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Sol Sanders Archive
Monday, October 22, 2007

Bhutto’s vanity, NATO's test and Pakistan’s future

The tragic terrorist episode surrounding Benzir Bhutto’s return after eight years to her native Pakistan – the worst in its long history of such nihilistic killings – encapsulates the problems of the country, and further, much of Islamic society from Casablanca to Zamboanga. But it also has implications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO], the most successful alliance in history, now being refitted for what was to have been the post-Soviet era.

The conspiracy to attack Bhutto most certainly was part of the effort of Islamofascists to break the back of any attempt to continue the modernization of Islamic societies, Pakistan as a quintessential experiment. Whoever the individual perpetrators turn out to be, if they are ever known, they are a part of that inchoate mass of embittered lunatics who want to return the world – including those outside the Muslim umma or community – to dogmas and doctrines of a primitive desert society of more than a thousand years ago.

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But the 150 people who died in the carnage of a suicide attack were also victims of a Muslim political and religious leadership that is imbued with a totally perverted sense of what is public service and what constitutes leadership.

Bhutto had been warned that she would be the target of just such an attack – she says by foreign intelligence, presumably, the Saudis or the Americans, who had word on such plots. A warning was hardly necessary. It took no spy credentials to know her vulnerability given her position as a female politician, a secularist, the daughter of a controversial father hung by the Pakistan military. She is more recently seen by many in her country – both former and current supporters and the terrorists — as the tacit ally of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in his opposition to religious fanaticism. And with at least two well organized attempts on the life of Musharraf, himself, it is obviously open season for political assassination in Pakistan.

But she persisted in putting politics above common sense. Instead of helicoptering into the center of the city, she arranged a triumphant parade through the streets of Karachi. That urban monstrosity is in normal times on the edge of criminal and ethnic violence, a dysfunctional caldron of more than 15 million people. For its impoverished and deprived millions, any public pageant is an enormous attraction and so millions watched her procession. Whipped up by her Pakistan People’s Party activists – and her ethnic following among the native Sindhi population — the victory parade moved at snailspace and already had been on the road from the airport for hours when the blasts occurred. Facilities for Bhutto to “powder her nose” were arranged in her special armored vehicle, where luckily she was resting when the blasts came. But that the victims included more that three dozen of her own security guards adds only to the stupidity as well as the pathos of the whole affair.

That she had the courage to expose herself personally to the possibility of dying in such an attack may be laudable but it was more than foolhardy. For the event now contributes to the increasing sense of crisis in the country. Whether she sees herself as Pakistan’s Joan of Arc or whatever, what she did was perverse and impolitic in the larger sense and only compounds the country’s already staggering problems.

In the long run, unfortunately, the loss of life is more than likely going to be obscured in the fabric of a country which with its poverty, its caste distinctions and almost daily minor terrorist events, has become inured to violence.

What it does put into question is whether Bhutto has that much to contribute to a partnership with Musharraf to form a united front of Pakistan’s elite against the fanatical minority in the country which either allies itself with the terrorists or is silenced by its ferocity.

Bhutto’s return was scheduled to coincide with Musharraf’s decision to undertake a new offensive against the organized terrorists in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. What was hinted was that Bhutto’s contribution to domestic tranquility would permit a greater attention of Musharraf’s military base to the frontier.

It is no secret that Washington has been urging a more aggressive strategy and tactics there. It is also obvious that the Pakistan army, groomed for conventional fighting against India after three and a half conflicts with its neighbor, is not adept at the asymmetrical warfare that is more like what the Coalition has faced in Iraq than tank battles on the plains of the Punjab.

The growing importance of the campaign against the neo-Taliban, seeking sanctuary in the always disputed border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, has become an important issue for everyone concerned.

Not only is it a principal front in the overall worldwide war against the terrorists – especially with increasing evidence that recruits in Western Europe and Middle East may still be trained there. But because of the commitment of NATO to the support of the Afghanistan government in its fight against domestic and foreign terrorism, it has become a major international strategic issue. At a time when however much they are bombast and bluff, Russian President Vladimir Putin makes repeated threats to NATO’s expanded interests in Central Europe and the Baltic, the health and strength of the commitment in Afghanistan is critical.

The test of NATO capabilities in the first adventure outside its immediate theater, indeed its first armed engagement, goes far beyond the Afghanistan question or even the war on terrorism. The restrictions on deployment of even those small NATO national forces committed to the area have not lessened European public displeasure with the whole expedition, and, in fact, German participation is rapidly becoming a football to be kicked around in Berlin’s upcoming domestic pre-election politics.

Getting Pakistani help to better police its side of the Durand Line — the old artificial boundary drawn by the British in the 19th century cutting through the Pushtoon tribes where the terrorists are hiding out — is an essential part of any winning strategy in Afghanistan, virtually all players are agreed. But heavy Pakistan losses in previous attempts have at least brought some reconsideration to the Pakistani strategists’ tactics.

It is also a blip for Musharraf’s political instincts with his heavy dependence on the military for support of his regime. For the Pakistani army there is already the ever present deployment against the Indians in Kashmir and along the lowlands international border. There is a sporadic insurgency in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s huge undeveloped western province. And there are the other internal security issues which are part and parcel of the Pakistan army’s writ given the inadequacies of a typically third world police force.

Washington pressed Musharraf to work out an arrangement with Bhutto, one of the two principal leaders of the civilian opposition to his presidency, in an effort to bolster domestic support among those at home and abroad demanding “democracy”. It was that agreement – including an attempt at dropping corruption charges in Pakistan and, presumably, eventually, in Switzerland, against Bhutto – which initiated her return, to firm up details of a new working alliance between her Pakistan People’s Party and Musharraf anticipating elections early next year.

Such an accommodation still leaves out former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He also made a brief return earlier this year; not very well programmed, he was quickly shunted back to Saudi Arabia. But in Pakistan’s highly ethnic politics, although a Kashmiri, Nawaz has strong support among the Punjabis, Pakistan’s largest ethnic grouping by far. He is not to be discounted in the coming elections for a new parliament. And separating his two principal civilian opponents had obviously been part of Musharraf’s strategy.

Bhutto’s earlier two prime ministries, heavy with corruption, incompetence, and lack of economic direction, have been somewhat eclipsed in all the furore over a possible deal between her and Musharraf. But the question now posed – her rambling discourse on the day following the bloody event is another unfortunate piece of evidence – is whether the U.S. and her own insistence that she would bring much to the table is valid.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

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