Bhutto vows to bring democracy and stop radicalism. Can she dO it?

MICHAEL PETROU December 3 2007


Bhutto vows to bring democracy and stop radicalism. Can she dO it?

MICHAEL PETROU December 3 2007



Bhutto vows to bring democracy and stop radicalism. Can she dO it?


This August, following months of terrorist bombings and rising violence between Pakistani state security forces and Islamist extremists, Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan who had been in self-imposed exile for eight years, addressed a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The council is the most influential think tank

in the U.S., a virtual shadow State Department, and addressing the body was her best chance to reach American decision-makers.

Still beautiful at 54, wearing a white scarf loosely draped over the back of her head and tucked into an open-necked top, Bhutto delivered a speech crafted to win American support for her upcoming return to Pakistan to take on the president and American ally, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan, she said, is in crisis, “and it’s a crisis that threatens not only my nation and region, but possibly could have repercussions on the entire world.” She blamed the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan on Musharraf’s military dictatorship,

and she cited a U.S. intelligence report that claimed that al-Qaeda and the Taliban were both well-settled in Pakistani safe havens.

In a city that had suffered the trauma of the Sept, ll, 2001, terrorist attacks at the hands of al-Qaeda, and in a country that has suffered the deaths of more than 450 of its soldiers in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, her words were well-aimed. “It is often surprising to those of us in Pakistan who see the international community back the present regime,” she said. “But this backing continues, despite the regime’s failure to stop the Taliban and al-Qaeda reorganizing after they were defeated, demoralized, and

dispersed following the events of 9/11.”

But Bhutto offered her audience a solution. “Ladies and gentlemen, I plan to return later this year to Pakistan to lead a democratic movement for the restoration of democracy,” she said. “I seek to lead a democratic Pakistan which is free from the yoke of military dictatorship and that will cease to be a haven, the very petri dish, of international terrorism. A democratic Pakistan that would help stabilize Afghanistan. A democratic Pakistan that would bust up the drug cartel that today is funding terrorism. A Pakistan where the rule of law is established so that no one has the permission to establish, recruit, train and run private armies and militias. A democratic Pakistan that puts the welfare of its people as the centrepiece of its national policy.” Bhutto has made good on at least one

promise. Following a U.S.-backed deal with Musharraf that dropped long-standing corruption charges against her, she ended her exile and flew home to prepare for upcoming parliamentary elections. Then terrorists destroyed her homecoming procession by bombing her motorcade and murdering 150 of her supporters. After the attack, Bhutto vowed to continue her campaign, and has done so, even as Musharraf declared a state of emergency and placed her under house arrest. “I don’t want to face suicide bombers and be assassinated,” she told an old acquaintance, “but if that’s the price I must pay...”

Even her enemies must concede that Benazir Bhutto is a courageous woman. She’s also calculating, headstrong and, in two previous incarnations, not a particularly good prime minister, with a reputation for corruption that she’s never been able to shake. In short, she’s hardly an obvious candidate to lead a nuclear-armed country of 160 million people away from the brink of disaster. But this is the task she’s taken on.

Pakistan faces a growing threat from Islam-

ist militants who control swaths of territory in its Tribal Areas and are extending their reach into cities. The military, which essentially runs the country, has been unable and, at times, unwilling to defeat the insurgency, and has never much liked Bhutto. And while she is popular, Bhutto draws most of her support from the province of Sindh, far from Pakistan’s turbulent frontier with Afghanistan. Now she must somehow gain the loyalty of the army and intelligence services, and the support of the people, for an intensified struggle against extremism that, so far, has not been successful. It’s a formidable challenge.

Benazir Bhutto was bom into a political dynasty. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was prime minister of Pakistan in the 1970s, before he was deposed by a military coup in 1977

and hanged two years later on a conspiracy to murder charge.

Bhutto, then a young woman who had just completed studies at both Harvard and Oxford, later described losing her father as the worst moment of her life. But she had more than grief to deal with. She was arrested herself shortly before her father’s execution and spent years in jail or under house arrest. Freed in 1984, she moved to Britain and campaigned against Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the military ruler of Pakistan and the man responsible for her father’s death.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 1986. Glamorous, young, articulate, she drew enormous crowds. “She offered hope for the future, a new kind of politics,” says Ian Talbot, a professor of history at the University of Southampton and the author of several books on Pakistan. She symbolized a break with the military, which, Talbot adds, “had been in power for so many years after her father’s overthrow and had presided over a really bleak period in terms of human rights, civil society, economic opportunities. She was

coming back as a symbol of the hope for transformation in Pakistan.”

