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Posts Tagged ‘Benazir’

A Bhutto Critique

This piece, entitled, “Reviewing Bhutto” was first published on Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel:

This past Tuesday, I attended the Washington, D.C. premiere of Bhutto, the documentary about the life of the late Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female prime minister, held at the National Geographic Society. The PBS Independent Lens film, directed by Duane Baughman and produced by longtime Bhutto friend and spokesman Mark Siegel, promised to be “a portrait of one of the most fascinating and complex figures of our time.”

The film lived up to its promise. It was moving, powerful, and successfully humanized a woman and a family that have been an integral part of Pakistan’s history and political landscape.

The strength of Bhutto lies in its ability to capture the personal life and loss of Benazir and the Bhutto family, including her father, former Prime Minister (and President) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, her brothers Murtaza and Shah Nawaz, her mother Nusrat, and her sister Sanam Bhutto. The film includes interviews with a number of analysts of and characters in Benazir’s story, including Sanam Bhutto, Victoria Schofield, Christina Lamb, Reza Aslan, Tariq Ali, Steve Coll, Arianna Huffington, Shuja Nawaz, Akbar Ahmed, Asif Ali Zardari, Peter Galbraith, Mark Siegel, and Benazir Bhutto’s uncle, Ahmad Ispahani. Bhutto was also at times narrated by the voice of Benazir Bhutto, via a never-before-released audiotape, and included moving clips with her children, Bilawal, Bakhtawar, and Asifa.

As a result, the Bhutto clan, whose story has often been likened to a Greek tragedy, is unveiled to the audience as characters in a fascinating narrative. The anecdotes make the family profoundly relatable, and include choice quotes like, “I am not arrogant, I’m intolerant of stupid things,” by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir describing how her father said she “looked like Mussolini” in a newspaper photo of her with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi in 1972.

Benazir w/Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, 1972

The most powerful part of Bhutto, though, was the lead-up to her death. Every Pakistani experienced the loss of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated during a political rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on December 27, 2007. Regardless of how you feel about her policies, Bhutto’s death was a tragedy because no other leader shared her conviction or her courage. As her children noted in the film, their mother returned to Pakistan with an air of finality and determination, despite others begging her not to go. For a woman who had already lost so much, her return to Pakistan was her final sacrifice.

While Bhutto was therefore a strong portrayal of Benazir Bhutto, the woman, the mother, the daughter, the leader, and the fighter, it was nevertheless a one-sided and subjective treatment of Pakistan’s history, as well as of Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister.

The film documents Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rise to power — the formation of the Pakistan People’s Party as a populist political party with the slogan “Food, Clothing and Shelter” (Roti, Kapra aur Makan), and how he later “swept the polls” in the 1970 elections to become Pakistan’s new leader.

Except that’s not exactly what happened. Yes, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won the majority of seats in West Pakistan. But Mujib ur-Rahman, leader of the Awami League, swept the polls in East Pakistan (what is now Bangladesh), ultimately winning the overall majority in the National Assembly. Bhutto refused to accept these results, and the subsequent denial of East Pakistan’s political rights and autonomy ultimately led to the 1971 war, [see here for my visit to the 1971 War Museum in Dhaka]. The film also glossed over the details regarding this war, focusing more on the Indian intervention (on behalf of East Pakistan), than the atrocities committed against the Bengalis or the later establishment of Bangladesh.

Throughout Bhutto, critical voices of Benazir Bhutto were highlighted, but were also simultaneously discounted. For example, when the film touched on the assassination of Benazir’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto, his daughter and Benazir’s niece Fatima Bhutto was filmed emphasizing her belief that her Aunt Benazir was complicit in the murder. However, her testimony was promptly undermined by interviews with Mark Siegel and Sanam Bhutto, Benazir’s younger sister, who said Fatima was very “angry” for what happened to her father. Sanam, in her interview, further emphasized, “You will never see Fatima, granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, or daughter of Murtaza Bhutto. She is always written as Benazir Bhutto’s niece. She is nothing without my sister.

The well-known corruption charges associated with Benazir Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, the current President of Pakistan, were also discounted in Bhutto. Instead, the film framed Zardari’s title, “Mister Ten Percent” as part of a PR campaign orchestrated by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Rather than interviewing well-known and credible voices that could have helped show both sides of the story, Bhutto instead depicts Zardari as a political victim, a portrayal supported further by interviewees in the movie.

Bhutto therefore glosses over the snags in Pakistan’s history where Benazir Bhutto could be seen in a negative light and instead focuses on the positive attributes of her life and journey. As a result, the film is more of a hagiography than an honest documentary, immortalizing a courageous woman who held steadfast to the conviction, “Democracy is the best revenge.” While such a portrayal is undoubtedly moving and inspirational, it also fails to scratch the surface of the complexities of Pakistan’s political landscape and society. It falls short of asking the questions of accountability and transparency that Pakistan really needs to move forward.

