Pakistan and US policy move on after assassination of Benazir Bhutto

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A week after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the political dust has settled sufficiently for us to hazard some analysis of the situation Pakistan faces and where it might go from here. The announcement that elections have been postponed until February 18, and the appointment of Benazir’s husband and son to lead the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) –” confirming it to be a family fiefdom rather than a political party in any real sense –” have established some of the parameters of Pakistani politics in the post-Benazir era. And yet, in perhaps the most important ways, her death really changes very little. To understand why, it is necessary to understand the nature of the US strategy in the country.

First, however, the question that dominated all discussions in the immediate aftermath of the assassination must be discussed: who did it and why? This will probably never be adequately answered, and is in any case quickly becoming irrelevant. As Pakistani politics move into post-Benazir mode, perceptions of who did it are perhaps more important than the facts, which will probably never be established. Various plausible scenarios have been put forward, supported by conflicting claims, counter-claims and supposed evidence, and there is no independent authority, in Pakistan or outside, capable of resolving the contradictions or reaching a conclusion that everyone would accept.

Nonetheless, it is worth reviewing the plausibility of the various suspects. It is probably fair to say that most fingers in Pakistan are pointing at president Pervez Musharraf; even Bhutto herself apparently fingered him in a bout of clairvoyance shortly after returning to the country. The reason Musharraf would have for targeting Bhutto is clear enough: she was his main rival for American political favour, and therefore for power in Pakistan. Having said that, he is unlikely to gain more than temporary benefit, and must surely have known that he would be blamed if Bhutto was killed, and that his already precarious position would become even worse. But desperate men have been known to do desperate things, and Musharraf certainly is that.

Musharraf himself has blamed Taliban-style jihadist groups. This is also quite plausible. They hated Benazir not because she was a woman, as some like to say, but because of what she stood for: a secular, pro-Western regime that would do the US’s bidding even more eagerly than previous ones. In particular, she had promised to wage war on the jihadists on the US’s behalf; it is not unlikely that they would want to wage war back, and carrying out the assassination would certainly be well within their capabilities.

A third possibility is that she was killed by other factions in Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. Despite being broadly pro-Western, the military is less supinely subservient to America than Bhutto was, and was both angered and worried by such things as her willingness to surrender both Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and the nuclear facilities themselves, to the US.

Fingers have also been pointed at the US itself. This, however, is little more than the knee-jerk reaction of people who routinely blame the US for everything that happens in the Muslim world. Usually their instincts are right; but in this case the US had no reason for killing Bhutto; indeed, it is the greatest loser by her death. The response to her death shows how much they regarded her as “one of us” and were depending on her for their future strategy in Pakistan.

This was because their ally for the last few years, Musharraf, has lost his utility. It is a sign of the US’s weakness that they had to turn to an earlier ally, Benazir, who had a record of working with them in Pakistan, and had long been trying to convince them that she still had a role to play, despite her disastrous record in power. The facts of her role were clear even before her return to Pakistan in October (see, for example, Crescent International, October and November 2007). Since her death, extensive details of her dealings with the US have been published in the Western press. The intention, of course, was to show how important she was to the US, and how great a loss her death is; but for Muslims and many others, the details merely confirm the extent of her betrayal of her country and her people.

The outline of the US’s plan is clear enough. Musharraf’s inability to maintain his position had rendered him useless to them. Suddenly they realised that he was a dictator and joined in popular Pakistani demands for a more legitimate government, sending Benazir home to win the elections and take over from him, hopefully in smooth, gradual, managed process of transition. As Musharraf must have known, her return to Pakistan was the beginning of the end of his rule; hence his desperate attempt to secure his position by declaring “a state of emergency” in November. The US’s insistence that he stick to his agreement with Benazir quickly ended this attempted rebellion –” and may have prompted an even greater one. Either way, Musharraf remains fatally damaged and therefore useless to the US.

Musharraf’s resignation as Commander in Chief of the Army, and the appointment of General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani in his place, has effectively cut him off from the most powerful political institution in Pakistan. Kiyani worked with Benazir when she was prime minister in the 1980s, has headed the important Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and was involved in the negotiations between Musharraf and Benazir leading to her return to Pakistan. With Musharraf fading from the scene, the US must have hoped that a Bhutto-Kiyani partnership in Pakistan would keep it reasonably stable for a few more years, after which they would look at the situation anew. Precedent suggests that the inevitable mismanagement, corruption and unpopularity of a third Benazir administration would be used to justify another military takeover.

Bhutto’s death is clearly a major blow to this plan; but the underlying strategy is unlikely to change. Washington’s insistence that elections go ahead quickly suggests that they hope that the PPP will be able to serve their purpose under Asif Zardari. But the PPP has been badly damaged by the death of Benazir; Zardari is hated even within the party, and is likely to leave little for Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to inherit. But all this means is that civilian rule will fall apart, and the idea of “democratic government” be discredited, rather sooner than the US would have expected under Benazir. Their fallback plan will remain the same, and probably simply be brought forward: the installation in power of another general –” Kiyani or a successor –” for yet another period of secure and reliable military dictatorship.

As the immediate political drama of Benazir’s assassination settles down, it becomes clear that her death is in truth little more significant than she was. An important piece –” the queen perhaps –” has been taken off the board, but the players and the game remain the same. Meanwhile, the war on Islamic groups, the suppression of all other political dissidence, and the suffering and frustration of Pakistan’s people, will all continue to grow apace; until such time as Pakistan’s people themselves force change under a leadership that truly represents them and their Islamic faith and values.

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