The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi on 27 December brought home the gravity of Pakistan’s crisis. That she was its latest martyr added a terrible poignancy, and not just because she was the third of her family to have been politically murdered.*
For her followers Bhutto offered the hope of deliverance from military rule, religious bigotry and pauperisation. On her return to Pakistan on 18 October – met with the slaughter of 137 people in dual suicide attacks – she said ‘education, employment and empowerment’ were the arms to defeat Pakistan’s evil axis of military dictatorship and Islamic militancy.
To the Bush administration and Britain she was a saviour of a different kind. They had engineered her return to deliver President Pervez’s Musharraf’s military regime the civilian legitimacy it so palpably lacked. In the caustic description of Pakistan historian Ahmed Rashid a ‘loveless marriage’ had been arranged so that ‘the General can combat terrorists and the Lady play democracy’.
Washington also assumed that Bhutto would endorse augmented US military operations in Pakistan, especially on the border areas with Afghanistan where the Taliban and, according to US intelligence, Al Qaeda are entrenched.
Which will be her legacy? The American surrogate who, in return for office, was prepared to rent Pakistan as a forward Nato base for the war in Afghanistan? Or the martyr who was killed because she alone could mobilise the nation’s poor against the military’s stranglehold on the state?
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) her father established and she led embodies the contradiction. For it is a mass party, aspiring to modernity, whose leadership are feudal landlords – Pakistan’s most reactionary social class.
Washington and London orchestrated her return but she owed it to a man – Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. On 9 March 2007, Musharraf sacked him, ostensibly for ‘misconduct’.
The real reason was judicial rulings that thwarted the army’s illegal acquisition of state power. These concerned dodgy privatisation deals that sold off state assets cheap to cohorts in Pakistan’s capitalist class; the illegal ‘disappearance’ of hundreds of regime dissidents, especially from the subject provinces of the Frontier, Sindh and Balochistan; and, perhaps most importantly, Chaudhry’s ‘legal opinion’ that it would be unconstitutional for Musharraf to be president for another term.
The sacking turned out to be the biggest blunder of the general’s political life.
Lawyers took to the streets in protest, buoyed by a resurgent civil society, assertive judiciary and committed media. Following a snowballing campaign, on 20 July the supreme court restored Chaudhry to his post. For younger generations his cause was their first taste of political activism. For the older it was the first time a strategy of collective action had taken on the regime and won.
‘The lawyers’ movement was a remarkable event,’ says political scientist Rasul Baksh Rais. ‘It was nonviolent, it was popular and it echoed the sentiments of the middle classes and other new classes forged by modernisation: that we need the rule of law.’
Bhutto viewed the lawyers’ campaign through the prism of her own redemption. She had been in self-exile since 1999, fleeing a raft of corruption cases from her two periods as prime minister. She understood the protests had exposed how small was the civilian base of the Musharraf regime, including among Pakistan’s westernised elite, once the general’s core constituency. But she was fearful mass agitation would trigger martial law, destroying all prospects for her return.
She told cadres in the PPP – the largest party in Pakistan and the strongest amongst the lawyers – to tail the protests, not lead them. She also shunned PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan, Chaudhry’s defence counsel and the brain behind the mass, nonviolent campaign that saw him restored. She viewed him as a threat, and not only for his profile in leading the lawyers’ movement. He was from the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and the leader of the PPP’s urban, middle class and modernist wing. Bhutto was from Sindh, drawing strength from the rural masses, but a scion of the landed aristocracy.
She offered Washington a deal. In return for an amnesty on the corruption cases and a third stab at the premiership, she would withdraw the PPP from a cross-party alliance predicated on ending the army’s role in governance. She also pledged her party to back a civilian Musharraf presidency. She was to deliver on both counts.
Washington had other reasons to give her time. CIA intelligence reported that the Taliban and Al Qaeda had regrouped in North Waziristan, a remote tribal area on the Afghan border. From this redoubt the Taliban was powering the Afghanistan insurgency and, said the Americans, Al Qaeda was training cadre to launch attacks in America, Europe and North Africa.
The resurgence was the spawn of a peace deal struck between the army and the ‘Pakistan’ Taliban in September 2006. Musharraf had sold it as a ‘holistic’ solution to the menace of ‘extremism’. In fact it was a treaty of surrender, brought on by US-driven campaigns in the tribal areas that served to demoralise the army and strengthen the militants. Ten months after it was signed, Bush wanted Musharraf to scrap the deal and go back to military might.
The advice wasn’t only verbal. In June and July US/Nato special forces launched several raids into Pakistan’s borderlands that left dozens dead and one clear message: if the Pakistan army did not go after the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the US army would. Bush signed a law predicating $1 billion in annual US military aid on the army acting against the Taliban. And Democrat presidential hopeful Barak Obama said he would send in the marines if he had ‘actionable intelligence’ that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan.
Weakened at home, Musharraf buckled. After six months of dithering he authorised a commando assault on Islamabad’s Red Mosque, long a sanctuary for pro-Taliban clerics and jihadist militia. More than one hundred were killed, mostly seminary students. He sent two divisions to north Waziristan, inflaming a Taliban-led insurgency that so far has cost 1,600 lives, including 345 soldiers.
Bush lionised both moves. So did Bhutto, the only Pakistani politician to do so.
In July the Americans invited her to Dubai, where she met Musharraf. They agreed the logistics of her return and a post-election power sharing deal. The tryst confirmed the experience she learned as prime minister: that the road to even partial power in Pakistan lies less through the people than Washington and the army. Both said they would not forget the risks she had taken for the ‘war on terror’. Neither would her enemies.
