Benazir Bhutto Assassinated

by Joshua Foust on 12/27/2007 · 8 comments

A suicide bomb went off outside a Bhutto rally in Rawalpindi today, killing fifteen. Initial reports have been modified, from saying Ms. Bhutto was seriously injured to claiming she’s now dead. UPI says that despite the explosion, Ms. Bhutto apparently died of a gunshot wound to the neck.

Bhutto Just Befor the Bomb

While I was certainly no fan of her mad quest for power, Ms. Bhutto did not deserve to be murdered. Her death on its own would be yet another tragic event in Pakistan’s very tortured experiment with democracy; given the modern context, however, I suspect very bad things are in store for the country. Look for Musharraf to crack down again, potentially even on the crazies this time. But kiss the January election goodbye.

Update: The New York Times chimes in with a good background story, noting that Bhutto did not blame her last assassination attempt on Musharraf, but rather the Islamic crazies. Whether we decide to think that gave Musharraf room to kill her is up for grabs; I don’t think suicide bombers are his style. This was a classic Islamic crazy attack.

There is some dispute about the sequencing of the attack (expected, since it just happened). Everyone agrees there were shots fired at her motorcade, and a suicide bomb was set off. It’s unclear if the shots were fired before or after the explosion, and it is unclear whether Ms. Bhutto died from a bullet wound to the neck (as was initially reported) or from shrapnel.

I noticed something else as well. Bhutto is in large part responsible for the rise of the Taliban—they came to power on her watch, and were tacitly supported as both proxy warriors in Kashmir and a “stabilizing presence” in Afghanistan. I hate to make a “chickens come home to roost” argument, but it sure seems like it here.

Update 2: Also, I’m now apparently the “resident Jezebel South Asia expert.” And Moe went ahead and pasted the GTalk conversation we had over this, where I was trying to recall what I could from memory while eating oatmeal at my mother’s kitchen table. I really hope I didn’t make too many errors, but such is reality on the Internet. For the record, it was her idea to compare Bhutto to Marion Barry (we’re both from DC), but I did play off it. Not to make light of a truly important assassination or anything.

That book review of Three Cups of Tea, which I mention to highlight the neglect of Pakistan’s northern areas, is here. And, let the finger-pointing begin: Sharif blames Musharraf, Musharraf blames crazies. Sharif realizes that maybe it was a bad idea to have appointed Musharraf Chief of Army Staff lo’ these many years ago. Ya think?

Anyway, expect any number of bad things, including either a lengthy delay or outright cancellation of the 01/08/08 election, to be blamed on/justified by Ms. Bhutto’s vicious murder. And again, it is worth repeating: no matter how corrupt she was as a leader, no matter how many bad decisions she made that may have culminated in her murder, she did not “earn” her death in any way.

Update 3: Some bigger background info. You can find a reasonable summary of Pakistan’s domestic troubles in the 90’s at that Jezebel link above. Here, we can look at what this means now, and going forward. Nitin Pai takes a look at why the U.S. has lavishly funded Pakistan:

But its complicity is not without reason. Although the reasons wouldn’t be the ones it can put in front of Congressional auditors. That’s because the money that the US was paying the Musharraf regime was the only way—short of messy, and far more expensive, military methods—it could retain a hold over its actions. The US essentially bought the co-operation of the Pakistani military establishment. The itemised billing was for show. Indeed, this strategy required the US to allow its money to be used, abused, siphoned and spirited away by the Musharraf regime. The idea was not to insist on transparency and accountability on how the funds were spent. Rather, it was to hold Musharraf accountable for the results. The pertinent question that needs to be asked—and criticism leveled against the Bush administration—is how far it pursued the latter. It is also reasonable to ask, in the interests of good governance design, how far the former affected the latter.

He also ties it back to how this has impacted the Indian government as well, and upped the ante somewhat in the arms race. Pai also raises a question I haven’t considered: what’s Plan B?

It was clear that Benazir Bhutto’s re-entry into Pakistan was on the back of an American plan to engineer a political outcome in Pakistan. Those who assassinated her succeeded in frustrating this plan. What’s the US left with? Supporting a Musharraf 2.0 is out of question, because the people won’t have it. Supporting Nawaz Sharif is not workable either, for Musharraf won’t have him.

I know from discussions with South Asia experts around town here that there exist some other politicians with the capability to lead at least as well as Bhutto or Musharraf, but they don’t have the same connections with the West those two had. I mean, according to one who spoke off the record there are maybe 600 elites in the entire country (thanks to no land reform, there is no middle class), and they are all well known—and two thirds of them are in the military. But none of them have the charisma to engineer a political solution to what’s going on.

