In Pakistan, it has long been said that the choices for successful politicians are very limited, including little more than ‘from takhat to takhta’ – from throne to crypt. That certainly proved true for Benazir Bhutto, who lost her life on 27 December while attempting to gain some additional space for Pakistan’s democratic forces. Still more worrying, however, is the aftermath of that tragic event, and its ramifications for the country at large.
Following the assassination, Pakistan has been plunged into chaos, with Pakistanis being quick to express their grief and anger through both peaceful and violent protests. Around two dozen people died on the spot with ‘B B’, and many others lost their lives during the subsequent demonstrations. The economic losses have likewise been huge – in the billions of rupees – with much of the country’s infrastructure, especially in interior Sindh, now largely in shambles. There was one place that was quickly cleaned up, however. The scene of the murder – Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi, the place where Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951 – was hurriedly washed up on the orders of a top police official. An event watched by disbelieving television audiences, the hosing down of the assassination site destroyed most of the forensic evidence.
Many who were expecting a state-level funeral for the twice-elected prime minister and head of the major opposition party were to be disappointed. Islamabad’s conclusion not to organise an elaborate event was justified on grounds of security, but the decision was also obviously aimed at avoiding public backlash against the government. To keep the situation in the capital under control, no official post-mortem was undertaken, and Benazir’s coffin was sent to her ancestral home in Sindh under cover of darkness.
The situation was further complicated by conflicting and irresponsible statements by the government’s spokesperson, Brigadier Javed Cheema, who publicly announced that a Taliban instructor from the NWFP, Baitullah Mehsud, was behind the assassination. Brigadier Cheema repeatedly changed his story, first attributing the death to multiple gunshot wounds, then to metallic pieces from a bomb, and later to a lever on the Bhutto campaign vehicle’s sunroof. Amidst the confusion and ambiguity created by these multiple stances, and in the absence of reliable forensic evidence, it was natural that conspiracy theories would blossom. These theories are, in turn, irrevocably shaping the post-Benazir political scenario of Pakistan.
Pakistan na khappey
In the current situation, the allegations break down like this: Islamabad is blaming the assassination on Islamist extremism; Benazir’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is accusing President Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League (Q); and still others are, in turn, pointing the finger at Pakistan Army commandos, the CIA and even a section within the PPP itself. (In late January, meanwhile, the CIA publicly pointed its gaze towards Baitullah Mehsud and al-Qaeda.) In addition, few can ignore what seems to have been a surprising security lapse on the part of Benazir’s own security, for having allowed her to expose herself through the sunroof of her bullet-proof vehicle in the first place. To add to the mix, Benazir herself had sent a letter to then-General Musharraf in mid-October 2007, in which she named four possible suspects in the event of her assassination: former Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, former Sindh Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim, Intelligence Bureau chief Ijaz Shah and ex-Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Hamid Gul.
Contrary to the widely publicised official hypothesis that Benazir was killed by al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders, both al-Qaeda and Baitullah Mehsud (who generally claim ownership and take pride in their actions) were quick to deny any involvement. But although it is widely believed in Pakistan that only religious extremists would go to the extent of carrying out suicide attacks, it has been interesting to note that the focus of public wrath during the month following Benazir’s death has not been on religious establishments, religious leadership, nor even jihadi outfits.
Rather, protesters’ chants have been against the civil and military establishment, including the centrist PML (Q) backed by President Musharraf, and even Musharraf himself. Railways, post offices, banks and other government offices, perceived as symbols of the state, have suffered heavy damage during the violent demonstrations. The PML (Q) and its supporters (including its electoral candidates) have been targeted by protesters, and most PML (Q) leaders have gone underground. The slogan Pakistan na khappey (We don’t want Pakistan) has been raised throughout Sindh – a startling reflection of the people’s deep frustration, disappointment and helplessness.
