January 17, 2008

January 17, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East

The historic ties are deeper than any leader

Who was Benazir Bhutto: a beacon of democracy, or a corrupt opportunist? Lisa Curtis and Brian Katulis continue their debate.

Benazir Bhutto was no angel, but she may have been the savior Pakistan needed at this critical moment in its history.

Her biggest flaw was that she was part of the feudal establishment that has perpetuated poverty and lack of education for millions of Pakistanis and kept the country from growing as much economically as it otherwise could. Bhutto and her husband's personal corruption also tainted her reputation, and many Pakistanis accuse her of plundering the country's exchequer, especially during her second stint in power from 1993 - 1996. References to Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, now co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), as "Mr. Ten Percent" date back to 1990, when he was arrested on charges of embezzlement and using undue influence to obtain illegal bank loans during her first run as prime minister. In 2003, both were convicted in Switzerland of money laundering and for receiving bribes from Swiss firms during her second tenure.

Despite her flaws, however, Benazir Bhutto's popularity proved remarkably durable. When she returned to the country in mid-October, she drew tens of thousands of supporters into the streets. But it was not only Benazir they were greeting. She symbolized for many Pakistanis a hope that their country could pull itself out of the spiraling extremist violence gripping the nation and return to democratic government. Many were surprised that despite an eight-year absence, she still enjoyed solid support from her party's base. She also demonstrated she could still handle deftly the complicated politics of Pakistan, managing to convince Nawaz Sharif to participate in the election as a way to challenge the legitimacy of the polls, rather than allow Musharraf's party to benefit from their parties' boycott.

Her return to Pakistan energized the nation. According to observers, there was a sense of exhilaration and even "dancing in the streets," a rare sight in a society that has grown increasingly conservative over the last decade. But when she spoke to the crowds, her message was serious, and focused on prioritizing efforts to defeat Taliban and al-Qaeda forces threatening stability in Pakistan. This message resonated with many Pakistanis, but was ridiculed by some of Musharraf's closest supporters, one of whom announced one month before her assassination that her "imperialistic policies" would invite suicide bombings.

I disagree, Brian, that Bhutto alone should be blamed for Pakistani policies on the Taliban and the nuclear program in the mid-1990s. Although Bhutto ran the civilian government, the military continued to have a strong role in developing Pakistan's national security policies. Blaming Bhutto for these policies overlooks the fact that she never had full control of the military. She was aware that if she stepped too far out of bounds on issues related to national security, she would face the Damocles sword of the military hanging over her head.

It's no secret that the U.S. agreed with her assessment of the threat facing Pakistan and the need to address it in a serious and sustained manner. Washington also believed that a strong showing by the mainstream secular parties in an election would demonstrate that few Pakistanis support the extremist Islamic agenda and, in turn, strengthen the mandate of any future prime minister acting to combat extremism and terrorism.

I agree, Brian, that the U.S. needs to move beyond a policy of supporting individuals and focus on supporting the process of democracy. Washington has not been served well in Pakistan by its overly close association with President Musharraf. Although he has been a strong ally in the fight against terrorism since 9/11, any Pakistani leader likely would have made the same critical decision to break ties to the Taliban and support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It is the long-term, broad relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan that has served as the backdrop to Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terrorism. This cooperation is based on historical ties and buttressed by large amounts of economic and military assistance, which means it will almost certainly continue, even if Musharraf is not in charge.

We will never know if Benazir Bhutto could have lived up to her campaign promises or what kind of role she would have played after an election. We can only hope that whoever takes the helm after next month's election will continue her same message and pursue policies that tackle extremism so that Pakistanis can have a future of freedom, prosperity and engagement with the global community, rather than one of repressive Talibanization and repeated suicide bombings that increase fear and further ethnic divisions.
 
Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the LA Times, "Dust Up" debate