Pakistan is Explosive in the Wake of Bhutto’s Assassination

[by Gerry Foley]

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is the subject of all sorts of speculation, even over the basic facts of her death. On the latter the explanations range from the claim that she hit her head on a knob (the story of the Musharif government) to she was zapped by a high-tech laser (the version of one doctor and some of her supporters).

Eyewitnesses say she was shot by a clean-shaven young man who stood only a few feet from her car, and that version seems to be confirmed by an amateur video of her procession at the time the assassination took place.

The government is probably anxious to debunk the latter explanation because it would confirm that the state failed to provide serious security for her. However, the Pakistani authorities’ version of the assassination is so improbable and so contradictory and so clumsily presented that it has encouraged the theories about the responsibility of the Musharaf government or at least its complicity in the murder. The Pakistani government’s apparent ineptness in handling the investigation of the assassination is undoubtedly a reflection of its underlying political contradictions.

The outburst of mass rage provoked by the killing make one thing clear: Pakistan has become explosive. The outburst of popular anger was directed not only against the Musharaf government, which has evidently lost any credibility it may once have had, but against U.S. imperialism and the rich and powerful in general. It is notable, for example, how many banks have been attacked and sacked in the rioting.

A Dec. 30 article in the Washington Post pointed up the revolutionary mood in the country: “‘What is really horrifying about the past couple of days is neither the intensity of the violence nor its apparent senselessness, but the fact that there are so many people in the country who have nothing to lose and who believe, perhaps quite rightly, that the normal channels of raising their complaints – the legal and law enforcement systems – are entirely ineffective or biased,’ columnist Hajrah Mumtaz wrote in the English-language Dawn newspaper. ‘The riots were ugly because the root issues feeding them are ugly.'”

The U.S. government is being discredited even more among the Pakistani masses, along with Musharaf, despite its attempts to take its distance from him and pose as an advocate of parliamentary rule, as opposed to military dictatorship. In fact, Pakistan has been ruled by military dictatorships for most of its history and the U.S. has continued to embrace it as a close ally all that time. The U.S. rulers have obviously been looking for a more credible governmental formula in Pakistan as Musharaf’s star has disastrously waned.

The U.S. formula was a deal between the military strongman and the supposed champion of parliamentary democracy, Benazir Bhutto, whose father presided over an episode of parliamentary rule and was executed by a military dictator. Even before the assassination, it was evident that this scheme had failed because Musharaf was unwilling or unable to keep his commitments to Bhutto.

Since Bhutto’s death, documents have been released showing that she feared that he would have a hand in assassinating her and that his regime had plans for rigging the elections that were supposed to take place in January. Moreover, Musharaf had declared martial law in defiance of U.S. criticism in the name of fighting the radical Islamists but directed his repression essentially against the secular liberal opposition and in particularly against Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). His campaign against the secular liberals was actually assisted by Islamic fundamentalists, who seized the PPP leader Imran Khan and turned him over to Musharaf’s police.

Military dictatorship, moreover, is usually a pretty unwieldy and inflexible form of government. As the example of Latin America since 1985 shows, U.S. imperialism prefers bourgeois parliamentary forms when it thinks they can be maintained.

The U.S. was undoubtedly anxious to force Musharaf into a tandem with Benazir Bhutto also because it did not really trust him. Like all the military dictatorships before him, he has relied on the support of Islamists. And despite his fervent denials that he any longer has anything to do with such people and the pious statements by U.S. officials about how great an ally he is in the “war against terrorism,” it would be hard to find any informed observer that thinks that he has broken all his ties with Islamists and purged them from the state organs.

The fact that some Islamists have tried to assassinate him several times does not mean that Musharaf has no deals with them. Islamist and Pakistani politics are more complicated than that. The involvement of the state intelligence agency, the ISI, with such forces is too deepgoing and longstanding.

Furthermore, the existence of the state of Pakistan itself is based on Islamism. There is no other rationale for its separation from India or for uniting the various nationalities that make it up. It is the only major state based on religious identification alone. Even the increasingly theocratic Israel was founded on the idea that Jews were a nation and not a religion.

Even Benazir Bhutto’s own government relied on Islamists. It was under her government that the ISI organized the Taliban, and every Pakistani government has given covert support to Islamist groups engaged in terrorist campaigns against Indian-occupied Kashmir. Complicity with Islamist fanaticism is an integral part of the Pakistani bourgeois state.

Islamism has been a pillar of social conservatism and thus useful both to the ruling class in Pakistan and to U.S. imperialism. It was useful to British imperialism before them. Of course, there are also aspects and varieties of Islamism that appear to poor masses in Pakistan as an alternative to the rule and institutions of a ruling class subordinate to U.S. and British imperialism.

Both the imperialists and the Pakistani ruling class have found Islamists to be very tricky allies, but they have not been able to avoid entanglements with them. And these alliances have involved some very complex balancing, like the U.S. game in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What the assassination of Bhutto and the mass response to it shows is that the frustration of the masses in Pakistan has reached the point where it is very difficult for the conservative interests to find a formula for containing it. The elections have now been postponed, but it seems almost certain that they will be a disaster for Musharaf, and that no bourgeois opposition party is going to dare make any visible deals with him.

Moreover, the immediate beneficiary of the mass outrage at the assassination of Bhutto will undoubtedly be her party, which has extreme contradictions. For example, the appointment of her 19-year-old son as her successor shows that although the party has a popular base it is dominated by one rich landlord family.

It is going to be hard for the bourgeois opposition to get rid of Musharaf without weakening the repressive power of the state or without allowing the masses to express their anti-imperialist and anti-ruling-class feelings. Moreover, deals with the Islamists are becoming more difficult.

To some extent, the latter have lost credibility as an alternative to the status quo because they have ruled the frontier provinces for some time without offering any satisfaction to the needs of the masses. They have also become very hot for the decisive bourgeois forces to handle because of their attacks on the state forces and the pressure of U.S. imperialism, with its massive military presence in neighboring Afghanistan.

The most important economic interest of the Pakistani bourgeoisie is also in contradiction to dealing with the Islamists. It needs to be able to benefit from a pipeline carrying Central Asian oil and natural gas to its ports. And that requires a stable Afghanistan, which in turn requires an end to Islamist insurgency there and in the Pakistani border areas.

All of these factors point to a deepening instability of the Pakistani state and the possibility of a social explosion that could shake the entire region.

Moreover, it could be an explosion of a magnitude that could go far beyond the demagogic anti-imperialism of the Islamists and really challenge the imperialist world order.

A number of commentators in the bourgeois press have expressed a certain premonition of this by warning that the situation in Pakistan may become the biggest danger the U.S. faces in the region. The threat to the imperialist order posed by a social explosion in Pakistan and the collapse of the bourgeois state is, in fact, much more fundamental and more real than any scenario of the country’s nuclear arms falling into the hands of terrorists or nationalist adventurers. The coming period will be one of intense political debate and experimentation in Pakistan and it is possible that new leaderships may arise that can give some effective expression to the exasperation of the masses.