- The grim news from Pakistan that a shooter and a suicide
bomber killed political opposition leader Benazir Bhutto sparked critical
concern worldwide that governance in Pakistan could collapse. The rioting
her death has sparked no doubt heightens that concern. However, Pakistan
has experienced political violence with disturbing frequency, a notable
example being the hanging of Benazir's father. While its democracy has
suffered, to date at least Pakistani governance has survived. The question
is where to from here?
- Any astute Pakistan observer can cite immediate potential
political gainers from this murder, but several scenarios, each politically
messy, present themselves. Islamist extremists could have done it to head
off secularizing political leadership as represented by Bhutto. Indications
are that in a free and fair election her party would have won handily.
As the Musharraf government has charged, al Qaida could have committed
that act. However, before her death Benazir Bhutto asserted in a UK television
interview that the Afghani Taliban killed Osama bin Laden some time ago,
and in any case, for recruitment purposes, al Qaida could claim credit
for the killing without having raised a finger. Taliban supporters, a volatile
element of Pakistan's population in the northwest frontier area, could
have done it, with or without official encouragement. Any of several small
political groups who feel left out of Pakistan's governing processes or
opportunities could have done it. The Associated Press reports that Bhutto's
husband, Asif Ali Zardari, suspects government involvement.
- Since the bomb blast appears to have blown at least one
shooter and the bomber to bits in the attack, the odds are astronomical
that the act will remain the work of unidentified "terrorists".
In that mode, it may stand as another loose justification for Pakistan,
under a leadership that is entirely capable of arranging the crime, to
continue as a close American ally in the War on Terrorism. Once again,
that "War" is likely to become the political escape hatch for
a government that, so far, assiduously avoids any real movement either
toward concessions to its political opposition or toward more democratic
governance in Pakistan.
- Pakistan poses a difficult assessment task. With a population
of about 150 million-roughly half the US population-Pakistan has an area
less than twice the size of Texas. More than 97% of Pakistan's people are
Muslims in five main ethnic groups and several lesser ones. About 77% of
them are Sunnis, some of them possible allies of al Qaida. Nearly half
are Punjabis with close historic ties to India's northern state. The country's
northwest frontier region is notoriously uncontrollable real estate, with
a range of tribes, including Afghanis, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, and numerous
others in the high reaches around the ancient Silk Road to China. Hardly
anyone who lives there actually cares much about where the borders are.
- However, Pakistan is hardly a political monolith. The
country has 35 or more political parties. The two largest are the Pakistan
Muslim League, PML, a conservative party that supports Musharraf, and the
at least comparatively liberal People's Political Party, PPP, now led by
Benazir Bhutto's husband and her party leader-in-waiting son. Next in strength
are a coalition of six religious parties and a smaller wing of the Pakistan
Muslim League led by recently returned Nawaz Sharif. These groups, including
the PPP of which Bhutto was the self-declared lifetime leader, select their
leaders by consensus procedures that are more tribal and personal than
democratic. Strung out behind them in the parliament are a dozen or more
parties plus numerous independent parliamentarians. Pakistan has a minority
Islamist movement that unfortunately has been cultivated by the government-and
the CIA--to do dirty work such as providing manpower to Mujahedeen efforts
to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. That jihadist force now appears
supportive of, if not concentrated in the Taliban and to a lesser extent
- Because of its political and religious complexity, Pakistan
presents probably the world's worst case for mounting the War on Terrorism.
While a significant part of its Muslim population has been moving politically
into the 21^st century, its militant minority has been trying to retreat
into the past. Both the Taliban and al Qaida have tapped into a lingering
Islamic fundamentalism that links to a jihadist mentality. It may be a
minority political force in Pakistan, but because of its religious overtones,
it is difficult to attack frontally. Worse, because the Taliban activists
are often better-trained and better guerrilla warriors than the Pakistani
armed forces, this has become an unequal struggle. Fighting each other
is not an event that either side appears likely to view with enthusiasm.
