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A View from India

Myths and Realities About Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan’s Dark Future

by AJAI SAHNI

A tremendous myth had been generated over the past months regarding the imminent restoration of ‘democracy’ in Pakistan–with Benazir Bhutto projected as the great liberal hope. This was arrant nonsense. Bhutto was a discredited, demonstrably inept, compromised and corrupt leader, one who had been directly involved in the creation of and support to the Taliban, and who actively supported the terrorist ‘jehad’ in Indian Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) in her earlier tenures as Prime Minister. She was returning to Pakistan under a US-brokered deal to participate in an election that was already being pre-rigged in her favor (through the selective exclusion of a number of leaders, including Nawaz Sharif, by a puppet Election Commission which had ‘rejected’ their candidature on criteria that should have made Bhutto’s participation impossible as well). The principal objective of this election was not the ‘restoration’ of a viable and meaningful democracy, but the legitimization of the Musharraf dictatorship through the fig-leaf of a ‘civilian government’ which would have exercised no more than nominal powers, essentially at the pleasure of the President.

None of this has changed, and any electoral process in the foreseeable future would secure essentially the same objective–irrespective of the identity of the ‘Prime Minister’ or the Party that would be catapulted to dubious ‘power’. This is the reality behind the myths, both, of Bhutto’s return to, and assassination in, Pakistan: neither event could have any significant impact on the perverse equations of power that prevail on the ground. America’s feeble and tardy meddling in Pakistan has no real potential to restore meaningful democracy, as the state remains torn between two principal adversaries: an overwhelmingly powerful, but steadily weakening Army; and the radical Islamists, with their own reserve armies of suicide bombers and augmenting capacities for terrorism.

The little credibility that President Pervez Musharraf’s regime had, both domestically and internationally, appears to be rapidly fading in the wake of Bhutto’s assassination. Conspiracy theories now abound in Pakistan, and most are willing to lay the responsibility for the former Prime Minister’s death on acts of omission or commission by Government agencies, particularly the malevolent Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), with its abiding linkages to the Islamist terrorist forces it created in the country over the past decades.

Apart from the contradictions emerging in the official descriptive of the circumstances of death, a succession of disclosures relating to denial of security even after the devastating suicide bombing of October 18, in which Bhutto narrowly escaped assassination, and revelations that Bhutto had actively been blocked from hiring her own guards, appear to substantially establish the regime’s mala fides. Contradictions are also appearing in the Government’s quick attribution of the assassination to Baitullah Mehsud, the ‘commander’ of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and to al Qaeda. Both organizations have denied involvement in the attack, and there is certainly something suspect in the steady build-up in preceding months of the alleged threat from Mehsud, who, it was claimed, had warned that Bhutto would be killed if she returned to Pakistan. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) spokesperson, Farhatullah Babar, has now indicated that Mehsud had sent ‘reliable emissaries’ to Bhutto at least twice after the October 18 bombing, to reassure her that "I am not your enemy, I have nothing to do with you or against you or with the assassination attempt on you", and had exhorted her to "Identify your enemy".

Musharraf’s stock in Washington has certainly declined after this incident–though the blind strategists at the White House would probably incline to clutch desperately at the ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) thesis and continue to back Musharraf in the immediate future. A number of prominent Western leaders, including more than one US Presidential candidate, has held the Musharraf regime ‘directly or indirectly’ responsible for Bhutto’s assassination, with Hillary Clinton calling for an international probe into the incident, arguing, "I don’t think the Pakistani Government at this time under Musharraf has any credibility at all."

Within the murky circumstances that currently prevail in Pakistan, it is doubtful if the truth about the Bhutto assassination will ever be conclusively established.

What is certain, however, is that every conceivable protocol for the protection of an individual in the highest category of terrorist threat–as Bhutto, a former Prime Minister and a Prime Ministerial candidate at the time of her death, must have been, certainly after the October 18 attempt on her life–was breached. It is important to recognize that it is not necessary for security agencies to have directly engineered the assassination–simply and wilfully to ‘look the other way’ for a few moments would be an act of sufficient complicity to have ensured the success of the suicide attack. Bhutto’s assassination demonstrates beyond doubt that the Army’s (and/or its intelligence agency’s) capacity to terminate the emergence of any democratic leadership in the country–however discredited or incipient–through acts of omission or commission, is absolute.

It is useful to acknowledge, nevertheless, that Musharraf has domestically been infinitely weakened by this assassination and the rioting which followed (which claimed 47 lives, principally in police firing in Sindh). The assassination itself reflects a measure of loss of control, and the ‘military strongman’ (retirement from the Army notwithstanding, he retains full military support) appears far from strong. Worse, the assassination has brought together various democratic formations–including the PPP and the Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)–in an opportunistic alliance that is now seeking ‘vengeance’ through the electoral process. At a different time, this scenario would be a necessary prelude to the ‘restoration’–albeit temporary–of ‘democracy’ in Pakistan, with the Army once again withdrawing into the wings.

This, however, does not appear to be much of a possibility under present circumstances. Whatever Musharraf’s fate, the centrality of the Army, and the imposition of no more than a puppet ‘democratic’ Government–not very different from the Shaukat Aziz-led administration, irrespective of leadership–will remain the reality of Pakistan’s future. Democratic forces in Pakistan are far too weak to exercise direct control over the Army and, more significantly, with the continuous escalation of the scale of terrorism and insurgency in the country, the principal function of the Government in the foreseeable future will remain security and law and order administration.

The tyranny of the sensational and the immediate tends to mask the ponderous, tectonic, shifts in power that are wrenching Pakistan apart. The reality is that no conceivable external intervention, no ‘feeble meddling’, can now define or significantly alter the trajectory of events in Pakistan, certainly in the near term. An internal dynamic has become entrenched and will prevail in all major developments. The residual strengths of the Pakistani state–principally its Army–are considerable, and the eventual outcome is not something that will occur in the weeks or months. Nevertheless, the steady erosion of power, and the attritional and centrifugal impetus that events have now attained, appear inescapable. It is only the improbable and radical reinvention of Pakistani politics and, crucially, the Pakistani military-intelligence complex, that can secure an outcome that can evade the destructive dynamic of extremist Islamization, the subversion of state institutions and mounting violence. It is not within the capacity of any external power to engineer this ‘turnaround’.

This needs urgently to be recognized by the global community–but most significantly by the US and by India. A grave crisis threatens the region and the world, in the event of the progressive collapse of state power in Pakistan, the cumulative augmentation of areas of jehadi autonomy and influence (both within and outside state structures) or the takeover of the state by radical Islamist elements (again, both within or outside state structures). These eventualities yield two principal strategic challenges: the containment of the inevitable terrorist fallout and overflow across the region, and probably across the globe; and the neutralization of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and the prevention of their leakage or lapse into the hands of radical Islamist elements or a radical Islamist Pakistani state.

It is abundantly clear that India, the US and the world, far from being prepared for these eventualities, continue to wilfully ignore their rising probabilities. It is, of course, all very well to hope that a miracle will abruptly pull Pakistan out of its perpetual and damning crises. But, miracles, by definition, are rare events. No single country–and certainly not India, which would bear the brunt of its immediate impact–has the capacity to contain the fallout of Pakistan’s creeping dissolution. It is necessary, consequently, to urgently address these threats, and to create the needed coalitions and backup measures that can help neutralize the extraordinary dangers posed by a progressively fragmenting Pakistan.

AJAI SAHNI is editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review and Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. He can be reached at icm@del3.vsnl.net.in