The Emperor's New Clothes


For Benazir Bhutto, the events of recent weeks must seem like history repeating itself.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile in May 1986 to lead the Pakistan People’s Party, the party that her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founded in the late 1960s. She quickly found herself in a prolonged arm wrestle with military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who was responsible for the military overthrow of her father’s government in 1977 and for his hanging in 1979. She was imprisoned by Zia just before her father’s death and spent the next five years in prison before going to live in the United Kingdom.

Back then, Bhutto also returned to enthusiastic crowds. Her popularity gave her considerable influence, so much so that Zia threw her in prison for a month at the end of 1986.

I was the first diplomat to meet with Bhutto following her return from exile and I recommended that the Australian Government protest her incarceration, which it did. She learnt of our support, which stood the Australian Embassy in good stead.

I arranged for her to meet with other diplomats and later with a select group of heads of mission.

Bhutto conducted a relentless campaign for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Fearless and possessed of great energy, she convinced all but Zia of the need for elections.

The Americans saw Zia as vital in the prosecution of their proxy war against the Russians in Afghanistan. But the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI, was becoming increasingly disenchanted with Zia’s zealotry, which bordered on madness. The ISI gradually convinced the Americans to support a democratic Pakistan headed by Bhutto.

The deal was that the military would keep a tight rein on a Bhutto Government. The way was then open for the ISI to provide some advice and guidance, if not the means, for middle ranking army officers to dispatch Zia. This occurred in August 1988 when a gift crate of mangos that was loaded onto General Zia’s military aircraft during a visit to Sindh Province exploded.

The plane crashed, killing Zia and the American Ambassador, who had accepted a last minute offer of a lift from the President. What a difficult and terrible decision for the plotters who presumably did not have time to clear a change of plan up the line.

The way was now clear for elections to be held. In December 1988 Bhutto was elected Prime Minister and became the first woman to head an Islamic State. Her election brought considerable trade benefits to Australia including lucrative wheat contracts.

However, she soon faced difficulties including a large budget deficit, ethnic conflict, alienation of the military hierarchy and allegations of corruption against her husband, Asif Zardari. On 6 August 1990 she was dismissed by the President.

She remained a political force despite the serious nature of the allegations directed at both her and her husband, and was re-elected Prime Minister in 1993. This term in office was almost as short as her first and in 1996 she was once again dismissed by the President for corruption.

None of the 18 corruption and criminal charges against her husband were proven in court but he spent 8 years in prison nonetheless. He was freed in 2004 with claims that the charges against him were weak.

Bhutto left Pakistan to live abroad in 1999. This year, under pressure from the US, the President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf signed into law an ordinance granting her amnesty from corruption charges which cleared her way to return to Pakistan on 18 October. She is seeking a third term as Prime Minister, although for her to be granted this will involve a constitutional amendment.

Having faced down General Zia and won, Bhutto has the daunting task of going through the whole process again with General Musharraf. This time the task is more difficult.

The ISI is playing complex games with the Taliban and Pakistani fundamentalists.

Religious and ideological differences within the ISI have morphed into power battles which have Musharraf walking a tight rope between moderates and more extreme elements both within the military and civil society.

Balancing these competitive forces has not been easy. But despite US aid and public pronouncements that Musharraf has been a staunch ally in the fight on terrorism, he has not in fact been their man and in his desire to hang onto power he has allowed the Taliban and their supporters inside Pakistan a great deal of latitude.

Seeking to prevent the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from finding him ineligible to be President as long as he remained in uniform, Musharraf declared a state of emergency earlier this month, a favoured move of Pakistan’s military dictators.

The state of emergency and the powers that come with it pose a difficulty for Bush, who has not only declared himself opposed to such forms of government but has shown he is prepared to go to war to remove dictators.

Bush is caught by the contradictions within his ideologically driven and non-negotiable foreign policy. In this case trying to justify what constitutes the difference between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ dictator, which for him is apparently ‘whatever it takes’.

But on Wednesday, faced with Pakistan’s expulsion from the Commonwealth (for the third time in three decades) and a slight ramping up of US pressure, Musharraf shed his uniform, handed over his Military Commander’s baton , allowed another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif , to return from exile and released thousands of people detained under emergency rule.

Agreeing to the return of Sharif is a cynical and desperate move by Musharraf designed as an attempt to spoil Bhutto’s election prospects.

The political atmosphere in Pakistan is not improving. Musharraf and Bhutto now loath each other after it seemed for a while they might forge an alliance of convenience. Sharif and Musharraf are also rivals it was Musharraf who dragged Sharif before the courts, which saw him sent into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The great loser in all of this is the US. Bush has dithered when quite clearly he should have ditched Musharraf . His weakness and that of his Administration is there for all to see. The longer he prevaricates the messier the situation will become and the more it will empower the Taliban and their supporters.

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