Pakistan - After Benazir Bhutto's murder

Jan/Feb 2008

The truth about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of the leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Benazir Bhutto, on 27 December 2007, may never be fully known. In fact, no-one can even be sure as to what really killed her. Did she die of a gunshot before a suicide bomber exploded himself, killing 21 people, as the PPP leadership claims? Or was she killed by the aftershock of the explosion, as the police declared in its first public statement? Was there one single attacker or two and, in the latter case, were they acting together or separately? Evidence has been offered for each one of these claims, but none of this evidence is very convincing.

Then comes the question of who is responsible for this murder. Is it the ex-army strong man, president Musharraf, and his military--political clique? However, this seems rather unlikely, as Musharraf needed Benazir Bhutto and her prestige to help him to find a new lease of life. Are the perpetrators part of an Islamic fundamentalist faction or an anti-Musharraf army clique, or a combination of both? This seems more likely. But then, there is no shortage of factions which saw Benazir Bhutto as an obstacle to their political ambitions and would not have stopped at eliminating her if they saw a significant advantage in doing so - including factions within Bhutto's own party, which has a long history of internal political differences and rivalries settled at gunpoint.

Apparently, however, many PPP supporters firmly believed Musharraf and the army to be behind the murder. So, over the days immediately following Bhutto's death, a wave of demonstrations, strikes and riots swept Pakistan, with protesters indiscriminately targeting symbols of wealth, state and military power, while workplaces and shops were closed down and transport was brought to a standstill.

Being "responsible" politicians above everything else, the PPP leaders immediately called on their supporters to stop their protests. Protesters were told to forget about the casualties and injuries caused by batons and bullets among their ranks and to wait for the due legal process to follow its course. At the same time, the PPP leadership was also doing their utmost to make political capital out of the current of sympathy generated by Bhutto's murder among the population. Obviously, what they had in mind was the forthcoming general election originally planned for 8 January, which has now been postponed until the 18 February.

In preparation for this election, the PPP has launched a campaign portraying Bhutto and the PPP as champions of "democracy", "human rights" and "social justice" in Pakistan - in much the same way, in fact, that Benazir Bhutto was portrayed by the western media. Before the murder of Bhutto, such a campaign would probably have caused more hilarity than anything else in Pakistan, if only because, since her return from exile in October, Bhutto was obviously cooking up something with Musharraf and the army behind the scenes. But today, after her murder, the PPP leaders hope to be able to pass her off as some sort of "martyr for democracy" - if not as a "martyr for the cause of the poor" - and to get voters to support PPP candidates, either as a mark of respect for the "martyr" Benazir Bhutto or as a way to express their protest against the murderers, whoever they may be.

All this is nothing but cynical politicking, however. If Benazir Bhutto waged a fight against Pakistan's military dictators, it was only in so far as they turned political power into an army monopoly in which there was too little space for members of the privileged class like her. Such was the real social content of her "fight for democracy" and she certainly paid dearly for waging it, in particular with a number of periods in jail - and maybe with her life, although this remains to be proved.

But what Benazir Bhutto never did - and nor did the PPP - was represent the interests of the poor masses, neither in terms of social justice nor in terms of democratic rights. Bhutto was one representative of the Pakistani capitalist class among others, just as her party is one of the political instruments of this class among others, including the PPP's rivals in the political arena - whether they claim to be "democratic", like the PPP, or not, like the various religious parties - and the army itself, although it is a different type of instrument.

The birth of the PPP

Zulficar Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir Bhutto, was the heir of a rich landowning feudal family from the Southern province of Sindh. He trained in law, first in the US and then at Oxford. In 1957, just as he was beginning his practice in London at the age of 29, he was appointed to the Pakistani delegation to the UN, thanks to his family connections. The following year, after the bloodless coup staged by the army commander-in-chief, general Ayyub Khan, and the imposition of martial law, Ali Bhutto agreed to join the new government, where he was to remain until 1967, holding three different portfolios - energy, industry and, for the last five years, the senior position of minister for Foreign Affairs.

