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Benazir Bhutto's magic works
M K Bhadrakumar
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October 19, 2007

By any reckoning, a very unusual moment comes when a politician is called upon to pass the test of public support under intense glare of the world community. For former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto [Images], Thursday posed one such dramatic test - crucial even by the extraordinary yardstick of her tumultuous life.

She passed the test, as the bemused world stood by and curiously watched. She still possesses traces of that rare magic when a politician connects with the people, when a politician comes alive and ignites public imagination. The eight years of absence and the numerous scandals surrounding her track record in power, including charges of personal corruption, do not seem to have dented her ability to inspire.

The Pakistani province of Sindh, Bhutto's political base, went into raptures on her homecoming. At the same time, she provokes strong feelings of hostility among powerful sections of opinion within Pakistan as the twin bomb blasts on her convoy in Karachi testify. It is even possible that her attackers include "rogue" elements within the Pakistani establishment. Agent provocateurs are active who would try to put roadblocks on her campaign to mobilise support.      

Obviously, her political opponents take her seriously despite their bravado that her charisma is much diminished. Now comes another test in the coming days. As she travels to the province of Punjab in the coming days, as she will, what will be her reception? Will it match another homecoming - no less fortuitous, no less breathtaking - two decades ago?

Punjab's reaction will be keenly watched. Without Punjab's support, or its acquiescence at the very least, it will be difficult for her to be the monarch of all she surveys as a national leader. No Pakistani politician can hope to make a serious bid for power without mobilising support in Punjab. But the powerful Choudhury clans in feudal Punjab, which ruled the roost there under the Pervez Musharraf [Images] regime, cannot be expected to surrender political space easily to Bhutto. They're surely spoiling for a fight. A scuffle may ensue which could be rough and, in turn, it will significantly determine the calculus of political power in Islamabad in the coming few years.

For the present, it is just about possible to say that democracy might have gained a degree of traction in Pakistan on Thursday afternoon. But there have been numerous similar false starts in that unhappy country. Much remains in the womb of time.

The element of uncertainty still remains whether the "powers that be" - the establishment, which includes the armed forces - will be prepared to accommodate Bhutto. Her return to Pakistan has been almost completely choreographed by Britain and the United States. The Musharraf regime often needed to be dragged by the collar to the promised land of political co-habitation with Bhutto. Top officials of the George W Bush [Images] administration, laden with rich experience in making brutal despots in Latin America behave, repeatedly intervened with the Musharraf regime to play ball - at times cajoling, at times threatening, at times blackmailing.

But beyond a point, Washington cannot act as Bhutto's mentor. Now onward, she must perform mostly on her own. In the past, Pakistani armed forces viewed her leadership with distaste. She may be somewhat better off now, as the new Vice Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, who is expected to succeed Musharraf, is known to her previously as her military secretary in her first government in 1988.

Equally, the Kiani clan wields great influence in the northern Jhelum province of Punjab, and traditionally provided a large chunk of soldiers in the Pakistani army. Kiani, when he succeeds Musharraf, will also have the unique stature as the only boss of Pakistan's ubiquitous Inter-Services Intelligence, known as the ISI, to have ever risen as the head of the Pakistani army. The general will also be a dependable hand in any tricky dealings by a Bhutto government with India. He played a crucial role in the winter of 2001-02 as Pakistan's director general of military operations in keeping tensions with India under check when the two countries got embroiled in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over the terrorist attack on Indian Parliament.

But that will be taking a tardy premature peep into the misty future of Pakistan-India relations that Washington may want to promote under a government in Islamabad spearheaded by the Musharraf-Bhutto-Kiani troika.

For the present, though, Washington's focus will be on two other fronts. First and foremost, Washington would expect the new dispensation in Islamabad to ensure that popular fury within Pakistan doesn't engulf that country, leave alone assume the nature of an uprising, in the event of a US military attack on Iran in the coming months.

Equally, the Bush administration will expect the incoming military-cum-civilian regime to forcefully crack down on the extremist forces getting entrenched in Pakistan's lawless tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan. The Pakistani army would have no more any alibis why its hands are tied from undertaking such an operation.

Washington will expect the civilian components of the new regime - the Pakistan Muslim League faction led by the Choudhury clan, Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman and the Awami Nationalist Party- to hold the fort of public opinion whilst the army cracks down on the militants in the tribal border tracts.

In this risky adventure that is about to commence, Bhutto has a vital role to play. Bhutto's presence is expected to help consolidate the inchoate majority opinion in Pakistan, which militates against radicalism, and views the rising tide of militant Islam with extreme disquiet bordering on abhorrence. Even if they do not share Bhutto's brand of secularism, and are devout Muslims, she can galvanise Pakistan's silent majority and thereby help isolate the forces of extremism, which despite their loud clamour and muscle power are still a marginal phenomenon in Pakistan's body polity.

