Pakistan and Bhutto's assassination: the most dangerous place in the world

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Two weeks after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, President Musharraf said "Pakistan is not on the verge of disintegration" . The man who has ruled Pakistan as military dictator for 8 years, newly turned civilian president, is commenting on the possibility of the country breaking up. Even if he responds in the negative, even if he tells us "Pakistan is not Lebanon" and does not need the UN to investigate the assassination, still the question of the disintegration and Lebanisation of the country has been posed by the President of the country.

Clearly the assassination, whoever carried it out, is just one more example of how the ruling class conducts its politics and settles its differences just like gangsters. But this would only be secondary in the life of the bourgeoisie if it did not take place within a dramatic context which opens the way to growing chaos whose main victims will be the population in general and the working class in particular.

Equally dramatic was the commentary by Michael Portillo, British politician and commentator (and Secretary of State for Defence in the Major government during the 1990s), who wrote of the "assassination" of the West's foreign policy in Pakistan. So who was this great hope for a stable, moderate, democratic Pakistan able to play a full and reliable part in the "war on terror"? The head of the Bhutto feudal dynasty from Sindh, and therefore the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, a former prime minister whose two previous terms in office ended in failure and scandals, who was only allowed back into the country with an amnesty on corruption charges, was an unlikely saviour of democracy. But the PPP looked likely to win the election and the US and Britain had hoped she would provide a democratic face for a pro-western government, able to shore up Musharraf's declining authority. In the aftermath of the assassination PPP supporters went on the rampage burning whatever they could, and from the other side suicide bombings have continued unabated, reaching 20 in the last 3 months. Although the PPP may gain a sympathy vote in the postponed elections this month, the party does not have the solidity to play its promised role without Benazir Bhutto, and has had to resort to making her 19 year old son, Bilawal, its designated figurehead with her widower, Zardari (known as "Mister Ten Percent" since his time as minister for investment in the mid 1990s) as regent. The other high profile opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League, has declared he would not work with Musharraf and is currently campaigning against close cooperation with the USA.

Pakistan never able to forge a coherent state

Pakistan, created in 1947, is a mosaic of ethnic and tribal rivalries - Punjabis, Sindhis, Pakhtuns, Baloch, Mohajir[1] - united only by Islam. The Pakistani state has been unable to really control this collection at any time. Federally Administered Tribal Areas have been no-go areas since British rule, where each tribe "has its own armory and they don't like intrusions into their privacy at all"[2]. To maintain a minimum of stability Musharraf even had to establish a sort of pact between the different Islamist parties: "support us in Islamabad, and you will be free to run your own areas", before the army dared to enter the Tribal Areas in 2001. It is in fact very difficult to draw a clear distinction between the secret services and the Islamists. Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) trained and equipped the Taliban until they took power in Afghanistan, and there is every reason to suppose that they continue to maintain ties to the Taliban and even Al Qaeda today.[3]

Even before the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the USA armed and manipulated a series of "freedom fighters" to pin the Russians down in a bloody and debilitating war.[4] Pakistan played an important role in the US proxy war since much of the money and weapons sent to the Taliban (in those days the Taliban had US-supplied Stinger missiles on their side as well as Allah!) and other "freedom fighters" was channelled through the Pakistani ISI - much to the latter's own profit.[5] Following the collapse of the USSR the US lost most of its interest in Afghanistan, but the situation changed radically after 9/11 when the US decided to hunt down and destroy its former Taliban and Al Qaeda allies.[6] Pakistan found itself in an impossible situation, forced by its dependence on American goodwill and military aid to turn against its own allies amongst the Islamists, yet at the same time trying to continue using the latter in its endless war with India over Kashmir. Pakistan had good relations with the Taliban, and it needed the Afghan hinterland to strengthen its hand in the conflict with India over Kashmir. Yet Pakistan was strategically vital for the US invasion, and in the end had no choice but to cooperate:[7] the Pakistani army had to enter tribal areas it had not set foot in for 50 years, areas where Al Qaeda operate more or less at will. While the US was riding high following its military victories in Afghanistan and then Iraq this was bad enough, but as it has become bogged down in both countries its enemies and rivals have become bolder. Pakistan and Musharraf have therefore found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being chained to a declining superpower. The tribal areas have become increasingly unsettled, fighting has extended from the North Western Frontier to the tourist region of Swat, on several occasions during 2007 soldiers surrendered to Islamists without firing a shot, humiliating Musharraf. The opposition has also gained ground, forcing Musharraf to step down as army chief and allow opposition leaders back into the country ahead of the elections, in spite of his state of emergency and spat with the Supreme Court.