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[Image from the AFP]

More than 100,000 grieving Pakistanis gathered at the mausoleum of former PM Benazir Bhutto in honor of her death anniversary today. According to Dawn, “A sea of mourners, some wailing and beating their chests in a wrenching outpouring of emotion, flooded through security checkpoints into the mausoelum in rural southern Garhi Khuda Bakhsh for the commemoration.” AAJ Television cited statements made by President Asif Ali Zardari [Bhutto's widower] during his address to the nation. He said, “In the tradition of a true Benazir Bhutto, she faced certain death rather than abandon her principles or the people…The tyrants and the killers have killed her but they shall never be able to kill her ideas, which drove and inspired a generation to lofty aims.”

Bhutto was assassinated in a gun and suicide attack as she left a campaign rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. At the time, she had been campaigning to bring her party, the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP] to power in the country’s parliamentary elections. According to Dawn, “Benazir is buried alongside her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former premier who was hanged in 1979 by the country’s military regime. Her brothers Shahnawaz and Murtaza, who died in violent circumstances, are also buried in the tomb.”

Some media outlets provided more personalized accounts of Bhutto’s mourners in their coverage. The AFP noted that Tariq Waseem, a 25-year-old student from Balochistan, walked about 400 kilometres (250 miles) over 10 days with about a dozen friends in order to be at Saturday’s event. But unlike his friends, he walked barefoot. He told the news agency, “These are not painful,” pointing with pride at blisters covering his soles. “These are a gift from my martyred leader.”

At the site, GEO Television reported, “Various stalls have been set up where the people are purchasing posters and badges with photographs of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Cassettes of her speeches and songs in BB’s and PPP’s praise were also on high sale.” The Nation added in its coverage, “One year on, Pakistan’s reverence for Bhutto continues unabated — television programs about her life have been running for days, and the government has issued a 10-rupee coin and stamps bearing her portrait.” An interesting article in the Daily Times, entitled, “BB Remembered through Songs and Her Speeches,” reported,

Since Bhutto’s assassination, around 56 audio and video albums focusing on her life and paying tribute to her have appeared in the market. Different companies, like KTN, Marvi production, Jan production, Naz production and Sindh TV, have produced these compilations. Ironically, the CD/DVD release of her last speech delivered at Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi, just minutes before her assassination is a major super hit. According to the records of the wholesale dealers at Rainbow center, “Daughter of the East” (an audio/video compilation) has sold more then 3.3 million copies to date.

The ceremonies today are expected to culminate with special prayers at 05:20 p.m. [PST], “about the time Benazir was attacked,” Dawn noted. Security precautions have reportedly been taken to ward off potential violence today. Dawn reported in its coverage, “A special wall has been erected around the mausoleum as part of a raft of precautions taken to safeguard President Zardari. Closed-circuit cameras have been installed, and mourners were required to pass through metal detectors.”

Benazir’s assassination was an immense tragedy for Pakistan, regardless of what your political affiliation or past feelings were towards the former PM. Her death was actually what inspired me to create CHUP. In my first post, written several weeks after Bhutto’s assasination, I noted, “Today, assassinations of former Pakistani leaders are a tragedy not just because of the person or persons involved but because of the moderate voice that was extinguished in the process.” Benazir’s return to the Pakistani political stage last year was without a doubt courageous, not just because she inspired supporters of her  own party, but because she did it in the face of militant death threats and daily violence. She did not hide behind the safety of closed doors. She delivered many of her speeches in large rallies that inspired those at the grassroots level. Although this populist approach essentially ended her life [she was shot as she left her political rally], she became a larger-than-life figure after her death, evidenced by the countless numbers of people that have gathered to commemorate her death anniversary. So, today, remember what Benazir Bhutto symbolized – someone not afraid to stand up for her country and for her people, regardless of what forces stood against her.

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The party of the assassinated former PM Benazir Bhutto launched the book she completed just days before her death. Entitled, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, Bhutto hauntingly speculates about her own assassination and discusses the issues currently plaguing the country. The Washington Post‘s Pamela Constable wrote today, “There are some things only the dead can get away with saying, and some deaths speak more powerfully than anything the living can write. This book, finished just before its author was assassinated in Pakistan in December, sends out an urgent warning to her fellow Muslims and to Western democratic powers — a warning one hopes may now find greater resonance with both audiences.” According to Constable, who reviewed the book for the Post, “Her book argues that Islam is not incompatible with democracy, but that its credo of tolerance and freedom has been hijacked by purveyors of terror. The real ‘clash of civilizations’ lies within Islam, she asserted, and the West should seek to bolster its moderate center as the best means of countering the radical extremes.”According to the Associated Press on Tuesday, Bhutto’s party, the PPP, said today that the book had been planned long in advance, “But its release could give an extra boost to the party’s cause in the Feb. 18 vote.” PPP spokeswoman, Sherry Rehman, told reporters today, “It is a tragic moment for us, but we feel she is with us in every sense … She is guiding our election campaign.”

