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(Winner of the 2009 SAJA award for  outstanding editorial/commentary on South Asia, or South Asians in North America)

Jan. 28       In the days since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, much has been revealed, though little about the murder itself. Its culprits and even its means remain a mystery shrouded in rumor. What did become all too clear in the aftermath of the murder was the gullibility — and sometimes the dishonesty — of Benazir’s many influential Western friends, in particular the journalists she cultivated so brilliantly.

The torrents of sorrowful praise for Benazir — much of it in the form of solipsistic articles with titles like “The Benazir I Knew” — testify to the Anglophone media’s blinding vulnerability to a certain kind of glamour. It’s a glamour that has everything to do with power, money, and proximity to great political drama, as well as Benazir’s good looks and unthreatening Easternness. One pundit has called her “Ahmed Chalabi in lipstick,” but Chalabi is unlikely to be the subject of gilded reminiscences by Tina Brown and a herd of influential fiftysomething graduates of Oxford and Harvard.

Furthermore, unlike the controversial Iraqi, Benazir had been a world-famous figure since her early 20s, and the record from her two terms in office can be set against her rhetoric of democracy and women’s rights. And like so many children of foreign leaders and kleptocrats who go to American or British colleges for polishing, Benazir came from a class background that few of her elegant friends would have understood or sympathized with.

The giant mausoleum was the giveaway. Most of the news cameras at her funeral focused on the crowds of supporters and family retainers performing the rite of public grief. But the few shots of the Bhutto mausoleum near Larkhana, where Benazir is now buried next to her “martyred” father, showed a multi-domed building on the scale of the Taj Mahal towering over the plains of Sindh. It’s rare for foreigners to get a visual sense of what it means when Pakistanis talk about “feudal families” — the private armies and prisons, the tenants voting for the family’s preferred candidate under watchful eyes. But this was it: a marble manifestation of Pakistani feudalism as it has evolved for a theoretically democratic age.

If the sight of the mausoleum wasn’t enough to undermine the modern, progressive image that Benazir had constructed with the help of her Western friends, then the bizarre succession process within her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) ought to have done the trick. Apparently the PPP’s “Chairperson for Life” wrote a “political will” in October and entrusted it to her Filipina servant Seeta. This was duly read out to the family and party faithful on December 30 by Benazir’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal. It anointed her semi-estranged husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as her successor (together with Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the deputy chairman of the party).

Zardari, who seemed impressively untroubled by grief, then announced that he would be a sort of regent until Bilawal was ready to inherit his mother’s mantle (25 is the minimum age for electoral office in Pakistan). He also announced that all three of Benazir’s children would be adding Bhutto to their surname. (Benazir had kept her maiden name for similar political reasons.)

People often refer to the PPP as Pakistan’s only genuine mass political party, but it isn’t really a political party in the Western democratic sense. Founded as the Sindh Peoples Party by Benazir’s grandfather, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, it has never had an internal election. It enjoys a huge and faithful mass following largely because of her father Zulfikar Bhutto’s brilliant but faithless populism. A convert to democracy after serving in Gen. Ayub Khan’s dictatorship, Bhutto promised massive land reform but failed to deliver in any significant sense, and he invented a doctrine of “Islamic socialism” that all but destroyed Pakistan’s economy. A kind of Pakistani Peron before he flagrantly rigged the 1977 election and was deposed in a coup, Zulfikar fatally politicized the efficient and honest civil service Pakistan had inherited from the British Raj. It was also Bhutto pere who made Red China the key arms supplier of Pakistan, sponsored the first Islamist revolutionaries in Afghanistan, bombed Baluchi separatists into submission, and initiated Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program.

Benazir worshipped her charismatic father, who was hanged in front of her by Gen. Zia ul-Haq in 1979. Like him, she switched political stances easily depending on circumstance and the requirements of power. Unlike his administrations, however, hers were marked by spectacular corruption and incompetence.

It isn’t clear how much Benazir knew about the activities of her husband, whose nickname, thanks to the kickbacks he took, was “Mr. 10 Percent,” and whom she appointed investment minister even though he’d recently been jailed on extortion charges. Contemporary legend had it that Benazir was in the sexual thrall of the gangsterish former playboy, and that whenever she confronted him with a dereliction he would take her to bed and the matter would be forgotten. Certainly, once in exile she showed little compunction about living off the $1.5 billion the couple allegedly looted from the Pakistani treasury. (The family still owns $1 billion in property around the world.)

 

If that’s not bad enough, Zardari is widely believed to have been responsible for the murder of Benazir’s brother Murtaza in 1996, an affair that recalls the savage dynastic struggles of the Borgias or the khanates of Central Asia. The former leader of the PPP’s armed wing, Murtaza had recently returned from exile in the Levant. He was seeking to wrest control of the PPP from Benazir and Zardari when the Karachi police gunned him down. Benazir was PM at the time, and Zardari effectively ran Karachi, the nation’s largest city. The ambush — which involved a roadblock, snipers in trees, and the cutting of electricity to part of the city — could hardly have taken place without the nod of Zardari and his proteges. Though Benazir would claim that Murtaza was the victim of the ISI (Pakistan’s main intelligence agency) or of General Zia’s loyalists, her government subsequently promoted all the police officials involved in her brother’s killing.

