28 December 2007

Pakistan for dummies

Like everyone else, I've been following the ongoing political crisis of the past several months in Pakistan, but never really felt like I had my head around it and, after yesterday's assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it's likely to get even more complicated. So let's see if you and I can figure it out like the couple of 'Murican yahoos we are.

In 1999, chief of the army Pervez Musharaf takes power in a military coup after rising tensions between the army and civilian leader Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf is relatively secular and moderate, so after 9/11 we bribe him into becoming a key ally in the War on Terra. (Remember, kids, we like democracy, but it works so much better if we can cut out the middle man!)

But after five years or so of happy vassalage, the strain on the relationship starts to show. Musharraf's complicity in the GWOT is making him increasingly unpopular with his own public which starts to realize that, hey, it's been awhile since we've had one of them "elections." He realizes he now has to play both sides to stay in power, but neither bites. The US in particular is unhappy with his reluctance to crack down on the various Islamist factions who control the remote tribal regions of Pakistan, and begins to question his commitment to Sparkle Motion.
We also conveniently realize it's been awhile since Pakistan's had some elections. Time for some democracy action! Meaning--as it always does--getting someone more compliant to our wishes in power.

Enter Bhutto, a Western-educated former prime minister and scion to a famous political family (the Pakistani version of the Kennedys) who still has a significant base of support inside the country. Both of Bhutto's terms as prime minister ended prematurely on corruption charges, which Bhutto claims were manufactured by political opponents. But other accusation of shady dealings have continued to dog Bhutto and--particularly--her husband Asif Ali Zardari during their Western exile. During Bhutto's time in power, Zardari earned the nickname "Mr. Ten Percent" for his various business dealings. Bhutto, who may once have had radical tendencies many years ago, has since remade herself as a safe, pro-Western secular liberal. (We like secular liberals when they run Muslim countries).

This is where things begin to get (even more) murky. Many sources believe Bhutto had cut a deal with Washington and London to continue their War on Terra' and economic neoliberalism policies in exchange for a Western-negotiated power-sharing deal with Musharraf. We hoped this would simultaneously pacify the pro-democracy uprising among the middle classes and keep the right-wing Islamic forces at bay while still maintaining a Western puppet on the throne. The question here, of course, is why Bhutto would accept such a deal when the recent outcome was always uncomfortably high.

The other natural question is: Who did the deed, then? The best guess seems to be Islamist sympathizers within the lower ranks of the Pakistani security apparatus, which Musharraf doesn't really control, and perhaps doesn't want to. It doesn't seem likely he would jeopardize his already tenuous position by ordering outright the assassination of his main rival. Why not let other elements take their course instead? (He's learned much from Bush and Blair in that regard).

So, what did I miss?

Other readings:

Juan Cole here and at Salon

Tariq Ali on Bhutto from the London Review of Books and The Guardian.

More background from the Socialist Worker (UK)