NEW DELHI — After having fretted over a rising prodemocracy tide, Pakistan’s ruling military can expect to be the main gainer from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s killing at the very public park where the 1951 assassination of the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, helped smother a fledging democracy and open the way to the military’s entry into politics.
Just as Pakistan become increasingly Islamized following the 1979 execution of Bhutto’s father — Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — by the general who deposed him, the daughter’s assassination will help reinforce Islamist radicalization under continued military rule.
In fact, Bhutto — the first woman in modern world history to be democratically elected to govern an Islamic state — met her violent end 3 km from where her father was hanged. Add to the family tragedy the separate killings of her two brothers, one poisoned in 1985 in the French Riviera and the other fatally shot in 1996, with both cases still unsolved.
With Pakistan’s politics today teetering on a knife’s edge, the main loser is likely to be President Pervez Musharraf, who is widely perceived to have done too little to protect Bhutto or to rein in the jihadists, some with cozy ties to his establishment. The official move to deflect public suspicion of regime involvement in the assassination by meretriciously laying the blame on the amorphous al-Qaida has only highlighted the need for an independent international investigation along the lines of the United Nations probe into ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s killing.
Given that Pakistan identified the two December 2003 assassination attempts on Musharraf as an inside job by charging four junior army officers and six air force men, suspicion is bound to linger that elements within an ever-more radicalized establishment bumped off Benazir — an outspoken critic of the jihadists who had emerged as the leader most likely to bring about political change in a country tired of its present military ruler.
Just days before her assassination, Bhutto said in a Washington Post interview that she was concerned that some of the people around Musharraf have sympathy for the militants and was “shocked to see how embedded” the state system of support for extremists is.
Musharraf’s credibility was in tatters even before the murder, but now his days in power appear more numbered than ever. In its 60-year history, Pakistan has already had four military takeovers and four Constitutions. With the assassination dimming the possibility of a democratic transition in a country of 165 million citizens where governments have always been booted out but never been voted out, a new military face could easily take over power on the pretext of saving an imploding state.
Such a takeover will be inevitable if violent protests persist, the two main political parties shun Musharraf, and the United States (a key party in Pakistani politics) distances itself from the dictator it has propped up for so long.
The likely perpetuation of military rule is not good news for international or regional security or for Pakistan’s own future, given how the country has sunk deeper into fundamentalism, extremism and militarism since the last coup in 1999. While the military will continue to defend holding the reins of power as a necessary evil in the service of a greater good, its political role will only keep Pakistan on the boil.
For more than eight years, Musharraf has justified his dictatorship as vital for bringing stability to Pakistan even as his rule has taken it to the very brink. Today, a nuclear-armed, terror-exporting Pakistan has become a problem not just regionally but globally, with almost every major international terror attack since 9/11 being traced back to Pakistani territory. Pakistan has also been the source of the greatest leakage of nuclear secrets.
It is the military that created and nurtured the forces of jihad and helped Islamist groups gain political space at the expense of mainstream parties. Musharraf’s record is glaring: He welcomed with open arms the three jihadists India freed in late 1999 to end the hijacking of Flight IC-814, helping one to form the terrorist Jaish-e-Mohammed group and harboring another until his subsequent role in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl could no longer be hidden. Musharraf has filled Pakistani jails more with democracy activists than with jihadists, even as he has used the threat from the latter to cling on to power.
Unless the military’s vise on power is broken and the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency is tamed, Pakistan will continue to menace regional and international security. What steaming Pakistan needs is a safety valve in the form of democratic empowerment of its restive masses. But what military rule has created is a pressure-cooker society congenial to the continued growth of extremism.
Getting the military to return to the barracks, admittedly, has become more difficult. The generous spoils of power under Musharraf’s prolonged rule have fattened the military, which now controls fields as varied as agriculture and education and runs businesses ranging from banks to bakeries.
Add to that the new draconian powers that have been retained despite Musharraf’s lifting of the six-week emergency rule — declared to engineer his “re-election” as president. These powers allow Musharraf to continue muzzling the judiciary and media without attracting the odium of continued emergency rule. But the more powers Musharraf has usurped over the years, the more dependent he has become on his military and its intelligence and, therefore, less able to sever their ties with extremist elements.
Yet another factor helping to keep the military in power is U.S. aid. Indeed, all Pakistani military rulers since the 1950s have oiled their dictatorships with copious aid from America, whose foreign policy has allowed narrow geopolitical objectives to override long-term interests.
Since 2001 alone, U.S. aid has totaled $11 billion, most of it in military hardware and cash support for Pakistan’s operating budget. So munificent has the aid been that the Pakistan military — the world’s fifth largest — now relies on Washington for a quarter of its entire budget.
Such aid, far from producing counterterrorist successes, has enabled Pakistan to become the main sanctuary of transnational terrorists, with U.S. officials admitting that much of the American money has been diverted to fund acquisition of large weapon systems against India. As the country next door, India will be affected the most by any surge in Pakistani terrorism. In fact, the al-Qaida network is now increasingly made up not of Arab and Afghan fighters but of homegrown Pakistani extremists.
Washington, however, still values the Pakistan military as a key instrument to advance its regional interests. Just as it helped keep the jihad-spewing Gen. Zia ul-Haq in power for a decade to take on Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. seeks a pliant ruler in Islamabad today because it employs Pakistan as a gateway to military operations in Afghanistan, a base for clandestine missions into Iran and a vehicle for other geopolitical interests.
Consequently, the U.S. has neither leaned too heavily on Pakistan to achieve enduring antiterrorist results nor exposed its military’s complicity in the sale of nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. It also has shied away from pressing Musharraf to make renegade nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan available for international questioning.
Today, U.S. President George W. Bush’s preoccupation with a self-created mess in Iraq cannot obscure a larger reality: Pakistan, not Iraq, is the central front in the global battle against terrorism. But before a disastrous U.S. policy on Pakistan starts to match the Iraq folly, Bush ought to end America’s reliance on the Pakistan military and his own misbegotten effort to help find a civilian mask for the Pakistani dictator.
Bhutto’s murder is a horrific reminder that unraveling Pakistan’s jihad culture won’t be easy but is essential. The battle against international terrorism cannot be won without demilitarizing Pakistan’s blood-soaked polity and de-radicalizing its society. Otherwise, Pakistan (which its founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah bewailed was a “moth-eaten travesty”) could itself unravel.
Before yet another general makes a power grab, the international community under U.S. leadership needs to step in to get the present ruler to cede power to an all-party government that inspires public trust and can hold free and fair elections. Musharraf is terminally unpopular and highly vulnerable at this juncture, and to let go of this opportunity would be to allow Pakistan to descend into an abyss of endless violence and terrorism. Having exiled others in the past, Musharraf should now be made to go into exile himself.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.