Benazir Bhutto always insisted that she was ready to risk her life for democracy in Pakistan. Now the leader of Pakistan’s People Party (PPP) has been held to her word in a singularly tragic way. On Thursday, Bhutto was assassinated in an apparent suicide attack that claimed the lives of 20 bystanders and ended the iconic politician’s campaign for democratic rule.
For good and ill, Bhutto’s career recalled that of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As the founder of the nominally socialist PPP, the elder Bhutto demonstrated what a modern Pakistani politician could be. Educated at Oxford and skillfully conversant in the language of democracy, he naturally appealed to his counterparts in the West. His execution by the military regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1979 only cemented his reputation as a symbol of progress in a decidedly atavistic part of the world.
Yet he also played with peril. The proud father of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program, Bhutto preached the glories of Islamic revival, promising his religious supporters that they deserved an “Islamic bomb” to counter the might of the West. Today, when Islamic radicals like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claim that their countries have a “legal right” to a nuclear program, it is Bhutto’s example that they emulate.
His daughter’s legacy is similarly compromised. Trained at the best American and European schools, including Harvard and Oxford, Bhutto, was a natural in appealing to the Western world’s hopes that the Middle East become a more modern, more tolerant place. Her election as prime minister in 1988 only improved her standing in the West, not least because it made her the first democratically elected female prime minister in an Islamic country. Here, at last, was a woman who could lead the Islamic world from its persistent dark age.
But Bhutto was not always what she appeared to be.
Under her leadership, Pakistan in the 1990s became one the leading patrons of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even as she promised to take her country into the 21st century, Bhutto secretly provided military and financial aid to Islamic guerillas whose ideology placed them closer to the middle ages. Publicly, she rejected any affiliation with the Taliban. Behind closed doors, she subscribed to the view that they were a pro-Pakistan force that could help stabilize Afghanistan.
Duped by Bhutto’s act was the Clinton administration and prominent Democratic Congressmen like Texas Rep. Charlie Wilson. As reporter Steve Coll noted in Ghost Wars, his detailed account of the rise of Islamic fanaticism in Afghanistan, when it came to supporting the Taliban, “Bhutto had decided that it was more important to appease the Pakistani army and intelligence services than to level with her American friends.”
Even then, there were those who cautioned that Islamic militants, once empowered, would prove impossible to control. Either out of naiveté or political calculation, Bhutto didn’t listen. Like her father before her, she failed to realize the fanatical force that she helped unleash.
The price for that terrible error in judgment, it now seems, was her life. Of the leading suspects in yesterday’s assassination the most likely would seem to be those Taliban and al-Qaeda forces who have grown increasingly powerful in Pakistan’s lawless northwestern territories. Indeed, just prior to her return to Pakistan after an eight-year exile, a number of death threats surfaced. Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud instructed Islamist cells in Karachi to kill Bhutto upon her arrival. His command was very nearly carried out in the October suicide attack in Karachi that killed 140 people, even as Bhutto escaped unharmed. Bhutto herself suspected the Taliban and al-Qaeda suicide squads were responsible for the bombing in October.
By then, the jihadists had ample reason to hate the woman in the white veil. Despite her initial support for the Taliban, Bhutto ultimately emerged on the right side of the War on Terror. In July, Bhutto backed the Pakistani security services’ siege of Islamabad’s “Red Mosque” after its capture by al-Qaeda affiliated militants. Not a few Pakistani politicians seized on the operation to vilify Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, but Bhutto maintained that it was necessary to send a signal that the government would not yield to Islamic extremists.
Bhutto again landed in the terrorists’ crosshairs when she expressed her support for allowing American forces to enter Pakistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda and other terrorist elements. And she angered more than just al-Qaeda when she promised in September to permit international interrogators to question A.Q. Khan, the rogue nuclear scientist whom Pakistanis revere as a national hero. It does not overstate the case to say that for Bhutto to support his questioning was tantamount to treason in Pakistan; it is a measure of her courage that she did it anyway. As if that were not enough, Bhutto also championed the cause of civilian democracy that Islamists have judged heretical.
On that count, it must be said, Bhutto’s reputation was not without blemish. On the one hand, she won widespread favor in the West with her mantra that extremism was alien to Pakistan, that military rule was responsible for Islamic terrorism, and that she could establish the modern, liberal democracy to which the country truly aspired. At the same time, critics, including her own niece, accused Bhutto of being a corrupt aristocrat who happily would make a deal with the devil -- in this case, General Musharraf -- if it meant placing her in power. Bhutto, they charged, was no ally of democrats.
Whatever the merits of such criticisms, Bhutto’s graver sin was closer to the opposite: exaggerating her country’s readiness for democracy. Her assurance that the democratic process was the strongest weapon against domestic terrorism was directly belied by the evidence. For instance, a November poll by Pakistan’s Daily Times found that a majority of the country opposed sending Pakistani forces to combat Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the country’s north, while an overwhelming majority -- 80 percent -- opposed allowing foreign forces to do so. Not coincidentally, another poll found that some sixty percent of the country had sympathy for Islamist goals, including that “Sharia should play a larger role in Pakistan law.” The violent riots that swept the country in the wake of Bhutto's death are only the latest reason to think that Pakistan lacks a stable foundation for democratic governance.
Far from impeding the jihadist cause, the elections Bhutto urged for Pakistan may well have strengthened it. Just as her belief in the stabilizing potential of the Taliban proved fatally flawed, Bhutto’s faith in democracy looks similarly misplaced. Her Pakistani supporters were not mistaken yesterday when they proclaimed her a “martyr.” But Bhutto was, among other things, a martyr to her own illusions.