Whoever lay behind the plot, the murder further increased the sense of marginalisation of the people of Sindh, who had already received from Rawalpindi the corpses of two earlier Sindhi prime ministers, Liaquat Ali Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. As before, in reaction to the latest assassination, the Sindhi animosity towards Punjab was widely and publicly expressed – to the extent that the PPP was compelled to stop the Lahore-born Nawaz Sharif from attending Benazir’s funeral due to security concerns. Indeed, Benazir’s murder seems to have shattered much of the provincial harmony that was left in Pakistan.
Benazir’s death has left a significant vacuum in the opposition that will be difficult to fill – though the people are willing to be surprised. The populace has been generally sceptical of the politics of both Asif Zardari, Benazir’s controversial husband, and former Prime Minister Sharif. In the aftermath of the assassination, however, both of these figures have been seen to play relatively positive roles in managing the crisis. Despite his political differences with Benazir, Sharif, whose own life is also considered at risk, was the only rival political leader to visit Rawalpindi General Hospital, where the slain leader was taken following the attack; later, he also went to Sindh to offer his personal condolences to Zardari. Beyond a hand of friendship to a rival party at a time of tragedy, both of these acts were seen as helping to improve the fast-deteriorating Sindh-Punjab relationship. Likewise, Zardari, in his first public address after the funeral, stressed the slogan Pakistan khappey (We want Pakistan), and advised his supporters not to threaten national unity.
At the broader level, Benazir’s death has been a significant blow to the nation state of Pakistan, for the weakening of the PPP as the pan-Pakistan political party. One may disagree with the PPP’s political ideology of ‘Islamic Socialism’; one may also criticise the alleged deal through which B B managed to return to Pakistan after a decade in self-exile. However, one way or another, the PPP has been the leading national party for the past four decades, with a presence in all of Pakistan’s provinces, including Azad Kashmir. Furthermore, in the run-up to the upcoming elections, Benazir had clearly shown that she was unwilling to give an open hand to either the military or the militants, and was working to create a space for the democratic forces, despite being criticised by those very forces.
Benazir Bhutto had served twice as elected prime minister, and it is widely acknowledged that she largely failed in bringing about a transformation in the livelihood of the masses. But the reason for this apparent failure could well have been that she was never given a chance to complete either of her five-year terms, and that on both occasions her government was dismissed by the then-presidents, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari. Using the seemingly dismal performance of the two Benazir governments as an excuse, for the past eight years Gen Musharraf had continued to maintain that both the PPP and Benazir herself were unpopular among the masses.
Eventually, this was proven dramatically untrue. The gargantuan public reception that Benazir received upon landing in Karachi on her return from exile, on 18 October 2007, proved to be an eye-opener, not the least for Gen Musharraf. The crowds that turned up to greet Benazir were reminiscent of the millions that had gathered to receive her in Lahore in 1986, when she returned from political exile in London to challenge General Zia ul-Haq, who had hanged her father in 1979. Furthermore, contrary to the Lahore reception, which was attributed to the legacy of her father, it is important to keep in mind that the Karachi reception was accorded to a former prime minister whose government had twice been dismissed on charges of corruption and nepotism. In effect, the massive welcome in Karachi added up to a clear public acquittal, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, then and there, one of Benazir’s enemies must have decided to eliminate her from the political arena. Indeed, an attempt was made to kill her during the Karachi rally itself; though she survived that suicide attack, more than 130 of her party supporters died.
The question then arises as to who would have gone to the extent of assassinating Benazir Bhutto. The range of possible opponents was large: Benazir had been opposing a whole spectrum of power centres, from the military dictatorship to the unbridled establishment, religious extremists, militants and those who wished the continued prevalence of social injustice, in whatever form. She had, of course, also long been opposing Gen Musharraf. But then the two entered into a dialogue (perhaps due to pressure from the US), and subsequently showed significant flexibility towards the other. Besides the ‘president in uniform’, Benazir had also been opposing other non-democratic forces, including the intelligence agencies and the PML (Q). As noted previously, she had expressed her suspicion of threats to her life emanating from the top leadership of both of the country’s intelligence agencies. And indeed, such allegations were indirectly confirmed by President Musharraf in an interview after the assassination, when he noted that Benazir had been extremely unpopular among the armed forces.
