Manipal, India — On Nov. 7 this columnist wrote that Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto's election plans were likely to fail "if she survives." The skepticism over her longevity was because of the threat she represented to both the Punjabi component in the Pakistan army and to the continuation of the military's monopoly over state power.
While President Pervez Musharraf avoided challenging the latter, since 9/11 he has quietly but systematically sought to reduce the suffocating grip of the Punjabis over the army, giving better representation to Mohajirs, Balochis, Pashtuns and even a few Sindhis in the higher reaches of both the military as well as the civil administration. Had there been a teaming up between the wily Musharraf and the mercurial Bhutto, especially after he was made to quit as army chief, the two may have succeeded in leveraging anti-army sentiment in Pakistan enough to send the soldiers back to their barracks.
Since the 1950s, those in uniform have controlled Pakistan's civilian institutions, ensuring that these were melded with the military into a seamless system of preference and privilege to a military that has made jihad a lucrative industry. Especially since anti-U.S. passions rose after the Iraq war in 2003, but dating back to the earlier attempt by Musharraf to put the Taliban out to dry in Afghanistan , the Baloch and Pashtun components of the Pakistan army turned against their chief, to be joined by the Punjabi component shortly thereafter.
While the Baloch and the Pashtun were reacting to the "retreat" from Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq, the Punjabi component turned negative to Musharraf more than two years after the post-Saddam occupation of Iraq made the United States an object of hatred in the Muslim world. This was because, by mid-2005, they were convinced that Musharraf was seeking to eliminate their overwhelming clout in the armed forces. From that time onward, the Punjabi component silently linked hands with those elements in Pakistan's civil society that wanted Musharraf to quit as army chief.
From the end of 2003, the process of rendering ineffective the writ of Pervez Musharraf within the Pakistan army developed -- a trend that accelerated in 2005. By the end of that year, his writ had largely ceased to operate in the services, with obvious consequences for NATO's war in Afghanistan.
It is likely that it was after his backers in the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department were convinced that Musharraf had become an ineffective asset that the plan to yoke him to a civilian public figure was implemented. With characteristic disregard for the ethnic chemistry of the army, the individual chosen as the other half of this pair was Benazir Bhutto. Unfortunately for U.S. policymakers, being Sindhi, Bhutto was regarded as an outsider by the dominant Punjabi component of the Pakistan army.
Also, despite an awareness that she had the Bhutto family trait of heated rhetoric that was seldom translated into reality, her numerous public vows to eliminate the jihadis went down badly in an army that has made jihad into a profitable enterprise, whether it be the battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan or the shadow boxing against the Taliban seen since 9/11. Added to the billions in U.S. taxpayer money have been the profits from the drugs trade, which in South Asia is run out of Pakistan.
Among the voting public, Bhutto's open embrace of U.S. policies and the influence of her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, soured her appeal. By contrast, her rival Nawaz Sharif gained in popularity, having clearly gained the covert backing of the Punjabi establishment in the army, as had deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chowdhury when he challenged Musharraf. Sharif kept up verbal sallies against the unpopular Musharraf, a man that the Punjabi generals were delighted to see run down.
The background noise of anti-Musharraf rhetoric, coupled with more than a nudge from the White House, forced the former commando to doff his uniform and emerge in the unaccustomed role of "civilian head of state," with a Punjabi general, Ashfaq Kiyani, taking over as army chief.
Although Kiyani has the right atmospherics to please the United States -- including a clean-shaven chin and a repertoire of "anti-jihad" buzzwords -- his friends say the new chief's commitment to "winning back the strategic loss suffered in Afghanistan" is total, and therefore that he would place emphasis not on counter-insurgency operations but on the fool's errand of identifying and winning over so-called "moderate Taliban," a process tailor-made to enable the militia to recoup and regroup to a strength sufficient to launch a country-wide assault against NATO in Afghanistan by mid-2009.
Unlike the 1990s, when she helped insert the Taliban into power in Kabul, this time Bhutto seemed a genuine convert to a policy of going after the jihadis, lest they paralyze the machinery of the state with multiple attacks. She was also likely to have reinforced Musharraf's subtle moves to reduce Punjabi influence in the military, aware that she was disliked within this group, and that therefore its potential for trouble needed to be eliminated.
Small wonder that Bhutto was provided with a vehicle with a sunroof to transport her at that final rally in the Punjabi heartland, or that Inter-Services Intelligence-linked spokespersons are seeking to muddy the details of the manner in which she was taken out. Photographs that appear to show a shooter and a suicide bomber reveal that the former fitted into the close-cropped, dark-spectacled stereotype of the intelligence operative.
Although television footage showed him as well as a gun dropped on the ground after the killing, rather than seek to apprehend him, the army-controlled Pakistan administration has gone into overdrive with a theory that very conveniently places the blame on "al-Qaida."
While the suicide bomber may indeed have been linked to the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi or other presumed "al-Qaida" affiliates, it needs to be remembered that almost all these groups have close operational links to the Pakistan military, as does the head of the Intelligence Bureau, retired brigadier Ijaz Shah, who was openly accused by Benazir Bhutto of seeking to eliminate her. Although Musharraf may have wanted Shah to be replaced, since the end of 2005 he has had to cover for the Punjabi component in the army in order to retain some semblance of salience within that institution, and Shah is one of the numerous anti-Bhutto protectees of this faction
The Punjabis within the army would like to see any sympathy wave for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party dissipate enough to enable their nominee, Nawaz Sharif, to win the elections. Unless the Jan. 8 elections are postponed, they are unlikely to be able to damp popular pressure for a withdrawal of the army to the barracks.
For the first time, the majority of the Pakistan public does not believe the army version of events, and is convinced that the murder of the Vassar debutante was carried out by "rogue" elements in the army. And despite his lack of any real control, most believe Musharraf to be the mastermind behind the killing -- though why he would act to take out the only rival of his foe Nawaz Sharif is not explained.
Despite her past, Benazir Bhutto represented the only sane path for Pakistan -- confining the army to the barracks and making Pakistan a genuine federation, where every major nationality would be treated equally. Rather than fall into the waiting embrace of the proponents of Punjabi privilege, who had the best motive for killing the luckless daughter of Z.A. Bhutto, the international community should insist that the Pakistan establishment promotes civilian control of the armed forces, moderation and regional balance. That is the only chance of securing a stable Pakistan.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)