Bhutto's Blood Is on Bush's Hands

When news first broke of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, I sat in the living room of a judge in Islamabad, glued to the television with an off-duty doctor from the hospital where Bhutto was taken. While the nation and the world continue to reel from the violent death of a world-historical figure, relatively little attention has been paid to the central role of U.S. foreign policy in her demise.

A great many voices have commented on Bhutto's immense historical stature. Others have noted the tremendous loss her death represents to the people of Pakistan and its grave implications for the nation's democracy. Benazir Bhutto was a forceful champion for the downtrodden, the most effective international diplomat Pakistan has ever produced, and an inspiration to millions (and possibly even billions) of people stirred by her service as the Muslim world's first female head of state.

Allegations of corruption dogged Bhutto throughout her public service career, and the essentially hereditary ascension of her son to her party's leadership begs questions about its sincerity in seeking meaningful democracy. But Benazir Bhutto's untimely death renders those questions less relevant than the current leadership's attacks on democracy and the rule of law. Parvez Musharraf's administration has taken a sharp turn over the past year, destabilizing the country and severely undermining freedom of the press, judicial independence, individual liberties, and democratic transparency - all while relying on ongoing White House support.

Over the past year, Musharraf - known here as “Busharraf” on account of Washington's role in propping up his failing dictatorship - has presided over one of Pakistan's most turbulent periods in its 60-year history. While claiming to address extremism, he has instead eviscerated the nation's legal system, curtailed the media and hamstrung civil society, thereby destroying Pakistan's strongest (both institutional and cultural) defenses against fundamentalism. Having twice sacked the Supreme Court's popular and independent Chief Justice and jailed the leaders of the democracy movement, Musharraf has also imposed severe restrictions on the press that continue to stifle debate. In this environment, violence is all too predictable. And the enabling complicity of the U.S. should alarm all observers.

A host of competing theories attempt to explain Bhutto's assassination. The government predictably blamed al-Qaeda within a day, while offering a theory of her death described by BBC as “bizarre.”

Noting Bhutto's prior comments that “elements within the administration and security apparatuses . . . want me out of the way,” members of her family accused the government - either of killing her outright, or for complicity by notorious rogue elements within the government, or at least for offering inadequate security to her campaign - as Bhutto herself alleged before the fact. American authorities have reportedly begun investigating Pakistani special operations forces for their potential involvement.

Others blame Bhutto's husband, Asif “Mr. 10 Percent” Zardari, who plundered state coffers during her rule, allegedly ordered the 1985 and 1996 murders of her brothers in order to eliminate their potential political rivalry, and may have perceived opportunity in his wife's removal. In the wake of her assassination, he refused an autopsy that may have shed light on the cause and is now co-Chairman of the political party she once led.

But regardless of which theory may ultimately prove accurate, each possibility required (for cover, if nothing else) the aggressive presence of extremists in Pakistan - whom Musharraf harbored while duping the U.S. out of roughly $10 billion since 2001, of which allegedly half has been consumed by graft.

Before a brutal show of force at the Lal Masjid this summer possibly intended to impress western media clustered in Islamabad, Musharraf took a soft stance towards terrorism in Pakistan's anarchic tribal areas. He reached an agreement with tribal leaders, under whose noses Al-Qaeda rebuilt itself after being (first trained in the 1970s, and then more recently) expelled by the U.S. from Afghanistan. And Musharraf continues to shelter atomic scientist A.Q. Khan, whose work on nuclear weapons made him a national hero despite passing secrets to North Korea. All this from a military dictator hailed by President Bush as his “critical ally in the War on Terror.”

Earlier this year, opposition forces non-violently rose against Musharraf to challenge martial law. The White House inexplicably maintained its support for his regime, overlooking the subjugation of both the media and judiciary while pressing for elections that can not possibly reflect the preferences of the Pakistani people. Looming in just over a week, the elections are beset by accusations of pervasive bias and lack any pretense of freedom or fairness.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan this October, at the invitation of U.S. officials eager to shore up Musharraf's flagging dictatorship with the veneer of democratic legitimacy. She (and other members of the Pakistani opposition) endured multiple violent attacks in order to challenge Musharraf in the democratic arena, tolerating widespread accusations of early vote-rigging and politicized election administration, as well as restrictions on electioneering and media criticism of the dictatorship. Like Iraqi Kurds and Shiites slaughtered by Saddam Hussein when Bush's father failed to fulfill promises to support their revolution in the 1990s, she paid the ultimate price for answering the White House's call.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice suggested that, “The way to honor [Bhutto's] memory is to continue the democratic process in Pakistan . . . .” But despite the younger Bush's rhetorical support for democracy abroad, the reality of his defending dictatorship both poisoned Pakistan's democratic aspirations and sealed Bhutto's doom. Whether at the hands of extremists or the Pakistani government - or, more likely, collusion among elements within them - Benazir Bhutto's blood stains George Bush's hands.

While recovering from the tumult of riots and looting across their country, and facing shattered hopes and an uncertain future, peaceful Pakistanis must also confront their increasing inability to influence events. Beset by terror and ruled by a dictator who derides the rule of law, the most Pakistanis can hope for is that candidates to restore sanity to the White House reverse America's catastrophic commitment to its incoherent and counterproductive course, and allow the country a chance at self-determination by suspending aid to Pakistan until its judges and journalists are once again free.


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