Nearly every report of Benazir Bhutto’s sad end led by noting her distinction of being the first female head of government in an Islamic country. Figuring far below, if at all, was there any mention of a far more notable legacy — that it was her administration that orginated the Taliban.
Granting that the cacaphony of You Tube, permanent audio, IM’s and suchlike mediations is apt to dull any sensibilities of irony, it is still difficult to ignore the high irony that rings out loud in Bhutto’s case. The first female prime minister of the entire Islamic Universe — chic personified with degrees from Oxford and Harvard to boot — kicking off a madrasah-muscle-muzzle culture which would result in every woman in Afghanistan being confined to her home as a rule, forced to don the head-to-toe burqa when outside the home, such outings too permissible only under strict rules of chaperone!
So much for Ms. Bhutto’s Western impact. On Pakistan’s Eastern front a similar effort attended Benazir’s first stint as PM. Pakistani surrogates in Kashmir kidnapped the Indian Home Minister’s daughter for ransom, demanding the release of their colleagues from Indian jails. The Indian government’s subsequent capitulation is widely regarded as the beginning of the current turmoil in Kashmir, a tragedy which has resulted in thousands of deaths, ethnic cleansing of Hindus in the Kashmir Valley, the unleashing of an iron-fist by the Indian government and a human rights nightmare all around.
Along the way, the jehadis in Kashmir have frequently coerced women to follow 7th century Islamic codes. For instance, they have threatened even women newsreaders with disfigurement if they did not eschew makeup and don the veil. It is worth mentioning that Ms. Bhutto, meanwhile, was hardly inattentive to her own appearance, winning tabloid acclaim as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
It is thus hard to resist a “those who live by the sword…” remark, except that such cynicism is not confined to Pakistan: India, nurturing early visions of big-power status, trained and sustained the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (in a similar twist of irony, the chelas ended up killing the erstwhile patron, Rajiv Gandhi). The memory of America’s sponsorship of Afghan mujahideen (a force raised by Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski and later hailed by Ronald Reagan as the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers) and the downing of the twin towers is too fresh to require retelling, especially in the wake of the recent movie, Charlie Wilson’s War. For that matter, one may go all the way back to 1917, when the Germans sought to undermine the Tsar by promoting a famous Russian subversive, aka Vladimir Ilich Lenin, a contrivance we can be sure they had ample time to reflect upon all those decades when East Germany was under the Russian thumb.
Ninety years after Lenin’s journey via the sealed train, the US, seized with panic following the popularity of the lawyers’ revolt against Musharraf, pushed through a hasty deal between the general and the lady (Ek Musharraf Ek Hasina, a paraphrase an old Hindi film title), whereby Musharraf would hold elections, Bhutto would win and rule as prime minister under his newly legitimized presidency. Together they would turn back Islamic resurgence in Pakistan and all would live happily ever after.
This 21st century renactment of Edmund Wilson’s To Finland Station was to end eight years of exile for Benazir with all outstanding cases against her withdrawn. Only, in this case it was her fate that was sealed, not a mere train. If the 1917 events were a tragedy brought about by a beleaguered big power of the day to suit its interests, Benazir’s flight back to Pakistan in 2007 was viewed by many as a farce, this one organized by another big power, equally beleaguered. That farce would inevitably turn to tragedy was not only not unexpected, it was forseen by several Pakistan observers, including US diplomat Peter Galbraith, Benazir’s close friend and college-mate.
In 1917, Lenin soon made good on his deal with the Germans (with Trotsky playing negotiator at Brest-Litovsk) . The unfortunate Benazir died before she could do anything for her benefactors.
It is also emblematic of the transformation of geopolitics in the past 90 years: It is hard to imagine that any Western Democracy of the Victorian Age would, for instance, have thought of arming the Communists or Anarchists as a counterweight to the Tsar or the Kaiser. It was an era when the State was a sacrosanct notion, even if states themselves warred constantly.Yet this is exactly what America and others have done in recent years, with the Zia-ul Haq dictatorship in Pakistan, the Afghan mujahideen, the Taliban, right down to the current day with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Looked at another way, the Afghan mujahideen and the Taliban were early forays into privatizing war, a development we see coming full circle with Blackwater and other private armies.
The larger lesson, that fostering private armies — even if initially to use against other states — sooner or later results in some terrible blowback on the patron, has appears to have remained unlearned. One of the most stunning passages in the Mahabharata relates to the persistent idiocy of mankind — which Yudhishtira says is the most wondrous thing in the world: We see death every day around us, but presume that we ourselves are somehow exempt from it.
Pakistan probably disavows the Mahabharata, as it is wont to do all things pre-Islamic. But some eternal verities, to recall Einstein’s quip about astrology, work whether you believe in them or not.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.