Benazir Bhutto: A friend of Washington


In recent years, Benazir Bhutto put a lot of effort into securing US support for her return to Pakistan, in the hope and expectation that she would become Prime Minister for the third time.


Like other foreign leaders seeking to maximise their influence in Washington, she employed a public relations firm to arrange meetings for her with administration officials, members of Congress and journalists.  The firm, Burson-Marsteller, was paid nearly US$250,000 for work on her behalf in the first six months of 2007 (see How Bhutto Won Washington, New York Times, 30 December 2007 [1]).


Her message to the US administration was that the “dictatorship” of General Parvez Musharraf had fanned the flames of religious extremism in Pakistan and that “a return to democracy” was a necessary condition for dampening them down.  As she wrote on the Op-Ed page of the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal on 8 June 2007:


“For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the number of religious-based parties is rising, and suicide bombings are becoming a common occurrence of daily life. Extremists have expanded their presence beyond the tribal areas into more settled areas like Islamabad, Karachi and Tank. More militias, hiding under the guise of madrassas (Islamic religious schools), have been established since 9/11. …


“Although he resolutely eschews responsibility, Gen. Pervez Musharraf and his regime have stoked these fires. …


“The solution to stabilizing this anarchic state cannot be ‘stabilizing the current regime’ when the regime itself relies on fanning the flames of religious and ethnic terrorism to justify its undemocratic hold on power. 


Pakistan’s counterterrorism objectives will never reach any semblance of success if it is hamstrung by a regime that is dependent on the religious right for its political survival. …


“It is democracy alone that can undermine the forces of religious extremism as well as give hope and opportunity to the people of Pakistan. The spread of political madrassas and militancy across the country during the eight years of Mr. Musharraf's dictatorship proves the point.” [2]


The Bush administration seems to have bought this message, at least to the extent of coming to believe that a Government in Islamabad with Musharraf as President and Bhutto as Prime Minister would be more effective at combating the Islamist enemies of the US in the region than the present Musharraf regime. 


The administration must have believed that, otherwise it wouldn’t have put so much pressure on Musharraf to allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan and lead her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the upcoming general election to the National Assembly, in the expectation that the PPP would win the largest number of seats and she would become Prime Minister.


Why the US should have believed that is not clear.  The rise in Islamist opposition to the Musharraf regime is in large measure a consequence of the fact that since 9/11 he has been co-operating with the US in its so-called “war of terror”.  That opposition is hardly going to be assuaged by his appointment of a Prime Minister that has obviously been forced on him by the US.  On the contrary, it is reasonable to assume it would have had the opposite effect.


To be fair to Musharraf, he had very little option but to co-operate with the US after 9/11.  Famously, the US threatened to bomb Pakistan “into the Stone Age” if it didn’t co-operate.  That was the message relayed by Richard Armitage, then Colin Powell’s deputy in the State Department, to the head of the Pakistan intelligence service (ISI) in September 2001 (see CBS interview with Musharraf on 24 September 2006 [3]).


Musharraf co-operated with the US under considerable duress, knowing full well that a price would be paid for that co-operation in terms of fuelling Islamist opposition to his regime.  Bhutto, on the other hand, courted the US administration in order to get it to put pressure on Musharraf to allow her to return to Pakistan.


The administration didn’t do what she wanted without expecting to get something in return, when she became Prime Minister.  The US has been pressing for more freedom for its forces to operate within Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.  It has been reported that she held out the prospect of fulfilling that wish if she were Prime Minister.


Whether she would have been able to do so in practice, if she had lived to become Prime Minister, is a different matter.  In reality, it is unlikely that she would have been able to deliver anything significant for the US and even more unlikely now that the PPP has been deprived of her leadership.  It is a fact of life in Pakistan that no major policy initiatives occur against the wishes of the military leadership and certainly not ones concerned with fighting the “war on terror”.


Having been elected President for a further 5-year term (by an electoral college made up of members of the National Assembly, the Senate and the provincial assemblies), Musharraf resigned as Chief of Army Staff on 28 November 2007.  This has been widely interpreted as an event of great significance, but he will obviously continue to work with the military leadership – as President he continues to be in “Supreme Command of the Armed Forces”, under Article 243 of the Constitution.


