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Proletarian issue 22 (February 2008)
Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and its ramifications
Pakistan: another quagmire for imperialism
At 6.17pm local time, Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, was assassinated in a gun and bomb attack in the garrison town of Rawalpindi – the same town in whose central jail her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged on the orders of the late military dictator, General Zia Ul-Haq, who had come to power through a coup which overthrew Mr Bhutto’s government.

The assassination of Ms Bhutto has plunged Pakistan deeper still into crisis and is a severe setback for US imperialism, depriving it as it does of its best hope for providing a civilian façade to the highly unpopular military dictatorship in Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has been variously blamed on Islamic extremists and on the Pakistani army itself. Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), has held the government responsible for Bhutto’s murder as well as the mess Pakistan is in.

“Nobody”, he said, “has confidence in Musharraf. Everybody wants him to step down.”

We do not know who killed Ms Bhutto. It could have been sections of the Pakistani army worried that their opportunities to enrich themselves further still would be curtailed by having to share power with her. Equally, it could have been those opposed to Pakistan’s military support for the US ‘war on terror’, working closely with sections of the army who are equally opposed to supporting the US. Time alone will solve this mystery.

US-brokered deal

The US, which had supported Musharraf’s military rule for nearly eight years, was persuaded to embark on a course of brokering a deal between Musharraf and Benazir precisely because the former had lost all legitimacy.

While his regime was failing to live up to US expectations on the front in the ‘war against terror’ – his only use to the US – the disregard by his regime of the most basic tenets of bourgeois democracy was proving a source of continued embarrassment to the self-professed imperialist guardians of democracy.

Musharraf’s wholesale sacking of judges, his brutal treatment of the lawyers’ movement for an independent judiciary, the gagging of that part of the media which refused to toe the government line, the harassment of investigative journalists, and the mass arrests of the opponents of the regime, while distracting the government from concentrating on the ‘fight against terror’, were serving to remove the fig leaf from US imperialism’s feigned concern for democracy, which it claims to be promoting all over the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the words of Daniel Markey, a former official of the State Department and presently senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the US opted for the marriage of convenience between Musharraf and Ms Bhutto because of its belief that a “progressive, reform-minded, more cosmopolitan party in government would help the US”.

The real problem, however, is that the imperialist war against, and occupation of, Afghanistan, along with the acceptance by the Musharraf regime of the role of a US surrogate in the ‘war on terror’, and the turning of the border areas into a war zone in which the Pakistan army wages war on its own people, have alienated the Pakistani people, especially in the border areas, from both the Musharraf regime and the army.

The judiciary, lawyers, independent media and some opposition politicians were, in their own ways, refuting the official line on Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’, and highlighting the disappearance of political prisoners and the routine practice of torture in Pakistani jails and police stations.

These questions were being aired and debated in the independent media and were taken up by the judiciary. This is precisely why these sections were targeted by the military regime, both before and after the declaration of a state of emergency on 3 November last year.

Musharraf had attempted to justify the state of emergency by asserting that civil society was impeding the ‘war on terror’, a war, waged by the Pakistani army on its own people in the border areas in compliance with US diktat, that has created dissent and disaffection within the Pakistani army, many of whose soldiers do not want to fight and at every opportunity surrender in large numbers to their opponents. For exactly the same reason, a number of junior officers are routinely resorting to early retirement.

And Benazir, by entering at the behest of the US into this unholy alliance with the Musharraf military dictatorship, managed to alienate, even enrage, sections of the opponents of the regime to such an extent that they were willing and able to attack her gatherings with lethal bomb attacks on two occasions within a period of just over two months.

While she narrowly escaped the first attempt on her life on 18 October in Karachi, she fell to the bullets and a bomb explosion on 27 December.

‘Martyr for democracy’

No matter how tragic and condemnable Ms Bhutto’s assassination, the attempts in the imperialist media to portray her as a heroic martyr for democracy have little connection with the truth. What made Benazir a target for assassination was her willingness to cooperate in the US plan to provide a respectable civilian façade to the Pakistani military regime – not her commitment to the principles of democracy.

This is well understood both in and outside of Pakistan. The US agenda she went along with was not a plan to uphold democracy but one to legitimise a dictatorship fully beholden and subservient to US imperialism.

Musharraf’s regime was arm-twisted by the US administration into supporting US imperialism’s ‘war on terror’ following the 11 September events. On 24 September 2006, Musharraf told CBS’s 60 Minutes that high-ranking US officials had threatened to “bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age” if it failed to fully cooperate with Washington’s war.

The Pakistani regime, finding this argument persuasive indeed, joined forces with the US, with the army killing hundreds of Pakistani civilians along the border with Afghanistan.

