Pakistan News Service

Thursday Aug 18, 2022, Muharram 20, 1444 Hijri

Benazir the Matchless

31 December, 2007

By Anwaar Hussain

Whoever killed her, snuffed out the last major representative of liberal/moderate voices in Pakistan

I met Benazir. I spoke to her.

Some twenty years back, she became the first woman elected to head a Muslim state and was feted as a sensational feminist symbol of modernity. She was only 35. People magazine included her among its Fifty Most Beautiful People. Common Pakistanis started dreaming the dream of free people. She was the central figure in those dreams. She was their symbol.

In early 1989, the newly elected Prime Minister embarked upon a goodwill visit to all military cantonments. A spectacular air show was arranged for her on one of the Air Force bases. The airplanes involved were the American supplied state of the art F-16 aircraft. I was in one of those planes.

When the show was over she asked to meet the pilots. She was brought over to the Air Defense Alert hut where she shared a cup of tea with us all. Being a young woman, she appeared to be visibly impressed by our air dance. Unbeknown to her of course, and to many amongst us too, it was decided before hand that the meager flying allowance that we pilots were getting would be tactfully brought to her attention. Needless to say, young Anwaar, the scribe, was made the scapegoat.

It was thus that on a cue from my commanding officer I approached the Prime Minister and asked her, ” Madam Prime Minister, do you know how much we get paid for these maneuvers that you just witnessed and so liked?” “Why, no” she said. “Less than a taxi driver makes every day” I said. “Also, it was your father the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto who had last raised it more than 15 years back” I further added.

Her gasp of disbelief was audible to all. She called the Defense Minister right then and asked to be reminded of the issue the first thing in the morning in her office. To our pleasant surprise, we found a 500 percent increase in our flying allowance in the very next pay check. Not only that, she also introduced a clause into our pay structures that would make the flying allowance increase automatically every year to keep pace with the inflation. Pakistan Air Force’s fighter pilots are still enjoying that perk.

Not very much later, the dream shattered.

Both her prime ministerial tenures were brought to abrupt halts by the Pakistan Army. In both her terms, stories of her husband Zardari and his cronies making sickeningly large fortunes in less time than one can say the word dollar started doing frenzied rounds in our mess halls. The nation was abuzz with the dizzying tales of unbelievable gluttony and naked nepotism of the husband-wife team and their side kicks. The remnants of Zia’s Jihadis in the armed forces, in the intelligence agencies and in the civil society made sure that those rumors did not die.

Her husband became known as Mr. 10 percent for a whole lot of inventive kickback ventures that weaved across many continents. In 1999, Bhutto and her husband were sentenced to five years in jail and fined $8.6m (£4.3m) on charges of taking kickbacks from a Swiss company hired to fight customs fraud. A higher court later overturned the conviction as biased. Bhutto was abroad at the time of her conviction and chose not to return to Pakistan. Zardari spent eight years in prison before being released on bail in 2004 with no charge proven against him. Despite her repeated claims that the allegations were politically motivated, she was indelibly stained. Mistrusted by the army and the powerful intelligence services, and reviled by Pakistan’s Islamist clerics and parties, she virtually became a pariah.

Then came the ‘War on Terror’ and Benazir’s slow road to rehabilitation.

The Jihadis sired by the USA, mothered by Pakistan, midwifed by some powerful Muslim countries and nurtured by the West, found themselves jobless after a defeated Soviet Union. Bringing along fringe lunatics from all over the Muslim world, they came home to roost and turned their guns on their own countrymen. Pakistan soon earned the dubious distinction of being called ‘the ground zero of terror’.

A convenient 9/11 later, the ‘War on Terror’ started in real earnest. The Pakistan Army’s grand vision of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan quickly folded on itself. The general staff soon backed off from their majestic self-view and started singing the latest American tunes in unison and with great enthusiasm. Six years down the line, a bungling Musharraf, the resurgent Jihadis in Pakistan and a rapidly deteriorating situation in the neighboring Afghanistan, for which Pakistan was always blamed, all fused together into a curious mix carving yet another role for Benazir.

