By Kyle S. Erickson
8 January 2007: In a piece written about Pakistan and the American presidential candidates, David Remnick has reprinted a description of Benazir Bhutto taken from a profile published in October of 1993, when she began her second term as Prime Minister. “[Bhutto] is an Eastern fatalist by birth, a Western liberal by conviction, and a people-power revolutionary… She is an expensively educated product of the West who has ruled a male-dominated Islamic society of the East.” This combination of charms is perhaps why, in the wake of her ghastly assassination, everyone from Bernhard-Henri Lévy to Francis Fukuyama opened their encomia to her life and reactions to her death with anecdotes of their private interactions with this enigmatic woman. Her embrace of liberal principles flattered the Western elite, whose warm return of her embrace flattered their own liberality.
William Dalrymple and others have noted that in many ways her actions as Prime Minister cast her death as the fulfillment of some tragic destiny. While in power, Bhutto did nothing to curb the growth of violent extremism in Kashmir or the Taliban in Afghanistan, partly because many Pakistanis believed the militants to be redressing legitimate political grievances with India and the West. Her promise to lead the fight against violent Islamism upon her return to Pakistan in October of 2007 may have been consistent with her populism (since these forces now threaten the livelihood of Pakistanis), but it constituted a reversal on her toleration of extra-governmental militants.
This of course makes her death no less lamentable. It also does little to discredit the claim that, given the political exigencies in Pakistan, a Bhutto premiership coupled with a Musharraf presidency comprised the best hope a stable-and eventually prosperous-Pakistan. This political pairing would have been clumsy at best, but no worse than anything previously conceived by Washington. Before her death Bhutto was unquestionably the most popular political figure in Pakistan, capable of carrying votes not just amongst the Sindhi (her ethnic kin in the south) but throughout the country. With the backing of the military she would have been uniquely positioned to cobble together a coalition in Parliament that could enact actual reforms.
But now Benazir Bhutto is gone. Despite the availability of many qualified and capable alternatives, leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has passed to her husband Asif Ali Zardari-a notorious playboy and crook-until her 19-year-old son comes of age. The irony has not been lost on many commentators that Ms. Bhutto, the supposed champion of democracy, was in fact the head of an entrenched, feudal political dynasty. Few expect Mr. Zardari to wield the kind of support enjoyed by his late wife. Her death renders the outcome of elections-pushed back from January 8 to February 18-even more difficult to predict.
There has been a general call from the international community for increasing democratization as the solution to Pakistan’s considerable problems. Had elections transpired on time and free of vote-rigging it is likely that the PPP would have sailed to victory, bolstered by a strong sympathy vote. But it is difficult to see how democracy qua democracy would have delivered any immediate practical benefit to the people of Pakistan, and even less how it would have calmed U.S. fears over regional security. A crucial but under-publicized fact about Pakistan is that it is home to a diversity of tribes and ethnicities, nations-within-nations that are in some cases traditionally hostile toward one another. Absent a unifying personality as powerful as Ms. Bhutto, it is obvious that a freely-elected Parliament would be any more effective at stopping violence and building infrastructure than has Musharraf.
Anatol Lieven of King’s College and the New America Foundation argues that Pakistan needs a government of “national unity” fronted by a “technocratic figure,” and offers a compelling reason why the Pakistani political elites might overlook their differences and work toward this goal: “if they do no work together, many of them will be assassinated separately.” There have already been multiple attacks on leading politicians from a number of parties since Ms. Bhutto’s assassination. While there has been widespread speculation that Musharraf ‘allowed’ her life to be taken it is more plausible-and more prudent-to assume that he is increasingly powerless to stop these attacks from happening.