But why would the intelligence agencies plot Benazir’s assassination? Here, one must remember that, in September 2007, Bhutto had declared that she would give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has lived under house arrest in Islamabad since 2004. She also wanted to hold a parliamentary hearing to determine whether Khan had acted alone in selling Pakistan’s nuclear secrets. It is widely assumed that holding such a hearing would have harmed many within the top brass, both from the civil and armed forces. As such, it could have been considered in the ‘national interest’ to keep Bhutto’s mouth shut. At the same time, there is also the argument that only religious fanaticism would lead to suicide attacks – to which the cynic would reply that the intelligence agencies work in deep and inscrutable ways.
Of course, there is no end to the conspiracy theories. In the process of sifting through them, one should not ignore what has recently been said by the former chief of the Pakistan Army, Gen (retd) Aslam Beg Mirza, and the former head of the ISI, Gen (retd) Hamid Gul. Both are reportedly willing to disclose, to an independent commission, what is described as “important evidence” that the United States was intricately involved in the Benazir assassination.
The reasoning here goes as such. The Pentagon, the seat of the US Secretary of Defence, has been frustrated by the inability of Pakistani forces to control the militant bases alleged to be located along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. Pakistan’s political instability has likewise heightened US concern about Islamist extremists in these areas. Very recently, an agreement was reached between Washington, DC and Islamabad, allowing that, from early 2008, the US would begin providing training, assistance and mentoring to Pakistani forces along the Afghan border. In addition, some US officials are pushing for the green light to begin carrying out direct actions on Pakistani soil.
Thus far, the pressure had been coming from the Pentagon. But as the US presidential election has heated up, strong statements have begun emerging from US candidates on the issue. By mid-January, this ultimately forced President Musharraf to openly warn the US not to contemplate undertaking any direct operation within Pakistan. Given the political crisis and uncertainty following Benazir’s assassination, which seemed to be creating conditions that would justify stepped-up US military involvement in Pakistan’s domestic problems, some analysts are suspicious of the US for its possible role in creating the chaos in the first place. Although eliminating Benazir does not seem like a well-planned plot, there is no gainsaying that her assassination could well be the outcome of a high-stakes strategy gone awry.
This is an interesting twist. The West had originally forced a deal between Gen Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto; Saudi Arabia, as a proxy for the US, likewise made it possible to send Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan. Simultaneously, the US provided political backing to Gen Musharraf to improve his performance in the ‘war on terror’. However, this divide-and-rule strategy eventually fell flat: instead of bickering amongst themselves, as in the past, Bhutto and Sharif opted instead to directly confront Gen Musharraf. Doing so may well have been perceived in Washington, DC as jeopardising this game plan.
Whatever the truth behind the assassination and subsequent mindless acts of violence, the chaos in Pakistan has made the country’s post-Benazir geopolitical scenario look bleak. If the other high-profile assassinations in Pakistan over the past half-century are anything to go by, the identity of Benazir’s murderers will most likely never be revealed. Besides the violence and threat to the very foundations of the nation state, Pakistanis are reeling under severe crises of energy, wheat flour and natural gas. On the other hand, the current situation seems to favour international players, who have long been waiting to take control of the country’s nuclear armaments, carry out direct operations to stop tribal support for insurgents in Afghanistan, and open a second land front against Iran.
Another crucial point will be the forthcoming elections, in the event that they actually take place. Can the PPP capitalise on its leader’s sacrifice? Even if it were to win, would the party be allowed to form a government? And, ultimately, would the PPP, plus Nawaz Sharif, with a heavy mandate from the people, truly be able to lift Pakistan out of its current chaos? What would be the character of relations between President Musharraf and a new prime minister – particularly in light of the purported strategy of the new Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, of keeping the military out of politics? These are just some of the questions currently being mulled by the broad slate of Pakistanis, but to which only time will be able to offer any real answer.
~ Abid Quaiyum Suleri is an Islamabad-based policy analyst.