Bhutto was elected PM in 1988 and immediately ran into opposition from the army and intelligence services, which kept their control over much of the country, especially areas pertaining to foreign policy and security. Zahid Hussain, the author of a recent book on Pakistan’s struggle with militant Islam, describes her election as “a transition from direct to indirect military rule.” Many generals made it a point not to salute her. Within two years, president Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed her on charges of corruption and misrule.

Bhutto was re-elected in 1993. During her second term, the Taliban emerged as a force in neighbouring war-torn Afghanistan. Although the Pakistan Peoples Party that Bhutto led is a left-leaning party that eschews religious

extremism, Bhutto nevertheless saw the Taliban as a means to secure trade routes across southern Afghanistan. She was also wary about confronting the army and intelligence agencies, and agreed to their request for covert aid to the Taliban. “It started out with a little fuel, then it became machinery. Then it became money,” she said in 2002. “I don’t know how much money they were ultimately given... I know it was a lot.” In meetings with U.S. officials, Bhutto and her aides denied that Pakistan was funding and arming the Taliban.

Bhutto’s attempts at reconciliation with the military and intelligence agencies didn’t save her in the end. In 1996, the army and a new president, Farooq Leghari, dismissed her from office, again because of alleged corruption. Domestically, Talbot says, her government had “promised much and delivered very little.” The poor, who remained her greatest supporters, remained poor. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst, describes her performance as “unsatisfactory in several respects.” Bhutto and her supporters point out that she was never allowed to remain in

office for the length of time that she was elected to govern, and this is true. But her premierships are nonetheless remembered more for their failures than successes.

Seeking to escape corruption charges, Bhutto returned again to London, the home of so many exiled politicians and revolutionaries, and then moved to Dubai. She remained active in Pakistani politics from abroad. She is, after all, the Pakistan Peoples Party’s “life chairperson,” and her party maintained the loyalty of millions. But it appeared that Bhutto’s personal political career had come to an end. Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book on the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, described her during her exile as “a wandering daughter in an updated Greek myth of greed and family tragedy.”

Today, the wandering daughter is home. Bhutto has entered the third act of her resurrected political odyssey. She returned to work with Musharraf in a “transition to democracy” that would see the two agree to share power. The U.S. pushed for the deal, still valuing Musharraf’s support in the war on terror, and Bhutto would provide his dictatorship with a democratic gloss. But when Musharraf declared emergency rule, Bhutto’s co-operation with him turned into a political liability. She renounced the dictator and declared that working with him was impossible.

“This is all talk, talk,” Najam Sethi, editorin-chief of the Daily Times and The Friday Times in Pakistan, told Maclean’s. “Each one needs the other. For Musharraf, if Benazir doesn’t participate in the elections, they will lose all legitimacy. As far as Benazir is concerned, the Pakistani army doesn’t trust her, in terms of being a good leader or in terms of their interests. They think she’s too heavily pro-West and pro-American, almost like an American agent. So they’re not happy

letting her run the whole show.”

This may well be true, but reconciliation with Musharraf carries its own risks for Bhutto, who would be decried as a sellout by other opposition leaders and risk losing support. If Bhutto is astute—and she is—she will already be cultivating a relationship with Gen. Ashfaq Kyani, Musharraf’s most likely successor as head of the military. Kyani was once Bhutto’s military secretary and was involved in negotiating her deal with Musharraf. A functional relationship between the two is possible.

In the meantime, Bhutto must decide whether to participate in parliamentary elections, scheduled forjan. 8. She and other opposition leaders have threatened to boycott the contest if Musharraf doesn’t restore the constitution and end Pakistan’s state of

emergency. A boycott would deepen Musharraf’s crisis of legitimacy, leading to unrest and possibly the end of his government.

But contesting an election, even under flawed conditions, opens the door for Bhutto to resume political leadership. “She still represents the only politician with the kind of street clout to pose a challenge to Musharraf,” says Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at the London think tank Chatham House. “She does street politics better than any other politician.” At the moment, Bhutto is the most popular civilian leader in the country, and her party would do well in a free and fair vote.

Officially, Bhutto is barred from serving a third term as PM because of a rule brought in by Musharraf that forbids anyone from becoming prime minister or president more than twice—which he admits was partly designed to block Bhutto from becoming prime minister again. This rule can be changed, however. Bhutto also has the option of continuing to lead her party and dictate its policy, while another member sits as prime min-

ister. Either way, Bhutto may soon take on a political leadership position in Pakistan. If this happens, she will finally have a chance to prove that her rhetoric about confronting a crisis that she says threatens the world—winning a battle between dictatorship and democracy, extremism and moderation—amounts to more than empty promises.

