Bhutto's Assassination Must Lead to War on Islamism

Predictably, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27. Few, herself included, thought she was safe in Pakistan. On the day of her return from exile last October, scores of her welcoming supporters died near her motorcade in Karachi; victims of at least two suicide bomb attacks.

Much of the official international reaction to the assassination used canned expressions of sympathy or outrage alongside the occasional call for finding those responsible for the crime. That task is going to be hard because there are at least three versions of what events actually led to her death. One, very conveniently, has the actual shooter finishing the job by becoming a suicide bomber. What is not in dispute is that militant Islamists were behind the killing. Groups are tripping over each other to take the credit.

The talking heads on TV and print pundits mostly shrugged their shoulders: Pakistan is such a lawless state (true enough) that murder is like a trip to the grocery store. Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, who on his way to discover democracy, was ”encouraged,” only a few weeks ago, by many, to relinquish his dual roles as president and military chief suddenly becomes, for many in the West, the great hope to maintain order in the boiling cauldron that is nuclear armed Pakistan.

What most of the wags don’t get is that Pakistan and the 30-plus year battle for its soul has spawned many of the world’s recent malignancies and conflicts: The Iranian Revolution, the rise of radical Islamism, and the proliferation of Al Qaeda and its various offshoots, including Osama Bin Laden himself.    

Arguably, it all started with the execution of Benazir’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto nearly 30 years ago.

Ten years earlier the world had been a simpler place. The Cold War was simmering between the Soviet bloc and the West. Throughout the world, it was “our SOBs vs. their SOBs”. The nuances of democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press, anywhere outside the US and its Western allies, were just that. Secular, post-colonial, regimes sprang up all over Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Many sought refuge with the Soviets. Of the rest, if we did not like the regime in any of “our countries,” we tried to replace it with another of our liking, often through military intervention: The Philippines and Marcos, Chile and Pinochet, Greece and the Junta Colonels. Supporting repressive clients was the order of the day: Franco in Spain and, very important to this story, the Shah in Iran.

That decade also was crucial to the social development of the United States: Anti-war, anti-establishment and anti-“military/industrial complex” sentiments, along with race and gender issues formed the dominant college/liberal mentality that still permeates the national debate today.

If Henry Kissinger represented the simplistic, conservative, view of the world and its politics, the equally simplistic liberal view was that we could entice the world to our notions of democracy and civic life if only we would stop supporting the Shah, Marcos and Pinochet. And of course get out of Vietnam and similar conflicts. What we gravely missed then is that large swaths of the world, headed by Moslem societies, did not buy our notions.

Pakistan was really the first. Against the backdrop of the ongoing unrest in Iran at the time, General Zia-ul Haq overthrew the “democratically elected” Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and shortly thereafter had him hanged. Bhutto was not liked by the CIA or Kissinger. He was certainly not one of our SOBs having uttered the famous: “We will eat grass” in reference to obtaining the nuclear bomb.

But Zia, not only was not a western democrat, he was the first to unleash the pent up Islamism in a country whose very existence in the first place, splitting from India, was based on just that religion. He couched his intervention, not in the context of the Cold War, but in bringing Pakistan back to true Islam. It was in Pakistan where wide portions of the practice of the Islamic faith became one and the same with what today we would call militant Islamism. Bhutto, to many of his countrymen, was not a good Moslem.

Functioning in the cream of the crop of Pakistani society, where supporters and opponents were blood cousins, he was a westernized dandy, dressed in impeccably cut suits. He was in the tradition of Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh, who had suffered, in the 1950s, a similar fate at the hands of the CIA.

Zia’s tenure in Pakistan, drawing heavily from tribal sensibilities, created a military and intelligence apparatus that was profoundly Islamist. That apparatus spread to neighboring Afghanistan and, eventually, influenced the Taliban. There, Islamists and Osama Bin Laden never really wanted to play along or be cast in the Cold War. Certainly they did not mind getting military aid from the West in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. For us, at the time, the enemy of our enemy was our friend.

If there is any event that destroyed much of idealistic liberalism in the United States (the other one surely must be Al Gore’s recent anthropogenic global warming debate) it was the take-over of Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978, right at the time of the Bhutto trial in Pakistan.

The replacement for the roundly criticized Shah was not a paragon of western values, but rather a man intent on returning an evolving modern country to the middle ages. It had a devastating impact on Jimmy Carter’s policies and brought Ronald Reagan from the political fringes to the presidency of the United States. It changed this society for decades.

The issue that would test the political correctness of today is to question the separating line in Pakistan between Islam and virulent Islamism. We are stuck with Musharraf. A nuclear-armed Pakistan is not something to let fall to Islamists or to a regime that is fuzzy on the subject. The United States has to take a very aggressive posture and Musharraf or his replacement must be forced to clean house. But for starters we need to elect a President who does not exhibit the amazing ignorance or lack of judgment that some of the candidates showed after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

(On a personal note, as a graduate student at Stanford University in 1978 I headed the “Committee to Save Bhutto Now” and we persuaded the university to offer him a professorship, while in prison, hoping that Zia would pardon him and let him come to the United States. It did not work.)