U.S. Foreign Policy Continues to Destabilize Pakistan
When news first broke of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, I sat in the home of a judge in Islamabad, glued to the television with an off-duty doctor from the hospital where Bhutto was treated. While the nation and the world continue to reel from the murder of a world-historical figure, relatively little attention has focused on the central role of U.S. foreign policy in causing her death.
Mohtarma and Musharraf
A great many voices have commented on Bhutto’s immense historical stature. Others have noted the tremendous loss her death represents to the people of Pakistan and its grave implications for the nation’s democracy. Benazir Bhutto was a forceful champion for the downtrodden, the most effective international diplomat Pakistan has ever produced, and an inspiration to millions (and possibly even billions) of people stirred by her service as the Muslim world’s first female head of state.
Allegations of corruption dogged Bhutto throughout her public service career, and the essentially hereditary ascension of her son to her party’s leadership begs questions about its sincerity in seeking meaningful democracy. But her untimely death renders those questions less relevant than the current leadership’s attacks on democracy and the rule of law.
Parvez Musharraf’s administration has taken a sharp turn over the past year, destabilizing the country by severely undermining freedom of the press, judicial independence, individual liberties, and democratic transparency – all while relying on ongoing White House support.
Over the past year, Musharraf (whom many Pakistanis call “Busharraf”) has presided over one of Pakistan’s most turbulent periods in its 60-year history. While claiming to address extremism, he has instead gutted the nation’s strongest institutional and cultural defenses against fundamentalism. Having twice sacked the Supreme Court’s popular and independent Chief Justice and jailed the leaders of the democracy movement, Musharraf also imposed several constitutional amendments and severe restrictions on the press that continue to stifle debate.
In this environment, violence and terror are all too predictable. And the enabling complicity of the U.S. is alarming.
Assassination Allegations Suggest Varied Implications
A host of competing theories attempt to explain Bhutto’s assassination. The government predictably blamed al-Qaeda within a day, while offering a theory of her death described by BBC as “bizarre.” Observers have offered several alternative possibilities.
Noting Bhutto’s prior comments that elements within the administration and security apparatuses . . . want me out of the way,” members of her family accused the government – either for killing her outright, or for complicity by notorious rogue elements within the security services, or at least for offering inadequate security to her campaign – as Bhutto herself alleged before the fact. American authorities have reportedly begun investigating Pakistani special operations forces for their potential involvement.
Others blame Bhutto’s husband, Asif “Mr. 10 Percent” Zardari, who plundered state coffers during her rule, allegedly ordered the 1985 and 1996 murders of her brothers in order to eliminate their potential political rivalry, and may have perceived opportunity in his wife’s removal. Some circumstantial evidence supports this theory: in the wake of Bhutto’s assassination, Zardari refused an autopsy that may have shed light on the cause and is now co-Chairman of the political party she once led.
The Common Element: a Dictator’s Failure to Address Extremism
Regardless of which theory may ultimately prove accurate, the aggressive presence of extremists in Pakistan – if nothing else, for the sake of providing cover for Bhutto’s assassins – was a necessary element for each possibility. Musharraf has harbored extremists in Pakistan since 2001, while duping the U.S. out of roughly $10 billion, of which allegedly half has been consumed by graft.
Despite occasional shows of force, Musharraf conceded territory to terrorists in Pakistan’s anarchic tribal areas. He agreed with tribal leaders to withdraw the Army presence and allow the tribes to police the Afghan border themselves. Al-Qaeda seized the opportunity opened by the agreement, fleeing Afghanistan (where the U.S. trained its precursors as anti-Soviet mujahiddin before expelling them after 9-11) to rebuild itself in Pakistan’s borderlands.
The White House refuses diplomacy with Iran, ignoring an official conclusion that Iran four years ago stopped the nuclear program recently characterized by President Bush as a looming threat. Yet Musharraf refuses the one useful step within his reach: allowing international investigators to debrief atomic scientist A.Q. Khan, whose weapons research made him a Pakistani national hero even while he passed nuclear secrets to North Korea.
All this from a military dictator hailed by President Bush as his “critical ally in the War on Terror.” At the very least (setting aside allegations of his involvement in Bhutto’s assassination), Musharraf allowed al-Qaeda the chance to regroup in Pakistan. And the White House, displaying its characteristic blindness, paid his regime billions to do so.
U.S. Policy Encouraging Terror
Even worse, events in Pakistan send the wrong signal to other countries whose iron-fisted rulers see, in Bush's support for Musharraf, an invitation to suppress democracy in their own countries.
Terrorists of many stripes, including al-Qaeda, have long based their violence on the premise that it represents the only way to resist dictators supported by post-colonial western patrons. No terrorist recruiting pitch could outmatch America’s hypocrisy towards democracy.
U.S. support for dictators – not only in Pakistan, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia – will continue to drive young people into the arms of fundamentalists. And their expanding ranks will challenge international security efforts in each of those countries, as well as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Earlier this year, opposition forces non-violently rose against Musharraf to challenge his suspension of Pakistan’s Constitution and imposition of martial law. The White House maintained its support despite Musharraf’s poor counter-terrorism record, or his subjugation of the media and judiciary, emphasizing the need to hold elections.
The elections, which were today rescheduled from next week until late February, have been beset by accusations of pervasive bias and, before the rescheduling decision, appeared to lack any pretense of freedom or fairness. Even if they could capture Pakistan’s majoritarian preferences, the country’s judiciary can neither defend counter-majoritarian rights nor check the executive.
The White House pretends that elections will defuse Pakistan’s political crisis – overlooking that a rigged process will only further inflame tension and increase the risk of violence.
Bhutto Falling on Bush’s Sword
Bhutto returned to Pakistan this October, at the invitation of U.S. officials eager to reinforce Musharraf’s flagging dictatorship with the veneer of democratic legitimacy. She (and other members of the Pakistani opposition) endured violence in order to challenge Musharraf in the democratic arena, tolerating widespread accusations of early vote-rigging and politicized election administration, while enduring restrictions on their electioneering, as well as media criticism of the dictatorship. Like Iraqi Kurds and Shiites slaughtered by Saddam Hussein when Bush’s father failed to fulfill promises to support their revolution in the 1990s, Bhutto paid the ultimate price for answering the White House’s call.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice suggested that, The way to honor [Bhutto’s] memory is to continue the democratic process in Pakistan . . . .” But despite the younger Bush’s rhetorical support for democracy abroad, the reality of his defending dictatorship both poisoned Pakistan’s democratic aspirations and sealed Bhutto’s doom. Whether spilled by extremists or the Pakistani government – or some collusion among elements within them – Benazir Bhutto’s blood stains George Bush’s hands.
* Shahid Buttar is a Pakistani-American lawyer, scholar, media activist, poet, hip-hop MC, and grassroots community organizer based in Washington, DC. He is currently traveling throughout Pakistan to conduct an independent investigation of events since the first removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury in March, 2007. To read more articles or to listen to his music, visit HYPERLINK "http://www.ShahidButtar.com" www.ShahidButtar.com.