Friday, December 28, 2007

Yes, Extremists Killed Benazir Bhutto. But Which Extremists?

Whenever there's a public death in one family or the other, the parallels between the Bhuttos in Pakistan and the Kennedys in America seem even more striking.

Start with wealth, power, public service at the national level, and violent death in the course of same. Add dashing men and gorgeous women; inspiring leadership and the most amazing cruelty; brilliance and incompetence; valor and corruption; and now, another violent public death.

But let's not overdo it. Benazir Bhutto's tale was her own, and it came to a sudden end on December 27 in Rawalpindi. Reports from Pakistan said she was leaving a rally in which she had appeared before thousands of people when she was shot twice from very close range, apparently by a suicide bomber who then detonated, killing himself as well as Benazir and another 20 or so.

Security had been described as very tight and multi-layered, so it's difficult to imagine how the attacker could have come so close to his target. Due to the nature of the attack, such questions may never be answered. It's the sort of murder that drives conspiracy theorists crazy.

The shooting-bombing has been universally ascribed to "extremists"; this scribe is too cold to argue. Nobody but an extremist would blow himself up to accomplish a political assassination. But what the press accounts universally fail to point out is that there are extremists on more than one side -- indeed, in this case, there are extremists on all sides.

Everybody knows about the extremists up in the northwestern mountains, the violent tribal people in the rugged area bordering Afghanistan. We always wind up talking about how the Americans are trying to stabilize Afghanistan. Nobody likes to talk about all the many ways in which Afghanistan became a mess. But the mess in Afghanistan was caused in large parts by the USA through Pakistan, and by Pakistan itself. And the inevitable reaction -- what the spooks call "blowback" -- has been coming to Pakistan for quite a while now.

It seems quite apparent that the two most important causes of this blowback are (1) Pakistan's support for the American plan to create terrorists and inject them into Afghanistan through Pakistan -- through the very northwest border area we are now discussing -- and (2) Pakistan's support for America's so-called Global War on Terror, which began as an assault on Afghanistan, and which, as nearly everyone in the region -- not only terrorists -- can see, is entirely bogus.

Some analysts see the GWOT primarily as a political weapon, and perhaps it is. But as the GWOT goes along, it becomes increasingly clear that the GWOT provides cover for a pre-determined set of American foreign and domestic policies, and the creation of these policies is no longer a "political" process, if by that term we understand the usual public squabbling between Democrats and Republicans.

Instead it appears increasingly certain that the central leadership of both parties is one and the same. Clearly, the grassroots memberships of the two parties are very different, and this difference (or, to be fair, this huge set of differences) manifests itself in many ways along the route to the top of the political power pyramids. But when it really counts, when it comes to national leadership, in matters foreign and domestic, both parties are driving in the very same direction.

All this may seem obvious to you; boring perhaps; entirely irrelevant to the assassination of this beautiful Pakistani leader who said the word "democracy" as if she were born for it, but who couldn't resist the lure of a shady back-room deal if a sniff of power were in the air. Power for her, of course!

She "served" as Prime Minister for two terms riddled with seemingly endless corruption, enhanced her family fortune considerably, and fled from the resulting criminal charges. Then the poor woman languished in the lap of luxury in Dubai and Great Britain for eight long years, during which although she was a fugitive from justice she somehow managed to convince the world press to term her situation "exile".

But this jet-setting life of abject extravagance wasn't enough for Ms. Bhutto, not compared to the chance to be Prime Minister for a (slightly illegal) third time. But who could offer her a chance to be Prime Minister again, and what would it take?

All it would take would be utter disregard of the term limit governing service by Prime Ministers, plus a new law legalizing her previous predations, so she could be returned to her native land without fear of those corruption charges still hanging over her head.

It wouldn't have been politically acceptable for Pakistan to grant amnesty to Benazir Bhutto alone. That would have smacked of favoritism. Instead President (then-General) Pervez Musharraf promulgated the National Reconciliation Ordinance, granting amnesty for virtually anything to virtually anybody working for the government, in the past, the present and the future. Not only was Benazir Bhutto forgiven for all her alleged crimes and invited to return; virtually all politicians can now follow whatever orders (or whims) they like, secure in the knowledge that the legal system cannot be used against them.