In 1965, the second war against India over Kashmir broke out, with Pakistani troops and irregulars making rapid progress against Indian soldiers. International pressure on both countries (particularly from London, which still had representatives in the general staff of both countries' armies) resulted in a ceasefire after 2 weeks of bitter fighting. Bhutto was in favour of a hard line again India and making no concessions. Eventually, in 1967, Ayyub Khan decided to by-pass his Foreign Affairs minister, Bhutto, and to impose on him a deal with India which involved, among other things, a return to the pre-war border between the two countries. It was over this deal that Bhutto finally resigned from government, thereby emerging as a nationalist opponent of Ayyub Khan's "defeatist line", rather than an opponent of the dictatorship as such.

When Ali Bhutto launched the PPP, in November 1967, he was already, therefore, a seasoned politician. But his political record was to have been minister for a military dictator for 9 years and nothing else. He had never shown any particular interest in "democracy", nor in the poor masses of Pakistan. Above all, his image was that of a ultra-nationalist.

The PPP founding meeting was a small affair, which brought together a handful of members of the Pakistani wealthy elite, whose main common point was their personal loyalty to Ali Bhutto. They defined the policy of the new party with a slogan, which is still its motto today: "Islam is our faith; democracy is our policy; socialism is our economy; all power to the people."

Despite its reference to socialism, therefore, the PPP was not even meant to be an atheist party - even though atheist ideas had already been present for a long time in Pakistani politics. But Bhutto, who was himself an atheist, stated quite cynically that given the backwardness of the Pakistani masses, integrating Islam into his party's political programme was the only way to achieve mass support.

In fact, the PPP's "socialism" had little to do with "socialism" in the Marxist sense of the word, that is, a new form of society which emerges when this one has been freed of capitalist profit by the conscious, collective action of producers, who emancipate themselves in the process. Rather, Bhutto's "socialism" was close to that found among many Third World nationalist politicians of the time, from Nasser in Egypt, to Fidel Castro in Cuba. It was inspired by what appeared to Bhutto as the effectiveness of the methods employed in the USSR and in China.

The PPP's "socialism" required a strong, centralised state machinery, capable of mobilising the energy of the population, even forcibly if necessary - which may not be very "democratic" towards the working population, but this was precisely one of the limitations of Bhutto's "democratic" agenda. This state was to be handed over control of the main industries in order to build the industrial and collective infrastructure which were required in a modern economy. In other words, Bhutto promoted what he called "socialism" because he saw it as the best way to carry out his nationalist agenda in the economic sphere, despite the weakness of the Pakistani capitalist class, but certainly not because because he saw it as a way to emancipate the poor masses from their social enslavement - something that he never showed any concern about!

The PPP's conception of "democracy" did not extend beyond the demand of a British-style parliamentary system based on universal suffrage. Of course, against the backdrop of Ayyub Khan's dictatorship, this was not an insignificant objective, given that the country had never even experienced an election based on any kind of universal franchise since independence. However, this kind of "democracy" had already been shown to work only to the advantage of the privileged classes in other parts of the Third World, such as neighbouring India. Bhutto's choice to confine his "democratic" programme to reproducing, more or less, the institutions of the former colonial power, was not just a tactical choice, but above all a social one.

As to the slogan "all power to the people", probably inspired by his days at the university of California, where it is often said that Bhutto received his "training in socialism", it was merely a demagogic sop designed to bolster the "radical" image of the PPP among the poor masses. Significantly, however, the PPP's programme did not include the need to end the feudal powers and privileges which still existed in most of the country's rural areas. But then, not only were the PPP founders themselves members of Sindhi feudal families (like Ali Bhutto himself), but they did not want to antagonise their peers in the landowning class, whose support they hoped to win against Ayyub Khan. So the issue of feudal powers, which was vital in a country where a majority of the population lived in the countryside, was quietly pushed under the carpet, while grandiose speeches were made on the theme of an abstract "democracy". These were the narrow limits of Bhutto's "all power to the people".

Ali Bhutto's rise to power

There is some irony in the PPP's present cautious and legalistic policy, though. After all, if this party became the largest political force in the country shortly after its launch, it was because of a five-month long wave of social unrest, in 1968-69, involving large sections of the Pakistani masses, which finally brought down the dictatorship of general Ayub Khan, in March 1969. Indeed, it was these events and the fact that the PPP managed to express the opposition to the dictatorship that many of their participants felt, which paved the way for the party's first accession to power, in 1971, with its founder, Zulficar Ali Bhutto, at its helm.

