The first opinion poll, conducted by Gallup after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, showed that nearly half of the sample suspected government agencies (23 per cent) and government allied politicians (25 per cent) of killing Bhutto.
Seventeen per cent suspected Al Qaida or the Taliban, while 16 per cent suspected external forces — principally the United States (12 per cent) and India (4 per cent).
The poll raised a fundamental question. If so many people mistrust their own government, how can that government be an effective partner to the US in fighting terrorism and winning hearts and minds against Jihadists?
The suspicions of the Pakistanis about their government can’t be good news for those in the Bush administration who still consider Pervez Musharraf their best bet for keeping Pakistan stable.
For their part, Musharraf and his Western backers offer a simplified thumbnail history lesson that paints Pakistan as a tribal and feudal backwater that can only be held together through military rule.
According to this account of Pakistan’s history and politics, as recounted by retired Colonel Ralph Peters of the US military, “From its founding, Pakistan has been plagued by cults of personality, by personal, feudal loyalties that stymied the development of healthy government institutions (provoking coups by a disgusted military)”.
Thus, Bhutto’s loss is not huge for Pakistan from the point of view of those who think only of managing Pakistan — under military rule and with Western support.
But Pakistan is not a company to be managed. It is a nation that must be united and that is where politicians such as Benazir Bhutto came in.
With Bhutto gone, Pakistan’s faultlines are looking more exposed than ever.
Musharraf, who knows little about winning hearts and minds, and sees politics as an inconvenience in his “sound” administrative approach, is only aggravating Pakistan’s divisions.
He just does not have the healing touch that Pakistan needs. For example, he could end the controversy over who killed Bhutto by accepting an international investigation without any limitations.
His refusal is keeping rumours alive and, as a consequence, the gulf between the government and the people is widening.
Pakistan’s problem has not been the paucity of good civilian leaders. Pakistani politicians are flawed, but so are politicians all over the world.
Pakistan’s problem is the complicated relationship between politicians who cannot be wished away, a military that has a strongly politicised component and successive US governments that seem to prefer military-intelligence control for strategic reasons than to allow the normal functioning of a constitutional democracy.
Created in a hurry under difficult circumstances at the end of the British departure from India, Pakistan inherited a larger army than it resources allowed to maintain.
In the eyes of some, conflict with India necessitated the retention of that army.
Britain and the US were lured to support the military because of strategic concerns during the Cold War. Pakistan became a strategic rentier — a country living off international (mainly American) subsidies.
It remains so under Musharraf though with diminishing internal strength.
The transactional relationship between Pakistan’s military and the United States that Musharraf’s rule has accentuated started soon after Pakistan’s independence — primarily at the initiative of the military leadership.
Pakistan’s military served as an ally in America’s fight du jour (the Cold War, the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan and now the war against terror) in return for large amounts of aid.
Since 1954, the US 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.
In the course of all this, Pakistan also developed its capacity (including nuclear weapons) to compete with India.
But the army could not rule unless it had a fig leaf of domestic legitimacy. For that, it turned to Islam and, at one point, radical Islam.
This is where the Bhutto family comes in. Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was the first Pakistani leader to call for an end to military rule.
His slogan “Bread, clothing, shelter” resonated with the unwashed masses. His Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) became the country’s largest political movement.
The military could not keep him out of power, especially after Pakistan’s disastrous defeat in the 1971 war with India.
While Bhutto Sr. got power, he did not have full control.
The army, and its intelligence services, continued to conspire against him. He made his share of mistakes, but then, which politician doesn’t?
In 1977, he was removed from power in a military coup and sent to the gallows. Benazir Bhutto, who had never desired a political career, stepped into his shoes.
The struggle against military domination of Pakistan’s politics continued.
One third of Pakistan’s 160 million people live below poverty and another one-third are considered vulnerable to poverty.
These people loved Bhutto — both father and daughter — because they symbolised their hope of inclusion in the State of Pakistan instead of being marginalised from it.
The views of Musharraf’s supporters have been shaped by a small clique of international diplomats, parachute journalists and elite Pakistanis.
These people have always liked Pakistan’s generals better than politicians.
Third World dictators have often benefited from “playing” people in the US by painting their own societies as inherently dangerous and themselves as the only people who can save a particular country for the United States.
But now concerns about Musharraf being able to continue his difficult juggling act are making even his supporters somewhat jittery.
Contrary to the view of some in the US, Pakistan’s Islamist problem is a creation of its intelligence service, the ISI.
Like India, Pakistan could also have developed a moderate, democratic state if politicised generals (such as Musharraf) had not wanted to sideline politicians and rally the nation under their command.
The political generals’ refusal to submit to civilian control has resulted in a policy paradigm in which the US is the source of military hardware, India is the eternal enemy and Islam is the national unifier and ideological motivator.
Coup makers’ excuse
Opposite Pakistan’s politicised generals (distinct from professional soldiers who want to defend the country as well as its constitution) are the country’s politicians, often feudal or from the business community.
They would run the country a bit like the US was run in the 19th century or Italy for many years after the Second World War — through compromises among competing factions.
There is corruption under both but in case of the civilians, corruption is invoked as an excuse by coup-makers to thwart the constitutional order.
Politicians are never flawless. To many Pakistanis, and people everywhere, the alleged flaws of popular leaders are just the cost of the business of politics and democracy.
That realisation appears to have dawned on most officers of the Pakistan military.
The new Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, is responding to the national mood by calling for the military’s withdrawal from politics.
The only remaining question is: at what point does the military withdraw support from Musharraf, who, after all, is now only a widely discredited, faltering politician and not the army chief.
The Bush administration would most likely continue supporting Musharraf a little longer but if, as seems likely, Musharraf’s domestic credibility hits such new lows that he cannot sustain himself in power, Washington’s withdrawal of backing would also follow.
Of course, Musharraf has an honourable way out but he seems disinclined to take it.
He could agree to a transparent international investigation of the Bhutto murder, remove his cronies from top positions as intelligence chiefs and ensure that the February 18 election is totally above board.
Then he could negotiate with Pakistan’s elected leadership and save Pakistan prolonged crisis.
The two leading political figures in post-Bhutto Pakistan — PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif — have both shown remarkable maturity in their words and deeds since Bhutto’s tragic assassination.
If only Musharraf could also rise to the occasion.
Article published in Gulf News on January 17, 2008