Friday, December 28, 2007

the assassination of Benazir Bhutto

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto yesterday has left me, momentarily, stunned. Although I was highly critical of Bhutto, even before she first became Prime Minister of Pakistan following the still-unsolved death of President Zia ul-Haq in 1988, as evidenced by my review of the first edition of her autobiography Daughter of the East, I am nonetheless shocked by her death. I must confess that I never believed that she was risking so much when she returned to Pakistan earlier this year after a long exile; I never believed that the risk of assassination was real. The fact, then, that a gunman could get a few metres in front of her Land Cruiser and fire directly at her indicates a remarkable degree of personal courage that I did not ascribe to her, as well the likely complicity of some elements within the Pakistani state in her assassination.

All day today I have been trying to figure out: where does responsibility lie? It seems to me that the reports of Rory McCarthy and Jason Burke of The Guardian offer the clearest way through the possible list of suspects. That list boils down to 4:

1. Militant Islamists: the very way in which the attack was carried out--death by shooting and a suicide bombing in a public place with many resulting casualties--makes militant Islamists a clear suspect. Note here that suggesting that militant Islamists may have been involved does not in any way suggest a role for al Qaeda. There have been several groups in Pakistan that have threatened to kill Benazir Bhutto, and many more that may have wanted to do so but whom have not articulated this aim. Bhutto's role as a female politician in a very conservative society, leading a secular, notionally social-democratic, political party, and with close and strong ties to the US state, all made her a particular target for that small minority of militant Islamists that espoused violence, and who have been allowed to prosper in Pakisan, often under the tutelage of the state, since the late 1970s. The roots of militant Islam in Pakistan are comparatively recent, dating back to the Islamicization policies practised by Zia ul-Haq from the late 1970s, the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the rise of the Taliban in 2 short years in the mid 1990s thanks to the support of the Pakisanti state (and in particular its security apparatus, the ISI). However, in recent years the regime of Pervez Musharraf, which has sought to be a key ally of the US, has pandered to militant Islamist elements, and has, in the provinces, at times, relied upon their support, despite his own supposed 'liberalism'. It has been a pathologically contradictory political alignment, whose explosive elements have been seen this year in the assault on the Lal Masjid in the heart of Islamabad. It could well be responsible for the assassination.

2. The military: Bhutto did a deal with the military when she returned to Pakistan earlier in the year. Upon her return, however, there was, of course, a major assassination attempt on her life, one which killed scores of her supporters, and which required a huge breach of security, as did her assassination. However, saying the military might have been behind the assassination is not the same as saying Musharraf might be behind it. He has clearly very little to gain, and much to lose, by this assassination. Rather, Bhutto herself, prior to the 18 October assassination attempt in Karachi, suggested that elements within the military, closet supporters of former President Zia, sustained by elements within the ISI, together wanted her dead. No doubt, there were many in the ranks of the military who did indeed view Bhutto as a threat. The 'deep state' in Pakistan is real, although it is not understood; and it could have been responsible. Again, as I already noted, there was a major security failure that allowed the assassination to take place; this suggests some complicity within some elements of the state.

3. Political opponents: The political use of murder is extremely widespread in Pakistan, and is used by those in power and those outside but seeking power. Bhutto's relationship with longtime rival Nawaz Sharif had always been tense. Sharif rose politically during the regime of Zia ul-Haq; as a consequence, he was never forgiven by Bhutto, because Zia had ordered the hanging of Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) which Benazir Bhutto led since the mid 1980s. While it is unlikely that Sharif himself could be involved, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that militant supporters might have felt that assassination was the best way of preventing a PPP victory in the forthcoming elections--although these may now be cancelled because of the assassination.

4. A combination of these: The killing of Zia has never been explained. Pakistan lacks the capacity to mount a full and complete investigation of the assassination of Bhutto, and thus it too may never be explained. Moreover, elements within the deep state might want to prevent such an investigation, even if they had nothing to do with the assassination, because it would reveal far too much of their behind-the-scenes power in contemporary Pakistan. Thus, I believe it is likely that the truth will never be known.

Having said that, Jason Burke has reminded us of a previous attempt on Bhutto's life: not the one on 18 October of this year, but one in the early 1990s. Then, Ramzi Yousef, who is now in prison in the US for the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, tried to assasinate Bhutto. The attempt was financed by money from outside Pakistan, coordinated by senior Islamist militants in the Gulf, and used local criminal elements and a local Afghan hardline commander with Saudi Arabian links. Throw into this volatile combination an element of the deep state, and a plausible, even if probably partial, explanation for the assassination begins to emerge. However, it is an explanation that will only ever be a theory.

I first met Benazir Bhutto in the mid 1980s, when she was in her early 30s, and when she was seeking to galvanize support for the PPP as it led the struggle against the military regime of Zia ul-Haq. She was an impressive figure, a reasonable speaker, but, unlike her father, not a politician that espoused a vision. Her politics had little depth to them; they were the politics of rhetoric, as I stressed all those years ago in my review of her autobiography. That was why, when corruption allegations against her and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, emerged, particulary in the mid 1990s, I could believe them, and quite easily, despite the fact that she did not need the money, as she was from a hugely privileged background: the Sindhi feudal elite.

That Bhutto was a member of the Pakistani ruling class was amply demonstrated during her two terms as Prime Minister. She was deeply disappointing, doing nothing to challenge the deep state, doing nothing to question the culture of corruption that pervades the Pakistani ruling elite, and, most importantly, doing little to challenge the profound social inequality and pervades Pakistan, one of the most unequal and inegalitarian societies I have experienced. Her politics were opportunistic to the core, and in this she demonstrated the venality that pervades South Asian politics. Indeed, this was witnessed only this year, in the prolonged machinations between Bhutto and Musharraf, machinations that had nothing to do with principal and everything to do with trying to divide the spoils of power.

Having said that, though, she had made small differences to the lives of the Western-educated elite in Islamabad and Karachi. The one thing that was notable about Bhutto's Pakistan, as opposed to Zia's Pakistan, was that it was more liberal: the press was freer, women were freer, the country was not as oppressive as it had been--although it was still a very conservative place. Indeed, in this sense, Musharraf's Pakistan is a logical continuation of Bhutto's, which is perhaps one reason why the US was so keen to forge a partnership between the two.

That partnership could not have worked, because it reflected the needs of the Pakistani ruling classes, and not the Pakistani people. The PPP that Bhutto led was one that was founded by her father to meet the aspirations of the people: of workers, of students, and, most especially, of peasants. That PPP was the only mass popular movement that Pakistan has known. It was the people's party, a party against the elite, and in favour of social justice. Pakistan desperately needs this kind of mass-based political party. The PPP needs to be rebuilt, or a new, broadly-based party that represents the aspirations of the subordinate built: a modern, democratic organization defending the social, economic, political and human rights of Pakistan's people. If the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who dominated the PPP, leads to these kinds of changes in the PPP, then benefit could come from her death. Sadly, though, my experience of Pakistan over the last 25 years suggests that this will not happen.

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