Constable’s review concluded, “Despite its flaws of self-indulgence and omission, this book contains a larger truth. Islam does need to find its place as a moderate guiding force for millions of followers in the modern world, instead of being stolen by jihadists and written off as the religion of suicide bombers.” The Post writer emphasized, “Perhaps, however, Bhutto’s destiny was not to rule Pakistan, but to die for the cause of its unfulfilled, fast-dimming promise as a Muslim democracy.”

You can order Benazir’s book on Amazon.

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On Friday, results from the widely-reported Scotland Yard investigation into the assassination of Bhutto’s death dominated press coverage of Pakistan. According to the NY Times this morning, the investigation revealed that Bhutto died after hitting her head as she was tossed by the force of the suicide blast, not from an assassin’s bullet, as some suggested. According to the news agency, “The findings support the Pakistani government’s assertion that Ms. Bhutto died of a head injury, while also dismissing an account that had been greeted with disbelief by Ms. Bhutto’s supporters, other Pakistanis and medical experts.” The Washington Post cited the investigation report, which said, “The inevitable conclusion is that there was one attacker in the immediate vicinity of the vehicle in which Ms Bhutto was traveling.”
Not surprisingly, news sources reported later that Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party disputed the claims, insisting she was killed by gunfire. The PPP spokeswoman, Sherry Rehman, said the party did not reject the findings outright and would give a final reaction once it had fully reviewed the report. However, according to a later-released NY Times piece, she said the PPP is still pursuing its demand for a United Nations investigation and “was no looking into hiring its own private international investigators.” She told reporters, “We are seeking a larger probe into the hidden hands that organized, financed, sponsored and perpetrated this event.” Rehman said the investigators had been working in Pakistan under certain constraints that could call their conclusions into question.To be frank, the bottom line is that BB was assassinated by some kind of terrorist element – and that fact alone represents a much wider problem that has deeper ramifications for the security of this country. Instead of the ‘he said-she said’ debate, we should pay more attention to that overarching issue. [Image from the AFP]

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On Thursday, Pakistani police arrested two suspects in the suicide attack that killed former PM Benazir Bhutto on December 27th. According to the Associated Press, “Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said the two men were arrested in Rawalpindi… but gave no further details.” Cheema added that he expected the two to appear in “anti-terrorism court” Friday but declined to say whether the two were figures in the assassination. The arrests follow those of two more suspects last month, including a 15 year old who was allegedly part of a suicide squad sent to kill Bhutto, [see CHUP post for January 19]. Details surrounding the arrests are vague and conspiracy theories over who perpetrated the attack are still abound, although U.S. and Pakistani officials assert the assassination was masterminded by Beitullah Mehsud, the elusive leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the umbrella organization of Taliban-linked militants that have been battling Pakistani security forces near the Afghan border.
Yesterday, news sources reported that the Tehreek-e-Taliban declared an indefinite ceasefire in this fighting, although the Pakistani military spokesman denied knowledge of such a development, [see yesterday's post for more information]. Today, however, media outlets did note that the government was preparing for peace talks with the militants. According to Pakistan’s The News, the development will likely be “greeted with skepticism by the United States and Pakistan’s other Western allies, who believe Islamic militants exploited a failed truce last year to expand their reach into this turbulent, nuclear-armed country.” The Daily Times reported that the military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, warned that this declaration of a ceasefire by militants “could be a move to regroup for another attack.”Abbas’s assessment was echoed by a piece in the Christian Science Monitor today, which called the development “curious,” adding it further highlighted “the confusion in Pakistan’s tribal areas.” According to the Monitor, “It appears that the militants in the tribal belt are maneuvering for time and space. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has recently been trying to turn the Taliban’s attentions toward Afghanistan, not Pakistan. This cease-fire claim could represent an effort to call off Pakistan operations so that the Taliban can refocus and regroup.” Ahmed Rashid, the author of Taliban [a book, which if you haven't already read, you really should] told the news outlet, “In the past, these cease-fires have resulted in militants being able to bide more time, build up resources, and then make much more effective attacks.” Any solution, Rashid noted, must include restoring moderate tribal chiefs to power, many of whom have fled to Peshawar or Lahore amid the escalating violence and growing Taliban presence. If these leaders don’t return, he said, “you are leaving the region in the hands of these militants.” The military must also integrate FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] into Pakistan in order to reduce the current power vacuum that has allowed to region to be susceptible to extremist influence.

