Guest post: Benazir’s sacrifice changed little

In the bloody arc of history, is Ms. Bhutto’s murder truly as seismic as is being claimed?

by Primary Red

She’s been in political exile for over a decade. Her Washington influence is only of recent vintage. India has been lukewarm to her attempted return to power.

Her killing is clearly reprehensible. But it does little to change the dynamics among Pakistan’s real political powerbrokers. For them, she and her party were mere pawns and her martyrdom has changed nothing. Of the key players: the military, the ISI-jihadi nexus, Saudi Arabia, US, China, and India, the first three come out ahead. What’s new?

The Pakistani military remains its only modern institution. It deftly leverages geopolitical events to expand its regional influence, access to national resources, and war-fighting capabilities. By crowding out Pakistan’s civil political processes, it has materially weakened the state – this, in turn, has helped its position as the bulwark against chaos. The military will clearly benefit as the global media broadcasts Pakistan’s renewed descent into anarchy and Western fears grow of a jihadi takeover of nuclear assets.

The ISI-jihadi alliance is both ideological and strategic. Ideologically, both seek to leverage Pakistani assets for expanding Islamism’s influence at home and far beyond. Strategically, ISI provides modern capabilities to jihadis who, in turn, provide ISI with foot soldiers and plausible deniability. Their nexus will use the murder to assert its power in Pakistan, especially versus the US and the Pakistani military. This will earn them concessions from the latter, or maybe a destabilizing war. Either way, these nihilists win.

Saudi Arabia funded Pakistani nuclear assets as well as its jihadi forces. Oil and Pakistan are its principal geo-strategic assets. In addition, it has promoted Nawaz Sharif as its own pawn in the political process. No one has more chips in Pakistan than Saudi Arabia does. It will likely cash these in now by negotiating geo-strategic concessions from the West.

The US seeks Pakistani stability to keep a lid on Al Qaeda and to prevent nuclear assets falling into wrong hands. Its long-term ally is the military. However, when it sensed a weakness in Pakistani military’s resolve to do its bidding, it promoted Ms. Bhutto as a compensating pawn. The murder knocks a pawn off but the objectives remain. US will likely stand with the Pakistani military in the short-run, while searching for new options.

China has supported the Pakistani military as a check on India. However, given its own restive Muslim population, it has no interest in seeing Pakistani descent into chaos. This will, ironically, make its short-term interests coincide with those of India and the US.

As for India, M K Narayanan made clear only a couple weeks ago that our realists favor General Musharraf over Ms. Bhutto, i.e., stability over all else. This puts us in the same position as US and China, unfortunately holding a really weak hand.

None of this is news. Rest in peace, Mohatarma – but your sacrifice changed very little.

14 thoughts on “Guest post: Benazir’s sacrifice changed little”

  1. Sacrifice? Hardly.
    A true sacrifice would have been the return of billions of dollars she and her husband looted from the poor, wretched masses of pakistan.

  2. Please, it is true that her murder, and the murder of others with her was reprehensible, and no one deserves to be killed, but do not make her a martyr. When she was alive, she was responsible for the violent deaths and murders of thousands at the hands of terrorists she gave aid and comfort to. She is no martyr, she is much more a criminal than a martyr.

  3. Though I agree, her death hasn’t changed much, but that is true only for external actors involved because for the players in Pakistan, it does change things quite a bit.

    For eg., it takes a lot of pressure off Mush since she was supposed to be a check on him, and he was expected to share his leverage in Pakistani politics with her. Thats not needed anymore.

    For Al-Qaeda, elections(..and coming to power of Bhutto..) would have meant some semblance of stability, resulting in more attention being given to its activities in NWFP and FATA. That might not happen anymore and it can continue increasing its influence by subverting the social structure there..(..See the articles from B. Raman about info on this..).

  4. ..oh,..also does’nt it change our expectations about the future? If we take her statements at face value, Bhutto’s staying alive and coming to power would have resulted in some drastic changes in the way they have been handling islamic extremism within Pakistan.

    What should we expect now?

  5. Shehjar:

    It’s not clear how effective she would have been. Her past performance as PM was not that inspiring.

    Best regards

  6. There is another reason why Ms Bhutto’s death is really bad news for Pakistan. Although no one probably expected her to deliver on her statements, I think that her death is a nail in the coffin for Mr. Musharraf’s presidency.

    He is now totally isolated, and open to attack from all quarters. When she was alive, her presence provided him with room for maneouver, and sort of mitigated the threat from the Islamists who are after his blood. Now this is no longer possible and it is a question of when he loses power, not whether. In itself, such an event may not have been such a bad thing, but like her or not, Ms Bhutto did have supporters and her assassination has created a political vacuum, with no one in a likely position to take control over the PPP and its base like she did. They are now a constituency for the Islamists and whoever is left to take over and lead. I doubt, for example, that Mr Sharif is in any position to control the flow of events henceforth.

    Mr. Musharraf and the military’s days of total control over Pakistan are, I think, now over. It is now a question of whether this power vacuum will be peacefully filled, or whether there is going to be considerable civil strife, I also think that with Ms. Bhutto’s assassination, American policy options in Pakistan are now nonexistent, and their leverage is now more limited than it ever was, and the three A’s that determined Pakistan’s destiny are now only two. Of course, it is not clear that this is such a bad thing.

