Pakistan in Turmoil after Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination
Hundreds and thousands of Pakistanis attend the funeral of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Tariq Ali, acclaimed British-Pakistani historian, activist, and commentator joins us now on the phone from
Manan Ahmed, historian of
JUAN GONZALEZ: Benazir Bhutto, the twice-elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, has just been buried in her home
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in her ancestral village for her funeral, despite a long night of violence. As news of Bhutto’s death rippled across the country,
Benazir Bhutto, the fifty-four-year-old mother of three, comes from a family steeped in both politics and tragedy. Her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a democratically elected populist leader in the 1970s who was executed by the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. One of her brothers was poisoned, and another shot to death.
AMY GOODMAN: Bhutto returned to
Bhutto spoke out against the bombing and said she believes government officials might have been involved in the attack.
BENAZIR BHUTTO: We want to avoid bloodshed. We want to avoid loss of life. But I also want to say that if it means sacrificing our lives, if it means sacrificing our liberty to save Pakistan and to save democracy, because we believe democracy alone can save Pakistan from disintegration and a militant takeover, then we are prepared to risk our lives, and we are prepared to risk our liberty. But we are not prepared to surrender our great nation to the militants.
AMY GOODMAN: Benazir Bhutto, speaking in October after escaping a suicide bombing attempt. President Musharraf expressed his condolences to Bhutto’s family on Thursday after the assassination and announced a three-day period of mourning. He blamed “terrorists” for the attack and said terrorism is the country’s biggest hurdle.
PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: [translated] I have always said that the biggest threat to
AMY GOODMAN: Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf condemning the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif, once Bhutto’s staunch political rival, also a former prime minister, visited the hospital shortly after Bhutto died. He blamed President Musharraf for allowing the “lapses in security” and announced that he would boycott the elections.
Three hours before the attack on Bhutto, gunfire killed four supporters of Nawaz Sharif in a rally outside
NAWAZ SHARIF: [translated] The attacks on the two biggest national political parties on the same day indicate the intention of Musharraf. It was a preconceived conspiracy. Now this fully proves that there can be no free elections in Musharraf’s presence. The chaos and killings cannot stop until Musharraf is there. There can be no peace in his presence, and the Federation of Pakistan cannot stand firm. And there is no doubt in that. In these circumstances, we have decided that after the barbaric killing of Benazir Bhutto, we are going to boycott the elections.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif announcing his boycott of the elections scheduled for January 8th. The government, however, has reportedly said it will go ahead with the elections.
President Bush also denounced the attack Thursday and held “murderous extremists” responsible.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The
AMY GOODMAN: President Bush condemning the assassination of the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
For the latest update on
MANAN AHMED: Thank you for having me, Amy. The latest that I’ve—that’s being reported through national and local media in
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Manan, given the forty-day mourning period declared by the People’s Party, how could the government even be considering going ahead with these elections, as we’re only talking about a little bit more than a week from now?
MANAN AHMED: Right, and that’s absolutely right. You know, it’s very hard to imagine an election taking place with campaigning and candidates standing, in the sense that if the government decides to go through with it, then the only clear indication would be that PLM-Q, the sort of the pro-government, pro-Musharraf party, has been put specifically in power. So the election, for all purposes, would appear to be rigged.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go now to Britain to Tariq Ali, the British Pakistani historian, activist, commentator, one of the editors of the New Left Review, author of more than a dozen books, was recently back in Pakistan, where he was born. Tariq, talk about your response on Thursday when you heard the news, and talk about why Benazir Bhutto returned to
TARIQ ALI: Well, Amy, my first reaction was anger. I was livid that Bush and his acolytes in Britain had fixed this deal, pushing her to do a deal with Musharraf, forcing her to play a role, which, of course, she agreed to do—it has to be admitted—in Pakistan, which she was not capable of playing. She made some extremely injudicious remarks, saying that she would go back, she was the only person who could deal with terrorism, etc., etc. The fact was that this was not the case.
