My Friend Died. Now Her Country May Not Make It.
Benazir Bhutto did not survive her last campaign to restore democracy to her country. After her murder, Pakistan may not survive, either.
To understand why the country is in such jeopardy, Americans must get past our habit of thinking of Pakistan in our terms, as a front line in the war on terrorism and as the nuclear-armed rival of India. Pakistanis, by and large, see themselves through the prism of province and ethnicity. Bhutto was the only Pakistani politician with substantial support in both Punjab, the country's largest province, and her native Sindh, Pakistan's second most populous province. While Pakistan's army boasts that it is the defender of the nation -- an often invoked excuse for letting the generals seize power -- it is not a national institution. Historically, some 90 percent of the officer corps comes from Punjab, with just a fraction from Sindh. For many Sindhis, military rule equals Punjabi rule. With Bhutto gone, many of her most devoted followers may now conclude they do not want to remain in Pakistan.
This ethnic dimension adds a new worry to a country that is already divided among pro-democracy forces, an emerging fundamentalist movement and a military dictator desperately clinging to power, that ranks as one of the world's most corrupt places, and that is home to a sizable proportion of the world's Islamist terrorists.
As I watched the nonstop TV coverage of my friend's murder, I couldn't help but recall how much hope she had when she was first elected prime minister on Nov. 16, 1988. I was her guest at her family home in Larkana during those elections and, later, as a staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spent many hours with her after she took office. She bore some responsibility for her failures in office; she became prime minister at 35, with too little experience and with a tendency to fight unnecessary battles. But her failures, and ultimately her death, also reflect a country that has never worked.
Bhutto's electoral triumph followed the August 1988 plane crash that killed Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator who had overthrown her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then Pakistan's elected prime minister. With Zia gone, Pakistan's military-dominated interim government was prepared to experiment with elections but fervently hoped that Benazir's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) would not win.
On election night, she waited for the returns with her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and a half-dozen friends in the small living room of the Larkana estate. As it became clear that her PPP was going to win, Pakistan's state-run TV stopped reporting the results. Bhutto called party workers herself, recording the tallies from polling places across Pakistan on notepaper. Popular sentiment -- and pressure from the Reagan administration -- convinced Pakistan's unhappy military it had no alternative but to accept a Bhutto victory.
That victory was her finest hour -- and the culmination of a personal and political struggle against Zia. Benazir had returned to Pakistan before Zia's 1977 coup after spending eight years abroad as a student, first at Harvard (where we met on our first day as freshmen) and then at Oxford. She spent two years trying to save her father's life after Zia arranged to have him tried on trumped-up murder-conspiracy charges, but the elder Bhutto was hanged in 1979. At age 25, Benazir found herself the de facto leader of his party. She spent five of the next 11 years in Zia's prisons.
For much of this period, she was quite alone. To ingratiate itself with Zia, the Reagan administration in 1981 prohibited U.S. diplomats from meeting the Bhutto family. Benazir was portrayed as a strident, anti-American, pro-Soviet radical. Not until 1984, when Congress finally shamed Zia into freeing her, could she explain herself to the U.S. government. In her visits to Washington, she charmed almost everyone she met, eventually convincing the Reagan administration that a democratic Pakistan would be a more reliable ally than Zia's dictatorship.
Benazir's two abbreviated terms as prime minister (she was sacked twice) disappointed her countrymen and, I think, herself. In the years before her first election, we spent hours discussing her goals: a real democracy where the army took orders from elected leaders and otherwise stayed in the barracks; peace with India; a halt to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program; government spending on social needs, including girls' education. She never accomplished any of this, but not for lack of trying.
After arriving in Karachi the day after the 1988 elections, we eventually got through the crowds to her newly built house in an upscale suburb. As we talked late into the night, she asked me to draft a detailed proposal for improved relations to be given to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. At 3 in the morning, she copied the proposal into her own hand for me to deliver to Gandhi the next day. At a subsequent summit, the two leaders looked more like newlyweds than the rulers of countries that had fought three wars in the previous half-century. But then the Pakistani military stepped in, making it clear that, elected prime minister or not, she had no say on Kashmir or nuclear weapons -- two crucial elements of any durable peace.
So Benazir well understood that, without bringing Pakistan's military under civilian control, her country would never become a real democracy. That meant depriving the generals of their ability to use the threat of India to justify their outsized claims on the national budget and Pakistan's political agenda. But in order to make peace with India (and to combat growing Islamist extremism after 9/11), she needed the military on her side. This balancing act drove her to contemplate a power-sharing deal with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, over fierce criticism from her own party. She hoped to create a "coalition of moderates" that would enable her to be prime minister in fact and not just in name, but this hope was dimmed by Musharraf's decision to declare a state of emergency and ended by her murder.
In Pakistan's six-decade history, it has never developed effective government institutions. Democracy has never taken root. The country has never developed a truly national identity. Today, Pakistan's most important decisions are controlled by three semiautonomous institutions: the army; its military intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency; and the nuclear establishment. None is well disposed toward the United States. The ISI covertly supports the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and may well be in contact with al-Qaeda. Pakistan's nuclear chiefs shared bomb-making technology with Washington's worst enemies: Iran, North Korea and Libya. Musharraf insists that he is a reliable partner in the war on terror, but it is hardly plausible that the ISI and its nuclear colleagues acted without his knowledge and acquiescence.
The United States is not responsible for Pakistan's problems, which are very much of its own making. The United States should, however, demand an international investigation of the Bhutto killing, since Musharraf's government cannot be trusted to do an honest probe. And President Bush should choose his words more carefully. He does not help matters by repeatedly describing Musharraf as a man of his word. Such assertions make the United States look either gullible or cynical. Neither is a good approach to a failed state with at least 70 nuclear weapons and no one clearly in charge -- and, with Bhutto's death, no obvious hope on the horizon.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, is author of "The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End."