Lieven offers two alternative outcomes to the current situation that would have decidedly less rosy implications for the West. The first scenario is that the Islamist parties in Pakistan emerge as the only group capable of pushing through serious reform in the chaotic political climate and receive enough votes to form a coalition in parliament. “Ideally,” writes Lieven, “this would lead to their transformation along moderate Turkish lines. But the presence of so many extreme elements, inflamed and strengthened by the war in neighboring Afghanistan, means there is a real threat of hugely increased unrest-even U.S. intervention and state collapse.” In short, this is the worst possible outcome for anyone who fears Pakistan’s nuclear missiles.
If Musharraf is as politically impotent as he seems, violence could increase unchecked in the run-up to the election and make this first scenario more likely. In such an event, generals in the Pakistani army may throw their support to the single most popular politician and assume power instead of risking the fragmentation that could result from an election. The most likely choice in this case is Nawaz Sharif, that other ex-exile, ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan. It was under his watch that Pakistan developed nuclear arms and made its first steps toward the imposition of strict Islamic law in Pakistan. Again, this is a decidedly unfavorable outcome for the United States.
John McCreary at Foreign Policy has no hopes whatsoever for a democratically elected civilian government. He sees only two possible outcomes: “one is a praetorian coup from within the military; the other is a popular uprising.” The bottom line here is that Musharraf has to go. He has been the centerpiece of failed U.S. policy for too long and has finally become too great a liability for everyone involved. Says McCreary, “you can bet the corps commanders of the Pakistani Army are already calculating the costs and benefits of five more years of Musharraf.”
Hassan Abbas, former Pakistani government official and research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center confirms this hunch. “In the violent aftermath of the recent tragedy, it is likely that army will re-evaluate how far they can go with Musharraf. I am hearing that top level military leadership is weighing all options currently.” All signs point to Musharraf’s removal from power. All that remains to be determined are the circumstances.
Washington seems to be preparing for this eventuality as well. Late last week top administration officials including Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met to discuss the possibility U.S. military operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, presumably because of growing concern over a power vacuum in Islamabad and the first tremors of nationwide violence. The Pakistani President quickly responded, insisting that no foreign troops would be permitted on Pakistani soil.
If the situation worsens in Pakistan, it is not clear how much longer the U.S. will acquiesce. A flattering profile in the New York Times of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Musharraf’s successor as head of the army, suggests that U.S. support may already be shifting and that the democratically-elected-PM-plus-strong-man solution may be attempted again, only with different actors cast in the lead roles.
The trouble with unreflectively pushing democracy is that, while it is motivated by the right reasons, it sometimes allows the wrong people to come into power. When the stakes are as high as they are in Pakistan, this is a risk that may not be worth taking.
Democracy tout court is little more than an appeal to the popular passions of the people. Polls prove that the citizens of Pakistan are fed up with Musharraf and with U.S. interference. It is more than likely that popular government in Pakistan would pursue interests, as McCreary says, “that are inimical to American goals-be it containing nuclear proliferation, promoting peace on the subcontinent, fighting terrorism and extremism, or spreading democracy in the Muslim world.” If the U.S. hopes to keep the nuclear stockpile out of Islamist hands, it may need to continue to unapologetically sacrifice democratic principle to practical reason.
My own prediction is that the immediate future of Pakistan will be determined by whoever has the most guns and the direction in which they are pointed. Musharraf no longer has the firepower to be politically viable. If he manages to hold onto the presidency until the election, he will be forced out by ballots. If he is foolish enough to rig the election and declare victory, he will be forced out by bullets. Whoever emerges as president/prime minister/dictator will accomplish nothing without the full support of the military. The direction of this support-either against the Taliban or against U.S. interference in Pakistani affairs-will depend on how much truth there is to reports that the army and intelligence services have been compromised and are largely sympathetic to jihadists.
Ms. Bhutto’s assassination will likely usher in a new era in Pakistan. The United States may no longer have any say in what will be this era’s defining characteristics. After the tears have dried up amongst those who mourn Bhutto’s loss, the world should expect an outpouring of spirited anger, and must pray it is marshaled toward securing peace and prosperity throughout Pakistan.