Unseat Musharraf

It is possible that a newly elected Parliament will have a large anti-Musharraf majority, which will attempt to take measures that he and the military are opposed to.  It is even possible that the majority will attempt to unseat him altogether if they don’t get their way. 


This can be done under Article 47 of the Constitution, which provides for the President to be impeached on the grounds that he is “unfit to hold the office due to incapacity or is guilty of violating the Constitution or of gross misconduct”.  But it requires at least two thirds of the total membership of the two houses of parliament (the 342-seat National Assembly and the 100-seat Senate) to vote for a resolution to that effect at a joint sitting.  (The Senate is indirectly elected mostly by provincial assemblies).


However, in the unlikely event of Musharraf being unseated, the inevitable result would be another military takeover.


More likely outcome

The more likely outcome now that the PPP is without an effective leader to be the Prime Minister, is that a government will emerge after the election that Musharraf will be able to work with.  The nominal leader of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal, cannot be elected to the National Assembly until he is over 25 in about six years time, that is, at least two elections hence – and being a member of the National Assembly is a necessary condition for being Prime Minister.


Under Article 91 of the Constitution, as President, Musharraf chooses the Prime Minister and this gives him some leverage over the shape of a post-election government.  The more the votes are spread amongst the opposition parties the more leverage he will have.  True, he will not have the freedom of action that he had for the past five years when he had a political ally as Prime Minister with a working majority in the National Assembly.


In the 2002 elections, the PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid-i-Azam) which supports Musharraf had just under 30% of the vote, as did Benazir Bhutto’s PPP (see The Election Commission of Pakistan website [4]).  Nawaz Sharif’s party, the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz), got about 13%.  Both the PPP and the PML-N had to contest the election without their leaders’ presence.


Prior to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, opinion polls seemed to indicate that the PPP would be the largest party after the election, for example, a poll conducted in the latter half of November by the International Republican Institute, a US government-financed group, the PPP was predicted to get 30% of the vote across the country with the PML-N second on 25% and the PML-Q third on 23% [5].


It is generally expected that the PPP will benefit from a sympathy vote as a consequence of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and will definitely emerge as the largest party.  However, in the absence of an effective leader to be Prime Minister, the chances of Musharraf being able to manage a post-election government should not be underestimated.  When he succumbed to US pressure to allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan to lead the PPP, he must have thought that he could manage a government led by her. 


What about Nawaz Sharif

Lest one gets the notion that the US intervention to secure Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming was driven by a pure democratic impulse, it should be noted that the US administration didn’t show the same concern for Nawaz Sharif as it did for her.


Musharraf was persuaded to grant Bhutto immunity from prosecution for corruption.  This was effected by the National Reconciliation Ordinance of 5 October 2007 [6], which granted immunity to all public office holders against whom proceedings for corruption had been initiated prior to 12 October 1999, when Musharraf seized power.  This doesn’t apply to Nawaz Sharif, who is the subject of proceedings for corruption initiated after that date – and at the time of writing he is barred from standing for the National Assembly.


Musharraf was also persuaded to undo the constitutional ban on individuals serving more than two terms as Prime Minister, a ban he got inserted in 2002 to prevent Bhutto and Sharif serving as Prime Minister for a third time.  In principle, Sharif can now be Prime Minister, but he has to get the bar on him being a member of the National Assembly lifted first.



Accusations of public office holders using their office for personal enrichment are two a penny in Pakistani politics.  When such accusations are made by political opponents, it is unwise to believe them without corroboration from independent sources.


However, when a long standing friend of Benazir Bhutto testifies that her husband Asif Ali Zardari had a habit of asking for backhanders, you can be forgiven for taking the accusations seriously.  Listen to the following:


Most of the army’s unease about what they referred to derisorily as the ‘democratic experiment’ came from the growing perception that Pakistan had never had such a corrupt government. The central figure was Benazir’s husband, Asif, who went from being known as Mr Ten Percent to Mr Thirty Percent. As the Financial Times correspondent, I often met foreign businessmen who told me that they were being openly asked for kickbacks to secure government contracts. ‘They’re about as subtle as a train wreck’, said one.


That was written about the first government led by Benazir Bhutto (from December 1988 to August 1990).  It is taken from an article in the Sunday Times on 30 December 2007 [7], written by Christina Lamb who was a personal friend and admirer of Benazir Bhutto for 20 years – she attended her wedding in 1987 and was the only journalist in her vehicle when she was nearly assassinated in Karachi just after she arrived back in Pakistan in October 2007.


