During a meeting with some Pakistani friends following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, their discussion was centered on “the absence of any sign of grief from her husband Asif Ali Zardari!”
Later, I asked a British friend if the world should now be concerned about the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or any other extremist group. His answer was that Washington had a plan and that it was coordinating with a group of army and security officers in Pakistan whereby the US forces will carry out a military operation to remove Pakistan’s nuclear components and then destroy all the installations so that no nuclear weapons or reserves could fall into the hands of the enemies.
Benazir Bhutto’s assassination was not unforeseen, especially in light of the first assassination attempt that ‘greeted’ her upon her return and which resulted in the deaths of over 134 people.
The assassination has rendered Bhutto a hero in an age where it is not only the men who confront death. However; this assassination, despite its horrific and despicable nature, does not leave Pakistan at the crossroads. The truth is that it has been at the crossroads ever since its inception in 1947 and since Bangladesh’s secession in 1971.
Pakistan is in a crisis today but the Pakistani people are resilient and capable of absorbing such a crisis. According to Professor Akbar Ahmed [Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC], “It is the end of [President Pervez] Musharraf’s phase and we are now witnessing the birth of a stage after Musharraf but we do not know what it will be.”
For over 10 years Musharraf has been head of state and it may be deemed an accomplishment on Bhutto’s part that she drove him to shed his military uniform (as commander of the armed forces) and to lift the state of emergency. But after her departure, he finds that he is not leading a major political party and the elections are drawing near it will be difficult for him to adapt to the new situation.
With the imminent end of Musharraf’s stage comes the end of Benazir Bhutto’s stage because she has departed and because the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is now headed by her husband and many are relying on his leadership of the party, how he will deal with its members and the manner in which he will oversee the preparations for the upcoming elections, in addition to the efficacy of the policy that he will adopt.
In the words of Professor Ahmed, “Asif Zardari is a contradictory personality who presently, under the spotlight, is more inclined towards confrontation than Benazir was. This means that if the PPP win the elections he will be the one to decide the path upon which to lead Pakistan.”
Zardari’s problem is that his past is pursuing him and those who oppose the PPP do not trust him. As for those who support the PPP, they will support him because of the intense sentiment today and because he succeeds Benazir and her son Bilawal but he must change his behavior and show maturity and depth or else the tension within the party will surface.
Benazir’s assassination has not resolved any of Pakistan’s raised issues, but two will always remain at the forefront: Democracy, which many Pakistanis say should not be delayed because of the assassination, and the army, of which observers have said that Pakistan can only be governed by a military institution.
“For 60 years Pakistan’s history has been divided between democracy and military rule,” said Professor Ahmed, “Democracy has never truly succeeded because we have experienced stages of democracy that were led by corrupt or incompetent leaders. This is followed by the army’s intercession, which is able to quickly penetrate that corruption and incapacitation and then we enter into a new crisis. And thus Pakistan continued to swing between military dictatorship and corrupt civilian regime.”
He added, “Pakistan needs to be clear about its future and it must adhere to democracy because Muhammed Ali Jinnah founded a modern Islamic state based on democracy and he respected the constitution. All the Pakistani people respect Jinnah. This is the only equation that befits Pakistan and it must succeed in the end. In 1947 India and Pakistan were established as states. Indian democracy succeeded because the people there did not abandon it.”
But Professor Ahmed rejects the notion that Pakistan today, because of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, has deviated from Jinnah’s vision. He said, “The whole world is changing, societies change and the challenges are different. There are extremist elements but there are also Pakistanis who want to restore their country to their perceived vision of it. Presently the atmosphere in Pakistan is hostile towards the army, the public will no longer accept military rule and the only solution is through democracy. For 10 years now Pakistan has been living under a military regime and it has not gotten us anywhere. As such, hope depends on the elections.”
However; if Musharraf does not rig the elections he will find himself confronted by a hostile parliament since both Nawaz Sharif’s and Bhutto’s parties are oppositional in the first place. Moreover, the army will not be able defend fraudulent elections because the overall atmosphere in Pakistan is tense. The people are very angry and if any forgery were to take place, the people’s reaction would be a tempestuous storm of which the repercussions would be the spread of chaos and this will be in the interest of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups. With this scenario, the democratic process will be postponed and the people’s suffering will increase.
There are many questions raised since it is difficult to execute an operation such as the assassination of Bhutto without the implication of the security services [ISI]. Professor Ahmed agrees with this hypothesis and stated that the assassination has raised a lot of doubts for him because it appears to have been ingeniously planned.
“We did not see any policemen on television, Benazir was not protected. According to protocol, the same protection afforded to the president should be available for her since she is former prime minister and yet we saw one of them approach within close proximity of her and then he shot her,” said Professor Ahmed.
Moreover, how can the PPP work with Musharraf after the elections when the party holds him responsible for her assassination? Professor Akbar Ahmed said, “It will be a very difficult matter; the relationship between the PPP and the army has always been a complicated one. The army executed the party’s founder [Zulfikar Ali Bhutto]. The latest agreement could have worked if Benazir and Musharraf were capable of reaching an understanding they both needed one another.
But now the situation has changed, Zardari heads the party and he publicly accuses the government of assassinating Bhutto. Moreover, he has commissioned a separate investigation which he is financing himself that could point to Musharraf in the end, which is why it is difficult to forge any alliance between the two. This also makes Musharraf susceptible…”
The problem in Pakistan is that the political leaders do not trust one another; the PPP accuses Musharraf and his regime of being indirectly responsible for the assassination of Bhutto. Musharraf accused Nawaz Sharif of plotting to assassinate him and of trying to destroy the civilian plane that was carrying him but Musharraf succeeded in executing a military coup while he was airborne in October 1999.
This is damaging to Pakistan which is need of stability and wise leadership. These two elements are not provided by Musharraf because he is part of the problem; he is also part of the solution but he only regards himself as part of the solution which is where the problem lies. This is why the spotlight is on General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani who might resort to selecting a neutral figure to lead Pakistan and call upon Musharraf to step down.
However, professor Ahmed believes that it is unlikely for General Kayani to do this at the present time “because his loyalty is to Musharraf who has appointed him but if the situation collapses and the political situation becomes aggravated in the coming two weeks, which is a possibility, then Kayani might ask Musharraf to step down because the people in Pakistan have become discontented with him. And as always, when the army commander acts, he then appoints himself and we go back to the state of emergency.”
Anyhow, the forthcoming four weeks are critical in Pakistan’s history. Three months ago there was one key player on the stage, Pervez Musharraf and then there were two players: Musharraf and Benazir, but today there are two new players: Zardari and Kayani. In the coming weeks we will observe how they will play and then we will witness how they will approach the elections and what the outcome of that will be.
This does not mean the exclusion of Nawaz Sharif on every level; he does not want to deal in any way with Musharraf since they have an antagonistic relationship. However, Nawaz will have a potential role in the future of Pakistan because his main base is in Punjab, which is the most important area in Pakistan.