Since the assassination there has been much suspicion in Pakistan that the murder was ordered by the secret service, or even by Musharraf himself. On the face of it however, it is difficult to see what advantage the latter could gain from Bhutto's death. Indeed Bhutto had returned to Pakistan more as an ally than a rival to Musharraf: both defended the same pro-American foreign policy orientation, and while Musharraf has manipulated Islamist support he is above all a pragmatist who has no desire to see Pakistan go the way of the Taliban. If anything Musharraf needed Bhutto, even as a victorious presidential candidate, in order to maintain some kind of stability internally, and some kind of "democratic" credentials with the US.

It does seem perfectly possible, on the other hand, that the assassination was the work of elements in the ISI close to the Taliban, opposed to Bhutto both for ideological reasons and because they feared a potential threat to their lucrative gun- and drug-running business into Afghanistan.

The only thing we can be certain of is that Bhutto's assassination has deprived the Pakistani ruling class of one of its last hopes of maintaining some kind of stability. The very fact that she is to be succeeded by a 19-year old boy whose sole claim to the position is dynastic - and is moreover hotly disputed by members of his own party, opening up the very real possibility that the PPP will simply disintegrate - is indicative of just how unstable the situation is and how little real solidity there is in the ruling class. As in so many peripheral countries, the only real unifying force in Pakistan is the army and the secret service: if these institutions start to tear each other apart, then the perspective for the country and its population is grim indeed - a downward spiral into increasingly violent inter-ethnic killings, manipulated by different fractions of a disintegrating ruling class.

A nuclear timebomb

But this is not all. Pakistan is at the heart of enormous imperialist tensions, between the USA and its rivals in the region such as Iran, between India and China, between the USA and Russia, and its own increasing weakness and instability cannot help but further destabilise the whole region. It has been involved in a 60 year conflict with its larger Indian neighbour over Kashmir which has led to three wars. A feeble Pakistan inevitably strengthens India and may encourage aggression from that quarter. But China cannot stand idly by and see its Indian rival gain at the expense of its Pakistani ally (in the 1990s China helped Pakistan join the nuclear club as a counterweight to India, so that when conflict erupted over Kashmir in 2004 the two countries squaring up to each other were both nuclear powers). The USA gets nothing from this conflict and only wants to limit it, as it did in 2004. As far as South East Asia is concerned its interests coincide with India in wanting to limit China's power, hence the recent US-India agreements on nuclear power. On the other hand the USA needs Pakistan as a staging post and supply line for its adventure in Afghanistan, which has so far led it to try and shore up Musharraf as a force for stability, and much to the disappointment of the Indian bourgeoisie regards him as an ally against terrorism rather than a perpetrator of it. Of course Pakistan, just like the US, Britain and every other imperialism, is both - a perpetrator of terrorism when it advances their interests and an opponent when it does not. Nevertheless, the instability in Pakistan encourages Islamist groups in the Middle East, just as the USA's difficulties have weakened Musharraf and encouraged Al Qaeda and suicide bombings there.

