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The following timeline looks at the powerful dynasties and complex geopolitics that have defined Pakistan since gaining independence in 1947. It also highlights the assassinations (or presumed assassinations) of some of the country’s most prominent figures.
By Manal Ahmad
Liaquat Ali Khan: Martyr of the Nation
Pakistan's First Prime Minister – 1947 to 1951
(Assassinated at a political rally, October 16, 1951)
Liaquat Ali Khan is considered by most Pakistanis as second only to founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the annals of the country’s heroes. Born into a privileged Pathan family, Khan studied law at Oxford University, and, on return to India in 1923, he entered politics with the goal of liberating India from British colonial rule. Khan joined the Muslim League, the political party that spearheaded the Pakistan movement, and he became a committed campaigner for Indian Muslim rights.
After independence, Jinnah appointed Khan as prime minister, while he himself took the post of governor-general, until his death from illness in 1948. As the first leader of the fledgling country, Khan tackled tremendous challenges – riots and refugee crises, lack of an effective administration and constitution and the conflict with India over claims to Kashmir. He survived a military coup, the first of many that would come to define Pakistan politics. Additionally, he became a strong ally of the United States.
On October 16, 1951, Khan was assassinated at a Muslim League meeting in Municipal Park, Rawalpindi. His assassin, Saad Akbar, was an Afghan Pashtun, who may have blamed Khan for the loss of Pashtun tribal land in Afghanistan during the partition with India and the Pakistan government’s cautious attitude toward Kashmir (Akbar himself fought in the Kashmir war of 1949). Akbar probably also slighted Khan for Western leanings. Yet, the absolute motives for the murder remain speculative to this day, as security guards at the rally immediately killed the gunman. Municipal Park was renamed “Liaquat Bagh” in Khan’s memory, and he was officially given the title of “Shaheed-i-Millat” (Martyr of the Nation).
Many Pakistanis feel that the early loss of Khan was a deathblow to Pakistan’s stability, ushering in a chaotic seven-year period of “disposable prime ministers.”
Ayub Khan: General Ruler
First Era of Military Rule – 1958 to 1971
When Pakistani Army General Ayub Khan was appointed martial law administrator in 1958, most Pakistanis felt relief. They were tired of the political instability and corruption that had racked the country since the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan. Ayub lifted martial law in 1962 and took over the office of president, dubiously sweeping aside a combined opposition party led by the enormously popular Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistani founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Ayub cemented relations with the United States by entering Pakistan into a key U.S.-led military alliance that provided the country with secret airbases on Pakistani soil. In return, he received large amounts of aid from the World Bank, which financed his highly publicized “Decade of Development.” His effort allowed for massive industrialization, mechanization of agriculture and the founding of a new capital, Islamabad.
But Pakistan’s 1965 war with India, fought with Ayub’s mistaken hope of invoking U.S. military assistance, soured relations between Pakistan and America. Ayub summed up how he saw the Pakistani-Washington relationship in the title of his autobiography, Friends, Not Masters.
Ayub’s downfall began in 1966, when he signed a cease-fire agreement with India, which was criticized by many Pakistanis as a submission to Indian supremacy in the region. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ayub’s talented minister of foreign affairs, resigned in protest.
By the end of 1968, public resentment against Ayub’s regime reached boiling point – he was criticized for his authoritarianism, control of the media and “development programs” that concentrated wealth in the hands of a few elite families. There was a failed assassination attempt against him during one of his visits to East Pakistan. The urban middle class launched a broad movement against him, and when demonstrations swept the country, Ayub stepped down. He handed over power to the commander-in-chief of the Pakistani Army, General Yahya Khan, in March 1969. (General Ayub Khan is the grandfather of Swat Valley prince Asfandiar Amir Zeb, who was featured in the broadcast story.)
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto: The Icon
Democratic Rule – 1971 to 1977
(Hanged for conspiracy to murder, April 4, 1979)
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, voiced what would become the credo of the Pakistan People’s Party: “Islam is our faith; democracy is our politics; socialism is our economy; all power to the people.”
Born to a wealthy Shiite landowning family in Larkana of the Sindh province, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is perhaps the most iconic politician Pakistan has ever produced. He was the first Pakistani to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where he developed an interest in socialism. He then headed to the University of Oxford, where he studied law.
Bhutto launched the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after leaving Ayub Khan’s cabinet in 1966. With his charismatic personality, wit and eloquence, Bhutto developed a cult-like following in West Pakistan among the ranks of peasants and workers. His fervent promises of “Roti, Kapra, Makan” (Bread, Clothing, Shelter) struck a chord with the country’s impoverished millions.