Thus was the rule of law stripped even further from the Pakistani landscape. And why did Musharraf do this? Because he was desperately unpopular, and the impending alliance with Benazir Bhutto, his former enemy, was seen as his only chance to remain in power. ("Remain in power" in this case means "continue to receive support from the Americans".) And the Americans -- bipartisan power-brokering Americans -- liked the idea of Musharraf and Bhutto sharing power.

With Bhutto as Prime Minister and Musharraf as President, the bipartisan American theory went, Pakistan would be a stable and very attractive country, and the alliance between the military man Musharraf and the civilian woman Bhutto would be symbolic as well as practical, and so on -- despite the fact that they had been political opponents forever.

And in return for this one last grasp at the brass ring, Benazir Bhutto asked her supporters -- members of the Pakistan People's Party -- not to resign their parliamentary seats in protest against the October 6 "re-election" of President General Musharraf. Had all the opposition parliamentarians resigned, the "election" would have been seen as bogus, but instead the PPP members stayed in their seats and abstained, granting Musharraf's "victory" a "legitimacy" it would not have attained otherwise.

Later in October, Benazir Bhutto returned from her self-described "exile" and immediately organized a long, slow, huge procession in which 140 people were killed by a suicide bomber. Ms. Bhutto herself was unhurt, but within days was describing herself as a victim of the bombing.

In order to "seal" his "re-election" "victory", Musharraf had to sack the Supreme Court, and he did this with a declaration of emergency at the beginning of November. Many of the justices who apparently would have declared his "re-election" illegal are still under house arrest.

But this is "democracy", according to the apolitical American consensus, which doesn't care whether Democrats or Republicans are in office, and which, truth be told, doesn't allow any other country in the world to run its own foreign and domestic policies, unless (a) those policies comport to the bipartisan apolitical consensus, or (b) they can't actually do anything about it.

In Pakistan, the election of a new Parliament is (or maybe "was") scheduled for January 8, and the big question -- some would say the only question -- for Pakistani politicians in recent weeks has been whether to run in the election or boycott the election until the Supreme Court is reinstated. Had Benazir Bhutto agreed to participate in the boycott, the "election" would have featured Musharraf's party and no others; it would clearly have been a sham.

But she would never go along with that, since her path to the Prime Minister's Office never included a boycott. In the wake of her decision the other opposition parties were more or less forced to run -- except for Imran Khan, who declared his intention not to run unless the judiciary were reinstated.

Meanwhile, another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has been declared ineligible because of a prior offense that is not covered under the NRO. But in the previous few days, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had been making overtures about reconciliation, and yesterday -- after the assassination -- Nawaz Sharif addressed Bhutto's grieving supporters, saying "I will fight your battle." Whether this means anything at all remains to be seen.

Who killed Benazir Bhutto? It could have been anybody. She betrayed everybody except the Americans who wanted her to return to Pakistan, and for all we can tell she may have secretly betrayed them as well.

But motive isn't everything; Who could have penetrated the deep security? In accepting this power-sharing enticement from the Americans, she betrayed her own party, straight into the hands of Musharraf. Is this fact relevant? I wouldn't be surprised.

What comes next? That's the toughest call of all; even the people who seem to see Pakistan's future through a crystal ball are having trouble these days.

Who would have guessed that on the very day Musharraf lifted the state of emergency, a top international terror suspect would escape police custody and run clean away? Or that within two weeks, one bomb would narrowly miss former Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao and another would kill Benazir Bhutto?

Only two predictions feel relatively safe at this point:

(1) We may never know for sure who was behind the bombing, though we can expect the police to find a scapegoat before long, and

(2) We have not yet begun to imagine the consequences of this assassination.

Musharraf will want to reimpose emergency rule, and arrest all the lawyers and judges again. Nawaz Sharif will want to capture the support of Bhutto's supporters -- but so will everyone else. In the USA, presidential '08 candidates both red and blue will talk about bombing Pakistan, or think about doing it. Some may even speak of more open intervention, but nobody really wants to invade a country that big, or that wild; nobody but an extremist, that is.

And you'll hear lots of talk about extremists in the near future in connection with this assassination, and in nearly every case you will be expected to make the mental connection between the word "extremists" and the wild men in the mountains of the northwest. But you will remember, won't you, that in addition to these more famous extremists, there are extremists working for Musharraf, and extremists working for Bush ... and there may even be extremists working for the PPP, the party Benazir Bhutto betrayed.