At the present time the USA is concentrating on what it can do to make up for Pakistan's deficiencies as an ally. It has negotiated an agreement to send its forces into Western Pakistan against Al Qaeda, or even to negotiate directly with the tribal leaders. Musharraf may be protesting that there is no need and that the US would regret breaching national sovereignty, but the deal has already been agreed, and on recent evidence it is difficult to see what the Pakistan army could do about it. US presidential hopeful Obama has gone further, proposing the bombing of Al Qaeda strongholds with or without consent.[8] Similarly the US has now imposed conditions on aid to Pakistan - military funding will be conditional on performance in the war on terror.

Another major concern relates to the dangers of nuclear weapons being help in such an unstable state as Pakistan. Of course we cannot regard any bourgeoisie as a safe pair of hands to protect us from imperialist war with any of the weapons at their disposal, as the whole history of the 20th century shows, and "Pakistan has already made it clear that, in the face of a superior enemy, it would be prepared to initiate a nuclear confrontation" (The Guardian 23/5/02). However, there is a more immediate danger pointed our by Muhammad ElBaradei of the IAEA, that nuclear weapons "could fall into the hands of an extremist group in Pakistan or in Afghanistan", and "I fear a system of chaos or extremist regime in this state, which has 30 or 40 nuclear weapons". Hilary Clinton has called for Pakistan to share responsibility for these weapons with the US and perhaps Britain.

Meanwhile misery is heaped on the population. Pakistan is still "home" to over a million Afghan refugees; more than two years after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake 400,000 are facing another winter without proper shelter, 600 schools have still not been rebuilt; the population in ever increasing areas is a victim of the fighting and even in the most ‘stable' of cities the population is subject to the violence of gang warfare and suicide bombings.

Bhutto was supposed to bring hope and democracy to Pakistan - her assassination and the events that have followed are yet another demonstration that even if a democratic and peaceful Pakistan were a possibility, which it is not, this would not put an end to the suffering of the population. Only the communist revolution will be able to do that.

2nd February 2008



[1] The Mohajir are descendants of the Muslim refugees forced to leave India after independence from Britain and the partition of India and Pakistan, leading to the biggest episode of ethnic cleansing in history.

[2] CNN report .

[3] "Musharraf was quick to blame the killing [of Bhutto] on Baitullah Mehsud, a tribal leader from the Afghan border area of southern Waziristan with links to Al Qaeda... Critics pointed out Mehsud had previously been working with the Pakistan military, receiving handreds of thousands of dollars and that if the country's intelligence service could tape his conversations, they should be able to capture him." (Sunday Times, 13/01/2008).

[4] In a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that "We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would...That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Soviets into the Afghan trap... The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War."

[5] According to a paper published on a French government web site (http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/IMG/pdf/Gayer.pdf), "Although the regulating authority of central government seems to be contested by its populations' illicit trans-national relations (...) the agents of the Pakistani state also profit from this ‘grey zone' on the border with Afghanistan where they can take a discreet part in all kinds of illegal activity which both serve their own personal interests and finance certain government policies. The involvement of many prominent political and military figures in the trade of ‘white gold' [ie heroin], which every year generates a profit greater than the entire Pakistani budget is doubtless due to strategies of personal enrichment but also to the determination of the leaders of the Pakistani military to acquire a nuclear capacity, their nuclear research programmes being financed in large part by the profit from the drugs trade".

[6] During the Russian occupation Osama Bin Laden worked as intermediary between the CIA and the Saudi secret services, and the Taliban and other Islamist groups.

[7] According to a BBC report , "The US threatened to bomb Pakistan ‘back to the stone age' unless it joined the fight against al-Qaeda, President Pervez Musharraf has said. General Musharraf said the warning was delivered by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Pakistan 's intelligence director. ‘I think it was a very rude remark', Gen Musharraf told CBS television. Pakistan agreed to side with the US , but Gen Musharraf said it did so based on his country's national interest. ‘One has to think and take actions in the interest of the nation, and that's what I did', he said".

[8] Reuters, 1st August 2007.