A revenger's tragedy

The intelligence services and religious extremists were behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto,

Pakistan has a new political leader barely out of nappies. Bila wal Bhutto, 19, has become the new chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), after the assassination of his mother, Benazir Bhutto. The teenager, who has hardly spent any time in Pakistan and speaks virtually no Urdu, will share the responsibility of leading the most powerful political party in Pakistan with his widower father, Asif Ali Zardari, who has become co-chair of the PPP. This is what Benazir has bequeathed to the party and the nation.

Despite all the rhetoric about democracy, the PPP did not even consider holding an election to find a new leader. There are devoted PPP politicians who could have assumed the mantle of leadership - from Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who managed the party during Ms Bhutto's exile, to Aitzaz Ahsan, the brilliant lawyer who led the agitation against President Pervez Musharraf yet was marginalised by her because of his immense popularity. But quite simply, at no time during its existence has the PPP actually practised democracy.

Though she was seen as liberal and west-leaning, Bhutto based her political power on the feudal tenants of her ancestral lands in Sindh. For all that she proclaimed the need for democracy, the PPP, of which Bhutto appointed herself "chairperson for life", is another autocratic fiefdom. It is a family, dynastic business; a Bhutto can only be succeeded by another Bhutto - even if he has to return to Oxford to finish his studies. Ms Bhutto was fully aware of her husband's reputation for authoritarianism and corruption. During her two terms as prime minister, he was known as "Mr Ten Per Cent". Still she appointed him as successor in her will.

"Democracy is the best revenge," Bilawal quoted his mother as saying at his first press conference. In Pakistan, however, this mantra is not as positive as it appears. Politics has become a revenger's tragedy in its regular oscillation between civilian and military rule. Each painful transition creates an agenda of animosity and scores to be settled. When politics begins with the unfinished business of old wrongs, genuine development takes a back seat. The groundwork for another round is evident in the bizarre argument about how Bhutto actually met her death. Did she die from an assassin's bullet, as the Bhutto camp claims? Or from a skull fracture after hitting her head on the lever of her car's sunroof, as the government suggests? Then comes the question of who instigated the murder.

The government claims Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was behind the assassination. It produced in evidence a telephone transcript in which Mehsud, speaking in Pashto, congratulates a lieutenant on the operation. Yet Mehsud has denied any involvement. "It is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman," his spokesman declared. "This is a conspiracy of the government, army and intelligence agencies." The Bhutto camp endorses this view.

Bhutto herself pointed the finger at Musharraf. "I have been made to feel insecure by his minions," she wrote in an email to her friend and confidant in Washington Mark Siegel. "There is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him." People's Party stalwarts also believe that "remnants" from the period of President Zia ul-Haq, who executed Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, intended to kill her. She talked of a state within a state, of around 400 people attached to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who saw her as a threat and would stop at nothing to remove her.

Quite what motivation Musharraf's government would have for assassinating Bhutto, it is hard to discern. He expected her to provide legitimacy for his presidency. Indeed, the very fact that she was eager to participate in the elections put a democratic sheen on his clinging to power. Her death not only weakens Musharraf's position further, but may actually write the final chapter of his rule.

Security experts in Pakistan have little doubt who is behind the assassination. "I am convinced that the intelligence services were involved," says Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the highly acclaimed book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy. Only through the collusion of the security services could both a gunman and a suicide bomber have got so close to Bhutto, she says. Other analysts agree. There seems to be a general consensus that renegade current and former members of the ISI are working with religious extremists to spread a reign of terror.

Benazir Bhutto is the highest-value victim so far, but it is not just the PPP that is being targeted. Almost all Pakistani politicians are under threat. Hours before Bhutto's assassination, an election rally organised by the Muslim League, the party of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was attacked by unknown gunmen. Four party workers were killed. The Muslim League blames a pro-Musharraf party, the PML(Q), for the incident. But Musharraf allies are themselves under attack.

On 21 December, the day of the festival of Eid ul-Adha, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Charsadda District, near Pesha war, during Friday prayers. The intended victim, the former interior minister Aftab Sherpao, escaped unhurt but the blast killed more than 50 people. Even religious politicians, such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders), who has close ties with the Taliban, have received death threats. "The truth is that anyone can be bumped off in Pakistan," says Imran Khan, the former cricketer and leader of the Movement for Justice Party, and it can simply be "blamed on al-Qaeda".

The real function of these threats, attacks and assassinations is to strengthen the hand of the religious extremists and undermine all vestiges of the political process in Pakistan. The intelligence services want to ensure that power remains not just with the military, but with its hardcore religious faction. "Anyone or any institution that can possibly undermine this goal is seen by them as a threat," says Siddiqa. Bhutto was targeted because she was capable of uniting the country against the military as well as the religious extremists. Indeed, most of her criticisms during the campaign were directed towards the extremists and the security services.

Paradoxically, it was Bhutto herself who unleashed these forces. It was under her second administration that the Taliban came into existence with the aid and comfort of the ISI. While she was the first woman to lead a Muslim nation and was seen as secular, moderate and imbued with the liberalism and western approach of her Harvard and Oxford education, Bhutto fostered the politics of elective feudalism in Pakistan.

