The death of Benazir Bhutto in a suicide-terror operation last week has pushed Pakistan, often regarded as a backwater in South Asia, into headlines as never before. Some American pundits even claim that the murder would affect the US presidential campaign and help candidates who preach a more muscular foreign policy.
There is no doubt that Pakistan deserves attention, provided this is not for the wrong reasons.
Although Pakistan has been a key battleground in the global war on terror since 2001, it is little understood, not to say much misunderstood, in the West.
One American pundit asserts that Bhutto’s death represents “Washington’s policy failure in Pakistan.” The claim is based on the belief that Bhutto was nothing but an instrument of American policy.
Benazir enlisted the support of Washington in opening a dialogue with Musharraf. The Americans helped the dialogue but knew they could not better than treat Musharraf or Benazir as pawns.
Benazir and Musharraf never did anything they didn’t want to do simply because the Americans, or anybody else, asked for it.
Another myth since Benazir’s death is that she was a victim of Pakistani security services. The accusation is so childish that it would not have merited attention had it not received global currency by conspiracy theorists.
Secret services may have hitmen and hired assassins but do not have suicide-killers. That is a speciality of Islamist terror groups. Had the Pakistani secret services wished to kill Benazir they would have organised a massive explosion, like the one that the Syrian secret service used to kill former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
Conspiracy theorists also refer to the fact that Benazir was murdered in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s biggest garrison town.
“How could terrorists operate in such a place?” wonders one American conspiracy theorist.
He forgets that in the same Rawalpindi Musharraf himself escaped two assassination attempts last year.
During Algeria’s war against Islamist terror in the 1990s, the garrison town of Blida, near the capital Algiers, was the most active focus of terrorist operations.
It is no surprise that the terrorists have joined the chorus that blames the authorities for the murder.
What better than killing one enemy and blaming another for the crime?
The Algerian terrorists did that all the time. They cut the throats of peasants at night and in the morning blamed the army.
In 1978, Khomeini’s agents set fire to the Rex Cinema in Abadan, burning more than 400 people alive, then blamed it on the government. What is certain is that Benazir was braver than the leaders of Al Qaeda who take good care of their own lives by hiding in caves while despatching brainwashed youths on suicide operations.
Another myth is that Islamists are about to sweep next week’s general election and seize power.
However, today Pakistani Islamists are at their weakest in terms of popular support. Their coalition, known as the United Action Assembly (MMA), has fragmented, its components spending more time fighting each other than their secular enemies.
In the last election, the Islamists collected some 11 per cent of the votes. They would be lucky to do as well next week. Their best-known figure, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, may lose his own seat.
The Islamists have been in power in the Northwest Frontier Province, one of the four that constitute Pakistan, for four years and have a record of failures.
They have proved the bankruptcy of their sick ideology in action. I doubt they would fool many Pakistanis much longer, especially now that all main parties have decided to take part in the election.
Although some 98 per cent of Pakistanis are Muslims, few wish to live under anything resembling the regime in Iran.
Despite decades of misery under military rule, most Pakistanis cherish pluralism and change of government through elections.
One British magazine has come out with a cover story that Pakistan is about to fall to the Taliban. This turns out to be based on a claim that “Taliban-like” groups are assuming power in parts of a mountainous enclave known as South Waziristan.
The readers might not know that the enclave covers half of one per cent of Pakistan’s territory of 803,000 square kilometres.
South Waziristan’s population is less than half a million, compared to the total Pakistani population of 169 million.
Even then, there is no evidence that the enclave is being taken over by Taliban-style groups or “Arab Afghans” as foreign terrorists are called.
What is happening is the emergence of new groups of young armed men, often wearing long hair and beards, looking for fame and fortune.
In the 1960s similar groups described themselves as “socialist”.
Today, they prefer the label Islamist. Basically, they are bandits, continuing a tradition begun more than 2000 years ago.
Alexander the Great tried to crush their ancestors by force but failed. He then decided to use gold where steel had failed, and succeeded.
In the 19th century, the British had a similar experience. After decades of military effort to tame the region, they loosened the purse strings and got quick results.
Today, too, the best policy would be buying the armed groups rather than “dishonouring” them in the battlefield, something no tribal warrior worth his salt would tolerate. (This is, perhaps, why the US Congress has just approved a package of $800 million for Waziristan.)
Musharraf is castigated for supposedly refusing to prevent the Taliban from infiltrating Afghanistan and/or returning to Pakistan to dodge NATO forces.
Musharraf’s critics forget that the mostly mountainous Pakistan-Afghanistan border is almost 2500 kilometres long.
If the US is unable to control infiltration through its equally long border with Mexico, how could Pakistan, a much less developed nation, be expected to do better on its frontier with Afghanistan?
Finally, we are invited to worry because Pakistan’s nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda.
There is, however, no evidence that the Pakistani army is about to fall apart or that the nuclear arsenal, put under Musharraf’s direct control after he stepped down as army chief, is in any danger.
The US has spent $100 improving the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the past two years. Although American officials would not admit it, one may assume that the US has contingency plans to secure the nuclear silos that are, mercifully, located in a remote desert that could be quickly isolated and sealed off.
No, Pakistan is not falling apart.
No, Islamists are not about to seize power.
There is no needed to declare martial law, as some commentators suggest.
There is no reason to or postpone the elections.
Pakistan needs more, not less, democracy.
The faster Pakistan returns to full civilian rule, the safer it will be- and with it the rest of us also.