Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination highlights the fears about Pakistan that she voiced over the last several months. Years of dictatorship and sponsorship of Islamist extremism have made this nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 160 million people a safe haven for terrorists that threaten the world. Bhutto had the courage and vision to challenge both the terrorism and the authoritarian culture that nurtured it. Her assassination has already exacerbated Pakistan’s instability and uncertainty.
Riots have been reported from several parts of the country as grief has fanned anger against a government that is deeply unpopular. As Pakistanis mourn the death of a popular democratic leader, the United States must review its policy of trusting the military-dominated regime led by Pervez Musharraf to secure, stabilize and democratize Pakistan.
The U.S. should use its influence, acquired with more than $10 billion in economic and military aid, to persuade Pakistan’s military to loosen its grip on power and negotiate with politicians with popular support, most prominently Bhutto’s successors in her Pakistan People’s Party. Instead of calibrating terrorism, as Mr. Musharraf appears to have done, Pakistan must work towards eliminating terrorism, as Bhutto demanded.
The immediate consequence of the assassination will likely be postponement of the legislative elections scheduled for Jan. 8. Bhutto’s party led in opinion polls, followed by the opposition faction of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML), led by Nawaz Sharif. Immediately after Bhutto’s assassination, Mr. Sharif announced that he is now joining the boycott of the polls called by several smaller political parties. If Mr. Musharraf goes ahead with elections, it is unlikely that it would have much credibility.
In her death, as in her life, Benazir Bhutto has drawn attention to the need for building a moderate Muslim democracy in Pakistan that cares for its people and allows them to elect its leaders. The war against terrorism, she repeatedly argued, cannot be won without mobilizing the people of Pakistan against Islamist extremists, and bringing Pakistan’s security services under civilian control.
Unfortunately, at the moment Bhutto’s homeland (and mine) remains a dictatorship controlled through secret police machinations. Mr. Musharraf’s regime has squandered its energies fighting civilian democrats instead of confronting the menace of terrorism that has now claimed the life of one of the nation’s most popular political figures. His administration will have to answer many tough questions in the next few days about its failure to provide adequate security to Bhutto, particularly after an earlier assassination attempt against her on Oct. 18.
The suicide bombing on that day, marking her homecoming after eight years in exile, claimed the lives of 160 people, mainly Bhutto supporters. But the government refused to accept Bhutto’s requests for an investigation assisted by the FBI or Scotland Yard, both of which have greater competence in analyzing forensic evidence than Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt and incompetent law enforcement.
The circumstances of the first assassination attempt remain mired in mystery and a complete investigation has yet to take place. Television images soon after Bhutto’s assassination showed fire engines hosing down the crime scene, in what can only be considered a calculated washing away of forensic evidence.
Bhutto had publicly expressed fears that pro-extremist elements within Pakistan’s security services were complicit in plans to eliminate her. She personally asked me to communicate her concerns to U.S. officials, which I did. But instead of addressing those fears, Mr. Musharraf cynically rejected Bhutto’s request for international security consultants to be hired at her own expense. This cynicism on the part of the Pakistani authorities is now causing most of Bhutto’s supporters to blame the Musharraf regime for her tragic death.
In her two terms as prime minister — both cut short by military-backed dismissals on charges that were subsequently never proven — Bhutto outlined the vision of a modern and pluralistic Muslim state. Her courage was legendary. She stepped into the shoes of her populist father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, without much training or inclination for politics, after he was executed by an earlier military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
She was demonized by the civil-military oligarchy that has virtually run Pakistan since 1958, the year of Pakistan’s first military coup. But she retained a hard core of popular support, and her social-democratic Pakistan People’s Party is widely regarded as Pakistan’s largest political party.
In 1988, at the age of 35, Bhutto became the youngest prime minister in Pakistan’s troubled history, and the first woman to lead a Muslim nation in the modern age. For her supporters, she stood for women’s empowerment, human rights and mass education. Her detractors accused her of many things, from corruption to being too close to the U.S.
During her second tenure as prime minister, Pakistan became one of the 10 emerging capital markets of the world. The World Health Organization praised government efforts in the field of health. Rampant narcotics problems were tackled and several drug barons arrested. Bhutto increased government spending on education and 46,000 new schools were built.
Thousands of teachers were recruited with the understanding that a secular education, covering multiple study areas (particularly technical and scientific education), would improve the lives of Pakistanis and create job opportunities critical to self-empowerment. But Pakistan’s political turbulence, and her constant battle with the country’s security establishment, never allowed her to take credit for these achievements.
For years, her image was tarnished by critics who alleged that she did not deliver on her promise. During the early days after Mr. Musharraf’s decision to support the U.S.-led war against terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, conventional wisdom in Washington wrote her off. But Pakistan’s constant drift into extremism, and Mr. Musharraf’s inability to win Pakistani hearts and minds, changed that.
Earlier this year, the United States and the United Kingdom supported efforts for a transition to democracy in Pakistan based on a negotiated settlement between Bhutto and Mr. Musharraf. She was to be allowed to return to Pakistan and the many corruption charges filed against her and her husband, Asif Zardari, were to be dropped.
Mr. Musharraf promised free and fair elections, and promised to end a bar imposed by him against Bhutto running for a third term as prime minister. But on Nov. 3, his imposition of a state of emergency, suspension of Pakistan’s constitution, and arbitrary reshuffling of the country’s judiciary brought that arrangement to an end. He went back on his promises to Bhutto, and as elections approached, recrimination between the two was at its height.
Benazir Bhutto had the combination of political brilliance, charisma, popular support and international recognition that made her a credible democratic alternative to Mr. Musharraf. Her elimination from the scene is not only a personal loss to millions of Pakistanis who loved and admired her. It exposes her nation’s vulnerability, and the urgent need to deal with it.
Mr. Haqqani, a professor at Boston University and co-chair of the Hudson Institute’s Project on Islam and Democracy, is the author of “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005). He has served as adviser to several Pakistani prime ministers, including Benazir Bhutto.
Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2007