The winter of discontent
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has dealt a serious blow to the re-emergence of democracy in Pakistan and the country's return to stability. Echoing global sentiment, Brussels based International Crisis Group in a statement said: "Pakistan's military backed interim government is not in a position to carry out a fair investigation into the assassination. The United Nations Security Council should meet urgently to establish an international commission of enquiry to determine who ordered and carried out the killings. Given the long standing connections between the Pakistan military and jihadi groups, this would be the only way to carry out an impartial and credible investigation."
Benazir's husband Asif Ali Zardari, in the first press conference after the "election' of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 19 year old son of Benazir, as the next Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party(PPP), also demanded an international investigation in line with the one sponsored by UNSC regarding the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Pakistani government, however, had ruled out international cooperation in any such enquiry. But President Musharraf's assurance to Gordon Brown that he would consider taking foreign assistance in investigating the assassination is at variance with the comments made by the caretaker Prime Minister Mian Soomro that Pakistani experts were competent enough for the job.
Divergence of opinion between the two top people in Pakistan compounds the confusion already surrounding the manner of death of Benazir. More so as al-Qaeda's Pakistani head, blamed by Pakistani authorities for Benazir's death, has denied the complicity of his organisation in the assassination.
But Bruce Riedel, former defense and intelligence official in George H W Bush and Clinton administrations, is inclined to believe that al-Qaeda could have killed Benazir in line with the attempts on President Musharraf's life, made possible by the fact that "al-Qaeda has sympathisers at the highest level of security and intelligence which provided information on his (Musharraf) movements in the past, which facilitated the efforts to kill him."
It is also widely believed that a section of ISI has retained connections with the Taliban and al-Qaeda as a hedge against possible US abandonment of Pakistan in favour of India should the crunch come.
One wonders whether, given the bloody history of political assassinations in the sub-continent--Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh; Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajeev Gandhi in India; Solomon Bandernaike and President Premadasa in Sri Lanka; Liaquat Ali Khan, judicial murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and now of Benazir Bhutto -- the assassination of Benazir was not inevitable.
Her will, written only two days before her departure for Karachi, giving detailed instructions on the political steps to be carried out by PPP testifies to her premonition of death. She said so to CNN's Wolf Blitzer in a recent interview.
To South Asian expert Stephen Cohen, whom she and her husband met just before she departed for Pakistan, she said that she needed to restore her contacts with the Pakistani people, and, being a gradualist, she was not averse to working with President Musharraf -- an arrangement that changed after her return to Pakistan with Musharraf's declaration of emergency and defacing of the country's judiciary beyond pale. Musharraf's popularity is now almost non-existent, as is evident from a recent poll by the International Republican Institute that two-third of Pakistanis would like Musharraf to step down and give up power.
Despite widespread call by the international community on President Bush to follow a Pakistan policy instead of Musharraf policy and, amidst growing suspicion that billions of dollars given in assistance to Pakistan to fight the al-Qaida have found their way to bolster the Pakistan military along the line of control in Kashmir, the US administration is reluctant to admit that its counter insurgency policy is just not working.
According to Bruce Riedel: "The way that Pakistan is going to be able to fight terrorism is to have a legitimate, democratically elected, secular government that can rally the Pakistani people to engage the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist movements. The army has failed to do that. The army dictatorship has failed to do so. We should now press for democratic movement to move forward." It is easier said than done.
Pakistan society is still mired in social stratification based on the long history of feudalism that forms its basis. How else could one explain the "crowning" of Bilawal at the tender age of 19 years, who had to add the name of Bhutto with that of Zardari, his father's name, to become the head of PPP?
The first few chapters of Benazir's autobiography Daughter of the East, e.g. "our lands like those of other landowners in Sindh were measured in square miles, not acres," or "hundreds of thousands throughout India and Pakistan belonged to the Bhutto tribe, one of the largest in Sindh," testify to the feudalistic upbringing she had, which left marks on her character despite her Harvard and Oxford education.
No one would blame Benazir for her privileged birth. One would be inclined to share the grief of multiple tragedies that she had suffered in her lifetime. The point, however, remains that Pakistani society, being largely ruled by oligarchs where the individual still has to free himself from tradition, where primordial tribal loyalty predominates decision making process, where religious edicts by village Maulanas have quasi-judicial force, and gender inequality is accepted as normative social order, institution of Western liberal democracy would remain a far cry. Yet, among the current leaders in Pakistan, Benazir was, perhaps, the most secular, and was determined to face up to the increasing Islamic extremism in the country and was decidedly the most favoured by the Western powers.
Her death, says Stephen Cohen, could deal a death blow to the idea of a liberal and moderate Pakistan and "its further decay will affect its neighbours, Europe, and the United States in unpredictable and unpleasant ways … In Pakistan, it is likely that separatism will increase, as will violent extremist Islamism. Benazir's death will cripple the already besieged moderate elements of civil society (Assassination Aftermath-Jan01-Brookings Institution)." Pakistan's neighbours would do well to deal with their own brand of extremism and move all countries of South Asia towards modernity denoting economic prosperity, secularisation and humanisation of their respective societies.
Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Secretary and Ambassador.