Benazir Bhutto: A Pakistani Tragedy

On December 27, a little more than two months after her return to Pakistan from years of exile, Benazir Bhutto was killed while leaving the grounds of Liaquat Bagh after addressing a rally of party faithfuls. Daughter of the charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, with no inconsiderable charisma of her own, driven, talented, distinguished, the career of Pakistan's bestloved political leader had been cut short by unknown assassins. She was still young at 53.

Did Benazir Bhutto's life have to end this way?

Benazir Bhutto had entered politics to 'avenge' her father's hanging in April 1979 by ZiaulHaq, Pakistan's third military dictator. Having twice avenged her father's murder  by assuming the office of Pakistan's prime minister in April 1988 and October 1993  she has now paid with her life trying to reach that office a third time.

Sadly, the truth is that her violent end could have been foretold with near certainty. What are the circumstances that caused her inevitable assasination? She did not have the military security  and luck, one must add  that has shielded General Parvez Musharraf from several assassination attempts. With some expense and planning, Benazir Bhutto too could have made better security arrangements, but, fatefully, she seemed to be in too much of a haste to be slowed down even by 150 deaths during the first attack on her life in Karachi.

Immediately after her death, a spokesman for Al Qa'ida operations in Afghanistan claimed that this was their work. "We terminated," the spokesman claimed ominously, "the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat the mujahideen."1 

That Benazir Bhutto was a 'precious American asset'  perhaps, even the 'most precious'  few anywhere would deny, least of all the Americans. It is widely known that her return to Pakistan was brokered by the United States. She could return to Pakistan's politics  and, most likely, to the prime minister's office  by dropping her opposition to another term of five years for President Musharraf. Indeed, Benazir Bhutto instructed the members of her party not to resign from their seats in the national assembly but abstain from voting. This defeated the opposition's plan to deny the quorum necessary for the deeply flawed presidential elections.

One of the most remarkable developments in Pakistani politics since the events of 911 is the transparency  shall we say, daring  with which the United States now intervenes in Pakistan's affairs. Conversely, Pakistani leaders also work openly to advance American interests in Pakistan. In an earlier era, the Americans generally took care to conceal their meddling in Pakistani politics. As a result, only the politically astute understood the depth of their influence over Pakistan. Now, this knowledge has become commonplace.

Although greatly weakened since the protests that erupted over his firing of Pakistan's Chief Justice in March 2007, the Americans believe that General Parvez Musharraf is still the best person to lead their war against the militants in Pakistan. However, they were now convinced that the General's badly battered reputation had to be salvaged: and a partnership with the proAmerican Benazir Bhutto would do just that. In turn, the General, under duress, had accepted a partnership with Bhutto as the price he must pay or lose US support.

A tripartite deal was brokered involving the US, General Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. This deal freed Bhutto from the corruption cases pending against her in Pakistani courts. She was also allowed to return to Pakistan to lead her party to  she was convinced  a nearly certain electoral victory: and a third term as Pakistan's prime minister. The elections would give the General the democratic veneer that he now so badly needed.

As the New York Times reveals in a recent article, "How Bhutto won Washington," Benazir Bhutto's deal-making with the Americans has a long history.2 She had decided quite early that she would return her party to power by trolling the corridors of power in Washington.

In the words of her friend from Oxford days, Peter Galbraith, who was on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, Benazir Bhutto first began her campaign in Washington in the spring of 1984. She was on a mission to persuade the Reagan administration that "she would much better serve American interest in Afghanistan than Zia."" Under the tutelage of Galbraith and his friend, Mark Siegel  formerly executive director of the Democratic National Convention  she cultivated the friendship of important power brokers in Washington.

These Washington contacts paid off handsomely. In the parliamentary elections of November 1988 Benazir Bhutto's party gained only a plurality of seats. Since Pakistan's military establishment looked upon her with considerable distrust, they could easily have pulled strings to deny her the right to form the government. US pressure, however, persuaded Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the President at the time, to invite Benazir Bhutto to form the government.

Benazir Bhutto never gave up on this winning strategy. As the NYT writes, "she kept up her visits to Washington, usually several a year." She continued to cultivate friends amongst the Washington elite, including the Congress and the media. In the first six months of 2007 alone, Benazir Bhutto spent $250,000 in lobbying fees to gain access to Washington insiders.

Once again, to win American backing for her return to Pakistan in 2007, which could only happen with US pressure on General Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto used the same strategy that had worked before: she would promise to do better than General Musharraf in advancing American interests in Pakistan.

Over the past year, Benazir Bhutto has repeatedly pointed out that General Musharraf's war against terrorism in Pakistan was failing. Instead of curbing terrorism, the militants had become more daring during the General's tenure. She promised to do better. She would wipe out the "religious extremists," shut down "extremist" madrasas, and even hand over Dr. Qadeer Khan  the architect of Pakistan's nuclear program  to the US for questioning. Insistently, and loudly, Benazir Bhutto was seeking to assure the United States that she would do a lot better than their General.

This strategy won her the support of the United States, but it was fatally flawed. If Musharraf had not acted more vigorously against the militants that was not because he had gone soft in his commitment to America's plan. Instead, it was because he faces restraints on three fronts: the opposition within the army, especially from its lower ranks; the very real fear that stronger measures against the militants would provoke a domestic outcry and, worse, a more determined response from those militants; and, there are concerns too that defeating the Taliban would entrench Indian influence over Afghanistan. Would these constraints be any different for Benazir Bhutto?

In presenting herself as the only Pakistani politician to openly challenge the militants, wasn't Benazir Bhutto  in effect  also daring them to target her? Since these Islamists were regularly targeting the Pakistan military itself  even inside the security of their cantonments  would they hold back from attacking a politician who threatened to take even stronger actions against them than General Musharraf?