In 1971, Bhutto’s grassroots efforts paid off, and he became president of Pakistan – but at no little cost. Some Pakistanis blamed him for the “tragic” secession of East Pakistan, which had defeated Pakistan’s army earlier that year and declared independence as Bangladesh.
Bhutto’s era was marked by a populist agenda that included nationalizing major banks and industries, drastic land reform, a warming toward the Soviet Union, China and the Muslim bloc, and the founding of Pakistan’s nuclear program. But his policies, though well intentioned, were hard to implement because of entrenched bureaucracy and feudalism and his own aggressive personality. After Bhutto’s re-election in 1977, which the opposition claimed he rigged, Bhutto was imprisoned by Chief of Army Staff General Zia ul-Haq. Riots erupted across the country and Zia imposed martial law.
Bhutto was charged with authorizing the murder of his 1974 political opponent,
Ahmed Raza Kasuri (it was actually Kasuri’s father who was “accidentally” killed). But Kasuri claimed he was the real target and pointed Bhutto as the mastermind behind the killing. When Justice Samadani called the prosecution’s initial evidence “contradictory and incomplete,” the Pakistani government replaced him with a handpicked judge. Denying all appeals, the Supreme Court sentenced Bhutto to death, and on April 4, 1979, Pakistan’s first elected civilian leader was hanged in Rawalpindi at the age of 51.
Although there’s no evidence of U.S. involvement in Bhutto’s killing, his policies made him unpopular in Washington, and many Pakistanis wonder and continue to blame the United States for Bhutto’s demise. In his book, If I am Assassinated, written from his prison cell, Bhutto explained how Henry Kissinger threatened him 1976. “We can destabilize your government and make a horrible example out of you,” Bhutto reports Kissinger as saying.
Bhutto’s death left Pakistan in shock. The PPP declared him a shaheed, or martyr, and in spite of his faults, Bhutto remains the most idolized leader in Pakistan today. His party thrives on the power of his name alone.
General Zia ul-Haq: The Overthower
The Start of Kalashnikov Culture – 1977 to 1988
(Killed in a 1988 plane crash, which many Pakistanis consider suspicious)
When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed over five senior generals to appoint Zia ul-Haq chief of army staff in 1976, Pakistanis were surprised. Many thought that Bhutto wanted an army chief who wouldn’t pose a threat, and the best option was General Zia who appeared interested only in offering prayers and playing golf.
But history proved otherwise. Not only did Zia overthrow Bhutto in 1977 and sentence his erstwhile patron to death under debatable murder charges, he emerged in the 1980s as the United States’ most indispensable ally in the final showdown with Communist Russia in Afghanistan. While billions of dollars of aid poured in from the U.S. to prop up Zia’s regime and help him fight a proxy war through the mujahideen, Afghan refugees, guns and drugs guns poured into Pakistan. Thus began the “Kalashnikov culture,” which continues to mar the peace of cosmopolitan cities like Karachi. Coupled with Zia’s catastrophic “Islamization” program, which injected a severely misconstrued form of Shariah law into the public realm, ethnic and religious tensions spiraled out of control. Under Zia, Pakistan regressed into violence and oppression, especially for the urban lower and middle classes. The United States turned a blind eye to Zia’s policies until the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, and he became a more dispensable ally.
Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988, along with U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel, U.S. Brigadier General Herbert Wassom and 28 of Pakistan’s top military personnel. In spite of the U.S. losses, many Pakistanis still consider American involvement in the accident possible. For a motive, they point to Zia as a potential embarrassment for the U.S. government, thanks to his knowledge of America’s involvement in the Afghan war.
Benazir Bhutto: The Heiress
A Political Dynasty Reignited – 1988 to 1990, 1993 to 1996
(Assassinated in a car-bomb attack, December 27, 2007)
With the sudden end of the Zia regime, Pakistan saw a decade of electoral politics. Though not lacking any of the scandal or unrest of previous eras, Pakistanis had high hopes when a radiant Benazir Bhutto, eldest daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s four children, was sworn in as prime minister in December 1988, becoming the youngest and first female head-of-state for a modern Muslim nation.
Benazir led the privileged childhood typical to her family. She left home at the age of 16 to study at Harvard University, where she formed "the very basis of [her] belief in democracy." She then went on to spend four years at Oxford University, before finally returning to Pakistan in 1977 to assist her father, then prime minister, as advisor.
