The bloody reception afforded Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan on October 18 demonstrated two facts. One was that–despite eight years of self-imposed exile, corruption cases against her in three countries and character assassination by Pakistan’s military regime–the two-time prime minister not only commands the most effective party machine in Pakistan. She alone can inspire and mobilize its poor, tens of thousands of whom turned out to greet her.
Second, the barbarity of the attempt to kill her pushed to the fore the alliance she has long claimed to be the most lethal threat facing her country: a retrograde militant Islam in coalition with “some” in Pakistan’s military establishment. The charge has gained extra purchase from two events since her return. The first was the dispatch of 2,500 Pakistani solders to Swat to quell a pro-Taliban cleric imposing his own version of Islamic rule. Until a truce on October 28, scores were killed in four days of intense fighting, including many soldiers. Swat is not on Pakistan’s rugged borderlands with Afghanistan, historically the Taliban’s base. It is in the “settled” North West Frontier Province (NWFP), a mere three hours from Peshawar. The second was a suicide attack in the garrison town of Rawalpindi on October 30. The bomber was checked close to army headquarters and less than two kilometers from the residence of Pakistan’s military ruler, President-General Pervez Musharraf. Seven were killed.
Bhutto says her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will “isolate” the militants through democracy, development and mass mobilization. But so far her strategy has been anything but grassroots: choreographed by Washington, it rests on a power-sharing deal with the unpopular Musharraf. As a recipe for combating militant Islam, it’s “a non-starter,” says analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy. This struggle has to be made “every Pakistani’s war, not just the army’s, and fought even if America packs up and goes away.”
Worse, a counterinsurgency cast in a largely American demonology of “moderates” versus “extremists” will lend legitimacy to a Talibanized future very few Pakistanis want.
The Musharraf-Bhutto tryst is based on a simple premise: Bhutto and her party are to give a veneer of civilian legitimacy to a ruler and a regime that is loathed by wide swathes of Pakistanis. “The West is desperate to bring Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf into a loveless marriage so the general can combat terrorists and the lady can play democracy,” says journalist and historian Ahmed Rashid.
Despite the PPP’s long history of anti-military and anti-US agitation, Bhutto was willing to be the bride. She insisted only on two things–that the corruption cases against her be withdrawn and that Musharraf step down as army chief. Both have been granted, pending Supreme Court clearances.