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Another Death in Rawalpindi

It goes without saying that the killing of any human being is a tragedy. But the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Liaqut Bagh in Rawalpindi echoes back into Pakistan’s troubled history, portends more violence, and also signals the manifest bankruptcy of the Bush Administration’s anti-terrorism policy in the region.

  • Aziz Huq
Published: December 27, 2007

*Cross-posted from

It goes without saying that the killing of any human being is a tragedy. But the 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, portends more violence and flags a proud country’s fall further into chaos. It also signals the manifest bankruptcy of the Bush Administration’s anti-terrorism policy in the region.

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 his 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’s 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 merited 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, military analyst Ayesha Siddeque estimates, 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. Finally, as for Musharraf’s central role to American anti-terrorism goals, well… we’ll get to that in a moment.

I hold no brief for Bhutto or the Pakistan’s People Party. By all accounts, the party she led was elitist, venally corrupt, and massively incompetent during its two spells in office during the 1990s. Popular lamentations aside, moreover, no one credibly believes that she could be a redemptive figure in the mold of a Mandela.

Rather, she was a tether back in history to that slim moment of democracy in Pakistan’s fraught past of military domination. 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.

My aspiration and hope for democracy in Pakistan is no dewy-eyed Romanticism, a soft-hearted preference for rights or a lawyer’s predilection for the grand abstraction “rule of law.” Rather, in Pakistan’s democracy lies America’s best hope for redeeming the disaster that Pakistan has become for national security policy.

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 not only spew out “martyrs” for Kashmir and Afghanistan but also give aid and comfort to the very small number in the West looking for justifications of violence.

Compounding the problem has been American incompetence. As in Iraq, billions of dollars in aid have been frittered away through incompetence and carelessness, leaving the Pakistani army just as unwilling and unable to take on the Taliban’s sanctuaries. Worse, there is no remedial plan on the horizon. Under American tutelage, the military has gotten fatter and more ham-fisted.

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 Administration’s Pakistan policy is worse than a shambles; its failures radiate out. It is fostering the erosion of what limited success there was in Afghanistan. It is feeding terrorist propaganda that claims America sustains tyrants. And it is impeding the long-term goal of a Pakistan that cannot serve as a terrorist safe haven or a training ground for recruits from the West.

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.

  Aziz Huq: “Another Death in Rawalpindi” (pdf)