  7. As a Pakistani, my own interpretation of events agree with Krishna’s in post 6. i wouldn’t go so far as to say that the military days of control are over, but if things threaten to spiral towards further chaos, the military will be willing to cut loose Musharraf and sacrifice him for political expediency.

    By the way, I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow at the author of this post’s claim that the military is Pakistan’s only modern institution. Thats a rather tall claim.

  8. Misanthrope,

    For those who remember the manner of Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s exit, what Krishna and you suggest will be familiar. The forces that support this argument are (a) the institutional interests of the Army and (b) the US having built alternatives to Musharraf within the Army. The forces that oppose this are (a) Musharraf’s placement of his loyalists in key positions and (b) the factional split within the military establishment between Musharraf & Co and what I call Gul & Co.

    I’d agree with Primary Red in the sense that the army is the only modern institution that has capability to hold the country together. You might contend that the political party establishments, judiciary, the civil bureaucracy or even the religious organisational networks qualify: but the question is of the ability to hold together a country during simultaneous multiple crises—Balochistan, NWFP, Northern Areas while fighting off the likes of Bhutto’s killers in the middle of Rawalpindi. (I’m not even sure that the MQM can run Karachi in a crisis)

  9. Nitin,

    I agree with your analysis of the forces pushing/promoting Musharraf’s continued position vis a vis the military. As of yet there is no substantial evidence that a wedge has been driven between Musharraf and the army high command, though not for the want of trying by various politicians.

    I won’t quibble with your characterising the army as the only institution capable of holding the country together. I would point to the term ‘modern’ being used to describe the army as somewhat problematic. The army in Pakistan strikes me as still being a very colonial institution in the place it occupies with respect to both state, society and economy in Pakistan – which is not really a place that armies tend to occupy in countries one usually think of as modern. You might, perhaps, argue that the army occupies this space because it is the only modern institution in the country, while other institutions are not – that view would see the army as an agent of ‘modernity’. But I think Pakistani history would suggest that the army has inhibited the maturing of other institutions and placed them in positions of dependency. It is a problematic agent of modernity because as an institution it seeks to ensure its own interests first and foremost. And while the army certainly claims that its interests and the nation’s are the same – on a local level this is problematic given that it competes locally with other social, economic and political groups for influence, wealth and power.

    A good example would be how recently Musharraf bulldozed the judiciary of the country. You can’t modernize the judicial institutions of a country by gutting it and appointing bribed Shariat Court Judges to the High Courts. Another example is how all the billions in aid from the USA were allocated to the army, navy and airforce, rather than to local law enforcement such as the Frontier Corps, Rangers or police who are the ones directly tasked with dealing with the militants in the tribal areas.

  10. Misanthrope:

    You are making a sophisticated point which — notwithstanding my use of the word “modern” to describe the Pakistani military — I largely agree with.

    There is clearly a difference between the notion of “modern” in the sense of how an institution is organized, resourced, run etc. and the notion of “modernity” in the sense of how such an institution thinks and deploys its capabilities. I’d used the word in the former sense — you are pointing out the latter meaning.

    Because the military has appropriated more national resources than any other Pakistani institution, it has uniquely been able to maintain a modern structure. It is this that enables it to — legitimately — claim it alone can hold the country together.

    As I noted in my post, however, the military has also crowded out Pakistan’s civil political processes. Given this, I agree with you, that it clearly isn’t an instrument of “modernity” advancement in Pakistan.

    Best regards

  11. misanthrope and primary red,
    That is a nice analysis of the military’s role. Ironically, the problem, as the military seems to be finding, is that rendering other institutions of state into a position of dependency reduces the military’s ability to function and maintain its authority. I remember that on Gen. Musharraf’s takeover in Pakistan, all the local governments were made subordinate to the Corps commanders and their military subordinates, including (and I think) most importantly the police organizations. With Ms. Bhutto gone, I am afraid that an important representative of civilian interests, and one of the few sufficiently powerful political organizations that could buffer the military’s inability to engage and run all organs of state (especially the civilian and quasi civilian ones) is no longer in a position to engage Gen. Musharraf’s govt. Between her killers and centralization of power and administrative control within the military ranks, a significant political vacuum seems to have been created with none of the traditional political formations in a position to fill it.

    What is also of concern are the disquieting signs of fissures within the military organization itself. Even before the unfortunate assassination of Ms. Bhutto, there were several suicide bombings within the cantonment areas in Rawalpindi, with some of the suicide bombers suspected to be of military or ex-military origins. I think that the possibility exists that Gen. Musharraf may be cut loose by the military if such fissures continue to grow publicly, since this threatens the integrity of the military organization itself.

    All told, these are very worrisome signs both for Pakistan and the general security and stability of the greater region, with the possibility of appalling bloodshed. Of course, often things appear worse than they are, and I hope this is one of them.

    I think there are important differences between this situation and the forces that led Ayub Khan to his exit. At the time, power simply shifted internally, within the same general groupings. This time however, new political actors are emerging on the scene, and their interests are not neccesarily aligned with the groups that have held power previously. Also, in previous occasions, the Americans had considerable leverage (hence the 3 A’s), but here the asassination of Ms. Bhutto is an unambiguous signal-that the influence of the third A-America, has significantly weakened and is probably close to non existent. In other words, there maybe a fundamental shift in the underlying *political* paradigm of Pakistan. Secondly, given that america is so weak, traditional political groups have been marginalized and weakened by the Army, which in turn is showing an inability to hold things together. I leave the remaining logical conclusions to your imagination.

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