As the new self-appointed standard bearers of Pakistani democracy, Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari don’t inspire much confidence. One is a feudal aristocrat widely reviled as corrupt and blamed for his wife’s undoing when she was the country’s Prime Minister in the 1990s. The other, their son, is a bookish Oxford undergraduate who talks of democracy but whose political clout derives entirely from his middle name. Yet there they were, three days after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, their beloved wife and mother, proclaiming themselves inheritors of her political fief, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and assuring Pakistan that they were the answer to all its problems. “My mother always said democracy is the best revenge,” the younger man intoned.
Pakistan is a long way from democracy, but revenge is on the minds of Bhutto’s supporters. Their rage is directed not at her presumed assassins — al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists from the lawless tribal areas along the northern border with Afghanistan — but at President Pervez Musharraf, a man the Bush Administration deems a vital ally.
Washington struggled to come to terms with Bhutto’s death — the White House hoped she would share power with Musharraf and had made her the centerpiece of its latest plan for Pakistan. While the White House continued to back Musharraf’s grip on power as the best near-term key to Pakistan’s survival, others are more blunt in their assessment. Anthony Zinni, former chief of the Pentagon’s Central Command, whose remit includes Pakistan, warns that extremist groups are “trying to ignite Pakistan into the kind of chaos they need to survive, and create a fundamentalist, even radical, Islamic government.”
It doesn’t take much insight to see the dangers of that outcome. Failure to keep the sole Muslim nuclear power stable, whole and democratic might be catastrophic not just for the war on terrorism and the stability of South Asia but also for the future of Islam and the relations between Islamic states and the West. Yet Bhutto’s assassination has exposed how little influence the U.S. — or any other outside power — has on the nation that was bloodily carved out of India when the British left 60 years ago, and which has been bedeviled by violence and venal politics ever since.
Who Lost Pakistan?
Modern Pakistan has been strained to its breaking point by three opposing forces: feudal dynastic politicians who have only a casual acquaintance with democracy; a corrupt, ineffective army; and religious extremists, who at least know what they want, even if the vast majority of Pakistanis find their vision of Islam unpalatable. All three have played their parts in undermining Pakistan’s foundational promise as a modern, democratic Muslim nation. But they have had plenty of outside help. A succession of administrations in Washington have backed a series of wrong horses in Islamabad: military dictators like Musharraf or feudal aristocrats like Bhutto. “We have a bad habit of always personalizing our foreign policy,” says P.J. Crowley, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Little effort has ever been made to look past individuals and encourage or engage with the institutions of Pakistani civil society. The most recent example of this neglect came last summer when Pakistani lawyers and judges protested Musharraf’s summary sacking of an independentminded Supreme Court judge; they received little more than lip service from Washington, which was more concerned about Musharraf’s survival.
Nor has the cause of Pakistani democracy been helped by the U.S. habit of giving more money to Pakistan’s military leaders than to its civilian ones. Husain Haqqani, a former diplomat and political confidant of Benazir Bhutto’s, told Congress last October that since 1954 the U.S. has given Pakistan about $21 billion in aid, of which $17.7 billion was given under military rule, and only $3.4 billion to elected governments.
Ironically, American support for military dictators has been in the pursuit of U.S. interests not in Pakistan but in neighboring countries — to balance Soviet influence in India or to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the U.S. has rarely kept its eye on the ball. In the 1980s, Washington aided the regime of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, using Pakistan as a fulcrum to help pry the Soviet army out of Afghanistan. The policy succeeded — but when victory was assured, the U.S. lost interest, while thousands of young Muslim extremists who had been armed to combat the communists turned their weapons against Pakistan and the U.S. With perverse timing, Washington deserted the elected but unstable governments that followed Zia and imposed economic and military sanctions on Pakistan for its effort to develop nuclear weapons. “That’s where we began to lose Pakistan,” says Zinni. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. has cozied up to Pakistan once more, though with uncertain effects. More than $10 billion in U.S. aid has flowed into Pakistan since 2001, most of it intended to fund the fights against al-Qaeda and remnants of the Taliban. But U.S. officials acknowledge that much of the cash has been diverted to defense programs aimed at India, itself now a U.S. ally.
Pakistani leaders, for their part, insist they never get the respect that is their due. The military has lost hundreds of soldiers battling extremists along the Afghanistan border. But terrorist groups continue to thrive in the lawless tribal areas; Musharraf says they are being protected by sympathetic locals in terrain that is impossible to police. Many Pakistanis — and some U.S. officials — believe Musharraf has been indulging in the most dangerous form of triangulation, balancing U.S. interests with Islamist sympathies to keep himself in power. “Musharraf uses the threat of the extremists to prove his utility and indispensability to the Western world,” says Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a veteran politician and former government minister.
