Before her return from exile in October, Benazir Bhutto reflected on the odds that that she could be killed, by asking herself; ” Do I give up, do I let the militants determine the agenda?”
Narrowly-escaping death in a suicide-attack on her welcome-home convoy in Karachi, Bhutto told crowds at rallies in the lawless North-west Frontier Province (NWFP) that she would ruthlessly clamp down on fighters based in the region. However Bhutto’s own credentials in this regard were never perfect. During her corruption-ridden second term in office in the 1990s, Pakistan supported the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, funnelling cash and guns via the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), hoping to set up a client state to its west, as part of plan to counter Pakistan’s giant foe to the east, India.
Al-Qaeda – whose leadership is said to be hiding in these same tribal borderlands close to Afghanistan –claimed responsibility for killing Bhutto in a statement given to The Asia Times by Mustafa Abu al Yazid, their ‘commander’ in Afghanistan. However do not expect full disclosure on the murder. Pakistan has its own indigenous terror groups, such as the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jangvi, that often serve as al-Qaeda muscle, and are now linked to the Pakistani Taliban, backing the original Talibs in their fight with NATO and the Afghan Army across the border. And influential retired army and intelligence bigwigs have talked-up the Islamist cause, which retains covert sympathisers in Pakistan’s Army and the ISI, Pakistan’s enormously-influential version of the CIA.
That such an attack could take place in Rawalpindi, a bustling market town a few miles outside the administrative capital Islamabad, is telling. ‘Pindi is the General Headquarters of the Pakistani Army – so Bhutto’s murder is something akin to Hillary Clinton being shot while speaking at West Point or outside the Pentagon.
Viewed as the only pro-western alternative to President Musharraff, Bhutto was, as the al-Qaeda caller to the Asia Times put it, “the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen.” During exile, her Edgware Road base in London received a constant stream of visits from the British Foreign Office, and her return home was pushed by the Americans alarmed at the poor form shown by ally President Musharraf in both dealing with terrorists and returning Pakistan to democracy.
The latter required a candidate that could, as was most likely, get the Prime Minister job and carry sufficient support to tackle the extremists. Bhutto’s former rival Nawaz Sharif is, on form, unlikely to take on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the northern and western borderlands. Without her, the US and UK do not think that democratic elections will produce a favourable outcome – either in Pakistan, or in turn, across the border in Afghanistan.
NATO is riven by internal rows over Afghan policy. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates lashed out at member nations ahead of meetings in Scotland on December 15, frustrated by an inability to secure additional helicopters and soldiers. However the successful Iraqi ‘surge’ headed by General David Petreaus may soon free-up additional American troops for Afghanistan, leaving combat-shy contingents from Germany and Italy free to build roads and hold outreach meetings, while Afghans, Americans, British, Dutch and Canadians take on a Taliban hoping to reestablish its heroin-exporting, adulterer-stoning, Buddha-bombing, al-Qaeda-sheltering would-be-caliphate in Kabul.
Even the hitherto-tranquil northern Afghanistan, home to tribes that helped the US and NATO drive out the Taliban after 9/11, is now under assault, as the Taliban, secure in their rear bases in Pakistan, seem to plot a similar north-south pincer movement to the one that brought them into Kabul a decade ago. NATO and Afghan Army troops hold major towns, but the countryside, where most Afghans live, is beyond their control.
The sight of a bickering and divided western force is emboldening the Taliban, who are rear-based in Pakistan, and who regarded Bhutto as merely a western fifth-column parachuted into Pakistan to undermine Taliban plans in Afghanistan. If elected Prime Minister after the now-postponed January 8 elections, Bhutto would have been obliged by her US and UK backers to hit the Pakistan-based Taliban and al-Qaeda much harder than Musharraf, who mixed hardlline counter-terrorism with appeasement, perhaps due to a number of failed assassination attempts on his own life by the same people who killed Bhutto, and still threaten to take him out.
An Islamist takeover in nuclear-armed Pakistan remains a nightmare scenario. The July 2005 London bus bombings and the failed transatlantic airlines plot were traced to the Taliban strongholds that Bhutto pledged to smash. Islamist parties received only 10% of the vote in 2002 elections, and are not likely to fare much better should this round of elections go ahead. But Pakistan’s ongoing political legitimacy crisis gets worse by the day, and the mixture of power vacuum and confusion gives the Taliban and al-Qaeda a real opportunity in Pakistan, which in turn leaves a divided NATO looking vulnerable in Afghanistan.
Simon Roughneen worked in Pakistan in 2005 with GOAL and has reported from twenty countries including Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Indonesia and N.IrelandShow