On January 27 2007 she was invited by the United States to speak to President Bush and congressional and state department officials. Washington was concerned, and not too improperly at that, that Musharraf’s insistence on holding presidential elections while remaining as commander-in-chief would make a travesty of his claim to have a democratic mandate. A re-laundered Benazir in the new governmental setup would not only ensure the whole charade seemed a genuine democratic exercise, the Americans would have in Pakistan not only a man but a woman too.

With American blessings, a deal was hatched. Bhutto was given immunity from prosecution on all corruption charges and Musharraf would relinquish his uniform - but only after kicking out the senior judges and chief justice who tried to block him standing for election again. The expectation was that he would remain as civilian president and she would be prime minister.

It was thus that in October this year she embarked upon the fateful journey. She survived a horrific bomb attack on her very first day in Pakistan. Close to 700 hundred people were killed and maimed in that attack. Her enemies, however, were determined. In the very next attempt, her tragic death at the hands of her assassins is only too well known by now. She had to be lucky many times, her enemies only once.

The entire world is stunned at this heinous act. From Moscow to Washington to New Delhi and points in between, dismay, condemnation and rage, along with concern for the stability of this volatile region are pouring forth over her assassination. World leaders lauded her bravery and commitment to democratic reform. International stock markets plummeted. Pakistan is ablaze since then. Full blown loot and arson is going on even as these lines are being written and Army has been called out in many Pakistani cities.

Who killed her?

One thing is clear though. Assassination with suicide bombings is not the work of some petty criminals. It requires resources available only to powerful actors acting at the behest of a state or an organization like Al-Qaeda.

The most obvious suspects, therefore, must be religious militants. Benazir was very vocal against these extremists. She repeatedly said that she will rein them in once in power and seemed genuinely convinced of the cause. Moreover, the very nature of the attack, death by shooting and a suicide bombing in a public place with many casualties, points in that direction. A Taliban commander by the name of Baitullah Mehsood had earlier threatened to send squads of suicide bombers to kill her. Other militants too had made similar threats, saying she was a target because of her perceived close relationship with the west and with the US in particular.

Next in line of suspicion are the field operators, retired are semi-retired, of the powerful Pakistani Intelligence agencies. General staff may have a rethink on strategies, the field operators seldom do, especially when the cause is so thoroughly mixed up with religious zealotry and fervor. These operators had breast-fed the extremists in the heady days of the Afghan Jihad. They just cannot break off from the euphoria of those days when they were the heroes of the whole free world. Even Rambo then used to fight on their side in Hollywood movies. The tide may have turned but they cannot disown their own creations. In all probability, old alliances are alive, the dream is on, the Jihad is on, only the enemy has changed. It is simple as that.

The killers could be either one of the above singly or, having worked closely before, both working in tandem. It is hard to imagine at this time that her political opponents, being non-entities by comparison, or any one else for that matter having planned the kill. The news, though, is coming in thick and fast at this time and you never know.

After the first assassination attempt in October, Benazir blamed the ‘remnants’ of General Zia for the attack. She spoke bluntly about who she believed wanted her dead. “I know exactly who wants to kill me. They are dignitaries of General Zia’s former regime who are behind extremism and fanaticism,” she told the French magazine Paris-Match. Later she blamed “closet supporters” of the militants and spoke of her fear that retired military men wanted her dead. She pointed an accusing finger at the army’s powerful intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

There were death threats even before Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan two months ago after years in self-imposed exile. However, as is with all such assassinations, the truth may never emerge. Nobody knows who killed Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Liaquat Ali the first prime minister of Pakistan, General Zia and a score of other world leaders.

Literally in Urdu language, Benazir means matchless. Her father’s favorite, she was called Pinky by him due to her very pink complexion. Matchless or not, two facts are noteworthy and will not be denied by even her diehard opponents. First, whoever killed her, snuffed out the last major representative of liberal/moderate voices in Pakistan. However corrupt she may have been, no one came close to her in being the liberal symbol of moderation in Pakistan. Next, though a woman, she was the bravest leader Pakistan has ever produced. We are left with weaklings now whose knees are as wobbly as their spines are elastic.

A journey that started for Benazir in UAE’s glamorous Dubai ended in a dusty grave in her family mausoleum in her small ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Bux in the Pakistani province of Sind. The graves of her father and two of her brothers, all killed, are already there. She lies next to her father.

Draped in a tear drenched shroud, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pinky returns to him.

Copyrights : Anwaar Hussain

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