This wave of unrest was not exactly an explosion, but a protracted confrontation involving large numbers of workers, students and peasants across Pakistan. During these five months, most of the country saw industrial strikes, almost daily confrontations in the streets of the major cities, hunger marches by landless peasants and strikes by tenant farmers. Every month, hundreds of protesters were arrested (4,700 arrests in January 1969 alone, at the peak of the wave), dozens were killed and hundreds were injured. But no matter what, others took the place of those who had been arrested, killed or injured and the struggle went on without any respite. Organisations were mushrooming all over the place among those involved in the action, among students, but also, more ominously for the dictatorship, among workers and peasants. Hundreds of thousands of people were looking for a new political perspective, which would remove the army from the political scene forever and put an end to the power of the "22 families" which, according to a slogan often chanted at the time, virtually owned the whole country.

It was during these events that Ali Bhutto began to gain more and more credit, by holding public meetings in which he spoke the radical language that the protesters wanted to hear. In that, Bhutto was significantly helped by two factors. Firstly, the communist and reformist left were either embroiled in the Sino-Soviet split, or, in the case of the established Maoist groups, they were paralysed by Mao's support for Ayyub Khan's regime. Secondly, Ayyub Khan probably did Ali Bhutto a big favour by having him arrested and locked up for a few months after his resignation from government - this allowed Bhutto to appear as a "hero" of the fight against the regime which he had supported for so long.

Eventually Ayyub Khan resigned, handing over power to what was supposed to be a "caretaker" interim regime, under general Yahya Khan, who was meant to organise general elections based on universal franchise. The election was held as planned, in 1970. But its results reflected the split which had been developing for years between the East Pakistan of the time (today's Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (today's Pakistan).

In West Pakistan, the PPP ran a dynamic campaign promising a regime which would provide "food, clothing and shelter" for all, nationalise industries, redistribute the land and "end the monopoly of the 22 families". It topped the poll with the National Awami Party (National People's Party - NAP), a secular reformist party, which comprised most of the Pakistani left, coming a close second.

In East Pakistan, however, the Bangladeshi nationalists of the Awami League (People's League) topped the poll - although, at that point, they were only demanding provincial autonomy. However their victory was so overwhelming that they won 167 of the 169 seats allocated to East Pakistan in the national assembly. This made the Awami League the largest party in the national assembly, meaning that, for the first time since independence, the government would be led by an East Pakistan party.

In the eyes of the army, which had always stood for the specific interest of West Pakistan's landowners and considered East Pakistan as a colony, this was simply unacceptable. Yahya Khan's reaction was to prevent the new assembly from meeting and when, in retaliation, the Awami League got East Pakistan's Provincial Assembly to adopt the decision to secede, in 1971, Yahya Khan sent in the army. It was a bloodbath, in which tens of thousands of workers, peasants and youth, were killed and maimed indiscriminately.

However the Indian government decided to use this as a pretext to cut the Pakistani army down to size and to weaken Pakistan by encouraging the secession. The Indian army marched into East Pakistan and, by mid-December 1971, the Pakistani troops were forced to surrender. Yahya Khan and the top spheres of the army feared an explosion of unrest against the army, now seriously weakened by this humiliating defeat. As a result, four days after the surrender, Yahya Khan resigned and handed all powers to Ali Bhutto, who became the country's first civilian chief martial law administrator, commander-in-chief of the army and president!

So while Bhutto owed his political clout to the 1968-69 wave of protest against the army, he came to power at the invitation of the army, as a last resort to protect the state machinery and the privileges of the capitalist class - even the US paper, The New York Times acknowledged that there was not much choice!

Quaid-i-Awam and the parliamentary dictatorship

In April 1972, five months after taking over power, Bhutto convened the National Assembly elected in 1970 and declared the end of martial law. But he still waited until the beginning of 1973 and the enactment of the new constitution before entirely relinquishing the exceptional powers he had inherited from Yahya Khan, to become prime minister.

It was in the very first period under martial law, that Bhutto introduced the measures which were supposed to provide the foundations of the regime he had promised. Except that they were not introduced by the people entrusted with "all power", as the PPP's slogan called for. They were introduced by an Ali Bhutto who had all the powers of a dictator in his hands.

As a result these reforms amounted to a sophisticated balancing act designed to keep as many sections of the privileged classes on Bhutto's side, instead of seeking to ensure that the poor masses would see these reforms as their own gains, worth defending if they came under attack.