If that is indeed the plan, it has backfired spectacularly. The extremists have spread out from the border region, attacking government buildings in Pakistan’s cities. More recently, al-Qaeda-linked groups have launched suicide attacks against military and civilian targets. Such attacks have undermined Musharraf, who had long portrayed himself as the one man capable of keeping Pakistan stable and safe from extremism. But instead of coming down harder on extremists, he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who threatened to derail Musharraf’s bid for a second term as President on constitutional grounds. Within weeks, a nationwide protest movement sprang up, with tens of thousands of middle-class professionals taking to the streets. Musharraf lost his case against the judge in the Supreme Court, and Chaudhry was reinstated. Suddenly the strongman seemed vulnerable.
Desperate to shore up Musharraf, the Bush Administration blessed an unlikely plan: bring back Bhutto. Educated at Radcliffe and Oxford, with friends studded throughout the media and government élites of both the U.S. and Britain, the first-ever female leader of a modern Islamic state had left Pakistan just before Musharraf came to power in 1999. She later called it self-imposed exile, but it was also a way to avoid corruption charges Musharraf was pursuing against her. Eight years on, a Bhutto-Musharraf deal seemed to have something for everybody. She would return, contest elections and agree to serve as Prime Minister under Musharraf, thereby giving his rule a veneer of legitimacy. He would drop the charges against her. The White House would look as if it were keeping its word to spread democracy in the Muslim world while still having its man run the country.
Like most such attempts to meddle in Pakistan from the outside, the plan looked better on paper than in the dusty streets of Karachi and Lahore. On Nov. 3, just two weeks after Bhutto had returned home — and survived a double suicide bombing in Karachi that killed some 140 people — Musharraf declared a state of emergency, suspending the constitution and sending his troops into the streets to bludgeon protesters. Bhutto was placed under house arrest but vowed to stand in parliamentary elections set for Jan. 8. When allowed to leave her home, she campaigned with gusto. But as she left a campaign rally in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27, shots were fired near her SUV — and moments later, a suicide bomber detonated himself only yards away. The precise cause of her death remains in doubt, but she was gone, and with her, Washington’s latest hope for her nation.
The New Bhutto
As Pakistan tried to find its balance after Bhutto’s murder — citing the ensuing violence, the government postponed the election to Feb. 18 — her party settled on a predictable succession plan. Some would have liked for the leadership to go to a candidate with more obvious qualities than Zardari and Bilawal, such as Aitzaz Ahsan, who led the lawyers’ protests last summer. But the PPP is a family firm. It was created by Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who ran the country from 1971 to ’77 and was executed by military ruler Zia in 1979. The decision to anoint Bilawal, says Haqqani, “will sit very well with the PPP base because he is the son of a martyr and the grandson of a martyr.”
It says something — none of it good — about Pakistan that such antecedents should be considered a political endorsement. Bilawal has spent nearly half his young life outside Pakistan, splitting his time between London and Dubai. A 2004 profile in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn said the teenager liked target-shooting, swimming, horseback-riding and squash and regretted being away from Pakistan in part because it meant he could not play more cricket. His grandfather Zulfikar, Bilawal said, “was a very courageous man, and I consider myself very lucky because I have three powerful role models that will obviously influence my career choices when I am older.” Zardari, one of the three, is the scion of another of Pakistan’s feudal families. He married Bhutto in 1987 and served in her governments as Investment and Environment Minister. But he is widely considered a wheeler-dealer. Opponents christened him “Mr. 10%,” suggesting that was how much he pocketed from big government deals. Zardari has spent 11 years in prison on various charges, including blackmail and corruption. His supporters say the charges were politically motivated and point out that Pakistani courts have acquitted him on all the charges for which he has so far been tried. “He’s a strong man,” says PPP Senator Babar Awan. “All of us are controversial. Wasn’t Benazir Bhutto? Wasn’t Zulfikar Ali Bhutto? All those who don’t accept the military role in politics are controversial.”
Aware that he is a divisive figure, Zardari has said he is not seeking the prime ministership for himself. If the PPP wins the elections, that job will in all likelihood go to Makhdoom Amin Fahim, Bhutto’s longtime deputy. Zardari and Fahim must now decide how to respond to a call by Nawaz Sharif — an old political foe of Bhutto who was Prime Minister on two separate occasions in the 1990s — for an anti-Musharraf coalition. An alliance between Sharif and the PPP would leave Musharraf vulnerable. He had a deal with Bhutto; he did not have one with Sharif, who was Prime Minister at the time of Musharraf’s coup in 1999. Musharraf’s successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, has kept a low profile since his promotion and has done little to shore up his former mentor’s position. That has led some analysts to speculate that Musharraf’s time at the center of Pakistani politics may soon end.
In which case, Washington will, doubtless, decide that it has to find another horse to back. If it follows the usual formula, the Bush Administration will probably decide that Bilawal and Zardari are its new best friends. That may do little for Bhutto’s heirs — being seen as a friend of the U.S. is not a great way of ensuring a long and quiet life in Pakistan — and may do little for the U.S. as well. For what the world desperately needs if Pakistan is to avoid another 60 years of tragedy is a political settlement there that does not depend on military men, dynasties — or the infusion of U.S. dollars. No sign of that yet.