But this would make her enemy number 1 for the terrorist squads, diffuse and aplenty in today's Pakistan. Similarly, the JUI can provide a useful bridge to the Taliban camp. Though the JUI forms a part of the Deobandi Muslim movement and may pose as ideologically rigid, Rahman himself is in practice a man of many parts. He got along comfortably with Bhutto during her second prime ministership in 1993-96, even heading the Pakistan Senate's foreign relations committee. His inclusion in the new regime will throw the Islamic platform in Pakistani party politics into great disarray and almost certainly reduce them to noisy rubble with no real capacity to bite. Rahman is no stranger to the US security establishment, either - having been a significant protagonist in the Taliban saga.

The ANP is expected to have a go at channelling Pashtun nationalism away from the Islamist path. It enjoys the confidence of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, and can play a limited but useful role in the current process of negotiations with the Taliban. Unfortunately, the ANP is a pale shadow of its past strength (and calibre) in the era prior to the Afghan jihad of the 1980s when Islamism got superimposed on the traditional modes of Pashtun life built around tribal chieftains or maliks. But in the present day circumstances, ANP still provides a much-needed representation for the Pashtun segments that remain defiant of the Islamic leadership dictating the rhythm of their political and social life, though its real clout and gusto remains indeterminate.

The house that the Bush administration has built in Islamabad, therefore, is not bereft of logic altogether. It looks imposing. It has interesting possibilities. But the main uncertainty lies in its durability. Pakistani politicians are extremely quarrelsome. Coalition politics is a very sophisticated form of governance, which requires tact and accommodation. The requisite spirit of give-and-take may be lacking. Also, the corporate interests of the army are bound to cross path with the vaulting ambitions of politicians, especially if the politicians unduly insist on civilian supremacy as they would at some point.

The pervasive "anti-Americanism" in the Pakistani public opinion may seem a problem. But then, the US has not been traditionally upset over its popularity ratings in similar circumstances when the end justified the means. In the entire Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Washington impassively enforced US dominance decade after decade. A key ally like South Korea seethed with "anti-Americanism" in the 1970s and into the 1980s until democracy gained foothold and began tempering the public mood.

Meanwhile, there are three main directions in which the US can help Pakistan. First, by remaining focused on the central point that it is a long haul to bring Pakistan back from its present slide into an increasingly ungovernable country. That requires commitment in intrinsic terms, both in resources and in political capital. Nor can it be a piecemeal approach. It must also take place in a conducive regional environment. But the US has no proven record in nation building. Washington's attention span is usually limited.

Second, the "war on terror" in Afghanistan needs to be redefined. The Afghan insurgency is not a marginal phenomenon that can be eliminated by force. It is well rooted within Afghanistan and in parts of Pakistan. (Arguably, it is relatively stronger within Pakistan). The Taliban should not be mixed up with Al-Qaeda. A negotiated solution to the insurgency is possible.

But, on the other hand, the US (and Britain) should not be cynical by loading the Afghan settlement with a geopolitical agenda. Any attempt to finesse the irredentist Islamist elements in the region as an instrument of geopolitics aimed at perpetuating the Western military presence in the region or for encircling Iran or for advancing the US's so-called "Great Central Asia" strategy will be resented and eventually opposed by other regional powers. At the moment, though, the Anglo-American intentions are far from clear - to say the least. The first step in transparency should have been by widening the gyre of regional involvement in a genuine intra-Afghan dialogue. But the tendency to monopolise an Afghan settlement is what is on continued display. The present selective involvement of the United Nations is not a substitute.

Third, Pakistan must be provided with a guarantee of peace and tranquillity in its Pashtun borderlands. Only by legitimising the Durand Line as a proper, duly accepted international border can this be achieved. Again, Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan is inconceivable, but Islamabad should nonetheless be given the confidence that Pakistan's legitimate influence in Afghanistan will not come under challenge.

Finally, any enduring peace in Afghanistan will remain predicated on that country's neutrality in the geopolitics of the region. The bottom line is the vacation of the Western military presence. But, unfortunately, Afghanistan has come to be the playpen where the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's gumption to assume a global security role is being put to test. Reducing the NATO forces' casualty figures for assuaging European public opinion should not turn out to be the core objective of engaging the Taliban in negotiations.

Continued, open-ended military presence in Afghanistan increases the Western dependence on Pakistan, which, in essence, increases the role of the Pakistani army. Incrementally, the Pakistani army has developed a vested interest in the Western military presence in the region. But that only contributes to the assertiveness of the army in Pakistan's political arena, and, paradoxically, it serves to undermine the foundations of the very same comely architecture that the Bush administration has erected in Islamabad in the recent days and weeks.

The bomb blasts in Karachi on Thursday night do have an ominous ring about them. Admittedly, nerves are on edge in Pakistan. It is a sign of the times that in an early impromptu comment, Asif Ali Zardari, husband of Bhutto, blamed the Pakistani intelligence agencies for the bomb blasts. Bhutto herself demanded the sacking of the intelligence chief. The government promptly assured there is no move to postpone the elections due in Pakistan in January, but suggested all the same Bhutto should eschew public contacts for the sake of her own security. 

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