And, you know, to—I wrote at the time that it is a big, big problem when you try and arrange a political marriage between two parties who loathe each other. And so, Musharraf very rapidly, after her return, embarrassed her by instituting a state of emergency. And she then didn’t know whether to defend the state of emergency; finally, she attacked it. So the whole situation was a complete mess.
And now, everyone in
I mean, I think Musharraf’s days are numbered. I don’t think he will be, even if he has this fake election in a week or ten days’ time, which Bush is forcing him to do—I mean, I cannot understand, for the life of me, how the President of the United States can be so isolated and remote from reality as to insist that an election goes ahead when one of the central political leaders in the country, backed by Washington, has just been assassinated. I mean, what the hell are they going to achieve from this election? Nothing. It will not give legitimacy to anyone. It will create possibly, very rapidly afterwards, a new crisis, and then they will have to have a new military leader stepping in.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tariq Ali, a British Pakistani historian, activist, commentator; also Manan Ahmed, historian of modern
AMY GOODMAN: For our radio listeners, you can go to our website to see the video images that we show throughout the broadcast today on
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I’d like to ask Tariq Ali, I was struck by your counter-posing the physical courage of Benazir Bhutto with some of the lack of political courage. And this is something that you’ve remarked in many of your articles in the past, including interviews you had with her. I remember one article where you talked about a 1988 interview, I think it was, that you had with her when she was prime minister and how she was hemmed in by the political forces in
TARIQ ALI: Well, Juan, this is absolutely right, and it’s been her tragedy and the country’s tragedy. When she came to power, elected for the first time, it is absolutely true she was hemmed in by the military on one side and an old rogue of a bureaucrat who had been made president on the other.
And she told me very openly, “I can’t do anything.” And I said to her at the time in Prime Minister’s house in
And I think by this time she had become a very different person politically from what she had been earlier and had decided that she didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, so to speak. She more or less said that to me. And she realized or she thought that the only way to survive in this world was basically to do the bidding of the army at home and Washington abroad, two institutions which had led to the—which had basically bumped off her dad in 1979 and which were not going to do her any favors.
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq, explain that, how her father died and who was involved in his assassination, in his execution.
TARIQ ALI: Her father was probably the most popular politician in
He implemented some of his reforms, not all, became extremely autocratic, clashed with the
And Bhutto, from his death cell, wrote a very moving document called “If I Am Assassinated,” in which he said there are two hegemonies—these are his words. He said, “There are two hegemonies that dominate our country. One is an internal hegemony, and the other is an external hegemony. And unless we challenge the external hegemony, we will never be able to deal with the internal one,” meaning
And unfortunately, his daughter decided to collaborate with both of these hegemonies. One has to say this. Her second period in office was a total disaster, because not only did she do nothing for the poor or her natural constituency, but basically it became an extremely corrupt government, and she and her husband accumulated $1.5 billion through corruption. This is well known to everyone.
Now, when the
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Manan Ahmed about that, as well. She is being obviously lionized, especially in the
MANAN AHMED: Yes, that’s right. I mean, there was a history of political deals made not just in
The key, I think, here is just as Tariq Ali has pointed out, is that the emphasis on her being the sole democratic sort of voice in Pakistan is belied simply by the events of 2007, when, in Pakistan since March, the lawyers and the civil society has participated in a mass movement for judicial rights, rights of the judiciary, for democratic practices. And this is a movement which had nothing to do with Benazir Bhutto in any shape as an ideologue or as a leader. This was a true movement of democratic reform that
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk for a minute about Benazir Bhutto returning. The Washington Post reports the
BENAZIR BHUTTO: As far as my understanding with General Musharraf is concerned, the ban on the twice-elected prime minister must go before the election period kicks in. And if that ban does not go, then obviously the agreement is not there.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Benazir Bhutto in August. Tariq Ali, you begin an extended piece that you wrote over this twenty-four hours by talking about who in Washington, people like John Negroponte, who were instrumental in her return.
TARIQ ALI: Well, yeah. I mean, John Negroponte was the ghoulish go-between fixing up—trying to fix up the marriage between Benazir and Musharraf, backed, as always, by the ever-loyal acolytes in the British Foreign Office, who were also pushing this deal without any real understanding, in my opinion, of what was going on in the country or what the country needed.
