf responsible for the murder, while the government and its allies pointed the finger at Taliban and Al Qaida. The first reaction of US president George Bush also ap- peared to deflect blame from the Pakistan government and in the direction of Islamic militants.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan on October 18 after eight years in self-exile and provided a much-needed shot in the arm to popular politics. A bomb attack on her homecoming rally in Karachi left over 150 people dead, and confirmed the widely-expressed fear that forces inimical to political revival in the country were pre- pared to go to any length to pursue their goals. Then, as now, there was a sharp difference of opinion between the PPP and spokespersons of the regime about the source of the threat. Bhutto blamed elements within the regime with links to the “jihad” policy of the Zia-ul-Haq era. She put the government on the spot and demanded the sacking of several senior military and intelligence officials with “jihadist” connections. Musharraf baulked at these suspicions and argued that Islamist militants based in the country’s semi-autonomous tribal areas were responsible. In the event there was no proper investigation.

Calls for foreign expert involvement were brushed aside, eyewitness accounts were not recorded, and powerful fire hoses appeared quickly on the scene of the attack and washed away much of the forensic evidence. The government’s response to the December 27 tragedy was similarly disjointed. The fire hoses were out again and had washed the street outside Rawalpindi’s Liaqat Bagh within hours of the crime. The government’s account of the attack and the cause of death changed on a daily basis. Successive versions con- tradicted one another, and PPP demands for foreign expert in- volvement were vociferously rejected, only to be conceded within a matter of days.

While judgment on the identity of the killers and the conspirators must await the results of an impartial investigation and trial, Bhutto left behind a convincing account of where the political responsibility lies. It is a monumental tragedy that a majority of her supporters and detractors alike paid such little attention to what she repeatedly wrote and said over the last one year about her fears and hopes for Pakistan. In the updated edition of her autobiography Daughter of the East, the final chapter deals with her experiences in power and in opposition since 1988 when she was first elected prime minister. The presence of a "state within the state" with its own sources of finance and autonomy of action is the recurrent theme of the chapter.

This secretive apparatus with its origins in the Zia-ul-Haq regime’s conduct of the “Afghan jihad” against Soviet forces was developed around intelligence agencies run by the Pakistani military. According to Bhutto, the Afghan jihad had “infected” numerous individuals and organisations of the state. While many of the in- dividuals involved in the “jihad policy” were right-wing Islamist ideologues, others simply saw political and financial advantage in running a parallel apparatus with seemingly endless resources and minimal accountability.

The withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan coincided, in 1988, with the end of direct military rule in Pakistan. Bhutto felt that the parallel apparatus then began to covet spheres of activity other than Afghanistan, and became an instrument in the hands of the generals to exercise behind-the-scenes control over civilian governments. She blamed this parallel apparatus for intervening in Pakistan’s policy with respect to India, destabilising civilian governments, conducting smear campaigns, and mani- pulating elections. There was a close relationship in Bhutto’s mind between Islamic extremists and the state’s parallel apparatus. Bhutto’s position was remarkably bold but also remarkably misunderstood at home and abroad. Her detractors interpreted her vocal criticism of the jihadist apparatus as opportunistic pro-US sycophancy that was going to scoop her into office for a third time. They were distracted by her negotiations with the Musharraf regime that allowed her to return to Pakistan, and were critical of her attempts to gain legal immunity from past corruption charges. Many Bhutto supporters also failed to distinguish between her ideological opposition to radical Islamists, and her political opposition to the state’s jihadist apparatus, thus discounting the threat from the latter. Bhutto stood virtually alone among Pakistani political leaders in publicly identifying the jihadist apparatus as a danger not only to democracy but to the state itself. It was she who pointed out that the Musharraf regime had protected rather than dismantled this apparatus.

Bhutto, unfortunately, had earlier lost a good part of her stature when allegations of massive corruption began stalking her, allegations that she could never convincingly demonstrate were politically motivated. The influence and corruption of her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, damaged her political standing no less. And the negotiations in 2007 with Musharraf under US tutelage be- smirched her reputation further.

However, what mattered in the end in the difficult world of Pakistan politics was that Bhutto was a self-avowed reformist who believed it was possible to restrict the parallel apparatus, disinfect it of jihad, and bring it under civilian control. Perhaps this was naive optimism. But if her assassination does finally draw attention inside Pakistan and abroad to the dangers posed by the “state within the state” her courage would not have been in vain.

* Economic and Political Weekly, January 5, 2008.

Circulated in English by South Asia Citizens Wire