The actions of the military aroused great anger, particularly in the frontier areas, while Pakistani participation in the US’s ‘war on terror’ has also aroused dissension within the army and created real hatred for the Musharraf government, so that Musharraf himself has been the target of several assassination attempts.

In agreeing to share power with Musharraf, Ms Bhutto had decided to throw in her lot with a much-hated and much-despised regime. An article in The Washington Post of 28 December revealed that Ms Bhutto had agreed that US planes could bomb targets in the North West Frontier Province, a stronghold of the opposition to the US’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The deal brokered between Musharraf and Bhutto by the US had two parts. The General for his part pushed through the sordid National Reconciliation Ordinance, in consequence of which all corruption cases against politicians accused of looting the state treasury were withdrawn. Ms Bhutto was the chief beneficiary of this ordinance, for she fully expected that money laundering and corruption cases pending against her and her husband in three European Courts would be dismissed. This appears not to have happened.

She returned the favour by giving full support to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lunching with Dan Gillerman, Israeli Ambassador to the UN, and vowing to “wipe out terrorism” in Pakistan.

Ms Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been overthrown and hanged by the Zia Ul-Haq dictatorship with US approval, so she well understood the safety of shelter under the US-imperialist umbrella. She gave Reconciliation as the working title of a new book, which she had agreed to write for Harper Collins for a fee of $500,000.

Many Pakistanis felt a sense of deep revulsion at the pact she had concluded with Musharraf, and some were obviously angry enough to have tried to assassinate her on her return to Karachi on 18 October 2007 after several years of exile abroad.

Musharraf’s pre-emptive strike

Following the bombing of Ms Bhutto’s motorcade, and facing fierce opposition from the judiciary, the legal profession, the independent television channels and unruly investigative journalists, General Musharraf, who had probably all along been planning drastic measures to prolong his presidency, decided to stage a pre-emptive strike.

Washington knew of the General’s plan in advance, and Ms Bhutto’s benefactors in Washington informed her of the likely turn of events, whereupon this alleged saviour of Pakistani democracy scurried away to Dubai, where she would have seen on the television screen the suspension by General Musharraf of the 1973 Constitution and the declaration of a State of Emergency.

For an entire 24 hours, during which Aitzaz Ahsan, a prominent member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and President of the Bar Association, was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, another fierce opponent of the regime, Imran Khan, arrested and charged with ‘state terrorism’, and lawyers across the country were being roughed up by the police, there was no response from Ms Bhutto. At one point she went so far as to criticise the chief justice for acting too provocatively.

Angry telephone calls from Pakistan obliged her to return. On reaching the VIP hall at Karachi airport, she was told in no uncertain terms by her party colleagues that if she failed to denounce the State of Emergency, the PPP would split.

Outmanoeuvred and abandoned by Musharraf, she had little choice but to go along with her PPP colleagues. She denounced the Emergency, made contact with the opposition, tried to call upon the chief justice to show her solidarity but was not allowed to get close to his residence, and declared her willingness to lead the struggle to rid Pakistan of the Musharraf dictatorship.

Her colleague Aitzaz Ahsan had reportedly advised her against any deal with Musharraf – advice she had ignored. The very fact of Ahsan having been proved correct merely annoyed her, for she had long ago parted company with any concept of political principles and morality. What motivated her were the twin aims of getting back into office and making secure the estimated $1.5bn looted by her and her husband from the state.

She would not agree to Nawaz Sharif’s proposal for a boycott of the election so as to render null and void the whole charade of a General’s election.

Bhutto’s terms in office

Benazir’s two terms as prime minister (1988-90 and 1993-96) were characterised by her government’s complete failure to deliver on its promises to institute land reforms and provide free education, health services, sanitation and clean water. During her second administration, she appointed her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as Minister for Investment, in which position he became notorious as ‘Mr 10 Percent’, enabling the couple to amass a huge $1.5bn fortune.

By this time, the PPP had thoroughly degenerated into a family heirloom and an instrument for money-making. Her government backed the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan, none of which has prevented her backers in Washington and London from portraying her as a champion of democracy and a resolute fighter against extremist fundamentalism.

Benazir’s role model was none other than Margaret Thatcher, and her government pushed through the policies advocated by the IMF-WB combine, including privatisation of state assets. She attempted to gag the press and manipulate the judiciary, appointing judges on the basis of their loyalty to herself. She presided over the murder of her brother Murtaza, who had advocated the PPP’s old radical manifesto and berated Zardari as a money-grubbing interloper. She removed her mother, Nusrat, from the chairmanship of the PPP for merely suggesting that Murtaza be made the chief minister of the province of Sindh. “I had no idea I nourished a viper in my breast,” said Nusrat of Benazir following her removal.

