What’s Behind Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination?


Benazir Bhutto, the "life chairperson" of Pakistan’s largest and most popular political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), is now dead. Her assassination took place while she was campaigning for national and provincial assembly elections, scheduled for January 8. After the assassination rioting ensued throughout the country, particularly in Karachi and Bhutto’s native province of Sindh, which have been aflame with protests and social unrest.

The assassination and suicide bombing occurred in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani military and supposedly one of the nation’s most secure areas. In an even further twist of irony, the site of the tragedy is also the place Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951. It is also not far from the prison where Benazir’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by another US-supported military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq.

Who’s to Blame

As is typical with the Bush administration, before any evidence had been offered, and with important facts about the whole gruesome episode still in question, it unequivocally ascribed Bhutto’s assassination to Al Qaeda or a like-minded Islamist group. All President Bush seemed interested in was reminding Pakistanis how significant the upcoming national elections were, since only those could perhaps offer a way out for Musharraf’s ongoing crisis of legitimacy. That the elections are being stage-managed by Musharraf and the military security establishment, is hardly a secret, even Bhutto herself remarked that they would be rigged. But Bush insisted that Pakistan "honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life." After the assassination, Musharraf commented that this was a moment of national mourning and placed the culpability for Bhutto’s murder immediately and squarely on Islamic extremists.

But questions are arising of the complicity of the government and its vast network of military-intelligence agency operatives in this crime. Even if the Musharraf regime is not directly implicated in the assassination of Bhutto, a strong argument is being made that its blatant negligence engendered a result it welcomed in private. When the first assassination attempt on Bhutto occurred on October 19, involving a massive bomb attack killing 140 people, she made it clear that she believed elements with the military security establishment were responsible.

Over the past few weeks, Bhutto incessantly complained that the government was completely unaccommodating of her most elementary security requests, including providing her with an armored car with tinted glass windows, and the equipment to jam electronic bomb detonations. It seems that Bhutto herself, though cognizant of the grave danger to which she was making herself vulnerable, depended on her political importance (not least to the US) to protect her. Her miscalculation turned out to be fatal.

The Elections

Bhutto’s murder initially made it uncertain whether the military government headed by Musharraf as President will proceed with the controversial elections. However, now that Bhutto’s political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has declared its continued willingness to participate in them, it is likely that elections will go on at some point in the very near future. The country’s other main opposition political personality, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz group (PML-N), reacted to Bhutto’s assassination by proclaiming that his party will renew the call for a boycott of the elections if the government insists on going along with them on January 8. The government, nevertheless, can certainly be counted on to use this murderous act as an excuse to clamp down on any serious political campaigning, particularly if it has a strong anti-Musharraf or anti-military tone to it.

The desperate manner in which Washington continues to insist on these elections, despite the social unrest and political turmoil in Pakistan, only reinforces how bizarre and orchestrated the whole affair is. Despite their choreographed (by Musharraf and the US) character, the elections are routinely presented by the Bush administration and the US media as marking a momentous occasion in the country’s "democratic transformation."

Musharraf and Military

Musharraf, who came to power in an October 1999 military coup and was the "General-President" until recently, was forced to finally – after many broken promises – abdicate his role of Chief of Army Staff and lift a repressive state of emergency on December 15. He had proclaimed emergency rule in the country so as to preempt and prevent all legal-constitutional obstacles to his reelection as president, particularly the challenge posed by a Supreme Court which had shown remarkable and unusual independence in the face of dictatorship. However, the notion that the state of emergency and its repressive character has ended is a myth.

The government continues to keep the media firmly under control by draconian censorship provisions. Opponents of the government can face trial by military courts. Election rallies and all anti-government demonstrations are banned. And most importantly, the country’s Supreme and High courts, which have the final say on the legality of the elections, have been purged of judges perceived as "irresponsible," i.e. unwilling to accede to Musharraf’s ongoing theatrics.

Because of the conspiratorial nature of the assassination, it cannot be unequivocally determined at this point who was behind Bhutto’s murder. But a large segment of the Pakistani population considers the Musharraf-run military-security establishment responsible. Of course, during the past couple of months in which the US had accelerated its efforts at imposing on Pakistan the Benazir-Musharraf "marriage of convenience" – to borrow Tariq Ali’s term – in order to supposedly render an iota of legitimacy to a deeply unpopular Musharraf regime, members of al Qaeda and various other groups did vow to target Bhutto. But this does not necessarily prove that some type of an Islamist group conducted this operation or, even if they did, that it was not spurred on by sections of the military-security establishment.