The land reform, for instance, fell short of delivering the promise of large-scale redistribution of land to landless peasants. Nor did it bring in regulations protecting the rights of tenant-farmers or farm labourers. Some big landowners were forced to give away part of their land, but the method used to calculate how much ensured that this part would be tiny. Besides, a by-product of the reform was that it offered the big landowners an incentive to turn to capitalist farming, which meant evicting their tenant farmers and replacing them with labourers. The result was that instead of reducing the number of landless peasants, Bhutto's land reform actually increased it! However, another result was that he retained the support of the big Sindhi and Punjabi landowners, which was really what the game was about.

The nationalisation programme which was started in January 1972 involved all banks and insurance companies together with 31 large heavy industry businesses. But no attempt was made to mobilise bank employees and other workers to stop the wealthy from taking their capital abroad, for fear of alienating the rich families, so that most disposable assets were transferred to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates or the imperialist heartlands. Since the land reform was not increasing agricultural production either, state revenue and currency reserves decreased drastically. As a result, investment in the nationalised industries failed to allow any significant increase in production capacity or even the minimum which would have been necessary to maintain production levels. In the end, all the nationalisation programme succeeded in doing was to provide PPP politicians, senior civil servants and generals with managerial jobs that they could offer around, in return for favours.

Beyond Bhutto's populist language, therefore, the radical reforms which he had promised did not benefit the poor masses, nor were they meant to. In fact, the population of Pakistan was to finish the Bhutto era as it had started it - with the same illiteracy, infant mortality and poverty levels, which were among the worst in the world - while the capitalist class ended up significantly richer, having been given even more ways to milk the state.

The workers who had overwhelmingly supported the PPP in the 1970 elections soon discovered what Bhutto was really about. As early as June 1972, an 11-day general strike took place in the Sindh province after the police had opened fire on the workers of a Karachi factory. Four months later, the 80,000 workers of an industrial estate in the suburbs of Karachi held out for several weeks in a strike over wages, despite many arrests and having to face gunfire from the police and paramilitary units.

This was the true face of Ali Bhutto's "democracy". Many trade union activists had joined the PPP during the unrest at the end of Ayyub Khan's regime. New trade unions had emerged in that period and some remained linked to the PPP in the early days of Bhutto's regime. Bhutto tried to bribe these unions' leaders with official positions in order to turn their organisations into appendages of his government. When this did not work, the activists found themselves arrested under spurious pretexts and provocations were used in order to ban their unions.

What was true in the working class was true in society as a whole. As time went by, Bhutto's and the PPP's tolerance to dissent dwindled towards zero. By mid-1973, special armed units of the state machinery had been formed, using ex-policemen and petty criminals, to serve as the praetorian guard of the PPP. Critical journalists or writers, opposition politicians, trade union or peasant activists, sometimes even dissenting members of the PPP, were beaten up, when they were not simply killed, by these thugs. By the same token, the short-lived freedom of the press during the early days of the regime was soon a distant memory. Newspapers which did not stick to the official line by celebrating the achievements of "Quaid-i-Awan" ("The Leader of the People" - Ali Bhutto's favourite designation for himself), were simply closed down.

How Bhutto laid the ground for his own demise

But what characterised most ominously Bhutto's "democratic" regime, was the vicious war he waged against the Baloch nationalists from January 1973 onwards.

Balochistan, (or Baluchistan) which covers 43% of Pakistan, but includes only 6% of its population, is rich in all sorts of minerals, including coal and iron, as well as oil (more recently huge natural gas reserves have been discovered there as well). The Baloch people, had been split three ways by history and imperial rivalries, between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since the partition of India and the independence of Pakistan, Baloch nationalism had developed, formulating demands for provincial autonomy within a federal Pakistan.

In the 1970 election, the opposition party, the NAP, which was run by left-wing Baloch nationalists in Balochistan, had topped the poll in the province by very far, so that in 1972, it formed the provincial government, while Bhutto appointed an NAP governor to represent the central government in the province. However, this honeymoon did not last long. When the NAP provincial government announced plans to bring feudal privileges to an end across the province, Bhutto took immediate action to stop it - probably fearing that this would set a precedent and might inspire the poor masses in other parts of Pakistan. A series of provocations were mounted against the NAP provincial government to give Bhutto a pretext to dismiss it. When demonstrators took to the streets to demand the reinstatement of the Baloch government, Bhutto sent the army into Balochistan.

