The Lessons of Benazir Bhutto

Crafting a better Pakistan policy by studying her achievements.

Benazir Bhutto

Delayed elections are the latest effort by the Musharraf government to limit the power of civilian political parties in Pakistan. In this context, the lessons of Benazir Bhutto’s life and her ghastly death must be a wake-up call to the Bush administration and certainly to its successor: Accepting a garrison state, however disguised, over a legitimately elected civilian government, is an acknowledgment of terror’s emerging triumph in Pakistan. It has always been a short-term, tactical, and doomed solution to the long-term, incendiary problem of security of governance in a nuclear-armed state. The lesson of Benazir Bhutto is that without a long-term and significant investment in civilian political institutions, especially political parties, Pakistan, and with it the “global war on terror,” will be lost. The task is frustrating, requires a significant financial commitment, and is not without risks, but the potential rewards are far greater than a continuing alliance with President Pervez Musharraf.

The killing of Benazir Bhutto crystallized the hopelessness felt by many Pakistanis, trapped between soldiers and suicide bombers. There is no need to romanticize the former prime minister. She was an imperfect leader in a vastly imperfect country where democrats are not made to order. Great expectations were always attached to her, and she could not live up to them all. Still, the immediate verdict has been too harsh (puppet-master of the Taliban and Kashmir insurgencies—a few generals and the ubiquitous intelligence mafia were at that table), and at times almost cartoonish: Pinky Bhutto of Harvard College, master social-political networker.

If that is all we focus on, we will miss much. From her early 20s, Benazir Bhutto was a true civilian politician. That is to say, she was not a creature of the military, as are most prominent Pakistani politicians and bureaucrats and even some journalists. For that personal autonomy, the soldiers hated her. Bhutto lived her life utterly independently, mysteriously fearless and persistent in the face of frightening odds. She was a secular woman leader with a powerful political constituency that she sought to mobilize, first against dictators and then against Islamists. This political constituency must survive and be nurtured in Pakistan if the extremists are to be faced down. Stronger civil society groups and a revived, honorable judiciary are important to Pakistan’s future, but they cannot defeat the extremists without civilian political parties and civilian leaders. Bhutto’s constituency could provide the bulk of the buffer against radical extremists. Certainly, we have seen that the Pakistani army cannot do the job while it also governs Pakistan.

Bhutto was an unflinching woman leader for more than 25 years—in a tribal, feudal, and religious environment that makes Pakistan a cruel and constraining place for women. For all Islamists, rule by a woman is untenable. Where women are to be entirely private, Bhutto was insistently public. Where women must choose between family (good) and public life (bad), she managed both. I will not forget the powerful image of a pregnant Bhutto standing on a tank, taking a salute.

Changing the lives of Pakistani women requires not only international support for education and NGOs. It also required working with a Muslim woman leader—Bhutto—while she lived, to build on her strengths and to help her temper her flaws and learn from her mistakes. For all the talk of Muslim women’s rights, in the end, U.S. policy has patronizingly preferred that the generals take care of them. Although Bhutto could have done more to transform the situation of poor women in Pakistan when she was prime minister, the visible force of her public personality presented possibilities for women that feel irretrievably lost to me today.

In the 1990s, immature civilian experiments in democracy were virtually ignored by the United States, and Bhutto was tripped up by her inexperience, the winner-take-all political culture—and the ever-present gaze of the soldier. Since Sept. 11, the dominant policy argument has been that in order to protect U.S. interests, we must give short shrift to the political aspirations of 160 million Pakistanis—after all, their leaders are corrupt failures, unworthy of investment. And while Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in 2007 showed that an aspirational electoral political culture is very much alive in Pakistan (and she said she had learned lessons from past policy errors), immediately after her death, after all that has happened, we are told that there is still no alternative to Musharraf.

This long-standing, mistaken “no-alternative to Musharraf” policy was dominant in 2007, when it was clear that Musharraf’s men (apparently incorruptible soldiers who have somehow swallowed up large chunks of Pakistan’s economy) had failed to secure the nation. The militants have encroached from the borderlands well into tourist resorts and the nation’s cities.

Even in October 2007, when Bhutto was sent back to Pakistan with the Bush administration imprimatur, the U.S. intention was not to help strengthen a moderate civilian political constituency but rather to use Bhutto’s electoral potential to prop up a dictator in decline. Bhutto was little more than yet another transitional strategy to provide life support for Musharraf—a leader who, some $10 billion in aid later, has proved himself an inept ally. Bhutto took what she could get from the United States and went home. In her brief time there, and unlike her political counterparts, she spoke out daily against the evils of extremism, about who is truly a Muslim. Knowing the risks she took, she kept her eye on the prize: freedom for Pakistan from the shackles both of soldiers and religious zealots—and, of course, a bit of glory for the Bhuttos.

Benazir Bhutto is dead, but studying her achievement might help craft better policy toward Pakistan. She sustained and built up Pakistan’s most important federal political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, no small feat in a country where hardly any large political parties have cohered over long periods. Founded by her father, the PPP has been the locus of politics for many millions of Pakistan’s peasants, workers, people of all provinces but especially Sindh, and a vital home for Pakistani liberals, devout Muslims or not. True, Bhutto was also a feudal aristocrat who saw the PPP (and, occasionally, Pakistan) as a natural fiefdom of the Bhuttos, replete with sycophants. The recent nomination of her teenage son Bilawal as leader of the party, with her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, as regent, is a sign of this attitude. Still, while the PPP may need an infusion of the Bhutto legacy for populist purposes, it can be much more than a family cult. The PPP, could—indeed must—continue to play the vital role of sustaining Pakistani federalism, along with civil society and its judicial and civilian political allies. Asma Jahangir, Pakistan’s foremost human- and women’s-rights campaigner, and Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto’s once bitter prime-ministerial opponent, both came to mourn Bhutto on her final journey home.

Any attempt at a civilian Pakistani future will require external support. To help a legitimate civilian government in Pakistan, the United States and its allies should send a clear message to Musharraf that he must not seek to dismember the PPP as it regroups after the death of its leader. They should also promise a prompt infusion of U.S. aid: $2.5 billion for starters, just a quarter of what Musharraf has reportedly got—to be used solely for social and economic development, dollars that would directly assist the voting public. The United States never offered such significant economic support to civilian governments. For moral and strategic reasons, it must do so if Pakistan is to be secured.

Benazir Bhutto died, as she loved to live, campaigning among the crowds with whom she had always connected. We may never know who killed her, but we do know that the killers feared her political legitimacy, her personal autonomy, and her womanhood. To honor the risks she took and the price she paid, we might consider what she argued in her final campaign: If we cannot jump-start genuine civilian politics in Pakistan and let the soldiers get on with the job of securing the country, we will be one more step down the road to nuclear-armed terror and the guaranteed failure of a democratic option in Pakistan. Bhutto was often wrongheaded, but this time, on the big issues, she got it tragically right.