I find myself greatly saddened by the news of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. I met her for the first time when we took a class together on Middle Eastern Politics at Harvard, while she was still an undergraduate. I saw her twice since then, both occasions on visits to Dehli in December 2003 and then again last March.
The event in March was an India Today conclave where she, along with the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was a keynote speaker. She gave a real stemwinder of a speech, attacking Musharraf’s dictatorship for failing to crack down on al-Qaida and terrorism, and urging a return to democracy as the only way to deal with extremist Islam. She talked about wanting an open or “soft” border with India and broader economic cooperation between the two countries, and said that she was deeply embarrassed by the way that her country was associated with terrorism by the rest of the world. She said she wanted the United States to be consistent in its support for democracy, and to realize that its security interests were better served by a democratic government in Pakistan. After the dinner she called me over to her table and said she had read my latest book, and noted that the neocons wanted good things like democracy and human rights, and that it was important not to give up on those goals.
Benazir was a powerful speaker, and was most impressive handling questions. During the 2003 event the Indian audience was at times hostile, and at one point the former Chief of Staff of the Indian Army asked her point blank as to whether she had ever supported terrorism in Kashmir while she was Prime Minister. She swore that she had not, an assertion that met with skepticism by some of the Indians in the audience. But she was quite possibly telling the truth, since she as Prime Minister never fully controlled the Army or the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization that was responsible for many of the attacks there and in Afghanistan. During the March event the Indian audience was completely won over by her; my host noted how courageous she was to be giving that kind of speech in Dehli. She obviously made a lot of enemies in her campaign to return to Pakistan, and has now paid with her life.
There was justifiable skepticism as to whether Benazir Bhutto’s return to political life in Pakistan would really mean a return of democracy. She came from the same narrow elite as many of Pakistan’s democratic politicians, an elite whose corruption tainted democracy and paved the way for Musharraf’s takeover. I think though that she was ultimately right that both Pakistan and the war on terrorism would have been better served by a return to democracy. It is Musharraf who has been responsible for undermining Pakistan’s already weak rule of law, for failing to get control over ISI and the Northwest Frontier, and for destabilizing the country in his effort to hang on to power. But her murder, and the manner in which she was killed (at a campaign rally), now throws the whole political process into chaos. There will obviously be charges that Musharraf, if not complicit in her killing, failed to do enough to protect her. Who can emerge at this point as the country’s legitimate leader is anyone’s guess.