The problem is that the Army is obsessed with India to the detriment of Islamic militarism. They funded the Taliban and the crazy madrassas to have warriors for Kashmir; along the way they also got the Waziristan War, the Lal-Masjid stand off, and now, potentially, Bhutto’s murder. The Taliban are anti-India, and Hamid Karzai is pro-India. So the Taliban (which is a catch-all term I think for “Pashtun religious extremists straddling the Durand Line”) get at the very least tacit support.

The problem from the other side is that the civilian political classes have never been able to unite to counter-balance the Army. So they’re left with demagogues who can raise what amount to militant armies of supporters that bring them into office; like all demagogues, their reigns end in corruption and military coups.

However, the military aid Pai rightly notes has given the U.S. a form a leverage can be pushed further, especially if U.S. policymakers can convince China to initiate a diplomatic push for liberalization. Perhaps if this is accompanied by a huge push in non-military aid from the U.S., money that is conditional on being spent on education and land reform. But such a stance is highly unpopular in Congress—who would go on record supporting a massive increase in aid to a country that just murdered a favorite politician? And since when has China pushed for liberalization anywhere save North Korea?

In any case, given the untenable solutions remaining—literally none look good, not even in a “less bad” kind of way—it is unclear what the U.S.’s stance should be. It really does seem to be caught flat-footed here, unless there was some other politician waiting in the wings no one knew about.

The most poignant quote was relayed by a senior fellow at a think tank in DC, who wished to remain anonymous: “The U.S. has used Pakistan like a condom.”

How darkly true.

Update 4: Told ya. Also, my friend Megan Carpentier at Wonkette posts some truly horrific pictures of the rally and its aftermath. Do not click there unless you have a strong stomach. Her point, though—that American media sensationalizes then censors real life violence while making torture porn for its dramas—is one that dearly needs to be made again and again. Covering up the horror of what we all face (or even, in other contexts, the penultimate consequences of U.S. policy) does no one any favors, save those in power.

Update 5: To address Inkan’s comment about security: Manan Ahmed notes:

The rally, with foolproof security was held at Liaqut Bagh – a site which had already seen the assassination of another Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaqut Ali Khan.

It would appear being Prime Minister is a dangerous profession in Pakistan. Ahmed notes as well the rising tide of riots in various cities, especially Rawalpindi. I fear that might spread as her followers seek revenge.

Let’s not also forget a few days ago when an attempt was made on the life of Aftab Sherpao, the former Minister of the Interior. More than fifty people were killed in that attack. Sherpao leads a breakaway wing of the PPP that did not support Bhutto. Like Bhutto, however, he had enemies among the crazies and the ISI.

Interestingly, just a few days ago Benazir Bhutto was blaming ISI on the breakup of her party.

Previously: Bhutto, Blasts, and Bellydances.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Michael Hancock December 27, 2007 at 11:49 am

Never even heard of Jezebel before. Seems like the kind of newsblog for the tres chic yuppie assholes that like to sit in coffee houses with their laptops and pretend that that’s somehow social. Nice how they lament the complete ignorance of their coworkers and family members while saying things as stupid as Bhutto certainly being murdered by Musharraf while being a guiding light certain to win the January election.

Having a passing knowledge of Pakistan does not make me cooler than anyone. Just the opposite, in my opinion. I don’t like it when people lord their Economist subscriptions over others.

Inkan1969 December 27, 2007 at 4:20 pm

How could this have been allowed to happen? Why did Bhutto’s security fail? Everyone knew people wanted to do this to her along with every other Pakistani politician. How could provisions taken to prevent this have failed?

Joshua Foust December 27, 2007 at 4:35 pm

Michael, Jezebel is part of the Gawker family—so they snark, they mock, they turn everything into a joke. Moe, however, is legit. She is far better informed than she lets on… hell, most of their commenters are. But I try not to judge a site by its commenters unless they’re particularly insipid or particularly inspired.

Inkan, I don’t think it was a failure of security, at least in terms of it breaking. There is only so much security to be had when you’re sticking your head out of a moonroof on a crowded street. And there are only so many provisions you can take at a massive public rally. But there may well have been a failure here somewhere, it’s just not obvious.