Significant sections of the military and political elite have always held the PPP in contempt for having made rhetorical commitments to fighting poverty and inequality during the party’s period of inception – a period characterized by a Pakistani population tired of dictatorship and elite domination. The founder of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto’s father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Bhutto’s, despite his many faults and megalomania while in power, remains Pakistan’s most charismatic and popular political leader. He was hanged by the military regime of Zia-ul Haq in 1979 at the behest of what he himself called the two hegemonies over Pakistan, the internal one – the military and allied elites – and the external one – the US.

Washington’s Plan

Washington has worked assiduously since the summer of 2007 to push through a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf and, despite some turn of events since Bhutto’s return to the country in mid-October which hampered such efforts, hoped that the January elections would solidify such an imperial partnership. The Bush administration has made it crystal clear that despite all its pretenses to supporting democracy in Pakistan, it will rely on Musharraf and the military to be the principal bulwark of its interests in the region.

The elimination of Bhutto has precipitated an internal crisis for the PPP, which by all accounts is considered to have the largest support out of any political party in the country. Despite the party’s horrible performance when in power under the two terms of Benazir Bhutto as prime minister, the PPP has retained some of its political appeal because of the memory of Benazir’s "martyred" father and the party’s putative commitment to the slogan of roti, kapra, and makaan – "bread, clothing, and shelter."

Bhutto’s exit from the picture has been, at least initially, comforting for Musharraf and others in the military who were becoming increasingly anxious of the powerful political role she was assuming, as well as her closer (than themselves) relationship to Washington. However, the contradiction is that Bhutto and her party were supposed to be the very instruments used to bolster a Musharraf military regime losing any and all vestige of credibility.

In the developments that led to this great political and human tragedy, the role of the US has been central. The US has a history of supporting a succession of military dictatorships in Pakistan, and Washington’s firm commitment to Musharraf’s autocratic regime right up to the present has been no different. The Bush administration has given at least $10 billion to Pakistan since 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of it in the form of military aid for the services of the Pakistani military in its waging of the "war on terror" and providing crucial support to the US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan – this despite the periodic claims by sections of the US establishment that Musharraf is "not doing enough." Throughout the recent period of emergency rule imposed on the country, the US continued to back Musharraf as long as he remained loyal to the American project of installing yet another pro-American leader at the helm of Pakistan’s politics in the person of Benazir Bhutto.

Real Democracy

The movement for democracy in Pakistan, as the senior analyst for the Real News Network Aijaz Ahmad points out, did not begin with Benazir Bhutto nor will end with her demise. Maintaining a social status quo of extreme wealth disparity, political marginalization of the population at large, and subservience to imperialism has been the primary motivation for the military and elite politicians to be "partners in crime" rather than any serious antagonists of each other. The wave of anti-dictatorship protests and real calls for participatory democracy that were sweeping the country from the late spring of 2007 essentially were contained and channeled into safer directions by the main national political parties, rather than allowed to spread and present a real challenge to the system.

Bhutto, despite claims to the contrary from most of the Western media who have been incessantly praising her and what she stood for, also participated very skillfully in restricting the level of confrontation with the military she would permit her party to engage in.

The hope is that the PPP would be able to reorganize itself into a more democratic and participatory modern political party that may possibly take some of its progressive rhetoric seriously. But the party’s announcement that it has appointed Benazir’s 19-year old son as the new chairperson is not encouraging. This move not only demonstrates the unfortunate continuation of a dynastic leadership of the party, but also effectively empowers the husband of Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, who is notorious for his legendary corruption and feudal, mafia-like gangsterism. Ultimately, it is precisely the call for real democracy with both an egalitarian socio-economic component as well as an affirmation of independence from foreign domination which frightens both the military and the elite politicians alike.

Junaid Ahmad is the President of National Muslim Law Students Association (www.nmlsa.org) and a longtime activist on issues related to corporate-led globalization, HIV/AIDS, gender justice, militarism and war, and Palestine. He is a member of the Peoples Rights Movement (www.prmpakistan.org), a progressive political confederation of social movements committed to structural changes in the Pakistani state, widespread social change, and a fundamental reconfiguration of the global relations of power.

 

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