General Musharraf's decision to make Pakistan the leading partner in America's war against terrorism had already revealed its deep flaws. Most ominously, it had provoked the Islamists into targeting the Pakistani military. Already there were defections from the army, and if the clashes continued, there could be rebellion in the ranks of the army: or clashes between Pukhtoons and the Punjabis within the army.

In pushing Benazir Bhutto into this dangerous corner, a corner in which she could not have survived, the US too has shown its gross ineptitude. By openly anointing her as the American candidate, the US had effectively hastened the violent end that she has now met. The US helped to bring about the untimely death of the 'Daughter of the East' by transforming her into the 'Daughter of the West.' In the process, Pakistan too has lost a flawed but charismatic leader, who might have risen to the occasion at a time of crisis.

Benazir Bhutto crafted her political career by embracing her father's populism, but decisively rejected what was its natural complement: his independent foreign policy. Could she have followed a different path? Was she free to claim the legacy of her father's independent foreign policy?

Benazir Bhutto's embrace of her father's populism was indispensable: without it, she could not lay claim to his charismatic following amongst Pakistan's largely illiterate masses. On the other hand, by rejecting an independent foreign policy, she opened a path to the centers of American power without losing any of her popularity. The mostly poor and illiterate Pakistanis could not have cared much for the arcana of foreign politics.

Benazir Bhutto saw her courting of the US as necessary to her ascent to power? The Americans have long cultivated Pakistan's military as the best vehicle for subordinating Pakistan to its ends: first, Pakistan's military became a US partner in the Cold War, and since 911 it has been drafted as a leading ally in the 'global war against terror.' The 1990s  the interim between the two wars  was a window of opportunity for Pakistan's politicians.

But Benazir Bhutto first had to neutralize the Pakistani generals  whose power had been challenged only once by her father, and, who, therefore, were opposed to the return of his populist party to power. She had used this strategy to neutralize Pakistan's military establishment before. Now, with the generals in trouble, she struck the same bargain.

Tragically, this time, it was fatal mistake. Benazir Bhutto was binding herself to a strategy  waging America's war against the militants  that had already pushed Pakistan to the brink of a civil war and disintegration. In her impetuous quest for power, she had acted in blind disregard of realities.

But did Benazir Bhutto have an alternative?

Perhaps she did. Pakistan has a chance of averting a civil war, but only by distancing itself from the United States. This distancing is now vital for Pakistan: and one could argue, for the United States too. Only by distancing itself from the United States does any Pakistani government now have a chance of preventing the militants from overwhelming Pakistan itself. No government that cleaves to the United States and Israel has a chance of winning popular support in its efforts to contain the spread of the Islamist insurgency. Sadly, Benazir Bhutto too  like Musharraf  has cultivated the Israeli lobby in the United States.3

It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that Benazir Bhutto, had she had wanted to, could have done this on her own. However, if she had joined a pro-democracy and nationalist partnership with Nawaz Sharif  and perhaps some of the other parties in the opposition  together they had a fair chance of sending the Pakistani generals back to the barracks. It would not take Hazrat' Ali's oratory to convince the Pakistanis that this partnership  and an independent foreign policy  were at this juncture indispensable for the integrity of Pakistan.

Sadly, this was an option that Benazir Bhutto rebuffed. She did not want to remove the generals: she sought to join their fight against the Islamist militants as a civilian cheerleader. Perhaps, she could not think of another option, given how much of her political capital she had invested in gaining the support of the United States. Trapped in her myopia, she saw this as the easier option, the only option. Sadly, she had chosen to enter a blind alley. Worse: it was a death trap.

That is what makes her death a Pakistani tragedy. It is a tragedy because she was the only political figure in Pakistan who commanded the charisma to try to galvanize Pakistanis into a vital coalition that could reverse the damage done by the military generals. But, instead, she chose to outdo the failed generals.

That was Benazir Bhutto's fatal flaw; but it was not only a personal flaw. Behind this fatal flaw lay the a sad history of a country whose elites time and again chose to prostitute the state, to compromise national interests, and sacrifice the lives of Pakistanis for their personal gains. That is what makes Benazir Bhutto's murder a Pakistani tragedy. In a single tragic event, it crystallizes the malfeasance of Pakistan's political classes and the failure of Pakistanis to bring them to account for their treasonous crimes.


1. Syed Saleem Shehzad, "AlQaeda claims Bhutto killing," Asia Times (December 29, 2007). <

2. Elisabeth Bumiller, "How Bhutto won Washington," New York Times (December 27, 2007).

3. According to Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the UN, Benazir Bhutto send him a copy of new autobiography, Daughter of Destiny, including "a warm dedication to Israel." He added, " She {Benazir Bhutto] wrote me of how she admired Israel and of her desire to see a normalization in the relations between Israel and Pakistan, including the establishment of diplomatic ties,..." Tali Rabinovsky, "Gillerman: Bhutto told me she feared for her life," (December 28, 2007). <,7340,L3487651,00.html>

M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is the author of Challenging the New Orientalism (North Haledon, NJ: IPI, 2007). He may be reached at [email protected].

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto  Channel: Opinion
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Older Comments:
It is indeed a fact that this tragedy of creating a political mess in Pakistan is the creation of powerful actors of Pakistan. Army, Corrupt politicians, Feudal lanholders, Fanatical Islamic parties and the intelligentia who rewrote history books and fed falsehoods to conform to unhealthy nationalistic based on religious ideology are all guilty parties. What a tragedy! Finally Frankenstein monsters which was created by politicians and Army came back to haunt!!

Good article in any case.