The assassin’s age: Pakistan in the world

Fred Halliday
28 December 2007

The consequences of political assassinations - what in Spanish are termed magnicidios - are variable and unpredictable. Some radically change history and inaugurate a new phase in the politics of the country concerned; others, for all their horror and symbolism, do not inaugurate fundamentally new eras.

The 20th century, an epoch punctuated by assassinations as much as by wars or scientific inventions, offers many examples of this variety (see "Political killing in the cold war", 11 August 2005). The most dramatic such event was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in June 1914, which led both to the "great war" and the collapse of the whole European and middle-eastern order that had preceded it. On a smaller scale, the killing of the Colombian politician Jorge Gaitán in April 1948 inaugurated a civil war and a decades-long period of violence that has lasted to this day. A case unnoticed by most outside observers, but with immense consequences for his own country and for its neighbour Pakistan, was the murder of the Afghan communist leader Mir Akbar Khyber in April 1978; this led to a pro-Soviet coup later that month, and opened the way to the three decades of war - and attendant diffusion of Islamist violence across the world - that have followed.

The killing of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 deprived the pro-Oslo forces in Israel of their one commanding advocate. In modern Spanish history the deaths of three political figures - the conservative leader Eduardo Dato (1921), the rightwing monarchist Calvo Sotelo (July 1936) and Luis Carrero Blanco (the dictator Francisco Franco's prime minister, in December 1973), were also moments of dramatic change. By contrast, and for all the drama associated with the events, the death of Anwar Sadat (Egypt's president, in October 1981) and Indira Gandhi (India's prime minister, in October 1984) had no such dramatic, history-changing, impact.

In matters of assassination, it would seem that the 21st century will write its own bloody and varied chapter. Its first few years have seen killings with major political consequences: among them the events of 9 September 2001, when the one Afghan leader with the authority to challenge the then Kabul regime - the guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud- was assassinated by agents of Osama bin Laden disguised as journalists; and the murder of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, which further polarised the national and regional politics of his country, and opened a period of serial targeting of Syria's critics in Lebanon. Now, in December 2007, the killing of Benazir Bhutto reverberates in Pakistan and across west Asia in dangerous and unsettling ways.

A political daughter

The strategic importance of Pakistan - at once opportunity and tragedy - lies less in its internal politics or economic endowment as in its regional location. More than most countries it has a just claim to the overused description "pivotal": as a link between China and the middle east, as a counterpart to India, as the aspirant hegemonic power in Afghanistan, and as a long-standing (if often discreet) military guarantor of the monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

In the cold war, and again in the post-1991 world, Pakistan has played this importance for all it is worth. It has succeeded, above all in matters of nuclear proliferation and the narcotics trade, in escaping almost completely from international sanction. At the same time, the fervid Islamism of some of its political forces, and the seditious ambitions of its intelligence services, have embroiled it over many years in the conflict in Kashmir (to the disgust of most Kashmiris, Hindu and Muslim alike) and, with even greater consequence, in the affairs of Afghanistan.

Herein lies the link between Benazir Bhutto's murder and the other main news story of the moment from the region: the expulsion of two European diplomats from Afghanistan for having talked with the Taliban. This initiative reflects the reality that no military victory over the Taliban is possible, precisely because of the support the movement receives from Pakistani intelligence; while the wider impact of Afghanistan's war has been to augment violence and Islamist militancy in Pakistan itself - fomenting what Benazir Bhutto herself called the "Talibanistation" of its political and social life.

No one who met Benazir Bhutto and talked with her (as I did on several occasions) could forget the experience. She had great intelligence, determination and guts, combined with all the charm, culture and intermittently overplayed grandiloquence of the south Asian post-colonial elite (one thinks, among others, of her contemporaries Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ali, and Imran Khan, no slouches when it comes to self-esteem and sharpness of tongue). In a way typical of members of the political elite of all four successor states to the British Raj (to which Burma could be added), her fiery political commitment was born of loyalty to the memory of close relatives who had lost their lives in political killings - in her case her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself a powerful orator, a mercurial and forceful personality, who served as Pakistan's prime minister 1973-77 and was judicially murdered by the country's military dictator in 1979.

Benazir Bhutto - like Rajiv Gandhi in India (murdered by a Tamil Tiger suicide-bomber in May 1991), Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (whose father was killed when prime minister in July 1947), Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka (widow of prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike, killed in September 1959), and Begum Khaleda Zia (widow of Bangladesh's former military leader Zia ur-Rahman, killed in May 1981) - felt the familial legacy as at once obligation, acquisition of legitimacy, and as a a ticket to political power and wealth (the last element confirmed by the instant, quasi-feudal selection of her husband Asif Ali Zardari and callow student son Bilawal as effective present and putative future leaders of her Pakistan People's Party).

I had direct experience of this combination over dinner at the house of Benazir's American biographer, when I chided Benazir for having contravened her a secular credentials by supporting the Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan. She brought the conversation to an abrupt end with the words: "It was daddy's policy!" I had no answer to that.

The power of presence

As many commentators on her life have observed, Benazir Bhutto had the ambition and ruthlessness of her profession. The last time I saw her was when, in exile in London and somewhat out of the limelight after her second dismissal as prime minister in 1996, she persuaded me to organise a public meeting for her at the London School of Economics (LSE). As the student society in our department, the Grimshaw Club, was happy to host her and arrange the venue, I agreed to do so, on condition that I did not introduce her. I also arranged with the LSE photographer that we would not be pictured together.

At the appointed time - and when her supporters in the front row of the appointed lecture-hall were already in high, party-loyalist spirits - she rang, apparently distraught, to say she had had to return to her house as she had forgotten her lecture notes.

This was, it transpired, a characteristic ploy, designed to give time for the temperature in the lecture-hall to rise. When a composed Benazir did arrive ninety minutes later, with her supporters in even more joyously south-Asian- public-meeting mode, she had the gathering in her hand.

My own part in the event concluded, I returned to my office. I did not see her again. My late LSE colleague Geoffrey Stern, an academic who also hosted many interviews on the BBC, later visited her in Dubai and found her unchanged and undaunted. As part of a series of interviews about leadership with then-prominent politicians (among them Helmut Schmidt, Edward Heath and Lee Kuan Yew) he asked Benazir Bhutto what she most missed about life after taking the decision to enter politics and run for prime minister. Her reply was: "Having a drink with the boys!", words she requested not be included in the broadcast. By such remarks, as much as in her operatic, almost Shakespearean public life, the measure of the person is revealed.

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