Although she was twice dismissed as Prime Minister (in 1990 and 1996) for alleged corruption, Benazir Bhutto was never charged in Pakistan.  Her husband was charged with corruption in Pakistan (and with the murder of Benazir’s brother, Murtaza, in 1996 while she was Prime Minister) but no conviction stuck, though he spent about ten years in jail, being finally released in 2004.


General Zia ul-Haq

Benazir Bhutto’s first term as Prime Minister followed eleven years of military dictatorship under General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.  He had removed her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, from office in 1977 and had him executed in 1979, after a questionable conviction for murder.  Zia ul-Haq’s reign came to an end in August 1988, when he was killed in a plane crash along with other military leaders (and the US Ambassador to Pakistan).


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 meant that Pakistan was of great strategic importance to the US.  Pakistan became the gateway for US (and other) assistance to the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against Soviet rule.  The Pakistan intelligence service (ISI) was intimately involved in this, providing military training and acting as the conduit for money and arms to the mujahedeen from the US and elsewhere.  It goes without saying that in these circumstances General Zia ul-Haq enjoyed Washington’s full support.


Wooing Washington - the first time

After the execution of her father, Benazir Bhutto spent months in prison and years under house arrest in Pakistan but was eventually allowed to leave the country.  She took over the leadership of the PPP in exile in 1984 and set out to woo Washington, as she has done in recent years.  This was no easy task given her father’s anti-American rhetoric and her own radical stance as a young student at Harvard from 1969-73, when she marched against the Vietnam War.  But she succeeded in convincing Washington that she would serve US interests just as well as Zia ul-Haq, in particular, that she would do nothing to disturb the existing arrangements for assisting the mujahedeen against the Soviet rule in Afghanistan.


An election was held in November 1988, a few months after the death of Zia ul-Haq.  Under Benazir Bhutto’s leadership the PPP emerged as the largest party, but just short of an overall majority.  Despite her obvious claims to be Prime Minister, two weeks elapsed without her being asked. According to Peter Galbraith, who helped her woo Washington in the 1980s (and later served as US Ambassador to Croatia), US intervention was crucial to her eventually being invited to become Prime Minister.  He says that “Reagan administration officials went to Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Pakistan’s acting president, and told him that since she commanded the most votes, he would have to invite her to form a government” (see How Bhutto Won Washington, New York Times, 30 December 2007 [1]).  She became Prime Minister on 2 December 1988 and ISI support for the mujahedeen went on as before.


During her second term as Prime Minister, from 1993 to 1996, the ISI switched its support to the Taliban, as an Islamic movement that was bringing some order to the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, when internecine warfare broke out between the disparate elements that made up the mujahedeen.  Shortly after she was replaced as Prime Minister by Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan recognised the Taliban as the official Government of Afghanistan, one of the only two states in the world to do so, the other being Saudi Arabia.  Though it’s not much remembered these days, the US was also on good terms with the Taliban at that time.


The history of Benazir Bhutto’s tenure of office is that she never went against the US interest – which is presumably why Washington felt able to support her return to office for a third time.



On 3 November 2007, Musharraf declared a State of Emergency and postponed the National Assembly election scheduled for January 2008.  So determined was the US administration to see the marriage it had arranged between Musharraf and Bhutto consummated that John Negroponte, Condoleezza Rice’s deputy in the State Department, was dispatched to Islamabad to make Musharraf change his mind – which he did.


While he was in Pakistan, Negroponte had one meeting with Musharraf lasting for two hours.  He spent much more time with General Ashfaq Kiyani, then Musharraf’s deputy Chief of Army Staff, holding three meetings including a Saturday night dinner (see In Pakistan, U.S. Envoy Courts No. 2 General, Washington Post, 21 November 2007 [8]).  Kiyani succeeded Musharraf as Chief of Army Staff a couple of weeks soon after.


Kiyani was Director of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from 2004 to 2007 and Negroponte was the first US Director of National Intelligence serving from 2005 to 2007, so they were renewing old acquaintances.  But, if a functional government fails to emerge after the election, Kiyani may well succeed Musharraf as head of state as well as head of the army.



David Morrison

5 January 2008

Labour & Trade Union Review