Months later, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by General Zia, and 24-year-old Benazir found herself under house arrest, while her two brothers, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, both studying abroad at the time, campaigned for their father’s release. Ali Bhutto’s controversial trial and execution left bitter scars on his family.
Benazir stepped up to take charge of the PPP, deciding to oppose Zia on political grounds; her brothers abandoned their studies and founded Al-Zulfiqar, PPP’s militant faction. Operating from their base in Afghanistan, the brothers worked to destabilize Zia’s government through a violent campaign, which included assassinations, bank robberies and bombings. Their most public act – the hijacking of a Pakistan International Airlines flight from Peshawar to Kabul in 1981 – was something Benazir strongly condemned.
Tragedy struck the Bhutto family for a second time in 1985, when 27-year-old Shahnawaz was found dead in his French Riviera apartment. To this day, the family believes he was poisoned by Pakistan’s secret service, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), though no one has ever been brought to trial for Shahnawaz's death.
Shaken and disaffected, Benazir’s elder brother Murtaza moved to the Middle East. Ideological differences kept Benazir and Murtaza apart, even after Benazir was first elected prime minister. It was also no secret that Murtaza detested Benazir’s husband Asif Ali Zardari, a small-time businessman and landowner. Many in the proud Bhutto clan accused Zardari of sullying the PPP reputation with shady deals. Meanwhile, Pakistanis believed that Benazir’s own mother arranged the marriage, and that Benazir was personally unhappy in the union. Zardari has since spent 11 years of his life in jail for a variety of crimes, from corruption to murder (most of which were not tried in court). The most serious of these allegations was Zardari’s implication in the murder of Benzir’s brother, Murtaza, who was gunned down in a police ambush near his Karachi home in September 1996.
Benazir was dismissed from office twice, first in 1990 and then in 1996, on various charges of corruption, economic mismanagement and extrajudicial killings. Though she was never formally convicted in Pakistani courts, both Pakistani and foreign investigators discovered a network of bank accounts across Europe in her husband’s name that contained more than $100 million in alleged kickbacks.
During the five years she was in power, Benazir failed to manage the internal crises simmering in the country or within her family. Her attempts to introduce social and economic reforms were thwarted by strong opposition governments in Punjab and Baluchistan and ethnic conflict in Sindh. Benazir failed to pass any major legislation regarding the welfare of women, and she was later criticized for giving excessive rein to the ISI.
However, many Pakistanis still blame Zardari for most of Benazir’s troubles. They insist she fell victim to the wiles of her opportunistic husband, dubbed “Mr. 10 Percent” for his notorious habit of filching from official budgets.
When Benazir returned to Pakistan in October 2007, after eight years of self-imposed exile in Dubai and London, the scandals surrounding her previous stints in power evaporated in to euphoria.
The people of rural Sindh, PPP’s traditional stronghold, were ecstatic, as were the urban middle classes and PPP workers. Meanwhile, intellectuals and many ordinary citizens greeted the news with indifference or cynicism, suspecting that Benazir’s return had been engineered by Washington and forced upon President Pervez Musharraf, who dropped corruption charges against her while refraining from doing the same for his other big political rival, Nawaz Sharif.
Although the threat of assassination for her was always very real, the events on December 27 left the nation stunned. In a tragic twist of irony, Benazir was assassinated in Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi, the location where Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan met his death at the hands of an Afghan sniper, and not far from the prison where her own father was hanged.
Both Benazir’s critics and supporters acknowledge that despite her many faults, her death was a tremendous loss for Pakistan. Like her father and her brother Murtaza, she is now referred to as “shaheed,” or martyr. British investigators from Scotland Yard have confirmed the claim by the Pakastani government that Benazir died after hitting her head on the sunroof of her vehicle following the explosion. Still, the PPP and many Pakistanis believe that she was shot and that government forces are responsible. Some Pakistanis even point fingers at her husband, now co-chair of the PPP, who has been recast as a respectable and important public figure.
Mian Nawaz Sharif: The Rival
Building a Nuclear Power – 1990 to 1993, 1996 to 1999
Benazir Bhutto's main rival during Pakistan's decade of democracy was Mian Nawaz Sharif, scion of a wealthy Punjabi industrialist family and leader of the second-largest political party in the country, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Sharif served as chief minister of the Punjab under Zia’s regime before he was twice elected prime minister, alternating with Benazir.
Sharif’s era was marked by increased privatization, improved infrastructure and economic growth. But all this came to a halt on May 28, 1998, when Pakistan carried out successful nuclear tests in response to similar tests done by India. At that point, it also became the first Muslim country to possess nuclear power. Western countries imposed severe economic sanctions on Pakistan, which in turn plunged the country into financial crisis. The Pakistani people, however, lauded Sharif on the achievement, which they saw as a necessary counter to India’s dominance in the region.