Did her return change her fealty to the deal? Like so much with Bhutto it depends who you ask. Tanvir Ahmad Khan was foreign secretary in her first government. He says the tumultuous reception in Karachi – as well as the savagery of the attempt to kill her – ‘re-radicalised’ her.
‘She knew under the American plan she was to play second fiddle – that as far as Washington was concerned it was Musharraf and the army who were indispensable to Pakistan, not she and the PPP,’ he says. ‘But she believed the dynamics set off by her return would enlarge the political space available to her and her policies. This is when the barrier between her and Musharraf came up. He and the army had suspicions she would go beyond her allotted role.’
Bhutto’s rhetoric certainly became shriller on home turf. Following the regime’s imposition of martial law on 3 November – ostensibly to tame the Taliban, actually to purge the judiciary, including, again, the chief justice – she declared famously, ‘It’s over with Musharraf!’
She also threatened to pull the PPP’s ranks onto streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi, both heartlands of Musharraf’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q). It took a phone call from US assistant secretary of state John Negroponte to douse the ire.
But on the crucial issues of Musharraf’s presidency, the centrality of the army in political life and a restoration of the pre-emergency judiciary, she kept to the script set by Washington. She called for none of them.
A PML-Q leader explains: ‘Prior to her return she promised the Americans that Musharraf would keep control of the national security issues, especially the war on terror and Pakistan’s nuclear arms. Benazir wanted to be prime minister and travel to Davos as the democratic face of Pakistan.’
Where she differed with the regime was on the contours of the post-election share. Musharraf and the PML-Q wanted her to be a junior coalition partner and were rigging the polls to make it happen. But Bhutto was reinvigorating the PPP as the most powerful party political machine in the land.
In any halfway straight contest it was clear who would win, says a former PPP man who is now an ally of Musharraf: ‘She harried the PPP to so enlarge its base that by the elections she would be able to form the largest political bloc. She was convinced that would have been the moment the political centre of gravity would return to her. She may have been right. When it came to pure political skills she could outmatch Musharraf and ten other generals. In that regard she was a giant.’
If there is to be a halfway straight contest in the elections on February 18, the PPP will be the largest political party. It will then face the choice Bhutto evaded ever since she returned.
It could form a national government with Pakistan’s other parties based on Musharraf’s resignation, the removal of the army from governance and a political consensus on policies to do with democracy, provincial autonomy and Pakistan’s stance towards the US/Nato war in Afghanistan. Such a government would command the support of the larger part of the Pakistani people. ‘It could seal an alliance with those parts of civil society mobilised by the lawyers’ movement and resolve tensions within the PPP,’ says the lawyer and analyst, Babar Sattar. It may even help re-found the PPP as modern, social democratic movement that could address – as well as air – promises of education, employment and empowerment.
Alternatively the PPP could keep to the deal brokered in Dubai. This would win it the blessings of Bush, Brown, Musharraf and the army. It would grant it access to state resources, vital to rent the loyalty of its core and impoverished constituencies in Sindh.
But ‘it would cause the break-up of the PPP’, says Sattar. It is unimaginable that cadres like Ahsan could remain in a party that not only shored up Musharraf but did nothing to restore Chaudhry to his position. Sooner or later the PPP would become what many in the military establishment have long wanted it to be: a rump provincial party that represents Sindh, but no more.
The auguries are not good. Many had hoped Bhutto’s death would mean elections throughout the PPP to determine a new national organisation, a new leadership, policies and ethos. In fact policy, resources and power were passed to Bhutto’s widower, courtesy of her will, a feudal rite of passage that belonged more to the 16th century than the 21st.
As for the inheritor, Asif Zardari, the least that can be said of him is that he too is a feudal scion. ‘And a basic feature of feudalism is that power is important. Principles are not,’ says Rais.
Already there are some in Pakistan’s ruling circles who see him as a more pliable interlocutor than his wife, ‘who could be difficult’, says one.
They are living a fool’s vision. The PPP’s national base and espousal of democracy are potentially threats to the army’s hegemony of the state. They are not threats to the existence of Pakistan, except for those, like Musharraf and Washington, who equate the nation with the state and the state with the army.
The real subversives are rather Pakistan’s sub-nationalist movements, which are themselves responses to a failed state and years of military rule. And these will be bolstered by the PPP’s collapse. That can be seen Bhutto’s native Sindh province, where violent protestors blamed Pakistan’s ‘Punjabi’ army for Bhutto’s murder. It is well developed in Balochistan, where for the last three years a separatist insurgency has been in armed struggle with the state. And it is there in the Talibanisation of the tribal areas and Frontier province, for the Taliban is a Pashtun nationalist movement almost as much as it is an Islamist one.
Sindhi and Baloch nationalists view the Pakistani army as a colonial power. The Taliban sees it as mercenary force acting on US orders. Both views have popular resonance. And all three movements in different ways are challenging the decrepit, feudal orders of their societies. But none can redress the immense problems of poverty, illiteracy, deprivation, backwardness and de-institutionalisation that are the real blights of their people. What they actually prefigure is Pakistan’s dismemberment and a regional implosion that would make Afghanistan seem a summer squall.
For, unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has 160 million people, 600,000 soldiers and 50 nuclear warheads. It cannot implode.
* The Islamist and pro-American dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq hanged Bhutto’s father, prime minister Zulfiker Ali Bhutto, in 1979. Her brother, Shahnawaz, was posioned in France in 1985, probably by Pakistan’s intelligence services. Her other brother, Muntazer, was shot dead in a police ambush in Karachi in 1996.
Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out