And like a dying lady, lean and palePakistani opposition leader, Ms Benazir Bhutto’s tragic death in a gun-and-bomb terrorist attack on Thursday opens the beginning of a new cycle of political instability in her troubled country. The unfolding situation may frustrate the resolve of the West to press for democracy in this country.
Who totters forth, wrapped in a gauzy veil
Capitalising on the ongoing political chaos, the ruling military make its mark on the idea that Pakistan’s best chances of survival and combating Islamic militancy would be to stay under military rule. President, Pervez Musharraf has the habit of striking when the iron is hot. He dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution, and imposed emergency rule only in order to stay in power. However, this time his conjuring tricks don’t seem to work.
Ms Bhutto’s return from a self-exposed exile in mid October was far from pleasant. She has been living under daily threat from al-Qaida-linked extremists and President Musharraf’s government alike. For weeks, she lived either under house arrest or in detention. Her life in the past weeks has indeed been like Shelly’s “dying lady,” I have quoted above.
After Ms Bhutto survived a suicide attack on her life upon her arrival at Karachi, she has constantly appealed for more security, a request ignored by the ruling authorities. Her demand for an independent FBI investigation into the suicide attacks which claimed more than 150 lives fell on deaf ears too. Weeks before her death, she pointed the finger at the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) for a surge in suicide attacks, admitting openly that suspect elements within Musharraf’s circle sympathise with the Islamic extremists. “Some elements were masterminding suicide attacks and subversive activities [in Pakistan] to continue dictatorship and spread fear among the people,” she stated in an interview.
Ms Bhutto’s death took place in Liaquat Bagh, the garden of death, in which the country’s first Prime Minister, Mr Liaquat Ali Khan was murdered in 1951. The garden is located in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, a few kilometres away from where Bhutto’s father, late President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was cruelly hanged by the Pakistani former dictator, Zia ul-Haq in 1979, and two years after he was deposed by him in a coup. The town is home to the headquarters of the military powerhouse and fearsome ISI.
For Musharraf, Rawalpindi, on the contrary, is the safest town, as he prefers to spend the night there when he finishes work in his office few miles away in Islamabad, even now that he has been retired from the army.
Ms Bhutto’s death, which put an end to the tragic Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan, will among other things, make two major impacts on the status of ‘war on terrorism’ and counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. Firstly, it will strengthen the conditions that allowed al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorists to regain their former organisational and operative power inside Pakistan. This will embolden and enable Pakistani extremists and al-Qaida to train more Taliban and religious extremists and send them into Afghanistan or even beyond.
Secondly, it will deepen covered links between Pakistani military establishments and the Islamic extremists, many of whom are active in the Pakistani north-western tribal areas and the country’s major cities. Many of these extremist groups are still active under different nomes de guerre, apparently being outlawed by President Musharraf.
Pakistan got its own brutal reminder of the effects of military as the ultimate decision-making power. The shadowy hard core of the Pakistani military ruling elite doesn’t seem to have given up on its obsession with India and strategic depth in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military wallow in this obsession and sees religious groups with potential extremism and the Taliban as magic instrument of regional power game — equally important like the country’s nuclear arsenal. This is the main reason why Pakistani ISI sees Taliban as a phenomenon beyond war or terror, and still keeps a clandestine link with them; despite a deceptive help it gives to the West in global war on terrorism. This is a Pakistani Realpolitik that explains the curious paradox.
With Musharraf’s arch rival removed from political scene, the main opposition leader left now is his old bête noire, the former Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed by Musharraf in 1999 in a bloodless coup. Emotional Sharif rushed to the hospital where Ms Bhutto died after the suicide attack. Comforting thousands of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party followers, Nawaz said, “I am with you. We will take the revenge on the rulers.” He also hinted he will boycott the upcoming elections. To the embarrassment of Musharraf, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rejected the government version of the circumstances of the suicide attack in which its leader, Ms Bhutto was killed. The party calls for a UN investigation.
Mr Sharif has his own records. He is often accused of links with extremist religious parties. He boasted in the past that he has to be credited greatly for Pakistan’s acquiring atomic bomb, for he was the one who ordered the nuclear tests. He also ordered occupation of Kargil in the Indian administered Kashmir. He also boasted that he put an end to the Afghan threat to Pakistan once and for all, for he managed to fully destroy the more than 100 year old Afghan national army.
The new-year seems to be the gloomiest year for Pakistan. President Musharraf is likely to call off the parliamentary election scheduled for January 8 and reimpose emergency rule. Even if the election goes ahead as scheduled, things are not looking any brighter. The game is left now for Pervez Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif, Pervenawaz Musharif — to use a Joycean pun — to play.
We right now have two wars going on in Pakistan: one is war on terror and another, war of democracy and military despotism. As the main backer of the military, the US is locked up in both wars in a quixotic way. Washington is supporting the same forces that are responsible for much of the trouble in Pakistan as well as the deepening of the international terrorists and insurgency. The unpopular Musharraf has the blessing of the US but the curse of the majority of Pakistanis. His suppressive and duplicitous rule will end only when and if Washington decides and tells him enough is enough.
In the most unimaginable scenario to unfold in Pakistan, Musharraf is the one who will reap the whirlwind.
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