A tragedy born of military despotism and anarchy

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By Tariq Ali Friday December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto heaps despair upon Pakistan. Now her party must be democratically rebuilt

Even those of us sharply critical of Benazir Bhutto’s behaviour and policies – both while she was in office and more recently – are stunned and angered by her death. Indignation and fear stalk the country once again.

An odd coexistence of military despotism and anarchy created the conditions leading to her assassination in Rawalpindi yesterday. In the past, military rule was designed to preserve order – and did so for a few years. No longer. Today it creates disorder and promotes lawlessness. How else can one explain the sacking of the chief justice and eight other judges of the country’s supreme court for attempting to hold the government’s intelligence agencies and the police accountable to courts of law? Their replacements lack the backbone to do anything, let alone conduct a proper inquest into the misdeeds of the agencies to uncover the truth behind the carefully organised killing of a major political leader.

How can Pakistan today be anything but a conflagration of despair? It is assumed that the killers were jihadi fanatics. This may well be true, but were they acting on their own?

Benazir, according to those close to her, had been tempted to boycott the fake elections, but she lacked the political courage to defy Washington. She had plenty of physical courage, and refused to be cowed by threats from local opponents. She had been addressing an election rally in Liaquat Bagh. This is a popular space named after the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was killed by an assassin in 1953. The killer, Said Akbar, was immediately shot dead on the orders of a police officer involved in the plot. Not far from here, there once stood a colonial structure where nationalists were imprisoned. This was Rawalpindi jail. It was here that Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in April 1979. The military tyrant responsible for his judicial murder made sure the site of the tragedy was destroyed as well.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death poisoned relations between his Pakistan People’s party and the army. Party activists, particularly in the province of Sind, were brutally tortured, humiliated and, sometimes, disappeared or killed.

Pakistan’s turbulent history, a result of continuous military rule and unpopular global alliances, confronts the ruling elite now with serious choices. They appear to have no positive aims. The overwhelming majority of the country disapproves of the government’s foreign policy. They are angered by its lack of a serious domestic policy except for further enriching a callous and greedy elite that includes a swollen, parasitic military. Now they watch helplessly as politicians are shot dead in front of them.

Benazir had survived the bomb blast [in an earlier attempt] but [this time] was felled by bullets fired at her car. The assassins, mindful of their failure in Karachi a month ago, had taken out a double insurance this time. They wanted her dead. It is impossible for even a rigged election to take place now. It will have to be postponed, and the military high command is no doubt contemplating another dose of army rule if the situation gets worse, which could easily happen.

What has happened is a multilayered tragedy. It’s a tragedy for a country on a road to more disasters. Torrents and foaming cataracts lie ahead. And it is a personal tragedy. The house of Bhutto has lost another member. Father, two sons and now a daughter have all died unnatural deaths.

I first met Benazir at her father’s house in Karachi when she was a fun-loving teenager, and later at Oxford. She was not a natural politician and had always wanted to be a diplomat, but history and personal tragedy pushed in the other direction. Her father’s death transformed her. She had become a new person, determined to take on the military dictator of that time. She had moved to a tiny flat in London, where we would endlessly discuss the future of the country. She would agree that land reforms, mass education programmes, a health service and an independent foreign policy were positive constructive aims and crucial if the country was to be saved from the vultures in and out of uniform. Her constituency was the poor, and she was proud of the fact.

She changed again after becoming prime minister. In the early days, we would argue and in response to my numerous complaints – all she would say was that the world had changed. She couldn’t be on the “wrong side” of history. And so, like many others, she made her peace with Washington. It was this that finally led to the deal with Musharraf and her return home after more than a decade in exile. On a number of occasions she told me that she did not fear death. It was one of the dangers of playing politics in Pakistan.

It is difficult to imagine any good coming out of this tragedy, but there is one possibility. Pakistan desperately needs a political party that can speak for the social needs of a bulk of the people. The People’s party founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was built by the activists of the only popular mass movement the country has known: students, peasants and workers who fought for three months in 1968-69 to topple the country’s first military dictator. They saw it as their party, and that feeling persists in some parts of the country to this day, despite everything.

Benazir’s horrific death should give her colleagues pause for reflection. To be dependent on a person or a family may be necessary at certain times, but it is a structural weakness, not a strength for a political organisation. The People’s party needs to be refounded as a modern and democratic organisation, open to honest debate and discussion, defending social and human rights, uniting the many disparate groups and individuals in Pakistan desperate for any halfway decent alternative, and coming forward with concrete proposals to stabilise occupied and war-torn Afghanistan. This can and should be done. The Bhutto family should not be asked for any more sacrifices.

