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 swaths 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.
In return the PPP has abandoned an alliance of parties opposed to the army’s involvement in politics and will back Musharraf as civilian president. Bhutto has also quietly accepted a future dispensation in which he and the army will retain control over national security, foreign relations and the US war in Afghanistan. Depending on how well the PPP performs in elections, Bhutto will make domestic policy.
“Pakistan’s military-civilian hybrid will continue,” says a source closely involved in the deal. “For Benazir the ‘transition to democracy’ boils down to Musharraf taking off his uniform and she becoming prime minister.”
Despite this modest goal, the deal has been a year in the making. There were large majorities against it in the parties of both leaders, especially the PPP, many of whose members saw truck with a dictator as a betrayal of its anti-establishment legacy. Another snag was American disinterest.
“Washington prefers a general in charge in Islamabad,” says the source. “It means you can get things done with one or two phone calls. Imagine if we’d tried to get the army’s post-9/11 turn against the Taliban through Parliament.” Prior to the attacks on New York and Washington Islamabad had been the sole backer of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.
American indifference ended in March. Musharraf sacked Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, ostensibly for “misconduct” but actually because he feared the judge might rule against his desire to be president for another term. It triggered the worst political crisis of Musharraf’s eight-year rule. Lawyers took to the streets, buoyed by a resurgent civil society, assertive judiciary and campaigning media. Bhutto told her party to tail–not lead–the protests, wary that Musharraf might impose martial law. He didn’t, but the blatant attempt to rig the judiciary cost him support from among Pakistan’s economic and cultural elite, once his core constituency. From then on he was lame as a president and dispensable as an army chief. The United States looked to Bhutto for rescue.
There was another reason for engagement. American intelligence reported that not only had the Taliban regrouped in the North Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan; so had Al Qaeda, with camps reportedly training Muslims for operations in Europe and perhaps North America.
The revival was the spawn of a peace deal struck between the Pakistani army and pro-Taliban tribesmen in September 2006. Musharraf had sold it as a “holistic solution” to the menace of Talibanization. In fact, it was a treaty of defeat, brought on by American-driven military campaigns in the tribal areas that had weakened the army and strengthened the Taliban.
Pakistani intelligence said the Americans were alarmist about Al Qaeda but right about the Taliban. Young militant tribesmen not only used the deal to tighten their hold on North Waziristan as a base for the insurgency in Afghanistan. The region also became a hub for a Talibanization strategy radiating inland to the NWFP and beyond: this began with vigilantes banning music, torching girls’ schools and beheading “spies” and “immoral” women; it ended with clerics banishing the state in favor of “Islamic rule.” In places like Swat, the Taliban simply brushed aside unarmed police and a dysfunctional, inept local government.
Washington exerted pressure on Musharraf to scrap the 2006 deal. In July President George W. Bush informed him that Congressional majorities would compel him to sign into law a bill predicating America’s annual $300 million in military aid on Islamabad acting against the Taliban. US-NATO raids into Pakistan from Afghanistan were stepped up, killing dozens. In June US helicopters dropped leaflets on South Waziristan warning that households hosting “foreign terrorists” would be bombed. And US presidential hopefuls said that if Osama bin Laden were in North Waziristan, the Marines would invade – regardless of Pakistani sensitivities.
Pakistan protested these affronts to its sovereignty. But its case was weakened by what was happening in the federal capital. In July the army laid siege to Islamabad’s Red Mosque, commandeered six months earlier by pro-Taliban clerics. The standoff ended in a carnage in which 100 were killed, mostly seminary students. The battle happened near the headquarters of the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and an hour’s drive from Kohatu, site of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads. There could be no clearer illustration of the depth of the Taliban’s reach.
On July 15 the Taliban scrapped the September 2006 deal and Musharraf sent two extra divisions to North Waziristan, swelling the army’s presence in the tribal areas to a mighty 100,000. Washington lionized the move. So did Bhutto–the only Pakistani politician to do so.
Pakistan’s Islamic militants are a maze. But a look at those who fought and died at the Red Mosque can provide a map.