The result was a civil war which was not yet over when Bhutto was toppled, in 1977. It was the East Pakistan civil war all over again, except that, this time, it was taking place right in the middle of Pakistan, over almost half of its territory. For years, more than 100,000 soldiers staged a vicious manhunt against the Baloch guerilla units, terrorising the population by every imaginable means in order to deprive the nationalists of the material support they needed. The number of victims on both sides will never be known, but they probably numbered in tens of thousands - not to mention the systematic use of torture against those who happened to be in the soldiers' way, whether fighters or not. A large section of the population was herded out of the traditional territories into so-called "strategic hamlets" where they were subjected to permanent humiliation by sadistic wardens. In the rest of Pakistan, there was little or no protest against this war, partly because of Bhutto's tight control of dissent, and partly because the media was banned from making any reference to the developments in Baluchistan.

An important side-effect of this civil war, given what was to come afterwards, was that it brought the army back into the centre of the political scene. Its defeat in East Pakistan had weakened it to the point where it had had to step back, leaving the political stage to Bhutto and the civilian political parties. This might have been an opportunity for Bhutto to marginalise the army once and for all, in particular by depriving it of its economic power - based, among other things, on large estates given to the military by the British in the colonial days, and a maze of industrial and financial interests organised within so-called "welfare foundations". But Bhutto never dared to go that far, assuming he ever considered it.

On the contrary, his attitude to the army top spheres was always ambiguous. When, after coming to power, he was confronted with the generals' refusal to deal with a police strike inspired by the religious far-right, Bhutto did stage a purge of the general staff. But the man he chose to serve as commander-in-chief and defence minister was general Tikha Khan, also known as the "Butcher of Dacca" for his role in the East Pakistan war - that is, a representative of the hardline right-wing of the army. Subsequently, it was Bhutto who chose another general called Zia ul-Haq to replace Tikha Khan at the head of the army - the very same Zia who was to overthrow Bhutto.

Due to the war in Baluchistan, the army was once again in a position to reassert its role as guarantor of the territorial integrity of the country and social interests of the privileged, thereby making it possible for the generals at the top to rebuild the homogeneity of the officer corps, which had become far too influenced by civilian politics. Moreover, the army was once again in a position to make considerable demands on the budget of the state, to increase manpower and equipment - to the extent that, by the time of Bhutto's downfall, the army was actually larger and more heavily equipped than it had been under the previous dictatorship.

Bhutto appointed Zia as chief-in-command in 1976. The following year he called an election, which was run as a referendum on Bhutto's leadership. The election was so heavily rigged that the official 58% score of the PPP was met with huge riots across the country. This gave the army the pretext it wanted to step in. On 5 July 1977, Zia staged a coup, had Bhutto and thousands of politicians and left activists arrested and declared martial law. Two years later, Bhutto was to be hanged for having ordered the murder of a local leader of PPP who had dared question the government's policies publicly. Obviously, although the accusation may not have been unfounded given Bhutto's record, for Zia, this was merely a pretext to get rid of a symbol. If there were protests against the coup, they were soon silenced. The Pakistani masses did not felt that Bhutto's version of "democracy" - let alone "socialism" - was worth the risk of facing the bullets of the army.

Benazir Bhutto - a corrupt cover for military rule

Ever since its launch, back in 1967, the PPP has remained "in the family" just as has any other "property" that the Bhutto's acquired. After Ali Bhutto was hanged, his wife Nusrat became chair of the PPP. She remained in this position until Benazir Bhutto staged a "palace coup", in the early 1990s, to pre-empt her mother's plans to nominate her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, as party chair. Instead, Benazir got herself appointed as "chairperson-for-life" and Murtaza was sidelined.

Zia's dictatorship lasted until the day in 1988 when his plane crashed, killing with him, a US ambassador and a number of top army generals. Whether this happened by accident or by design, it seems that the army leadership had already decided on a change of tactics. Instead of ruling directly through a military-led government operating under martial law, as it had done during most of the country's existence, it chose to operate behind "elected" governments which it could dismiss and appoint at will, by resorting to ballot-rigging and using the president's power to dismiss the government and/or the national assembly. At the same time, as part of an unspoken deal with the parties which were admitted in government - or at least, one which was never made public - everything concerning the army's internal affairs as well as domestic security and foreign policy remained under military control. Finally, to ensure that politicians did not get too big for their boots and that there was a semblance of political pluralism, two parties were entrusted with the task of forming a government over the following period - Benazir Bhutto's PPP and a newcomer to the political scene, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML), a party created under Zia with army support, in order to create the appearance of a political life.

