by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 11, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1436)
Never stable in its entire 60-year history, Pakistan has been plunged into one of its worst crises as a result of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27. Soon after her death, General (retired) Pervez Musharraf and his minions made vacuous statements about “extremists” – naturally “enlightened moderates” like Musharraf could not have done it, could they? – threatening the “security and stability” of the country and vowed to redouble their efforts to deal with them even as enraged mobs went on a rampage.Shops, vehicles (buses and cars) and banks were set on fire in Karachi, Allayhar Khan,Multan, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar. Total lawlessness gripped the country with no agencies—police, rangers or the army—anywhere in sight to control the mobs.
Benazir’s supporters immediately blamed Musharraf for her death, shouting “killer, killer, Musharraf” outside Rawalpindi General Hospital where she had been rushed after the attack. Doctors at the hospital initially said that she had died of a bullet wound to the neck. (This was later disputed, with the government saying that she had been killed by striking a lever inside her car.) Eyewitnesses reported that shots had been fired at her from close range as she stood in her SUV waving to the crowd after speaking at a rally in Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi. A massive explosion then occurred, killing 20 others. It was reported that the gunman had detonated a suicide bomb. Benazir’s supporters rejected the government claim that Taliban-type extremists had killed her. Since the October 18 suicide bombing attack that killed 140 people in Karachi when she returned to the country, Benazir had asked for additional government security, which her supporters say was never adequately provided. Rahman Malik, one of her close associates, revealed that none of the electronic jamming devices provided by the government worked.
In a country where appearances are extremely deceptive, where rumours spread quickly and where disinformation has been perfected into an art form, widely divergent opinions are being expressed. For instance, the Dubai-based ARY reported that Al-Qaeda had claimed responsibility for her death without providing proof. This is by no means impossible. After all, Benazir had urged strong action against the militants and had openly supported the military assault on the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad last July, in which an estimated 1,000 students, mostly girls, had been killed. She was also totally subservient to the West, especially theUS, while the Pakistani masses hate America for what it is doing to Muslims worldwide. Thus blaming the militants is a perfectly plausible explanation.
In the absence of evidence, however, an equally strong argument can be made to support another point of view: that Musharraf and his civilian cohorts were responsible. Mark Siegel, Benazir’s lobbyist in the US, who had persuaded the US government to support her return to power in Pakistan, told Wolf Blitzer of CNN on December 27 that he had received an email message from her on October 26 saying, if “something happened to her”, Musharraf should be held responsible. Siegel also revealed that Benazir had told him not to divulge this information until something drastic happened. This also happen to be the view shared by most people in the country: that Musharraf and his supporters had a hand in eliminating her. While this may be politically motivated accusation in many cases, one must ask: who benefits from Benazir’s removal from the scene?
There were two contenders for the position of US favourites in Pakistan: Musharraf and Benazir. It is no secret that Benazir’s return was made possible through US pressure on Musharraf; on December 28, the day after Benazir’s death, the Washington Post published details of Washington’s role in setting her strategy and brokering the power-sharing deal by which she was to become prime minister while Musharraf remained president. As part of the deal, Washington had also arranged for the corruption charges--Benazir was accused of stealing $1.5 billion from Pakistan--to be dropped so that she could participate in the elections.
But both are (or were) headstrong individuals. Musharraf and his fellow generals may have calculated that it would be virtually impossible to control Benazir once she won the elections, particularly as Musharraf has been considerably weakened since his disastrous decision-making since he sacked chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March. He is now extremely unpopular and large segments of the population, including those that call themselves moderates, detest him. With Benazir back in office, conflict between them would have been inevitable and the US may quickly have concluded that he was dispensable and could be replaced by another military figure that Bhutto could more easily work with. He could not allow such a situation to develop if he wanted to be in control.
Whether or not he may personally have participated in any plot to eliminate her, those around him are certainly not above such ruthless murderous planning. Such a scenario would cast a completely different light on the deal with Bhutto, accepted by Musharraf only because of US pressure, and events since her return to Pakistan.
In this turmoil, only one politician, Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, appeared to show some maturity. He was also inRawalpindi attending a rally of his party supporters. Shots were fired at his rally as well killing four people. Sharif not only immediately rushed to the hospital where Benazir’s body lay but also expressed sympathy with her supporters and announced that he would boycott the January 8 elections, which he was barred from contesting in any case. Whether the elections will go ahead is unclear, with the Pakistan People’s Party in turmoil and the country on the verge of anarchy.
One thing, however, is clear. Although Musharraf may expect some political benefit from the death of his main political rival – and the US’s other main ally in Pakistan – he has become even more unpopular in the country. And although public legitimacy has never been a major consideration in Pakistani politics, there comes a point when it cannot be ignored, either by Pakistan’s rulers or those backing them.
The turmoil launched by the assassination of Benazir – whoever was responsible – is unlikely simply to fade away. With two of thePakistan’s four provinces – the North West Frontier and Baluchistan – already aflame, no-one can afford for Sindh also to pass out of government control and into mayhem. If this threatens to happen, the real powers in Pakistan – the military and the US – will quickly recognise the need to sacrifice the one person — Musharraf – who has come to symbolise everything that people hate about the military.