ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 31

The making of a murder in Pakistan

By Hassan Abbas

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the first Muslim woman to lead a Muslim country, is a serious blow to Pakistan's prospects for democracy and, indeed, its viability as a state. As chaos and confusion set in, we should not lose sight of President Pervez Musharraf's partial responsibility for this turn of events. At the very least, he cannot be absolved from his government's failure to provide Bhutto with adequate security.

Instead, Bhutto had to pay with her life for courageously challenging extremists of all stripes - from al-Qaeda and Taliban to the country's religious political parties and military hardliners. As heir to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the legendary democratic leader who was hanged by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's government in 1979, Benazir emerged as a symbol of resistance at a young age - but languished in jails and exile in the 1980s. Ali Bhutto's legacy was empowerment of the impoverished and defence of ordinary people's rights amid feudalistic politics and military rule. Rather than bowing to the military junta, he embraced the gallows.

Asif Ali Zardari (R) husband of former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto and his son Bilawal (R) stand in front of her grave following her burial at Ghari Khuda Baksh, 28 December 2007. AFP

Hours before his hanging, Benazir was allowed to see her father for the last time, writing in her autobiography: "I told him on my oath in his death cell, I would carry on his work." She largely lived up to the promise. Her first stint as prime minister (1988-90) was brief and disorganized. Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, confirmed that he sponsored an alliance of right-wing political parties to stop her from getting a parliamentary majority. Information about Pakistan's nuclear programme and ISI operations in Afghanistan were out of her domain.

Her second term in office (1993-96) was longer and better, but her government again fell early, owing to charges of mismanagement and corruption. In reality, machinations by the intelligence agencies also played a part. The military had developed an entrenched distrust of her, given her position as a popularly supported pro-Western leader who wanted peace with India.

After almost a decade in self-imposed exile, Bhutoo's return to Pakistan in October gave her a fresh political start. Pakistan had changed, as military dictatorship and religious extremism in the north played havoc with the fabric of society. A tentative arrangement with Musharraf, together with Western support - particularly from the United Kingdom and the United States - eased her return, which hundreds of thousands of people welcomed, though terrorists greeted her with a string of suicide bombings.

Bhutto's contacts with Mushararf's military government drew criticism, but she remained adamant that a return to democracy was possible only through a transition in which Musharraf would give up his military post, become a civilian head of state, and conduct free and fair elections.

To the dismay of some democratic forces, Bhutto stayed the course even after Musharraf imposed emergency rule on November 3 and removed the country's top judges to ensure his re-election. Indeed, she even persuaded other important political leaders to participate in the planned January 8 election, which she viewed as an opportunity to challenge religious extremist forces in the public square. She seized that opportunity by bravely travelling throughout the country, despite serious threats to her life, arguing for a democratic and pluralistic Pakistan.

One can understand why religious extremists like al-Qaeda and Taliban would target her, and the government claims that it is impossible to defend against a suicide attack. But Bhutto was reportedly killed by a sharp shooter before the terrorist blew himself up. So, in the eyes of Pakistan's people, and especially of Bhutto's supporters, the intelligence services, either alone or in collaboration with extremists, finally decided to eliminate her.

Whether or not the government was involved, the fact remains that Pakistan has lost a desperately needed leader. With Pakistan's future in the balance, the West's help and support will be crucial, but that means recognizing that Musharraf is not the only leader who can resolve Pakistan's myriad problems and manage the war on terror. On the contrary, by nurturing the current environment of instability and uncertainty, Musharraf himself must be regarded as one of Pakistan's biggest problems.

(Hassan Abbas, who served in the administrations of both Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf, is now a research Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror". )

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