Steve LeVine December 27, 2007 at 4:47 pm

Hi Josh: nice rolling coverage today. One quibble. The Taliban are not a Bhutto “creation.” I’d have thought that by now, particularly after Steve Coll’s book, that the record is clear: the Taliban rose independently. Both Bhutto and the ISI were caught flat-footed by the sudden uprising of the Taliban in Kandahar back in 1994, then tried to get in front of the parade. Bhutto’s main interaction with Mullah Omar et al was in getting them to guard the famous commercial convoy that year between Chaman and the Turkmenistan border, a show meant to demonstrate that the pipeline-and-trade route would work. The ISI was integral to the Taliban’s subsequent military successes, particularly the final run in August-September 1996 into Kabul. But if Musharraf himself is accused today of not keeping a handle on the ISI, how is it that Bhutto controlled the ISI then? The answer is that Bhutto didn’t. That was Bhutto’s modus vivendi as prime minister both times — she stayed on the economic side and did not meddle with the Army or the ISI. And when Nawaz Sharif went too far, he ended up in Saudi Arabia.

Steve LeVine
The Oil and the Glory

Joshua Foust December 27, 2007 at 4:52 pm

Steve, you’re absolutely right, and if I’m unclear in any way I don’t want it to be. I said, “Bhutto is in large part responsible for the rise of the Taliban—they came to power on her watch, and were tacitly supported as both proxy warriors in Kashmir and a ‘stabilizing presence’ in Afghanistan.”

I didn’t say creation here, though I probably did as a shorthand in my GTalk conversation with Jezebel (which I didn’t realize was going to be cut and pasted into an entire post; I thought it was either background or for quotes for another post). But Bhutto did contribute a lot to the Taliban’s rise, and the role of the extremists madrassas that created them—that’s the causation I’m laying out here.

And the break between civilian and military? I say it’s a big reason why the country is so screwed up.

Steve LeVine December 27, 2007 at 5:10 pm

Josh, why do you say that Bhutto contributed to the Taliban’s rise? And how did she contribute to the “break” between the civilian and military? That is how the country has worked since its inception. She no more contributed to that than to the country’s borders. She’s at fault for a lot, namely failing to break with her feudal past and for slipping down the same corrupt slope as the rest. It seems we are posing the same question in all these unfortunate events: “Who lost … (fill in the blank) Russia, China, Afghanistan.” The Taliban rose because of the Taliban, because of Afghanistan’s condition, because of the mujahedin’s failure. Without all that, the assistance of the ISI would have been naught. And it’s also why the Taliban has managed to come back — it does have a grassroots following.

Joshua Foust December 27, 2007 at 5:37 pm

Steve, you’re misunderstanding me (or I’m being really unclear, or both). Bhutto had nothing to do with the Civil-Mil break, but that break is why the country remains messed up, violently yanked back and forth between corrupt tribal (“Feudal” though is probably more accurate) leadership and a military dictatorship.

As for the Taliban rise, Steve Coll catalogs how Bhutto was complicit in assenting to the Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan. I don’t doubt that she had legitimate reasons for wanting to stabilize the country—the mujahideen war, to which we in the U.S. have paid precious little attention, was unbelievable misery—but that break in the government, with the military doing its own thing and the civilian government does its own thing, contributed. She was a contributing part of that breach: Sharif mishandling everything hadn’t yet happened, but she didn’t even try to intervene even while she knew what was going on.

I would contend that transcending her feudal roots would have healed the breach, and maybe even have brought the military a few steps back from its mad blind brinksmanship with India. At the very least, it would have shown her to be something a bit beyond the run-of-the-mill corrupt princess she was.

I’m sorry to speak harshly of a woman I know you respected, but I think there is a post-death tendency to gloss over the ways she contributed to the country that eventually killed—like Time Magazine calling her a “martyr.” She is nothing of the sort, just a tragic figure cut down in an increasingly tragic country.

Steve LeVine December 27, 2007 at 5:49 pm

I can’t say I respected Bhutto. I’ve savaged her relentlessly on my own blog without a compliment, the U.S. for backing her, and Musharraf for making a deal with her. It seems I’m allowing a pet peeve about popular Taliban history spill over into the Bhutto story. I’ll take a new gander at Coll later, but to the degree that he writes that Bhutto was complicit in the rise of the Taliban, he’s wrong. Steve’s a friend, but that would be an inaccurate reading of how the Taliban’s military march played out. By that measure, much of the whole world would be “complicit.” Quite simply, Bhutto had no — and could have no — role in the Taliban’s seizure of power. She played the same role as she did in the ISI’s support of various mujahedin factions in her first turn at power, which was none. In any case, I think we may be drifting into “talking past each other mode,” so let’s leave it there. Happy holidays and best, Steve

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