The leaders were clerics, inspired by bin Laden but schooled by Sunni sectarian groups that emerged during Muhammad Zia ul Haq’s pro-American and Islamist dictatorship (1977-88). The bulk of its students were from the NWFP and tribal areas, raised on a toxic mix of tribalism, Pashtun nationalism and militant Islam. The fighters were jihadis from outfits like Jaish Mohammed. Once nurtured by the army to fight proxy wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan, they saw peace with India and Pakistan’s abandonment of the Taliban as apostasy. If any had ties with rogue officers in the ISI, these would be the likeliest suspects.
The army’s assault on the Red Mosque revised the militants’ view of the enemy, says military analyst Hasan Askari-Rizvi. “They had long defined Musharraf the same way as they did [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai–as an agent of America. But now they saw the army the same way. Previously the militants were granted a degree of autonomy for not attacking Pakistan. Now they decided to take on the army.”
In the months since the siege of the Red Mosque, at least 200 soldiers have been killed in North and South Waziristan, mostly through Iraqi-style suicide, roadside and rocket attacks. In the past the army’s officer class had achieved immunity from any blowback of its actions. No longer.
On September 4 a suicide bomber boarded a bus carrying ISI officers in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s main garrison town. Thirty were killed. Given the ISI’s secretive existence, it is inconceivable the bomber was a stranger to the busload. It was an inside job, and showed how far the militias had turned on their makers. Then came the October 30 blast–same city, same target. There has been little public outrage. In fact, in Rawalpindi and especially the NWFP, there was quiet satisfaction. In these areas the strongest sentiment is that the army is waging a war against its own people in the tribal regions at the behest of Washington. “We have never been so hated,” said a retired general.
The obloquy has had two consequences. One is demoralization. On August 30 pro-Taliban tribesmen in South Waziristan took hostage nearly 300 soldiers. The army said they had been captured. Others admitted the men had surrendered. It’s a sign of fractures to come, says military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.
“The nightmare had always been that Islamist generals would mount a coup and somehow get hold of Pakistan’s nukes. Even the Americans know this is farfetched. A more likely scenario is what we are witnessing today–cracks in the army where soldiers simply refuse to obey orders. They resist America’s war by deserting or going over to the other side.”
The other is fear. Following the army’s incursion into Swat, militants publicly beheaded six police officers, tagging them “Bush’s agents.” In North Waziristan tribesmen have mutilated the corpses of ambushed soldiers. In retaliation the army bombards villages from the air, killing men, women and children. The idea that such punitive raids do anything to winkle out Al Qaeda is absurd, says journalist Rahimullah Yousefzai.
“It’s revenge pure and simple. And it’s counterproductive. The only thing such actions do is drive the tribes to the Taliban.”
A Defining Moment
The idea that Bhutto alone can reverse this descent is imaginary. The most that can be hoped is that she will stop peddling illusions that the war against militant Islam in Pakistan can be won according to an American script, led by an unpopular President and enforced by an army that, in the tribal areas, is seen as an alien and mercenary force. It will require a “collective, national strategy,” says Hoodbhoy, unserved by the facile American taxonomy of “moderate” and “extremist.”
Can Bhutto’s return be the fulcrum for such a shift? This is what her supporters allege. They say she will build on the momentum of her return, reach out to other opposition parties, fight for free and fair elections and insist that the army and president are subordinate to, rather than arbiters of, a civilian Parliament. For the tribal areas she will advocate force against those who spread religion by violence but development, autonomy and democracy for these who don’t. “Education, employment, empowerment” are her watchwords.
That is the hope. If she fails it–if she again gives a free hand to the army in exchange for an amnesty with the establishment–she will not only betray those who died and risked their lives in Karachi on October 18. She will confirm what many Pakistanis already believe: that all politicians are venal and, no matter which party you vote for, America and the army stays in power. There could be no bigger victory for the militants, says retired general and analyst Talat Masood.
“I have always seen Talibanization as a product of state failure. If Pakistan fails again–if the elections are doctored or politics make no difference to people’s lives–then the poor will turn to the militants. Not because they want to but simply because there will be nothing else. The state will start to fragment and the Taliban and others worse than them will pick up the pieces. Pakistan’s next elections are a defining moment.”