Bhutto’s supporters, predictably, are optimistic. Her party has 1,500 members in Toronto alone, among them Ibrahim Daniyal, secretary of the party’s ad hoc committee in Canada, who immigrated from Pakistan seven years ago. He believes that a Bhutto government would have the legitimacy necessary to prosecute a difficult war against Islamist extremism. “General Musharraf does not enjoy the popular support of the people,” he says. “With-

out popular support no war can be won. The army cannot win the war alone. The army has been isolated from the people. Let the Pakistani people wage that war. Let the parties mobilize their workers. We Pakistanis are facing the most critical situation in our history. Let’s fight these terrorists and eliminate them. And people will eliminate them.”

Daniyal’s bravado might sound like wishful thinking, given the apparent strength of Islamist extremists in Pakistan, but in fact their support is limited. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of religious parties that includes hard-core Islamists, is powerful in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province, but polls show its support at between 10 and 15 per cent nationally.

Bhutto has also won over more neutral observers and analysts. “There is no question that she sincerely wants to confront radical Islam in a sustained manner,” Timothy Shah, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Maclean’s. “Before Benazir Bhutto, there was really very little space for


strong criticism of Islamic extremism, but this is a constant theme of Bhutto’s, over and over. She sounds this warning about the dangers of Islamic extremism tearing apart the country. One has to say this is not just opportunism. She really seems to believe it.”

Shah also believes that Bhutto can convince Pakistanis to back her harsh stance. “More and more Pakistanis are really alarmed,” he says. “It’s one thing ifyou have these militants on your remote border; it’s another if they’re taking over settled parts of the country. Pakistan had a policy of supporting Islamic extremism as long as it was directed outside the country, but now the extremism has come home to roost. And I think people will support Bhutto insofar as she really tries to rally the country against what is plausibly a menace to the coun-


try itself.” And, Shah points out, “She’s not a deracinated political elite figure who can communicate only in the halls of Oxford. She really speaks the language of the people. So I think there’s tremendous potential for her to get Pakistanis behind her agenda.”

Others are more skeptical. Bhutto’s relations with the military remain a potential obstacle, and it is the army that will be on the front lines of a showdown with Islamist extremism that is already increasingly severe and bloody. “At the end of the day, the country is controlled by the military,” says Isobel Coleman, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Would Bhutto control the army? I doubt it. She didn’t before when she was prime minister. I doubt she would now.

Shah disagrees. “It’s assumed that Musharraf somehow represents the military,” Shah says. “He doesn’t. There are a lot of military people who are completely fed up with Musharraf and think he’s been a disaster on many fronts.” Shah also notes that Bhutto’s most likely civilian rival, former PM Nawaz Sharif, currently in exile in Saudi Arabia and itching

to return to Pakistan, is even more disliked by Pakistan’s military. “Given the alternative, if power is going to pass to a civilian, democratically elected ruler, the military would probably prefer Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif.” Najam Sethi, the Pakistani newspaper editor, believes Musharraf may still have a role to play as a bridge between Pakistan’s army and the civilian leadership. “If Benazir is going to do it without Musharraf, the great fear is that the army won’t listen to what she says,” Sethi says. “It will retreat to the barracks and sulk, or it will try to undermine her, and the whole effort of the war on terrorism could be waylaid.” This, of course, is similar to the argument Musharraf has implicitly made ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the U.S.: I might be a dictator, but my army and my spies are necessary for you to succeed in your fight against terrorism. But in the six years Musharraf publicly threw his support behind the American war on terror, the Taliban has found refuge in Pakistan, and is now spreading its reach beyond the country’s mountainous Tribal Areas.

Moreover, the U.S.’s continued support for Musharraf has undermined America’s efforts to portray itself as a global advocate for freedom and liberalism. “We play into the propaganda hands of our enemies by backing dictators, rather than supporting the forces of democracy,” says Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University. “America’s standing is already really low in the world. This president has talked about democracy being the answer to the problems of the Middle East and South Asia, and now we risk negating our principles.” This in itself is reason to endorse Bhutto’s efforts to bring civilian rule back to Pakistan. It’s easy to celebrate democracy in a country like Canada, where the ramifications of doing so are positive or inconsequential. Supporting democracy in Pakistan is risky. Previous civilian governments have often been inept or corrupt. But backing democracy in Pakistan is still the right thing to do. And for all the risks that civilian rule entails, the dangers of dictatorship are inevitably worse. “There are no saviours of Pakistan—not any politician on his or her own, nor a general on his or her own,” says Sethi. “This is a very serious internal implosion. It’s not just a question of democracy. It’s a question of the state withering away and being at risk from extremism.” Benazir Bhutto is not the answer to all of Pakistan’s problems. Her record in office is spotty at best. And the challenges she faces are enormous. But Bhutto is also excessively brave, a liberal, a genuine ally of the West, and most important of all, a democrat. She may not save her country. But right now, she could be its best hope. M