In the continuing effort to blunt the influence of these militant groups, the U.S. confirmed today that they are “helping the Pakistanis double the size of their elite commando force,” reported the International Herald Tribune Thursday. A senior Department of Defense official, Mike Vickers, told the news agency that the U.S. military presence in the country is fewer than 100 people and is focused on “targeted training.” He stated, “It’s been ongoing for a while. They’re expanding their capability substantially; they’re essentially doubling their force. So we’re helping them with that expansion and trying to improve their capabilities at the same time. There’s also some aviation training. It’s been ongoing for several years.” The IHT added, “The number of U.S. forces in Pakistan is a sensitive issue. Many Pakistanis openly support or sympathize with Al Qaeda, the Taliban or other militant groups and would view a sizable American presence in their country as an unwelcome intrusion.”

Given the recent reported developments related to U.S. training and aid to Pakistan, I would be curious to know how Pakistanis in the FATA react to even this reportedly small amount of U.S. presence, given the anti-American sentiment on the ground. In an area plagued by violence, could this influence be depicted in a positive light? Could the Pakistani military do more to aid perceptions in that regard?

Note: the Council on Foreign Relations released an interesting interview with Ashley Tellis on the security situation in Pakistan, as well as a good backgrounder on the various militant groups in the country, [thanks Jessica!]. Image courtesy of the AFP.

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On Tuesday, newswires reported that assassinated former PM Benazir Bhutto‘s party, the PPP (Pakistan’s People’s Party) published her political will, in which she called for her husband to lead the party and said she feared for the country’s future. Reuters cited a party spokesman who said “the will was being released to end any doubts about Bhutto’s wishes for the leadership of the party.” Following Bhutto’s assassination on December 27, her husband Ali Zardari, and her son Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, were made joint chairmen of the PPP. In her political will, reportedly read out to party leaders after her funeral but kept private until today, Bhutto wrote, “I would like my husband Asif Ali Zardari to lead you in this interim period until you and he decide what is best…I say this because he is a man of courage and honor. He spent 11 years in prison without bending despite torture. He has the political stature to keep our party united.”According to Reuters, “Zardari, who was jailed on corruption charges but denied any wrongdoing, is regarded as a divisive figure. But with Bilawal still too young to run for parliament and yet to complete his university studies in Britain, it is Zardari who is the de facto leader of the party as it prepares for a February 18 general election.” The PPP, reported CNN, will restart its campaign this week for the elections following the end of its 40 day self-imposed mourning period. Reuters added, “The PPP is likely to gain a considerable sympathy vote in the parliamentary elections because of Bhutto’s murder.”

However, will this new development and Zardari’s forefront role in the party impact voters’ perceptions of the PPP? According to a profile released by BBC News, Zardari has been seen as a political liability for his late wife’s party. Widely known in Pakistan as “Mr. 10%,” his corruption charges and alleged link to the murder of his brother-in-law Murtaza Bhutto in 1996, have seemingly haunted his reputation. However, even when he first married Benazir, Zardari apparently knew he was the “designated fall guy,” a title he reportedly accepted, according to the BBC. Will this title come to haunt the party now before election time? Have perceptions of Zardari changed since Benazir’s assassination?

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In yet another twist to the unfathomable Bhutto assassination: news sources reported this morning that the Pakistani police has arrested a teenager who was allegedly part of a five-man squad in the plot to kill the former PM last month. According to the AFP news agency, “The suspect, 15-year-old Aitezaz Shah, was arrested from the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan on Friday while planning a suicide bombing during Ashoura.” The Associated Press cited an intelligence official, who said “the 15-year-old told investigators that the five-person squad was dispatched to Rawalpindi, where Bhutto was killed, by Baitullah Mehsud.” Newswires cited Interior Ministry spokesman Iqbal Cheema who stated he had not received information about any arrests, or about any new developments in the Bhutto case. The development further supports previous government allegations that Mehsud and Al Qaeda-linked militants were behind the assassination. However, what’s interesting is whether the recent news – the CIA announcement and the arrest of a teen who allegedly confessed to the crime – changes perceptions about who killed Bhutto. Although the majority of people in the sidebar poll affirm that AQ was behind the assassination, a significant portion of those polled, as well as those surveyed in the recent Gallup Pakistan poll, suspect that government agencies were complicit in the attack. So here’s a question – does this change your mind? Or are you still a skeptic?

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