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Perfidy in Pakistan: Understanding the Bhutto Assassination

JURIST Contributing Editor Ali Khan of Washburn University School of Law says that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is the latest instance of perfidy in a Pakistan whose military leaders have been self-servingly dedicated to America's war or terror...


Te assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto may force Pakistani rulers to reconsider supporting the war on terror that has been forced upon the entire Muslim world. Just as Spain withdrew from the war in Iraq after the Madrid terrorist bombings, Pakistan too might use Bhutto's death to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan. For sure, Pakistan is no Spain. It will be much harder for corrupt Pakistani rulers to say no to billions of dollars coming from America. If Islamabad does not change its devious ways, however, the war on terror will consume and destroy Pakistan.

Subservience and Subversion

Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has been a subservient but subversive ally of the United States. Lacking resources and strong political institutions, Pakistani rulers have played the role of makkar noker (cunning servant) who takes pleasure in servitude but nonetheless resents and subverts the wellbeing of the master. That duplicitous Pakistani officials can outsmart naïve American policymakers has been the defining attribute of Islamabad's furtive foreign policy. This policy may have brought fame and fortune to some military and political individuals, but it has been a proven disaster for the people of Pakistan.

In countering the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, General Zia ul-Haq was overly eager to support the American-sponsored jihad. But Zia strived hard to deceive American officials into believing that Pakistan was nowhere near building the nuclear bomb. President Bush Sr. still resents that Zia lied to him straight face. Inspired by Zia's victorious hypocrisy, General Pervez Musharraf too has played the makkar noker to get huge amounts of money from the United States to fight real and imagined terrorists. The reports are now surfacing that crafty accountants inflated the cost of fuel and ammunition to increase the amount of aid. Furthermore, the aid has been diverted into buying weapons to fight India — an incorrigible obsession of Pakistani rulers.

As a broader principle, though, Pakistani rulers believe that hypocrisy is diplomacy and that duplicity is the sure way to conduct foreign policy in a treacherous world. This crude principle has led to lawlessness at home and deceit in foreign affairs. It has also sunk Pakistan into regional isolation and moral darkness. Furthermore, the makkar noker policy frustrates both friends and masters (Americans) who might have better understood the needs of Pakistan if Islamabad were pursuing a hardnosed but honest foreign policy.

Double-Dealing

The September 11 attacks provided the perfect occasion for the United States to issue “with them or with us” threats to Pakistan that had given birth to the Taliban phenomenon in hopes of fomenting terrorism against India. Musharraf, who at the time was consolidating his illegitimate military coup in Pakistan, had no option but to turn over Pakistan's terrorism policy. In deposing the Taliban but without abandoning them, Pakistani generals saw the opening of a grand opportunity that would bring money, military hardware, hobnobbing with Washington D.C., and influence peddling.

Pakistan's September 11 somersault, however, has been nothing but deceitful. It oscillates between killing and dealing. Pakistani rulers accustomed to duplicity shore up the rhetoric of Pakistan being the frontline ally in the war on terror so that more American aid would pour into the nation's militarized economy. Periodically, poor villagers and school children in the tribal areas are killed to showcase the war on terror. These killings are ritual sacrifices to quench the Bush administration's insatiable thirst for blood - blood as proof that Pakistan is killing Muslim militants. But even Pakistan’s killings are intermittent and convoluted. To frustrate Americans and to confuse the people of Pakistan, the ruling elites frequently flip and make peace with the militants.

The 2007 Red Mosque massacre captures what Lord Macaulay has called "the ambition and perfidy of tyrants." Bearded militants and veiled women occupying the mosque in Islamabad, not far from the halls of secular power, supplied the perfect TV footage to highlight the fears of Islamic radicalism. After doing nothing for months so that the Red Mosque militancy could be fully advertised, the Pakistani military eventually conquered the mosque, killing more than a hundred men and women. A triumphant military spokesman informed the world, "The military part of the operation is over. There are no more gunmen inside the mosque." The White House, delighted to see the Pakistani army butchering radicals and extremists, continued with its pressure mantra: "You aren't doing enough to kill militants." The people of Pakistan were stunned to see the military assault on the mosque. They pointed the finger at America and its operators in Islamabad.

Murdering Bhutto

The double-dealing entered a dramatic phase when the Bush administration persuaded the operators in Islamabad to pardon Benazir Bhutto and allow her to put a democratic face on the war on terror. Bhutto, a dreamer born in a feudal family, was a democracy goddess who relished the sight of worshipping hands waving all around her. Bhutto had the uncanny ability to turn puppetry into a noble policy. Bravely, she went to the heartland of militants to make speeches against violence. Bravely, she met President Karzai of Afghanistan, a despised character in the region. Bravely, she considered working with Musharraf provided the general resigned from the army and put democracy back on the rails. In calculating risks to her life, however, Bhutto overestimated the protection that the American intelligence services might have offered in her fight against Islamic terrorism.

Retrospectively, the Bhutto murder makes perfect sense. Anybody who sides with America can be killed in the Muslim world, knowing that the Al-Qaeda is there to absorb blame. Already, false tapes have been manufactured to 'prove' that the Al-Qaeda-Taliban Axis killed Bhutto. The Axis denies the glory. In murdering Bhutto, Islamabad's perfidy was consummate. The context was flawless. The goddess had challenged the dark forces of evil. And the goddess with Oxford and Harvard connections was a fabulous sacrifice. If assassinated, the people of America and Pakistan could be duped into believing that Muslim militants killed the voice of democracy, the woman. This murder, someone thought, will make it easier to carry on the war on terror. The American money will continue to flow, the generals will remain in charge, the deposed judges will be forgotten, the lawyers will be compromised, and Islamabad will be back in business as usual.

Given the deep roots of perfidy in Pakistan, it is unlikely that the new leadership emerging from the 2008 general elections will abandon the principle of deceit particularly with respect to the war on terror and understand that the nation's foreign policy must be derived from morally sustainable national interests.


Ali Khan grew up in Pakistan and is a law graduate of Punjab University, Lahore. He is currently a professor at Washburn University School of Law in Kansas. His publications are available here.


December 31, 2007


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