And essentially, Amy, if one has to ask the question, what was the desperation? The notion that the Jihadis in
The real crisis is a crisis in
So this is what is going on, and they needed a politician in
So they were the key players, and they, ’til now, have been backing Musharraf. And they backed Musharraf’s decision to impose an emergency, which completely pulled the rug underneath Benazir’s feet. And it’s at this point that the
AMY GOODMAN: Our top story yesterday, before we learned of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, was
TARIQ ALI: Well, this is totally true, and why are they surprised? It’s been happening for years. You know, I remember during the war in
I mean, essentially, the Pakistani—or sections inside the Pakistani military have never got used to the idea that they are no longer strong in Afghanistan, that they no longer control Kabul, and they believe that after NATO leaves, they’ll take it back. And for the
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Manan Ahmed, the day that President Musharraf declared his state of the emergency a couple of months ago, there was a long article in the New York Times. Buried at the very end of that article on the coup within a coup, in essence, was the result of a public opinion poll that had been conducted by a Washington firm in Pakistan, which showed that President Musharraf had a popularity rating slightly better than George Bush, but not much, but that Osama bin Laden was viewed favorably by more than 40% of the Pakistani people, an astounding figure, in my mind. And I’m wondering, your sense of this continued unrest and instability in
MANAN AHMED: I think—I mean, part of the quote/unquote “threat” of, you know, an Islamist Pakistan is rather overblown. The recent history, both electoral politics and political discourse in the country clearly points that the Islamists have not been able to gather much support, even, you know, besides the sort of polls about Osama bin Laden and George Bush.
But that’s not to say that in the last two years there hasn’t been a marked increase in lack of stability and sort of, you know, what the Pakistani press calls foreign intervention in the areas in Balochistan, which is a separatist crisis, a crisis of federal versus state rights—it’s a very real crisis with a long history—and in the sort of northwestern regions, Sawat, Peshawar. So there is something to the fact that militants, whether within
Now, the military, of course, has the means and the power to deal with them. And they’ve been trying to do so with great casualties, I must add, in the last two years. But the basic point is that Musharraf lacks legitimacy from the people of
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Manan Ahmed, historian of modern
AMY GOODMAN: Hundreds of thousands of people have come out to mourn the death of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister. She was assassinated yesterday. Our guests are Tariq Ali, British Pakistani historian, activist, commentator, knew Benazir Bhutto; Manan Ahmed, historian of modern
Another part of our headlines yesterday, before the assassination, a top headline, the Washington Post reporting that US Special Forces expecting to vastly expand their presence in
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think, you know, the significance of this is that the
Now, this crisis and instability in
And the reason they’re refusing to open fire is because for the last twenty-five years this ideology implanted in their heads when they’re being trained to be soldiers in the
Now they are being told that your enemies are other Muslims from a neighboring Muslim country, and so there’s a massive crisis, a big psychological crisis, for lots of soldiers who are not fighting. In fact, you often read in the Pakistani press reports—twenty soldiers surrender, fifty soldiers surrender. And they are surrendering to groups of four or five armed Taliban or, you know, non-Taliban fighters from
So training more specialized troops isn’t going to do the trick, if there’s this basic problem, which is, as Juan was asking earlier, when you have some of these opinion polls, the reason people say that if there’s a choice between Bush and bin Laden, they’ll back bin Laden, or between—it’s not because they’re extremists in that sense, but they don’t like the fact that Pakistan is totally on its knees as a state before Washington and the United States. It doesn’t argue with them. It doesn’t resist them on any level at all. So the fact that it’s independent is neither here nor there. So sending in more US troops is actually going to make things much, much worse for pro-US politicians in that country. And they should be prepared for that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Tariq, I’d like to ask you, in an article in November, an extensive article on
TARIQ ALI: Well, this was a big tragedy for this family. But, yeah, I mean, essentially what happened is that when Murtaza Bhutto returned to the country, their mother, Nusrat Bhutto, was chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party. Benazir was the prime minister of
Now, you know, there was a judicial inquiry into this, where the Murtaza Bhutto’s family lawyers accused Benazir’s husband of being responsible for having organized all this. The judicial inquiry, appointed by Benazir, said what while they couldn’t exactly pin the—you know, point the finger at any one person, there was absolutely no doubt that the murder of Murtaza Bhutto had been organized and ordered from the highest level. Well, you know, they didn’t have to say much more.
