Recently we were able to preview the forthcoming PBS documentary, Bhutto, about the life and career of Benazir Bhutto. It was well done, but much that is described in the film cannot be understood without more information on her enemies. The film refers several times to “enemies” without identifying them. That she had them is clear enough, as there were several attempts on her life, the last one of course being successful.
Benazir and indeed all of the Bhutto family had one powerful enemy: the Pakistani army. You can’t appreciate what was at stake in the Bhutto story without knowing how powerful the army is and how pervasive its influence is in Pakistani society.
The army controls huge sectors of the Pakistani economy. It owns an estimated twelve million acres, 12% of the total state-owned land and its lands are parceled out to retired officers. Also, it owns two powerful investment companies, the Fouji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust, which together control a third of the entire heavy manufacturing in the country. They own hotels, shopping malls, insurance companies, banks, farms, factories for corn flakes, bread, cement, textiles, sugar. Altogether the Pakistan military-industrial complex was worth about 20 billion dollars in 2007. Someone has said that while other countries have armies, in Pakistan the army has a country.
The army is however not a popular institution. And of course it need not be: It exists as the institution that should be protecting the interests of the country; the problem is that it is also the country’s landlord.
In contrast, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and later his daughter Benazir Bhutto were hugely popular. Their base of influence lay in their broad popularity among the Pakistani people. This is why the army had a problem with the Bhuttos: they were too popular. Whatever failings the Bhuttos had, and I presume they had a good many like most of us, their popularity was a threat to military wealth and power.
This was why, when Benazir ran for Parliament, essentially to be Prime Minister, the army put together a new party to run against her which called itself the Islamic Democratic Alliance. And this was why when Benazir was elected in 1989 the army did what it could to keep her from serving. In fact only after Washington intervened did the army relent, and even then only after forcing Benazir to agree to allow the army to run foreign policy and the nuclear program, and not to reduce the military’s budget, or even to question the military’s budget for the nuclear program, its backing of the Kashmir insurgency, or the Afghan Mujahedin. In June, 1989, it was the Americans who told her about the army’s project to enrich uranium.
In that year she had grand ideas of resolving the problems with India. She and the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi proposed to develop a new era of peace and cooperation but their plans were upset by an insurgency in Indian Kashmir, possibly instigated by the Pakistani military. And then Gandhi was assassinated on May 21, 2991.
Benazir’s term as Prime Minister ended in August 6, 1990 – hardly a year after she was elected.
She was elected Prime Minister again in 1994 but by 1996 she was again deposed. The reasons for her deposal both times were the same: her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as well as Benazir herself, was accused of corruption. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan was backed by the army and had the power to dismiss her and did so twice on the basis of those claims. Both Benazir and Zardari served time in prison for corruption. It is impossible to evaluate the merits of the accusations of corruption – significantly, the PBS film presents Zardari as unfairly judged [but then the film entailed getting approvals from his administration]. What can be said with some confidence is the army had from early on opposed Benazir and were inclined to want to smear Benazir.
Rash an accusation as this is, it is not without basis. We have noted already that the army had in 1989 resisted her serving as Prime Minister and even then seriously truncated her powers. This they did again in 1994 when she was elected for a second time. And after she was deposed a second time they tried to push through amendments to the constitution that would have banned her for life from becoming Prime Minister again.
Even when she returned to Pakistan in 2007 the former general, then President Pervez Musharraf, who by then had lost all legitimacy required that she make a deal in order to run for office. Even then the promises he made in two face-to-face negotiations with her and the Americans he failed to carry out. Under American pressure he finally dropped all charges of corruption against Bhutto, which made it possible for her to return to Pakistan and run for office. When she returned on October 18, 2007, welcomed by tens of thousands, the Pakistani army provided only desultory protection even though they had been forewarned of a plot against her; indeed it is hard not to wonder if somehow someone in an official capacity was involved in what took place as her motorcade traveled from the airport to her home: suddenly the street lights went out and then two huge bombs exploded, killing 179 people and injuring more than 600. It was the “the single largest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history.”
After her arrival Musharraf behaved as if her popularity were a threat to his powers. On November 3, 2007, he declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, sacked Supreme Court judges, arrested thousands of activists, took all private TV news channels off the air, forced all serving judges to take a new oath of office that would validate whatever he did. And a few weeks later, in December, he placed Bhutto under house arrest. When thousands protested on the streets he jailed up to 10,000, finally lifting the state of emergency on December 15, allowing Bhutto to campaign for office.
By this time she had become convinced that the ISI was planning to rig the election against her, and she had prepared a dossier of evidence to present to Senator Arlen Specter and Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy. Also, on the morning of December 27, in a meeting with the Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai she told him about the ISI plan. And she had prepared a note indicating that if she was killed it would have been the work of Musharraf. She was indeed killed that afternoon. Even if Musharraf himself was behind the assassination, he made no pretenses of grieving over her loss. He and the army never did like her, he said, and anyway it was actually her own fault that she died.
The army’s control of public affairs continues. No elected government in Pakistan has ever completed its tenure, for in every instance the army stepped in to take over a government that it claimed was in disarray. The army’s complaint against Benazir was corruption. No one will ever know how fair the charge was or whether this charge was trumped up in order to suit the army’s agendas – a way of delegitimizing a politician whose popularity was so great as to be a threat to its control of the country.[Source: A. Rashid, Descent Into Chaos.]