- Pakistan officials report that, at present, it has about
100,000 troops in the northwest frontier region. They obviously have been
unable to control that region, or the problem would have gone away some
time ago. Moreover, there are genuine questions about their desire to work
at that mission, given the historic links between the Taliban or al Qaida
militants and the Pakistani military and intelligence services. In any
case, the sprawling size of the region and its terrain difficulties suggest
that their numbers are hardly adequate to the task.
- While the US has invested heavily in Pakistani support
for the War on Terrorism, the truth is that fighting the war puts Pakistani
leadership at odds with its own people. For centuries political, ethnic,
religious and regional diversity have been complicated by scarcity conditions,
by poverty that characterizes the lives of entire communities, by outside
interference from colonial rulers, by smuggling and other illicit traders,
and, since independence, by a government in Islamabad that shows little
interest in the welfare of peoples in its northwestern outback. The presence
of al Qaida does not really alter that set of equations.
- If anything, the War on Terrorism polarizes Pakistani
government relations with its dissident minorities. Instead of promoting
efforts to find workable political accommodations with minorities-something
Bhutto appears to have had in mind--the War dictates confrontation. By
attacking its militants militarily, the government spreads disaffection
across their ethnic and religious communities. That, in effect, is a way
to spread the War, not to win it. Rather it is a way to promote suicide
bombings and assassinations, some of which may well be the work of major
political rivals. The unintended consequence may well be that the War on
Terrorism makes Pakistan increasingly less governable. Al Qaida--wherever
the base may be and however functional it remains--is a good deal less
vulnerable to such destabilizing stresses than the government in Islamabad.
- If the United States moves forcefully into Pakistan to
pursue al Qaida, to prevent Pakistani nuclear weapons from falling into
the wrong hands, or to impose stability, a US presence will likely add
to the confusion. As in the disastrous Iraqi occupation, US forces will
be at war with indigenous peoples. Many of them are outcasts of Pakistani
society and few would qualify as "terrorists". Thus, any US forces
sent into Pakistan are likely to become any enemy, and the instability
could grow much worse before it gets better. How US forces-if there are
any to spare for such a mission--would prosper in an insurgency-plagued
environment of 150 million people is a question that deserves careful thought.
A January 6 AFP report from Islamabad says the Pakistanis were not consulted
about announced US plans to send in forces, and Pakistani reactions say
such forces would not be welcome.
- The better part of valor suggests a non-military and
international support effort. Pakistan probably needs encouragement from
outsiders more than it needs their involvement. A low-key European effort
such as the British-supported investigation that already appears underway
could be as much outside involvement as Pakistanis generally would tolerate.
The critical judgment to make before moving ahead is to determine just
what happened. If Benazir Bhutto's death was a domestic political outburst,
as is highly probable, then rigging to go after al Qaida is irrelevant,
while outside meddling in domestic affairs could itself prove explosive.
Meanwhile, two questions should preoccupy the outside world: How sturdy
is the Musharraf leadership hand on the helm? How secure is Pakistan's
nuclear arsenal? In light of rioting in the past few days, those questions
have greater urgency for now than whether Pakistan is ready for a fair
and democratic election. Even so, Pakistani officials reacted with a knee-jerk
"hands off" to a Hillary Clinton suggestion that the US and Britain
should provide weapons protection.
- The near term need is to detox Pakistani political life.
The Musharraf government may not be an ideal instrument, but it has the
largest bloc of political support. Backing off from the War on Terrorism
and concentrating on stabilizing the overall political life of the country
are essential first steps. Encouraging the tendency that Bhutto's return
set in motion-to move Pakistan politics toward a more representative participation
and leadership-appears the best way to go, although rapid changes in the
way Pakistanis make political choices are unlikely. Terrorism per se is
a far less serious problem for Pakistan at this time than the prospects
for violent political interaction. The US and all other outsiders, including
neighboring India, should avoid actions that can make matters worse.
- The writer is the author of the recently published work,
A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist
on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US
Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman
of the Department of International Studies of the National War College
and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency
Planning. He will welcome comment at firstname.lastname@example.org