Over the course of 1987, ’88, and ’89, I had occasion to meet with Benazir Bhutto (when she returned to Pakistan to campaign), as well as then Prime Minister Zia Ul-haq, and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Since I was living on and off in Peshawar, I spent most of my time with Afghans — often Commander Abdul Haq, who many Americans thought was a leading candidate to head his nation once it emerged from war. With friends, I drank tea alongside Hamid Karzai, (who was respected, but not on the short list for power). All of these leaders, except Zia, were quite young. They were late baby boomers – energetic, mostly Western educated, and they were all going to be great modernizers.
Now all but Karzai are dead; so far he has been lucky. But it is no wonder that he looked shaken as he spoke of Benazir’s assassination, sacrifice, and martyrdom. Political leaders in the subcontinent and its neighbors rarely die in bed. Bhutto, we surmise, and Haq, were slain by Islamists — specifically by the Taliban in the latter case. Zia was blown up midair, most likely by the Soviets, in a plane packed with his generals and an American ambassador, and presumably for his support for the Afghans. Gandhi was killed by Sikh fundamentalists for an incident involving troops in their temple in Amritsar. This is a violent corner of the world filled with aggrieved groups who lack significant reverence for the rule of law. Even in 1988, U.S. TV networks routinely assigned cameramen and reporters to cover Benazir’s campaign rallies, merely for the purposes of “deathwatch.”
1988 was a long time ago, to be sure, but the stunning amount of acceptance and enthusiasm for Benazir as a national leader has always been surprising. The fact that she is a woman bore less significance than expected among the male masses of her supporters; they believed that she, like her father, would be their champion. Outside of the Northwest Frontier Province people didn’t seem bothered that she was not devout, though they were more or less aware that she was not. Of course a mere 20 years ago really devout government officials were not nearly as common as those who drank and happily socialized with Westerners — even among the Pathans.
Benazir, whose flaws as a leader in her first term were pretty grave, still won re-election to a second term. The tens of millions who voted for her were not then — and I cannot imagine are now — Islamists. They were, by and large, the urban poor who were pretty desperate for a freer, more progressive and prosperous, and less corrupt society. She thought that the majority of Pakistanis who don’t support al Qaeda, and are not Islamists were entitled to a future, and so should we.
As for blaming Zia for seeding the military/intelligence with Islamists — he indeed deserves some blame. But if we are ranking historic culpability, the major villain was, of course, the Soviet Union. Recall the context — Zia took power in a coup against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — who was at least partly a Soviet ally, corrupt, as well as an ostentatious personal libertine. Conservatism, coupled with Islam, looked like an antidote to the cultural woes of the moment. That became an even more plausible (if fallacious) argument when the Soviets marched into Afghanistan, promising a secular future and landing a direct threat to Pakistan and Islam on Zia’s border.
In fighting the Soviets Zia maintained, and the CIA concurred, that fundamentalists (among the mujahadeen) were the best antidote to Communists, and there may have been some truth to that. It may have been wise to bow to his cultural expertise in the early years, but by the mid-1980s it was understood by large parts of the DoD-State-CIA axis that backing the worst of the fundamentalists, especially Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, was a problem that would have ramifications in a postwar Afghanistan. As the covert budget grew, the U.S. could have exerted more power over where our money went. We chose not to do so again and again, for a host of unconvincing reasons spelled out elsewhere. Zia’s assassination, presumably by the Soviets, left the Islamist cells in ISI in charge of that war, without any modifying political influence, and with positive Saudi support. All of this is to say that there is much blame to spread, but we are still paying for Soviet aggression.
— Lisa Schiffren writes from New York.