This question has been asked many times since the country’s birth sixty years ago: at the time of the first military coup in 1958, after the 1971 split-up of the nation into current-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, and during the 1977 takeover by the vile General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who hanged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father. Now the assassination of Benazir places a further question mark on the future of the nation.
At the very least, the Pakistani security agencies have proven to be thoroughly incompetent. That an assassin was able to come close enough to Benazir to first shoot her and then blow himself up is by itself appalling enough.
But there may be more to the story. Were elements of Pakistan’s gargantuan intelligence apparatus, the ISI, involved? Did General Pervez Musharraf himself have prior knowledge of the plot? Here, I’m getting into the realm of conjecture. (I don’t know how seriously to take reports that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility, since the organization also asserted a few years ago that it caused the massive power outage in parts of the United States and Canada.)
Enough members of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party believe in the government’s involvement for there to be extensive anti-government rioting. And on PBS’s “NewsHour,” a Bhutto confidant and adviser, Mark Siegel, revealed that Benazir had sent him an e-mail stating that Musharraf should be personally held responsible if she were killed. Here’s the exchange that Siegel had with the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner:
WARNER: And, Mark Siegel, when—just before she returned, she sent a letter to Musharraf naming three people she said were a threat to her. And they were all people tied to the government.
WARNER: But she sent you a follow-up e-mail. And I would just like to read the first two lines to you and to our viewers: "Mark, nothing will, God willing, happen. Just wanted you to know that if it does, in addition to the names in my letter to Musharraf of October 16, I would hold Musharraf responsible."
Did—did she really think that?
SIEGEL: She did, and she had reason to believe that was the case. She had asked for security for October 18 and 19. It was denied to her. The only protection she had on those days were from the PPP workers that surrounded her. She also asked that there be a thorough investigation. There was not. There was not. And there still has not been. And she continued to ask for security arrangements that were continually denied. She did believe that, ultimately, these things could not be happening if it wasn't for Musharraf directly.
And, amazingly, the Bush Administration blithely continues to support Musharraf’s regime! In fact, the first reaction that President Bush had to Bhutto’s assassination was that the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8 should go forward as a tribute to her. This is in spite of the tiny detail that Musharraf’s regime, not exactly an impartial umpire, is presiding over the elections. And never mind that there is no judicial recourse in the case of a fraud due to all the independent-minded supreme court justices being under house arrest. (Even Bush, with all his shenanigans during the 2000 Florida recount, couldn’t get close to that one.) In fact, veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has speculated on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” that the election results will be tampered with electronically to give the pro-Musharraf party (derisively nicknamed the King’s Party in Pakistan) a clear margin of victory.
The very holding of the election now seems in doubt. The Pakistan People’s Party has no clear leader in the absence of Benazir (a result of her troubling attempts at total control over the organization). And the only other politician with a national following, ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has announced in the wake of Bhutto’s killing that his party is withdrawing from the contest.
If elements of Musharraf’s government had anything to do with Bhutto’s murder, it may have been due to the realization that the regime’s supporters were heading for a massive defeat in the election. In a poll earlier this month, an astonishing 67 percent of Pakistanis wanted Musharraf to immediately say goodbye. Fifty-eight percent of the population favored an alliance of Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. An almost equal number wanted the Pakistani army to have no role in civilian politics.
If these numbers forced the regime to scheme to get rid of Bhutto (or, at the very least, to let the plan go ahead), it has engaged in a colossal blunder. Anger at Musharraf has already caused widespread rioting and may cause the country to become pretty much ungovernable in the coming weeks and months. Will the army, under a new chief, continue to back Musharraf?
Also unraveling is the Bush Administration’s Pakistan policy. Washington has given as much as $20 billion (according to Center for Strategic and International Studies figures) to a regime that is headed by a self-aggrandizing bully intent on perpetuating his power. Bush’s notion of bringing about democracy in Pakistan has consisted of encouraging Musharraf and Bhutto (via Condi Rice’s late-night phone calls) to share power, a strategy that is obviously defunct now. Instead of nurturing civil institutions and mending Pakistan’s pathetic human and physical infrastructure, the Bush Administration has ladled out money to an institution that has gleefully taken the United States for a ride. (See a recent New York Times story on misuse of funds by the Pakistan military.ll)
The Bush Administration deserves its Pakistan policy to be in a mess, but the Pakistani people don’t merit this fate. Benazir Bhutto, for all her myriad faults, had broad support in Pakistan, and, in that sense, represented the country’s democratic aspirations. She was also extremely smart and, relatively speaking, secular. There’s no doubt that a huge void has been created by her departure. The country will need all the luck it can gather to get out of this one.