With the murder of Benazir Bhutto, most likely by religious fanatics, the ad hoc and shortsighted nature of US policy toward Pakistan is on display once again. As pundits and diplomats in the West seek a Plan B for Pakistan, let’s step back for a second to look at how thoroughly bankrupt US policy in that region has become, and recognize the desperate need for a new diplomacy for the Muslim world in general.
Several questions demand attention. What is the problem to which Bhutto was supposedly a solution? What is its history? And who was Bhutto?
The discussion of Bhutto assumes that she would have brought greater stability by reining in the forces of militant political Islam in Pakistan. But that is an illusion. The Taliban, Jamaat-i-Islami and likely even Al Qeada all have links to the Pakistani military and intelligence. The Pakistan security forces use these militants as proxies in their cold war with India on two crucial fronts in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Geographically, Pakistan is long and thin and sandwiched between two hostile states, India and Afghanistan. Pakistan was born of communal violence in postindependence India. One million people were killed and 15 million displaced during that cataclysm. And since then, three wars have been fought between India and Pakistan for control of Kashmir.
Since the early 1970s Afghanistan and Pakistan–locked in a border dispute of their own–have each attempted to subvert the other with cross-border guerrilla forces.
Beginning in 1973 Pakistan supported Galbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami. This later became an anti-Soviet mujahedeen force and has recently been allied with the resurgent Taliban. Afghanistan, in turn, supported Murtaza Bhutto’s guerrilla group, Al Zulficar, in its efforts to overthrow the right-wing dictator Zia ul-Huq, who ran Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. (For more on this, see the books of Raja Anwar.)
Since its inception, the Pakistani officer class has wanted Afghanistan to remain weak so as to provide “strategic depth”–fallback room in case of a major land war with India. For its part, Afghanistan still covets large pieces of Pakistan that were lost when the British drew the current border–the Durand Line–in 1893.
On both sides of the border live Pashtuns. The Afghan Pashtuns have always been the ruling ethnicity, but in Pakistan they are a large, poor, restive minority, making up about 16 percent of the population. The last thing Pakistan wants is for the Pashtun minority within its borders to link up with, or become the tool of, a strong neighboring Afghanistan ruled by Pashtuns and allied with India.
In other words, a central but often overlooked piece of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” is Pakistan’s security. Why does Pakistan tolerate and even support the Taliban to keep Afghanistan, to its west, weak? Because Pakistan is threatened by India to its east.
And so Pakistan’s security forces–though they deny it–shelter, fund and train the Taliban and other Islamic militants who fight in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir.
The central point is this: Pakistani security forces will never end their support of Islamic radicals if Pakistan’s security vis-à-vis India is not first guaranteed. Until then any discussion of this president versus that president is a charade.
Without addressing the deeper geostrategic forces at work here and developing a diplomatic solution, there will be no rollback of Taliban-style Islamic fundamentalism.
Just look at recent history if you doubt that. Since 9/11 Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been backed by the United States as an indispensable ally. The New York Times reported recently that the United States has spent more than $5 billion to bolster the Pakistani military’s effort to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban over the last five years. Not surprisingly, much of the aid money was stolen or diverted to build up Pakistan’s military posture vis-à-vis India. Meanwhile, elements of the Pakistan security forces continue working with the Taliban.
This game–Pakistan having it both ways–was working well for Musharraf. But then he attempted to stack the Supreme Court and triggered a massive and robust backlash from lawyers and judges, and suddenly the General needed an image makeover.
So, as historian and novelist Tariq Ali put it, Washington concocted an “arranged marriage”: Bhutto would return to Pakistan; there would be elections, and probably a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. And the status quo would carry on with renewed legitimacy.
This brings us to the question: who was Bhutto? As “chairperson-for-life” of the Pakistan People’s Party, she brooked no dissent. The PPP had populist roots, but over the decades its democratic and redistributive programs have devolved into largely meaningless rhetoric.
Bhutto’s two terms as prime minister, in the late 1980s and then again beginning in 1993, delivered nothing. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was charged with the murder of her brother, Murtaza; many suspect she was involved as well. Pakistan in her administration was one of few countries in the world to recognize the Taliban regime in Kabul. And she grew increasingly corrupt, appointing her husband as minister of investment–meaning he was in charge of all state investments, at home and abroad.
The couple is accused of having accumulated $1.5 billion–much of it public money. Upon her death she was facing corruption cases in Switzerland, England, and Spain.
Partnered with Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto would not have transformed the deep rot of corruption, poverty and underdevelopment that fuels a growing discontent–expressed in the form of Islamic fundamentalism and Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan’s frontier provinces.
Nor would she have controlled Pakistan’s security forces, which are economically and politically quite powerful and autonomous institutions.
In short, Bhutto could not have delivered for Washington and won the local “war on terror.” She could not have provided domestic stability.
Real stability in Pakistan is not a matter of setting up this leader or that one. It requires a whole new direction for US policy: a new diplomacy that addresses the conflict between Pakistan and India and creates security guarantees for Pakistan. Only then will the Pakistani officer class stop supporting Islamic militants.
The United States could use its power to de-escalate this conflict rather than fuel it as it now does. But such a strategy would require a regional conference to deal with the standoff between Pakistan and India. China and Russia would have to be involved in the talks.
The security issue between India and Pakistan must also be addressed. If the border issues with Kashmir could be fixed, then Pakistan could be credibly pressured to stop subverting Afghanistan.
Finally, with a new diplomacy, the United States would have to acknowledge that it has neither right nor the power to meddle in Pakistan’s internal affairs.
The brutal murder of Benazir Bhutto is just the latest proof of that.