Pakistan’s 2007 Crises Come to a Crescendo; Benazir Assassinated Implications for US Security

Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, has been assassinated at a rally held Thursday evening near Islamabad. She appears to have been shot by the assassin, who was wearing a suicide bomb belt, which he then detonated to make sure he had finished the job. The Bhuttos are sort of the Kennedys of Pakistan, marked by wealth, power and tragedy, and central to the country’s politics for the past four decades.

The Pakistani authorities are blaming Muslim militants for the assassination. That is possible, but everyone in Pakistan remembers that it was the military intelligence, or Inter-Services Intelligence, that promoted Muslim militancy in the two decades before September 11 as a wedge against India in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) faithful will almost certainly blame Pervez Musharraf, and sentiment here is more important than reality, whatever the reality may be. The PPP is one of two very large, long-standing grassroots political parties in Pakistan, and if its followers are radicalized by this event, it could lead to severe turmoil. Just a day before her assassination Benazir had pledged that the PPP would not allow the military to rig the upcoming January 8 parliamentary elections.

Pakistan is important to US security. It is a nuclear power. Its military fostered, then partially turned on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which have bases in the lawless tribal areas of the northern part of the country. And Pakistan is key to the future of its neighbor, Afghanistan. Pakistan is also a key transit route for any energy pipelines built between Iran or Central Asia and India, and so central to the energy security of the United States.

The military government of Pervez Musharraf was shaken by two big crises in 2007, one urban and one rural. The urban crisis was his interference in the rule of law and his dismissal of the supreme court chief justice. The Pakistani middle class has greatly expanded in the last seven years, as others have noted, and educated white collar people need a rule of law to conduct their business. Last June 50,000 protesters came out to defend the supreme court, even though the military had banned rallies. The rural crisis was the attempt of a Neo-Deobandi cult made up of Pushtuns and Baluch from the north to establish themselves in the heart of the capital, Islamabad, at the Red Mosque seminary. They then attempted to impose rural, puritan values on the cosmopolitan city dwellers. When they kidnapped Chinese acupuncturists, accusing them of prostitution, they went too far. Pakistan depends deeply on its alliance with China, and the Islamabad middle classes despise Talibanism. Musharraf ham-fistedly had the military mount a frontal assault on the Red Mosque and its seminary, leaving many dead and his legitimacy in shreds. Most Pakistanis did not rally in favor of the Neo-Deobandi cultists, but to see a military invasion of a mosque was not pleasant (the militants inside turned out to be heavily armed and quite sinister).

The NYT reported that US Secretary of State Condi Rice tried to fix Musharraf’s subsequent dwindling legitimacy by arranging for Benazir to return to Pakistan to run for prime minister, with Musharraf agreeing to resign from the military and become a civilian president. When the supreme court seemed likely to interfere with his remaining president, he arrested the justices, dismissed them, and replaced them with more pliant jurists. This move threatened to scuttle the Rice Plan, since Benazir now faced the prospect of serving a dictator as his grand vizier, rather than being a proper prime minister.

With Benazir’s assassination, the Rice Plan is in tatters and Bush administration policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan is tottering.

Benazir is from a major Pakistani political dynasty. (See the obituary here and the photographs here. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was prime minister in the 1970s but was overthrown by a military coup in 1977 and subsequently hanged by military dictator Zia ul-Huq. Benazir helped lead the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s, and was often under house arrest. When Zia died in an airplane accident in 1988, Benazir won the subsequent elections and served as prime minister 1988-1990. Zia had put in place mechanisms to limit popular sovereignty, and the then ‘president’ removed Benazir from office in 1990. She served again as PM, 1993-1996 but was again deposed, being accused of corruption. After the 1999 military coup of Pervez Musharraf, she was in a state of permanent exile, since he said he would have her arrested if she tried to come back. He relented because of his own collapsing position and because of US pressure, and allowed her to return in October. She was almost assassinated at that time by a huge bomb when she landed in Karachi.

See also the comments of Manan Ahmad at our Global Affairs blog, where there are several recent important entries.