Monday, June 17, 2024
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No one to fill Bhutto’s shoes

The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto marks the accelerating slide of Pakistan into political instability and spreading violence. Welcome the first major crisis of the New Year. Pakistan’s government blames al-Qaida for Bhutto’s death. Her followers, by contrast, are convinced the Pervez Musharraf regime was behind the attack. Bhutto narrowly escaped an attempt to kill her upon her return from self-imposed exile to Pakistan on Oct. 18. The following day, she told me high-ranking Musharraf officials were behind the attack. In fact, she named the culprits in her mind: A powerful Punjabi family, long-time rivals and foes of the Bhutto clan, whom, she claimed, were responsible for tormenting members of her family. Bhutto made it clear her intent, once she regained power, was to exact revenge. But that’s not proof they were involved. Indeed, this week’s fatal attack had all the hallmarks of al-Qaida.

If it was al-Qaida, then Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri; have just delivered a stunning defeat to the western powers. In one blow, they have wrecked the Bush administration’s plans to keep strategic Pakistan under U.S. influence and bring in Bhutto give a democratic veneer to Musharraf’s dictatorship. So where does Bhutto’s murder leave Pakistan and its 165 million people? Her People’s Party has been decapitated. No strong leader has emerged. It will be impossible to fill Bhutto’s shoes. Her adoring supporters saw her as a combination of saint, martyr and redeemer.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is left as the leading political figure, and his party, the Muslim League, as the primary political force. But Musharraf banned Nawaz from running for office. Nawaz’s backers, the Saudis, were furious. I interviewed Nawaz at length. A wealthy industrialist turned-politician, he has zero charisma and modest support. He is disliked by Washington, which has been active in barring him from office and undermining his party as too Islamist. Nawaz has yet to show strong or competent leadership.

This leaves a group of feuding Islamist parties who rarely command over 10-12% of the national vote, and a small party led by sports star lmran Khan. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to fund Musharraf with anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion a month in both overt and secret payments used to rent the army’s loyalty and pay it to fight Taliban and Islamist rebels in the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan provinces.

Even so, the Punjabi-dominated army is increasingly reluctant to fight anti-Musharraf insurgents. Some recent polls suggest Pakistan’s most respected figure is Osama bin Laden, and the most unpopular, President Musharraf, whose approval ratings hover below 10%. Musharraf is even more unpopular in Pakistan than President George Bush, no mean feat. U.S. and NATO policy in Pakistan has run into a dead end. Having put all its eggs in Musharraf’s basket, the U.S. fords itself with no Plan B and nowhere to turn — except to cultivate a new potential military dictator in the army. The army’s new chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, may well fit this role, as this column has previously reported. He is the man to watch in Pakistan. Claims that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will fall into the hands of extremists are overblown. The nukes are safely under the guard of the army and intelligence service. Besides, extremists could not assemble or arm the devices and Pakistan has no long-ranged delivery systems.

As Musharraf becomes increasingly isolated and both urban violence and armed insurrection spread across Pakistan, it seems likely the armed forces, however reluctantly, maybe compelled to again seize power, as it has so many times since this turbulent nation’s birth in 1947. The only person who must be pleased by the chaos now engulfing Pakistan is bin Laden, who vowed to bring down its western-backed regime and suck the United States into yet another debilitating, no-win war there.

A courageous soul

I spent an afternoon in London with Benazir Bhutto and her chief security advisor just before she returned to Pakistan. ‘You cannot afford to go into crowds,’ I told her. ‘Yes, Eric, I know that, but I must. My people want to see me and know I am not afraid.’ On Thursday, the courageous former prime minister of turbulent Pakistan again risked her life, this time in an open car, and was killed by an assassin. Some years back, she told me, ‘I am fatalistic. What will happen.’ Bhutto’s death is an earthquake for Pakistan’s political landscape and derails US efforts to forge a political cohabitation between her and former military, and now civilian dictator, President Pervez Musharraf. In Washington’s laboriously developed plans, Musharraf was to retain de facto dictatorship with support from the army, while Benazir was to provide democratic window dressing for the regime.

Benazir’s plan, as she told me, was to regain the prime minister ship, and then slowly marginalize Musharraf. Shortly after the first attempt on her life in Karachi, Benazir, who always wrote to me as ‘Bibi,’ told me that she suspected Punjabi politicians in Musharraf’s Muslim League-Q Party were behind the attempt. Her supporters will now repeat these charges. Angry mobs have been attacking pro-Musharraf party locations. But the attack also bore all the hallmarks of al-Qaida or one of its local Pakistani allies. Other Pakistanis accused the army and its intelligence agency, ISI. Bhutto had enemies across the political spectrum.

Bhutto’s murder leaves her party, the Pakistan People’s Party, in disarray and without strong leadership. She surrounded herself with pliant yes-man and brooked no competition in the party. The party has been decapitated.

As I write, I’m trying to analyze this frightful news with proper journalistic detachment. But it’s very hard after knowing this unique woman for 20 years. Having uncovered a major corruption scandal involving her in-laws, I was long on her black list. But in the past decade I have come to admire her brilliant mind, willpower, courage and determination. ‘Bibi’ and I spent a good deal of time after she was ousted for a second time by the army, when she was in exile in the political wilderness. It was in this, her darkest hour that her character and grit really came through. She certainly won my admiration.

Some angry Pakistani readers claimed she had ‘bewitched me.’ We spoke or corresponded regularly. Shortly before her death, she asked me to develop a political strategy for her and her party. One of my recommendations was for her to extend an olive branch to her old foes, the Islamist parties, who denounced her as a western tool.

A courageous soul

Her death this week appears to end the tragic saga of the benighted Bhutto family. Her flamboyant father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister, was hanged. Her two brothers were murdered, one by poison. Her mother has Alzheimers. Her husband was jailed for years and severely tortured. Now, her party will try to sustain the dynasty by pushing her children into Pakistan’s political inferno. I was with her son in London.

There is no way he is ready for the murderous melee of political life. In India, Sonia Gandhi, whose mother-in-law and husband were assassinated, faces the same dilemma: her party is pushing her son and daughter into the dangers of Indian politics. It is inexpressibly tragic that so gifted, brave and vivacious a woman has been snuffed out at this time of supreme danger in Pakistan’s life.

While many Pakistanis disliked or even detested her as a cat’s paw of the west and as a closet scorner of traditional Islam – which she probably was – all must recognize that she was the most remarkable woman in her nation’s history and a towering historical figure who set a standard for South Asia’s women. Pakistan’s murderous politics has taken its latest victim. Worse is likely to follow.

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