The PPP had never been a structured party with an efficient machinery and active card-carrying members. In Ali Bhutto's days, the PPP was run as a dictatorship in which involvement was not based on political agreement or convictions, but on a blind allegiance to Bhutto's person. Other than that, as in most traditional Pakistani parties, support was based on patronage. The only originality of the PPP in this respect was that, in its early years, it included in its ranks, workers, peasants and poor people from various backgrounds, who did not belong in this system of patronage. But this difference had largely disappeared by the end of Ali Bhutto's rule.

However, when, following Zia's death, Benazir Bhutto was able to return to Pakistan and to win the general election held in November 1988, the illusion that army rule was over sparked off a wave of enthusiasm which caused a temporary return of the PPP's past popularity among workers and agricultural labourer activists.

But this did not last very long, because right from the beginning, Benazir Bhutto showed her willingness to go along with the military's agenda. In return for the army allowing her to form a government, PPP deputies supported Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the army's candidate in the presidential election. Bhutto agreed to the army's other demands without any resistance. To all intents and purposes, her government was little more than a fig leaf for the army, which allowed the military to rule without being held directly responsible for the policies which were implemented.

It was during this first term in government that Benazir Bhutto gave a leg-up to Islamic fundamentalists. Because she did not have a majority in the National Assembly, she sought allies among the smaller parties. And she chose the JUI (Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam - Assembly of Islamic Clergy), a small fundamentalist party, which had been instrumental in procuring weapons for anti-Soviet Islamic guerillas in Afghanistan. The JUI was also to become the main force behind the vast network of religious schools out of which the Afghan Taleban were soon to emerge. It was thanks to Benazir Bhutto that this ultra reactionary group got access to the resources and leverage attached to being in government.

Other than that, Benazir Bhutto's first term was unremarkable, except maybe that politicians' corruption was even more prominent than ever. But then, this term was very short since, in August 1990, after less than two years in office, she was summarily dismissed as prime minister by the same Ghulam Ishaq Khan that the PPP had helped to become president, under the charge of corruption - an accusation which was all the more credible as Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, was universally known for his shady businesses. Following a duly rigged election in which the PML came first, she was replaced by Nawaz Sharif. This made no change to the status quo, with the army continuing to disguise its dictatorship, this time behind the mantle of Nawaz Sharif's government.

Three years later, the pendulum swung back to Bhutto's camp, when Nawaz Sharif was forced to resign by the military due to his failure to stem regionalist unrest in the sprawling town of Karachi, the capital of the Sindh province. The leading force in this unrest, the Mohajir Quami movement, used the demagogic argument that the PML was mostly Punjabi and could not be trusted with Karachi's interests. With her family background in the Sindh elite, Bhutto appeared as a key to this problem.

Another general election was held and, by the stroke of a magic wand, the PPP won a majority and was invited to form the government. Benazir Bhutto's new cabinet included some figures of interest, among whom were Interior Minister, general Naseerullah Babar (considered to be the mastermind behind the Taleban's rise to power in Afghanistan) and, as Minister for Investment, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's own husband and shady business specialist! Predictably, the takeover of Kabul by the Taleban received enthusiastic backing from Bhutto's government, while the looting of state resources became institutionalised during this second term (it is alleged that the couple accumulated $1.5bn stashed in secret accounts in Switzerland).

This second term was also marked by a particularly ugly illustration of Bhutto's "democratic" policies. In September 1996, Benazir Bhutto's own brother, Murtaza, was ambushed by a police squad and killed on the spot. Murtaza had become a prominent opponent of his sister's corrupted regime. This was clearly the execution of a dissenter, which had been ordered at the highest level of the state. Whether the initiative came from the army or from Benazir Bhutto herself is unknown. But it is unlikely that she knew nothing about it. And the fact is that she never denounced the cold-blooded murder of her brother as an an attack against "democracy", not even later when she was safely in London or in Dubai.