By the time that her second administration was dismissed from office, Benazir had come to be called ‘the diva of corruption’ and ‘a gangster in bangles’. By this time, the former cricketer Imran Khan, Benazir’s contemporary at Oxford, had become one of her strongest critics. Soon after the Bhutto government fell, he told a rally: “The bowler has taken the first wicket, and you know whose wicket that was – Asif Ali Zardari, who holds the world championship for corruption.

“And the second wicket to fall was that of Benazir Bhutto, the world champion in telling lies, who has a shawl on her head, prayer beads in her hands, and thieving in her heart.”

When cheers subsided, he added: “Now, if you will let me be the bowler, and you take the catches, we can bowl them all out and rid Pakistan of this political mafia.” (‘Diva of courage and corruption’ by Richard Pendelbury, Daily Mail, 28 December 2007)

In view of the above, it is hard to believe that there are progressives who grieve over the death of “our princess who promised to emancipate the poor” . Ms Bhutto, like anyone else, must be judged by her conduct, not her promises. She had plenty of opportunity during two terms as prime minister to live up to her promises, but she failed most miserably.

This time round, she had been allowed into Pakistan to legitimise a thinly-disguised military dictatorship carrying out in a most menial way the agenda of the most reactionary section of the US ruling class, to wit, the neo-conservatives.

The aftermath

Bhutto’s death has driven a coach and horses through US plans in Pakistan; it must now try either to openly throw its weight behind Musharraf or come to an understanding with Nawaz Sharif.

The first course is fraught with peril, for it is bound to make the opponents of the Musharraf regime more determined than ever to overthrow it. As a consequence, the regime would be obliged to concentrate its efforts in dealing with such opponents instead of aiding the US ‘war on terror’.

An understanding with Nawaz Sharif, though not impossible, would be difficult to achieve, since he has been openly campaigning against Pakistani ties with the West, demanding that Musharraf step down, and insisting that he will not serve as a prime minister under Musharraf.

Meanwhile, the elections due to have been held on 8 January have been postponed until 18 February. Both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML(N)) are contesting. as the latter was unable to persuade the former to boycott them.

The PPP, having had the opportunity to elect someone of substance, such as Aitzaz Ahsan, the defender of C J Chaudhary and the leader of the lawyer’s struggle for judicial independence, has opted for a dynastic solution by anointing ‘Mr 10 Percent’, the widower of Ms Bhutto, and their son Bilawal as co-chairpersons. The father will act as the regent while the 19-year old Bilawal completes his studies at Oxford.

Thus Ms Bhutto, chairperson of the PPP for life, has been succeeded, allegedly in accordance with her wishes, by the son, who will presumably also don the mantle of PPP chairperson for life. The chance to evolve a non-dynastic and less feudal political party and politics has been jettisoned.

It is unlikely that any party will win the forthcoming elections outright. Should the PPP and the PML(N) emerge as the two largest parties in the next parliament, and should they refuse to serve under Musharraf, the scene could be set for a fearful confrontation, which these two political parties could only hope to win by cooperating with each other and by appealing to the masses of Pakistan on a platform of opposition to Pakistan’s participation in the US’s dirty ‘war on terror’, combined with a set of policies designed to bring at least a modicum of relief to the overwhelming majority of the 140 million Pakistanis living in abject poverty and toiling in back-breaking work.

One thing is for certain: the Pakistani masses can no longer be mobilised to line up behind the US’s predatory wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, US backing for the Afghan fundamentalists fighting against a Soviet-backed regime in Kabul and against the Soviet forces managed to mask the contradiction between US imperialism and the Pakistani masses. However, since 11 September 2001 and the US-led predatory war against, and occupation of, Afghanistan, these contradictions have come to the surface and become intensified.

While no less fundamentalist and medievalist in their outlook and world view, their objective situation has transformed the Taliban and other mujahideen groups from being the tools of imperialism, which they were in the 1980s, into the instruments of resistance against imperialist war and occupation. As such, they deserve the support of progressive humanity.

The Pakistani masses sympathise with the Afghan resistance. The brutality of US imperialism in Afghanistan and of the Pakistani army in the frontier areas is increasingly serving to enlist the people of that region to become active supporters of the Afghan resistance. Should the US forces cross into Pakistan to crush such activity, they would merely be lifting the proverbial rock to drop it on their own feet. Such a foolish step on their part would serve to fan the flames of a much wider conflagration, from which US imperialism would be bound to emerge much weakened.

The fast-unfolding events in that part of the world promise to be very interesting indeed.
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