And Murtaza’s daughter, Fatima, in an op-ed piece for the LA Times a few—four or five weeks ago, actually accused Benazir’s husband of having carried out her father’s murder eleven years ago. Just before the media, independent media, was taken off the air by Musharraf, one of the largest networks, Geo, was interviewing Benazir and asked her, said, “How was it that when you were prime minister, your brother lay bleeding to death outside his house? Were you—you know, what did you know about that?” She walked out of the studio.
So this is a very awkward question, but I have studied all the documentation now, and I have little doubt that the murder was ordered at the highest levels. Whether she knew it was going to happen is an open question. She is the only one who knew, and she is now dead. But there is absolutely no doubt that unless an instruction from someone at Prime Minister’s house, the police force in
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Tariq Ali, about this quote of Senator Barack Obama’s top campaign strategist, David Axelrod, who responded to the assassination by highlighting Hillary Clinton’s vote to support the
TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, you know, I think both of them were wrong, quite honestly. I think obviously Hillary Clinton was foolish, if not crazy, to support the war in
AMY GOODMAN: But the point of Axelrod’s comment, the top strategist for Barack Obama, was responding to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, saying that here you have the war in
TARIQ ALI: Well, Amy, I mean, all I can say to that is, you know, politicians will say anything in the run-up to the primaries. But let’s assume they hadn’t invaded
But to return to Obama, if you’d had, you know, three times as more US troops in
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Manan Ahmed about the whole issue of the assassination and also its impact on the Bush administration policies regarding
MANAN AHMED: Right. On the security front, there was lots of reports in local media in the last three or four days about the rally and specific threats made against Benazir Bhutto at that specific rally. And in fact, there was a report issued by the government saying the security at Liaquat Bagh is going to be foolproof and, you know, we’re taking all steps to make sure that she has—you know, that she’s completely secure. So, obviously, you know, reality did not jibe with whatever aversion that the government was sort of publicly proclaiming.
But I want to sort of step back a little bit and talk about this notion of how the United States has, since 1951, when Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated, another prime minister of Pakistan, and military regimes were put in place—there has been the—you know, American foreign policy has been towards developing individuals, you know, people that they can sort of work with and trust in these key areas in Pakistan and other Southeast Asia and the world. And so, you have a political climate which is geared towards cult of personality or charismatic leadership, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto being another key example, Benazir’s father, and then Benazir herself when she comes back. And so, a lot of, you know, discussions, such as Tariq Ali, the history that he sort of described about Bhutto’s machinations in power and her turmoil in her family life, goes to the fact that Pakistan was not allowed or did not have an adequate political sort of social structure—political structure throughout its history. So you have these personalities that at some point drop in and drop out, are assassinated, are blown out of the sky, as General Zia-ul-Haq was, and you end up to this day, where Benazir Bhutto is assassinated—entire foreign policy in the White House hinged on her—there is a complete vacuum of any leadership, outside of her, in that party at the moment.
So, you know, even if elections, as the White House is saying, that, you know, elections should go forth—which, again, is ludicrous—on January the 8th, well, who is going to stand on those elections in terms of leadership, true leadership? There is none in the People’s Party, since Benazir sort of gathered all that influence into her own person, even in exile. And the same situation is true in other main parties in
So the way forward for the Bush administration is to support, you know, true democratic reform in
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, finally—we have fifteen seconds—what you see as the future of
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think that General Musharraf’s days are numbered. He has blown it. He was entrusted by
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, we have to leave it there. Tariq Ali, British Pakistani historian, activist and commentator; Manan Ahmed, historian of modern Pakistan and South Asia, blogs at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, as well as Chapati Mystery.