Subsequently, Sharif initiated the historic “Lahore Declaration” with Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee, in an effort to normalize relationships with the long-hostile neighbor. But Sharif's peaceful overtures were dashed with the onset of the Kargil conflict in 1999, when Pakistani and Kashmiri soldiers crossed into the Indian-held region of disputed Kashmir. Pakistan suffered immense physical and material losses, and the country nearly defaulted on its international loans. Sharif’s decision to withdraw from Kargil in the face of worldwide pressure hurt his popularity among ordinary Pakistanis, who viewed him as a traitor to the Kashmiri cause. Sharif later blamed the entire Kargil debacle on his Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf.
Sharif’s attempts to enforce the “Shariat Bill” – a set of so-called Koran-based laws – throughout the country in hopes of appeasing the religious right torpedoed his popularity among liberals, and circumstances became ripe for a military coup. In a move that betrayed his insecurity, Sharif sacked Musharraf on October 12, 1999. But Musharraf outsmarted him and, with the help of fellow disgruntled generals, overthrew Sharif’s government. Sharif was imprisoned and tried for corruption, tax evasion and hijacking a plane Musharraf was a passenger on. He was also fined $500,000 and disqualified from holding any public office for the next 21 years. Intervention from the Saudi royal family spared Sharif from a prison term, and he was instead exiled to Saudi Arabia.
Sharif finally returned to Pakistan in November 2007 (after being deported from Islamabad two months earlier), following the arrival of Benazir Bhutto. After Benazir’s assassination, Sharif vowed to work with the PPP during the 2008 elections. After a strong showing at the polls on February 18, the two parties are expected to reach a power-sharing agreement in the next government.
General Pervez Musharraf: Western Ally, Fading Chief
Diplomacy in the Post-9/11 World – 1999 to Present
On October 12, 1999, only a year after his appointment as chief of army staff, General Pervez Musharraf ousted then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and declared himself chief executive of Pakistan.
Pakistanis were hardly surprised; in fact, they were almost glad. Pakistan was nearly bankrupt and veering toward being declared a “failed state” by its critics, and, economic conditions continued to decline at the beginning of Musharraf’s rule. Then September 11th happened, and the fate of Musharraf and Pakistan took an unexpected turn.
When Pakistan agreed to support the U.S. campaign to eliminate the Taliban in Afghanistan and join the global war on terror, most Pakistanis, though morally or politically opposed to the war, felt that Musharraf had no other choice. Pakistan’s extensive assistance in the war -- capturing more than 600 supposed al Qaeda members and their allies, for example -- brought in billions of dollars of military and economic aid from the United States, as well as debt relief and a lifting of sanctions that had been in place since of the start of Pakistan’s nuclear program.
To many Pakistanis, it seemed like a rerun of the Zia story, though most conceded that Musharraf was the only leader capable of tackling the diplomatic complexities of a post-9/11 world. In liberal circles, he was the “enlightened moderate,” the man responsible for Pakistan’s burgeoning independent media. He was articulate, open-minded, and not averse to a drink or a fashion show. He really wasn’t bad at all.
But after almost a decade in power, Musharraf has been accused of being an American puppet and an outright dictator. His fierce "anti-terrorism" policy, favored by the U.S., has led to a violent backlash throughout Pakistan, as witnessed in the events of the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad during July 2007 and the current rebellion in Swat and South Waziristan. Suicide bombings have become a common occurrence in mosques and markets around the country, and Musharraf himself has been the target of at least three assassination attempts.
In the last 12 months, Musharraf’s popularity has nosedived. Pakistanis have become more and more outraged by his growing hunger for power and repeated amendments to and violations of their country’s constitution -- the most flagrant display of which happened March 9, 2007, when he arbitrarily suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The imposition of emergency on November 3 and subsequent crackdowns on the media and judiciary have further alienated his erstwhile supporters.
Many believe that the results of the February 18, 2008, elections marked the end of the Musharraf era.
SOURCES: Despardes, Reuters, International Viewpoint Online Magazine, President Pervez Musharraf Official Website, U.S. National Archive: US National Archives: Liaquat Ali Khan, Ayub Khan & Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, BBC, The Story of Pakistan Website, The New York Times (John F. Burns reports), The U.S. State Department Factbook, The Boston Globe, The Times of India, "Daughter of the West," by Tariq Ali, published in London Review of Books, Understanding Pakistan Project, Asia Times Online.