By November 1996 the pendulum swung back again, this time to Nawaz Sharif's camp and Benazir Bhutto was ousted on suspicion of corruption and complicity in the murder of her brother. She then went into exile in order to escape a likely criminal trial. She went first to London and then to Dubai, allegedly to dodge a request for arrest against the couple - issued by Interpol.

The failure of the Musharraf option

General Musharraf's coup, in October 1999, was the last stage of a long stand-off, in which prime minister Nawaz Sharif had been trying to by-pass the army on foreign affairs, while the army had by-passed the government by initiating the Kargil campaign in Kashmir, without consulting with the government. The military coup was a bloodless affair as no-one would have seen the point of defending the PML's kleptocratic regime. The imperialist leaders made all due noises of disapproval against the coup, but it was widely considered that Musharraf had the backing of Washington. Indeed, following the Taleban's victory in Afghanistan - that they had themselves encouraged - US strategists were beginning to fear that it might have unwanted effects in the neighbouring country and, especially, in the 160m-strong Pakistan. And they considered Nawaz Sharif far too dependent on the religious parties to handle such threats.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, Musharraf became even more of an asset for the US leaders due to his willingness to endorse the "war on terror" wholeheartedly - even though, at the same time, he used the religious parties to form a ruling alliance with a breakaway faction of Nawaz Sharif's PML, known as PML-Q. However, it was soon clear that any hope of getting the Pakistani army directly involved in the conflict had to be ruled out. Not only would some units of the army be unreliable should they be used in Afghanistan, but the simple fact of having to use Pakistani air space to fly US bomber aircraft to Afghanistan had been enough to trigger large-scale mass protests across the country. It was not hard to imagine the domestic consequences of a greater involvement of Pakistan in the Afghan war. So Washington confined itself to increasing its funding to the Pakistani military and asking them to ensure, at least, that Pakistan could not be used as a rear-base by the Afghan anti-western guerillas.

By early 2007, eight years after Musharraf's coup, the regime had failed on all counts, whether from the point of view of maintaining any stability in Pakistan itself, or from the point of view of fulfilling the task of containment that Washington had assigned to the Pakistani army. The country was increasingly destabilised by the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, which was no longer confined to distant areas of the Afghan borders, but was now able to find a following and to strike in strongholds of the military dictatorship, such a Islamabad (the capital) and Rawalpindi (where the army's headquarters and administration is located). The border areas with Afghanistan were not only allowing in Afghan guerillas, they had become training bases for Pakistani fundamentalist groups. What had been, so far, the preserve of the inaccessible confines of Pakistani Kashmir, had now expanded to the North West Frontier Province and the suburbs of its capital Peshawar, and to the province of Baluchistan and the suburbs of Quetta. And the more effort Musharraf made to try and contain, at least, his own home-grown terrorist threat, the more recruits he seemed to bring to the terrorist fundamentalists.

The biggest problem for Musharraf, however, came from elsewhere. On the one hand, a large part of the support won by the fundamentalists, particularly in the rural areas, was due to the collapse of any sort of public infrastructure or services. And this was, quite rightly, blamed on the enormous parasitism of the army and on the plundering by the propertied classes that it serves. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the population who were hostile to the fundamentalists and, in particular to their terrorist methods, blamed the situation far more on Musharraf and the regime's alliance with the US against the Afghan guerillas, than on the fundamentalists themselves.

Washington's dream ticket

Against such a backdrop, continuing with direct army rule meant heading towards an explosion in Pakistan. But what sort of an explosion? Would it be one similar to the wave of unrest which brought down Ayyub Khan's regime, or would it be a takeover of part of the country by Islamic forces? Either way, neither the Pakistani army and capitalist class, nor US imperialism were prepared to take the risk. Especially, maybe, not Washington, in a regional context where it is embroiled in two quagmires, in Afghanistan and Iraq, with an uneasy ally such as Saudi Arabia and a still unknown factor, which is Iran's attitude.

Hence the idea which seems to have matured in Washington, to get the PPP and Benazir Bhutto to help Musharraf to recycle himself into the clothes of a "civilian" president - with the army keeping all its prerogatives - in order firstly to stop the destabilisation of Pakistan and, possibly, to develop a more aggressive policy against the fundamentalists, both at home and in Afghanistan, acceptable to the population.