Under her leadership, the PPP became a vehicle for righting the wrongs of the past - specifically the overthrow and execution of Benazir's beloved father - rather than an institution generating policy and debate about the changing needs of Pakistani society and maturing a new generation of political leaders. Her brother Murtaza Bhutto was killed when he challenged her leadership of the party. His whole family, including Benazir's mother, believes she was behind the murder. Her terms in office were characterised not just by corruption and nepotism, but also by revenge and human rights abuses. She had the largest cabinet in the history of Pakistan; she even made her unelected husband minister for investment, which was generally seen as an open invitation to corruption. A common joke during her second term was that the infant Bilawal had been awarded the portfolio of minister for children.

Musharraf in the balance

These democratic deficits stop the PPP from becoming anything other than a dynastic, feudal institution. Yet such deficits are common throughout the political scene. Most politicians in the country, including the spotless Imran Khan, are feudal landowners. Increasingly, Pakistani politics has become sectional, sectarian and regional, tending to spin the country apart rather than offer a vision of a united and hopeful future. Politicians appeal to tribal, regional loyalties and to their feudal "vote banks". Few, if any, escape being tarnished in the eyes of much of the population.

As a consequence, Pakistani politics and governance have totally failed to resolve the basic dilemmas the country has faced since its creation: what is Pakistan as a nation, as an idea? In Pakistan religion has always been a factor. But is that all there is to Pakistan? How should religion find expression in the life of the nation? There must be more to Pakistanis and their deep attachment to Islam than being swept along on the tide of jihadi ideology and the violence and terrorism it breeds. But how can Pakistan develop an alternative vision of itself as a viable state? When can such a vision become the bedrock of public life? These questions cannot be asked, let alone explored, in the current political climate.

The assassination also leaves the future of President Musharraf in the balance. The former general must be seen as a figure of declining utility to western interests. The armed forces, now one of the most hated institutions in Pakistan, are no longer a monolith. They display the same fissiparous tendencies as Pakistani society as a whole. Pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathies have taken root within the army, the only agency Musharraf supposedly controlled and could use to combat terrorism. His room for manoeuvre was always limited. After Benazir Bhutto's murder, his chances of delivering on any of the hoped-for initiatives in the "war on terror" have evaporated. The last vestiges of US strategy have been destroyed by the gunman and the suicide bomber.

As long as Musharraf remains in power, Pakistan will be unstable, continually teetering on the edge of chaos. Further US or British manipulation of the country's politics will only make matters worse. Even those who would never support religious extremism and are determined to oppose the growth of terrorist sympathies have an intense dislike for US involvement in Pakistani politics. Opposition to the course of US foreign policy since the 11 September 2001 attacks has hardened antipathy and made countering the rise of religious extremism ever more difficult.

Civil society

A great deal of hope is being pinned on the coming elections. Bhutto's death has brought the opposition parties together. All political parties will now participate in the elections, including the Muslim League, the second major party, which had decided to boycott them after the assassination. However, it would be wrong to assume that a PPP victory, based on a sympathy vote, would greatly reduce the underlying, simmering tensions. The extremists and their supporters in the ISI are not through with Pakistan quite yet. The polls will undoubtedly be rigged in favour of Musharraf's party. If his supporters lose power, the scene would be set for further, and open, confrontation between the president and the newly elected government. Far from resolving anything, the elections, which were expected to be delayed until next month, may actually perpetuate the crisis.

The only sign of hope lies in the diverse character of Pakistani society, in which comment, opinion, ideas and debate are vibrant and thriving, powered not least by the emergence of satellite and cable television stations. A civil society exists, which stands apart from politics and the military. Neglected, yet robust, that civil society is the unexplored pole of all the sectional interests in Pakistan. It was elements from this sector - the judiciary, lawyers, human rights groups, news media, non-governmental organisations, students and minor parties - whom Musharraf had to restrict and destabilise to ensure his survival. They offer the prospect of a fresh departure from which a healthier, more sustainable and enduring politics might emerge.

Although the agencies of civil society are themselves still in disarray, they may yet rescue Pakistan from the motley crew of Musharraf, the military, feudal politicians and religious fanatics. Bringing a country where the political process becomes ever more discredited and hostage to violence back to sanity will not be easy, painless or swift: Pakistan is poised to endure a great deal of pain and suffering for the foreseeable future.

the Bhuttos by numbers

4 suffered unnatural deaths (Zulfikar, Shahnawaz, Murtaza, Benazir)

5 studied at Oxford (Zulfikar, Benazir, Murtaza, Shahnawaz and now Bilawal)

$8.6m fine imposed in 1999 on Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, over corruption charges (later overturned)

$1.5bn estimated profits from kickbacks made by Bhutto family and associates, according to 1996 investigation

0 pieces of major legislation passed by Benazir in first term as prime minister

10 per cent Zardari's nickname, on account of dubious business dealings

Research by Alyssa McDonald

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror