I interviewed a former U.S. intelligence official knowledgeable about Pakistan about the assassination today in Rawalpindi of Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. While his comments make clear Bhutto was an irreplaceable political figure in the country, and that her political party cannot exist in the same way without her, he also emphasized his belief that Pakistan and its institutions are far more resilient and disciplined than many people in the West may understand. Here is a summary of the interview:
Former U.S. Intelligence Official (FUSIO): Let us never forget that at least in my lifetime we had two presidents shot and one died, and a likely Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy killed and Martin Luther King Jr., all in rapid succession. Before we jump in and [scream that Pakistan is a failed nuclear state] and draw conclusions about collusion. If some guy has one hand on a lanyard and the other on a gun, and he’s willing to blow himself up, whether it’s in Washington or Rawalpindi, if he gets through, he can do his dirty job. It’s a conspiracy theorists’ dream. …
Mother Jones: There’s no doubt that it was some form of Al Qaida who was behind this?
FUSIO: I hate to use that word [because it’s not precise]. “Al Qaida” and the “Taliban” – everybody [in the West] can even spell them both. But it is that crowd – – militant Islamists.
The point is, Bhutto had two things against her: who she was, regardless of the claims that she could reach out to people better than anyone else. [Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister].
The other thing against her is that it is never good for a foreign leader to be perceived as the darling of the American government. I am talking about perception, not necessarily the reality. I’ve been back to Pakistan a couple times recently. The belief not just among the people on the streets, but among the elites, is that America was delivering Bhutto to Pakistan, to lead a coalition government. Whether it’s true or not, every time the plan hit a bump, [deputy secretary of state John] Negroponte was in Pakistan. In terms of perception, there are no coincidences in South Asia.
MJ: What now for Washington’s policy?
FUSIO: My sense is that the American government can send sympathy and condolences and condemn the assassination, and then should shut up.
The next big test is, do we have the election [Pakistani parliamentary elections were scheduled for January 8].
If I were [President Pervez] Musharraf, I would say, tough it out, have elections. People are saying, will he call martial law. If he picks up phone and calls his old “house,” Army house, and asks for martial law, they will tell him, “Thank you for your sentiments on this, I will get back to you.” Does Musharraf call martial law? Can he?
MJ: There is no opposition leader of that stature who can replace Bhutto?
FUSIO: There are no real political parties in Pakistan. Bhutto was the Pakistan People’s Party. If your daddy founds the party, he was made chairman of the party for life, he get killed. The daughter was made the leader of the PPP for life. If you ask anybody to describe party [the PPP], they answer with only one word: Bhutto.
Now, the question, is there a political party after tomorrow? If you jumped and shouted out Aitzaz [Ahsan] – he is the guy, the defender lawyer for the Supreme Court Justice [and a member of the PPP], if you shouted his name, people would say “huh?”
MJ: What now? Does this help Nawaz Sharif?
FUSIO: Nawaz’s return [from exile in Saudi Arabia] was not the biggest event that everyone thought it was.
Now it is highly unlikely that any of three political parties will be able to form a coalition government. Even absent this, it was unlikely that any … could achieve the majority required majority for governing. Now that this [assassination] is thrown into the mix, it is even more unlikely.
MJ: Does anyone benefit from this?
FUSIO: I won’t say who benefits because that implies guilt.
What we’ll get out of this probably, is there really a Pakistan People’s Party that can become a real party? There are no real parties in Pakistan. Except perhaps for the MMA (the coalition of Islamist groups.)
MJ: You don’t sound terribly alarmed.
FUSIO: I’m not. We can do without the media reports that scream that “Pakistan is a failed nuclear state.” I think there is a lot more resilience and discipline within [Pakistani] institutions than we like to believe.