There were multiple problems to this. The judiciary, which is not easily controllable by the army, was determined to use the fact that Musharraf could not legally be both head of the army and elected president, in order to show him the door. Neither could Benazir Bhutto legally go for a third term as prime minister. Besides, she was still liable to criminal prosecution for corruption and embezzlement. Having failed to frighten the Supreme Court into subservience, Musharraf declared martial law on 3rd November. He enacted a special constitutional dispensation for both himself and Benazir Bhutto, to resolve the above-mentioned hurdles and a few others. Significantly, in the early days after the martial law was declared, Benazir Bhutto kept a cautious silence, presumably because she, too, had a stake in it. Yet Aitzaz Ahsan, the president of the Bar Association and a prominent member of the PPP, had been placed in solitary confinement. But then, Aitzaz Ahsan is said to be Benazir Bhutto's main rival in the leadership of the PPP, which may explain her silence. After a while, however, it became clear that Musharraf would use Bhutto's silence to discredit her among her electorate and force her into a position of bargaining weakness with him. Only then did Benazir Bhutto begin to denounce Musharraf's martial law and to defy it.

Today, the "dream ticket" dreamt up by Washington strategists is no longer an option. What is left of the PPP is a party led by a crook - Bhutto's widower - and her son Bilawal, a 19-year old Oxford student who is probably more interested in parties than in Pakistani politics. For the time being the feudal clique which controls the PPP has ensured that no credible replacement for Bhutto is allowed to come forward. The other main party, Nawaz Sharif's PML, is mostly Punjab-based and lacks the popular appeal that the PPP used to be able to have - and it is precisely this popular appeal that Musharraf needed so badly in order to recycle his regime.

The world's most dangerous place?

Where does this leave Pakistan? It is worth mentioning here the realities that the Pakistani population faces while the politicians of the capitalist class are busy with their wheeling and dealing.

The Pakistani daily The News (3 Jan 2008), describes the shortage of flour and basic food necessities which has been affecting the whole country for weeks and is aggravated by speculative hoarding "In Karachi wheat flour, ghee and edible oil have not been available at most of the utility stores. (..) The crisis was the result of dwindling supplies of wheat and flour from Punjab." Dawn, another Pakistani daily reported in December the state of housing in Karachi, the country's largest city, where over half of the 1.2m households live below poverty line: "Once, Karachi housing-related professionals were very proud that unlike other mega cities of South Asia, people did not sleep in the streets in their city. This is no longer the case. The demand for strategically located land by commercial interests, often promoted by profit-seeking mega projects, is also evicting people (..). Since 1997, more than 50,000 Karachi households have had their homes bulldozed. More than half these evictions have taken place in the last four years. In addition, since then 1,777 huts have been burnt, rendering more than 12,000 homeless. Nineteen minor children, four young girls and six adults were burnt alive in these incidents. Plazas have been constructed on some of these locations."

Against this backdrop of increasing deprivation, add a 500,000-strong army, which arrogantly displays its top-notch equipment and the affluence of its agro-industrial empire, together with the contemptuous wealth of real estate speculators, industrialists and big landowners. Add, in addition, the feeling that the richest countries in the world are joining their forces, with the complicity of the Pakistani military and well-to-do, to bomb into the ground your blood brothers, on the other side of the Afghan border. Then, yes, it is not hard to understand that there is a powder keg building up in Pakistan.

The imperialist powers, despite their pious claims, never had the slightest concern about "democracy" in Pakistan (or elsewhere for that matter), nor about the populations. After all, US imperialism has been suckling military dictators in Pakistan almost permanently, ever since the country came to existence. For them, Benazir Bhutto was merely a pawn in their game, admittedly a willing pawn, since she chose to side unreservedly with Bush's "war on terror", designed to mislead the Pakistani poor into digging their own graves. She was a pawn that these powers, and more specifically those which, like the US and Britain, have a hand in the Afghan quagmire, pushed around on the Pakistani chessboard in order to be able to carry on bombing Afghanistan "safely", that is, without the risk of spreading the Afghan war further than they would like.

The murder of Benazir Bhutto will now be posing a new problem to the imperialist powers, which was well summarised by the front page of the edition of The Economist which came out just after the murder: "Pakistan, the world's most dangerous place" - yes, probably, thanks to the imperialists' power games.