February 01, 2008
The violent end of the turbulent life of Benazir Bhutto brought to a close a remarkable chapter in the history of Pakistan. Throughout her life Benazir was a deeply confused Pakistani, unsure of what she wanted or how to get it, but consumed with ambition, and ultimately undone by her own bad choices.
Her journey to political prominence was sourced in her family, as the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, came to prominence as a civilian member of the inner cabinet of General Ayub Khan in the 1960’s. Her father used his gifts of rhetoric and demagoguery to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1971 as head of the socialist and secular Pakistan People’s Party. In fact, her father had lost the 1970 election, but instead of accepting defeat, he forced a civil war that dismembered the country and killed hundreds of thousands of East Pakistanis in a futile attempt to prevent secession.
ZAB then took power in West Pakistan, and ruled as a dictator, creating his own secret police and rigging elections. When ZAB lost popularity due to his incompetence and mismanagement and the inevitable chaos of widespread nationalization of industry, the army took advantage and overthrew him. He was hung after being convicted of murder by a Supreme Court under the control of General Zia, the new ruler.
Benazir, along with her two brothers, now inherited their father’s legacy and the People’s Party. Benazir’s older brother died in Paris in the 1980’s, and was likely murdered. Benazir returned to Pakistan in 1986 to challenge Zia, and came to power as Prime Minister at the age of 36 in 1988. Her first government lasted till 1990, then she got another turn in the PM office from 1994-1996. Unfortunately, while Benazir was hugely ambitious when it came to getting power, she had no idea what she wanted to do with it.
Many educated Pakistanis, and many Westerners, were initially fooled by her background as the polished, English-speaking graduate of Harvard and Oxford. This woman certainly was the right person to lead Pakistan towards development and gender equality. She would bring modern sensibilities and commitment to democracy and rule of law to Pakistan. And she would be a great example to women in Pakistan and across the Muslim world.
But in reality, Benazir was not the modern educated and sophisticated person she could so easily get Americans to believe she was. Instead she was a throwback to the feudal landlord elites that have always dominated Pakistani politics. The landlord mentality is one that sees the purpose of government the maintenance and expansion of their personal privilege and power. This was in fact what the Bhutto governments were all about. She never passed a single piece of legislation in her time in power. There was never any attempt to undo the horrible Hudood and Blasphemy Laws that Zia had imposed. The status of women was not addressed in any way. Education got no significant boost as Bhutto refused to make it a national priority, preferring to keep the country as illiterate as possible, and constantly pleading poverty as her excuse for why she did nothing (except when forced to on one occasion by the IMF).
Instead of fashioning a new and modern economic policy, Bhutto turned every government ministry and state-owned corporation into the feudal playthings of her supporters. Her husband single-handedly essentially destroyed PIA. And the scale of corruption was so massive that Pakistan was declared the second-most corrupt nation on the planet by Transparency International. Bhutto’s legacy was terrible indeed.
But Bhutto did two other things to the nation for which she cannot be forgiven. First was the discrediting of democracy that her misrule, combined with Nawaz Sharif’s, achieved. It was the culmination of 10 years of pathetic kleptocracy that paved the way for the bloodless Musharraf coup. A coup that was greeted with joy by Benazir’s party, if we recall our history.
The other was her attempt to be a bit too clever in 1995, when she granted Fazlur Rahman, the head of the Islamist JUI party, to oversee Afghan policy. Rahman then used the madrassahs run by the JUI for the Afghan refugees to become the main recruiting ground for a new Afghan movement known as the “Taliban”, and decided to throw Pakistan’s support to this movement as it swept over Afghanistan. This decision by Bhutto, to support the expansion of power for the most religiously radical groups laid the basis for the rise of Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and the person most likely responsible for Benazir’s death. In fact, policy choices made by Benazir, which were totally inconsistent with a person who truly valued religious tolerance, human freedom, and democracy, created the Taliban, Al-Qaeda’s Afghan rebirth, 9/11, and ultimately Benazir’s own assassination. Terribly ironic, and an object lesson for us all. Comments can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.