Monday :: Dec 31, 2007

A sober look at Pakistan

by Turkana

So, Pakistan's government says it was the force of the blast, not bullets or shrapnel, that killed Benazir Bhutto, and Al Qaeda was responsible. But now we're shocked- shocked!- to hear that her doctors felt pressured to report what the government wanted them to report. And, of course, no autopsy was performed.

Bush, as usual, blamed unnamed extremists, whom, he said, want to undermine democracy. And never mind Bush's support for the real culprit in the undermining of democracy, and whom Bhutto herself thought might try to kill her, and whom a top Bhutto supporter, as well as her main rival opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, now think succeeded in doing. Meanwhile, the Pakistani people blame Musharraf for a cover-up, and the unrest that has roiled the nation. And, of course, fears Musharraf will use the assassination as a pretext to cancel the parliamentary elections, which Bhutto herself had already labeled a farce, seems to be coming true. Bhutto's family's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) said they would still participate in elections, and both Sharif and Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, now running the PPP until their son comes of age, have called for the elections to proceed as planned.

It's a mess. But Pakistan has been a mess, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been growing stronger, because Bush got distracted from doing something about them. As Gabor Steingart wrote, in Spiegel Online:

The following sentence is the most bitter compliment imaginable: The Thursday assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a huge, shocking and possibly even historic triumph for the enemies of democracy. Even worse, the attack was the gruesome culmination of what has been a successful year for them.

It is also not reaching too far to say that the shots that fatally wounded Bhutto in Rawalpindi Thursday also killed off any hope that the Islamic world could find peace of its own accord in the foreseeable future.

The West, too, is more troubled than it has been for a long time. The dismay in the corridors of government is genuine. US President George W. Bush's statement, which lasted little more than a minute, was eloquent testimony to his speechlessness. This world power has rarely looked so powerless -- and Bush has rarely looked so helpless.

But the reality is even more complicated than we are being told. As Robert Fisk wrote, in The Independent:

Weird, isn't it, how swiftly the narrative is laid down for us. Benazir Bhutto, the courageous leader of the Pakistan People's Party, is assassinated in Rawalpindi – attached to the very capital of Islamabad wherein ex-General Pervez Musharraf lives – and we are told by George Bush that her murderers were "extremists" and "terrorists". Well, you can't dispute that.

But the implication of the Bush comment was that Islamists were behind the assassination. It was the Taliban madmen again, the al-Qa'ida spider who struck at this lone and brave woman who had dared to call for democracy in her country.

Of course, given the childish coverage of this appalling tragedy – and however corrupt Ms Bhutto may have been, let us be under no illusions that this brave lady is indeed a true martyr – it's not surprising that the "good-versus-evil" donkey can be trotted out to explain the carnage in Rawalpindi.

And because no one wants to honestly assess what's happening in that critically important part of the world, Fisk points to a recent article by Tariq Ali in the London Review of Books. Written before Bhutto's assassination, this article makes clear that even she who clearly would have been better than Bush's favorite Pakistani dictator was, herself, no hero. In the interest of context and understanding, everyone should read this article. But before reading it, everyone should also know that Ali, himself, is a controversial figure, a Trotskyite who has been in the thick of the most divisive debates over Israel and Palestine. Even so, the major American media are providing very little context, and every shade of context is necessary. We need more than such platitudinous blather as this introduction to an otherwise interesting article in the Los Angeles Times:

The violent death of Bhutto, 54, on whom the West had pinned hopes of a moderate, democratic Pakistan, is a watershed event in a nuclear-armed state that faces a roiling Islamic insurgency not only in its mostly lawless tribal border regions, but in the streets of its most cosmopolitan cities.

The assassination will have long-lasting repercussions not only in Pakistan, but in neighboring Afghanistan as well, where Western troops are battling a fractured but determined Taliban movement. Any significant destabilization of Pakistan would carry risks for the entire region, analysts said.

Bhutto was a complicated woman, from a complicated nation, who had once even supported the Taliban. As a former U.S. intelligence officer told Ken Silverstein, of Harper's:

Without being disrespectful of Bhutto’s memory or of her tragic death, a dispassionate analysis suggests that she was a calculating politician, regardless of the saintly mantle her followers and supporters are bestowing on her after her death. She did not accomplish much as prime minister; in fact, her tenure was marred by corruption, nepotism, and poor governance.

Unfortunately for Benazir, she was a creation of the West, but she had no chance of defeating Musharraf in the coming elections or expediting the return of democracy to Pakistan. She returned to Pakistan after securing a political deal with Musharraf, under U.S. auspices and guarantees; she naively thought she could beat Musharraf in the elections or that she could persuade him to give up power and restore democracy to that country.

Bhutto's assassination was horrible, on every level, but she was not riding into Pakistan on a white horse. What happens now in Pakistan will bear watching, but we will be given the most simplistic explanations and rationalizations. What should matter is that the will of the Pakistani people be respected, that true democratic institutions be established and defended, that the West engage with Pakistan to keep its nuclear arsenal secure, and that the most radical elements be marginalized rather than bolstered by foreign meddling. Great care needs be taken in how the U.S. and its allies address this crisis. Needless to say, no one should have confidence that such will be the case.

Turkana :: 2:35 PM :: Comments (15) :: Digg It!