The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has prompted much instant analysis and Monday morning quarterbacking by observers of that volatile region. Early assessments agree that public sentiment in Pakistan has turned decisively against both President Pervez Musharraf and the Islamic parties that oppose him (parties from which the assassins allegedly were recruited). President Musharraf himself has given weight to such assessments by reaffirming Pakistani sovereignty (he says he would treat any unilateral American military incursion into the Northwest Frontier as an invasion which he would oppose by force) and by projecting his own personal political vulnerability (he says he expects opposition parties to make gains in the coming elections and if a newly empowered majority seeks to impeach him he will resign).
Musharraf’s pro-American posturing and the material support Pakistan has provided in the so-called global war on terror have been decidedly unpopular among the Pakistani population. Islamabad has always tried to tread lightly when it came to an American military presence on Pakistani soil. The quick “victory” of the U.S.-led Northern Alliance over the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan allowed inconvenient American military bases in Pakistan to be transferred to the newly conquered territory inside Afghanistan. However, continued resistance in Afghanistan from the Taliban and al-Qaida, which depend on support networks throughout the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, has prompted the United States to pressure Pakistan’s government to crack down, and even in some cases to allow direct action on Pakistani soil, either in the form of the CIA or a military intervention.
Musharraf has acted against pro-Taliban militants in the Northwest Frontier, but with negligible results. Indeed, much of the Islamic militancy in Pakistan today has been stirred up by the regime’s continued support of American-inspired operations in Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf’s recent statement opposing unilateral American military intervention in Pakistan sends a clear signal that the ongoing opposition in Pakistan to continued support of U.S. military activity targeting Pakistanis has resonated politically.
The political unrest created by Musharraf’s support of the U.S. “war on terror” prompted the Pakistani dictator to seek stability by firing Pakistani Supreme Court justices he disagreed with and to suspend the constitution. Both actions have left him vulnerable to impeachment if political opposition parties are able to assemble a viable majority in the Parliament in upcoming elections, expected in February. Musharraf has indicated he will not be a political pawn in any resultant call for accountability. The question remains whether he will resign and depart Pakistan as a political exile, or resign and reassert himself as dictator, or resign and throw his support behind a new military dictatorship which will enable him to remain in Pakistan as a behind-the-scenes power broker.
Some would scoff at the notion that Musharraf would seek to reimpose military dictatorship in the face of a growing demand for democracy and the rule of law. While Pakistan plays lip service to the notion of parliamentary democracy, the reality is that it is first and foremost a Muslim nation born more from a call for Islamic identity than a desire to embrace the Magna Carta-driven democracy of its colonial masters, the British. The secular nature of Musharraf’s dictatorship disguises this.
Pakistan from its inception was supposed to bring together the Muslim populations of the former British Indian colony into a viable nation-state. While many of those who oversaw the formation of the new governmental structure were moderate, even secular lawyers trained in the British tradition, the overwhelming population of what was to become Pakistan traced its loyalty to a system of local elders and religious figures who more often than not referred to sharia, or Islamic law, when pronouncing decisions of government. This duality is reflected in the resolution passed by Pakistan’s early leaders on the eve of what was to become the country’s constitutional convention. It proclaimed “[s]overeignty under the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone” and characterized Islamic values as essential in any new government.
But Pakistan is no homogeneous Islamic state. Its roots are deeply seated in tribal, familial and ethnic realities that most non-Pakistani observers are ill-equipped to comprehend. An illustration of this can be found in the fact that Benazir Bhutto, the martyred symbol of democratic reform, sat at the head of a political party, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party), which was born not from Pakistani society in general but rather from the ranks of the 700,000-strong Bhutto tribe. The Bhuttos, an ethnic Sindhi group, possess an insularity that belies the image of democratic reform embraced by Benazir Bhutto herself. An ongoing rift within the PPP over Bhutto’s successor illustrates this: Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, together with their son, Bilawal, has claimed the leadership of the party, citing a controversial and challenged will which emerged after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Neither Asif Ali Zardari nor Bilawal is considered to be part of the Bhutto tribe, because Zardari is of Baluchi heritage and the son is traditionally linked to the family tree of the father. It is not the history of corruption that surrounds Zardari or the inexperience of Bilawal (a student in the UK) that the Bhutto tribe finds objectionable but simply the fact that a political party founded by and for the Bhuttos is now in the hands of someone outside the tribe.
Pakistan’s population of 170 million people is made up of three major ethnic groups, the Punjabi, Pashtun and Sindhi, which account for some 44 percent, 16 percent and 14 percent of the population, respectively. Indian Muslim immigrants, or Mujahirs, make up about 8 percent of the population, while the Baluchi make up 4 percent. The remaining population is divided among other minorities, including the Kasmiri and the various tribes of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. There are also some 3 million Afghan refugees still residing in Pakistan today, a tragic remnant from the time of the Soviet invasion and occupation of that land. Pakistan’s historical roots led in part to three major wars (in 1948, 1965 and 1971) and several skirmishes between Pakistan and India. The historical turmoil surrounding the creation of Pakistan, as well as the inconsistent ability of its federal system to hold together the wide variety of ethnic and religious groups brought together to form the country, created a system imbued with a spirit of distrust between the various ethnicities. The animosities caused by this distrust are manifest in Pakistan’s special intelligence service, which was formed to deal with not only threats from abroad but threats from within. The highly politicized nature of this intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI, has only caused further intrigue and uncertainty for the nation.