Tariq Ali’s book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power is scheduled for publication in 2008 tariqali3@btinternet.com

[Originally at the Guardian (UK) ]

2 comments on “A tragedy born of military despotism and anarchy
  1. Poor Bhutto was seduced by the US to play along and help whitewash the military dictatorship by putting a “democratic face” on what is essentially a corrupt and brutal regime. What made this woman—a billionaire several times over—want to risk her life in this game is hard to figure, except that, corrupt as her entourage was (her previous administrations were called the “10%” and “40%” regimes because of the routine bribes paid to her husband and others for huge military contracts, etc.,) she may have had an eye on history. The family’s pedigree (and personal tragedies) are uncanny similar to the Kennedys. Her father, Sulfikar, who founded the PPP, was judicially murdered by military dictator Zia in 1979, although he had previously been a protege of military strongman Ayub Khan…on some ugly charges that remain muddled to this day. Her burial took place in a family mausoleum in Larkana, southern Pakistan, near Karachi, that resembles in splendor the Taj Mahal, and makes the Medicis look like paupers. It’s doubtful that her presence in a coalition with Musharef would have amounted to much help to the Paki masses, except to delay the inevitable, the revolution that has to get rid of Western stooges, US imperialist influence in the nation, and eventually the last remnants of medievalism, embodied in fanatical Islamic groups. Pakistan, a complex and large nation, with immense intellectual resources, like India, where it sprang from, is certainly going to be a wild card in the decades to come.

    Meantime, AS USUAL, don’t believe much of what you see on TV. Benazir’s death is certainly a sad thing, but she was not the apostle of the poor or democracy she’s being described as. The rule “never speak anything bad of the dead” may have to be suspended to see the truth, since a lot has happened, much more is in the offing, and not only Benazir’s life has been taken by this insane global order of greed, technological sophistication, military muscle and backwardness.

  2. RELATED EDITORIAL MATERIAL

    Further destabilisation as Benazir Bhutto murdered in Pakistan

    Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was murdered today in a brutal suicide bomb attack that also claimed the lives of at least 20 of her supporters.

    Her death is certain to further destabilise a country that is already being torn apart by the forces unleashed by George Bush’s “war on terror”.

    Bhutto had recently returned to Pakistan as part of a US-sponsored plan to shore up the rule of Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president and former army chief – and a key regional ally of Bush.

    Bush was swift to condemn Bhutto’s assassination, but many in Pakistan are already pointing the finger of blame at him.

    “The military and their American masters have to take some of the blame for this,” said Munib Anwar from the Pakistan Lawyers Action Committee. “They brought these terrorists into Pakistan.”

    Benazir Bhutto is not the first in her family to die a violent death. Her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by a previous US-supported military dictatorship. Two of her brothers also died in mysterious circumstances.

    But imperialism lies at the heart of the brutality of Pakistan’s politics. The country has been bathed in blood ever since it was founded by the British partition of India in 1947.

    And the tragic circumstances of Benazir Bhutto’s death should not detract from the fact that she had made her peace with imperialism and was a loud supporter of Bush’s murderous “war on terror”.

    Her radical days were long behind her and many ordinary people in Pakistan rightly saw her as corrupt and reliant on the support of Western powers.

    As yet no organisation has claimed responsibility for Bhutto’s murder. But suspicions are bound to fall on Islamist elements of Musharraf’s administration who are sympathetic to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    These elements, clustered around Pakistan’s military and security services, were once allies of the US but fell out with the White House during the prolonged occupation of Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001.

    The state of emergency declared at the beginning of November was a desperate attempt to head off opposition to Musharraf’s rule. It was a move that embarrassed the US government – which had hoped for a compromise deal between Musharraf and Bhutto – without managing to pacify the elements sympathetic to the Taliban within the military’s own ranks.

    Whatever develops now, no political solution based on compromise with US imperialism and its regional allies can offer anything other than more bloodshed and misery.

    The real opposition to Musharraf’s dictatorship and Bush’s war does not lie in these quarters. It is the civil rights movement that rose up across the country this year that offers the best political hope for the people of Pakistan.

    That movement has been organised independently of all the corrupt and discredited political parties of Pakistan.

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