As prime minister, Bhutto did nothing for women’s rights, or even for the other aristocratic women who flocked to the PPP. She told preposterous lies, such as her claim to have installed computers in every school in Pakistan. She appointed the fiercely anti-American Islamist general Hamid Gul as chief of the ISI. (He was reportedly on the list of alleged conspirators Benazir gave Musharraf after the October 2007 bomb attack on her motorcade, and was arrested by Musharraf in November.)

Glamour, yes — but corruption and incompetence, too

It may be true, as some of her defenders argue, that during her two administrations Benazir was in no position to challenge the army’s enthusiasm for the Taliban or for sponsoring terrorism in Indian Kashmir. It’s harder to defend her on the issue of nuclear proliferation. The author Shyam Bhatia says that Benazir told him she had personally delivered nuclear-warhead designs to North Korea in return for missile technology. Nor is it clear that her later pro-American conversion was anything more than a means to an end, which makes it all the more ironic that so many voices have blamed America for somehow forcing her to return to her doom.

One of those voices is that of Imran Khan, the cricketer and socialite–turned–politician. After the assassination, he promptly denounced Musharraf — who had recently had him arrested — as the real author of the crime and claimed that the convoy of Pakistan’s other major opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, had also been attacked on the day of Bhutto’s death. The alleged Sharif attack, as well as an alleged assault on the hospital where Benazir was taken after the bomb, was frequently cited in news reports over the next few days. Sharif himself has never mentioned any such attempt, though he was quick to denounce Musharraf for Benazir’s killing. The multiple-assassination scenario now seems to have vanished to the farthest reaches of the Internet.

Almost everyone in Pakistan who said anything about the attack said something ridiculous, whether it was the PPP official who revealed that Benazir’s last words were “Long live Bhutto” or the interior ministry’s farcical assertions about death by a Landcruiser sun-roof lever. The latter theory, along with dubious claims about specific al-Qaeda and Taliban plots, illustrates the stupidity and habitual disingenuousness of some of Musharraf’s officials, and has served only to damage his government. These assertions do not, however, render the more paranoid claims of PPP officials (or Nawaz Sharif) any more credible. The whole incident is made even murkier by Zardari’s mysterious refusal to allow an autopsy before Bhutto was buried. (While autopsies are seen as disrespectful in more conservative corners of Pakistani society, in this case it surely would have been appropriate.) One PPP official has even claimed that Benazir was killed using some kind of high-tech laser device — implying again an ISI hit squad, perhaps using U.S. technology.

Just as silly is the observation made by many foreign commentators that, because the assassination took place in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani military has its headquarters, the murderers must have had some kind of official links. Otherwise, how could they have eluded military security? But ’Pindi is a big, unruly city of 3 million people, not a small garrison town, and has long been a place of violent ferment. (The park where Benazir was killed was the site of PM Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination in 1951.) The police, not the army, maintain security in Rawalpindi, and the ’Pindi police are a byword throughout South Asia for incompetence and corruption. Musharraf himself has been subject to three major assassination attempts in ’Pindi, and even the ISI was attacked there this fall, with two suicide bombings against buses filled with its officers.

Many commentators who dismissed the idea of democracy in Iraq have been peculiarly pious about it in Pakistan, claiming that it is the only cure for the country’s ills. There is certainly a democratic deficit in Pakistan, but it is perhaps less important than the country’s governance deficit — the failure of the state to function with minimal efficiency, honesty, and compassion. The same problem exists around the region. It’s worse in Nepal, not quite so bad in India, but similar everywhere: government schools that exist only on paper; clinics bereft of medicine because government doctors sell it at the bazaar; rural clinics where the doctor never turns up; police whose primary job is extorting bribes and who do the will of the wealthy; corruption that endlessly erodes the trust between individuals and the state.

For all his faults, Musharraf has been far better than any of his predecessors, civilian or military, when it comes to taking seriously the duties of government. If you go to remote areas of Pakistan, people will tell you about his audit of 1999, when he sent officers to see if schools and clinics on the government books really existed. It was often the first time an official from Pakistan’s central government had ever visited these villages.

That said, some of the retired officers Musharraf appointed to various ministries turned out to be just as crooked or incompetent as ordinary civilian bureaucrats. Moreover, nothing excuses Musharraf’s ill-judged and destructive attacks on what passes for civil society, or the shameful brutality of his battle with a group of dissident lawyers. Yet his many flaws do not nullify his achievements or mean that any alternative must be superior.

Could elements of the ISI have been involved in Benazir’s murder? Of course. But the long list of plausible suspects includes al-Qaeda, some local branch of the Taliban, various Bhutto relatives, and some of the Sunni militant groups that considered her a Shiite heretic because her mother is Iranian.

Whatever the truth of the assassination, and despite Benazir’s many faults, the fact remains that her death is a disaster for both Pakistan and the United States. Certainly it leaves a far narrower choice between relative evils in a country that requires wise and skillful leadership if it is to survive as a functioning state.

 

See also:

After Bhutto – NR Symposium December 27, 2007

 

 

 

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