TOPICS > Politics

Assassination Raises Fears of Renewed Turmoil in Pakistan

December 27, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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World leaders condemned the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Thursday, saying her death was an attack on democratic reforms and civic society in the restive South Asian nation. Regional experts examine what her death may mean for Pakistan's political future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the reverberations from the Bhutto assassination in Pakistan and beyond. We get three views.

Shahid Husain was special assistant for economic affairs to Benazir Bhutto’s father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, during the mid-1970s. And he had a 33-year career at the World Bank and is now a consultant.

Shuja Nawaz is a former Pakistani journalist and official at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He’s the author of a forthcoming book about the Pakistani military.

Stephen Cohen served in the State Department’s policy planning staff in the 1980s. He’s written extensively on Pakistan and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Gentlemen, thank you, all three, for being here.

Stephen Cohen, this has been all over the news today, as far as I can see. We are devoting an entire hour to this. Does — is the death of Benazir Bhutto, does it merit that much attention in this country and elsewhere?

STEPHEN COHEN, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution: I think it does because she was in a sense the best hope for a moderate, reasonably secular Pakistan, in tune with the rest of the world and Islam that Pakistan had produced in a long time. She had many failings, but I think, on balance, she was going to be — she would have been a better leader her third term, had she won or had she had that opportunity.

And I think her death, but this way, is really strengthening the forces of darkness in Pakistan, and they’re going to see this as a great victory. And the ineptness of the government in protecting her or coming up with any reasonable solutions I think is going to come back to haunt them.

I think there will be more changes in Pakistan, more dramatic changes in Pakistan. And I don’t expect the present setup to remain as it is now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Nawaz, as a native of Pakistan, what did she mean for your country? And how does that change with her death?

SHUJA NAWAZ, Author/Journalist: I think she felt that she had a mission that she needed to fulfill. These are all the ideas that she thought that she should have implemented in her first two terms, because, when I spoke with her before she left for Pakistan last fall, this is what was guiding her, that she was unafraid of the risks, which she was also quite cognizant of. But she was ready to go in and to battle for what she thought was an opportunity to change the way Pakistan is operated and run.

Mr. Husain, also a native of Pakistan, you worked for Benazir Bhutto’s father. What did she mean for your country?

SHAHID HUSAIN, Former Pakistani Official: Well, she was young. She was a woman. She was educated. She was very controversial also, which means that today is probably not the day and not the time to look at her flaws and — but she represented the contradictions of Pakistan’s history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In what way?

SHAHID HUSAIN: If you look at Pakistan’s history of the last 60 years, it has been ruled by a small elite, an elite consisting of the feudals, the military, and municipal servants.

Largely, they have disenfranchised the people of Pakistan. And it has been a very narrow elite which has ruled Pakistan, which has neglected human development, which has neglected education. After 60 years of independence, 50 percent of Pakistani adults are illiterate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fifty percent?

SHAHID HUSAIN: Fifty percent. Pakistan rates among the last seven in the index of human development of the UNDP.

And Benazir Bhutto, Musharraf, and the entire leadership is responsible for it, because of the neglect of the people of Pakistan and the lack of linkage between the establishment and the masses in general.

Strong international relationships

Stephen Cohen
The Brookings Institution
She understands how the world operates. And I think she was intelligent enough to manage that. She would have made compromises, but I think she would have made some progress as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Cohen, given that, why was she the hope that you just described?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I don't say she was a great -- a likely -- I don't think -- I think she would have had trouble doing what she wanted to do.

But I think she was the most charismatic and I think dynamic and perhaps intelligent leader Pakistan has produced in a long time. And I think she stood head and shoulders above the rest of the politicians in that regard. So, I think she also had good international ties, especially with the United States.

Pakistan's problem, of course, in terms of democratization and liberalization, is that two of its major foreign friends, the U.S. and China and Saudi, two of them are not interested in democratization. Nor are they interested in deep social reform.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying that the forces, that -- that what?

STEPHEN COHEN: That she was bucking the Pakistan army, which is retrograde in terms of its understanding of Pakistani development, which is totally India-focused, and had no interest in what's going on in the country, except control. And, also, Pakistan's external support is the Chinese and the Saudis, who are not terribly supportive of a democratic Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying she would have been strong enough to stand up to them, whereas there may not be anyone else who could do that.

STEPHEN COHEN: She would have given a good fight. And I think she would have held her own. She understands how the world operates. And I think she was intelligent enough to manage that. She would have made compromises, but I think she would have made some progress as well.

No obvious successor

Shuja Nawaz
Author/ Journalist
It's very -- extremely important that we understand that this leadership cannot deliver the freedom of Pakistan from the past. You do need a crop of people. You do need younger people, because this leadership has been tried and has failed Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shuja Nawaz, we keep hearing there is no obvious successor to her in her political party. Who does take her place?

SHUJA NAWAZ: That's the big question, because she was chairperson of the People's Party for life, and really did not allow the emergence of strong leadership underneath her.

There are obviously some leaders whose names have emerged who have been mentioned. The most famous of them is Aitzaz Ahsan. Unfortunately, he is still under house arrest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm sorry. What is his name again?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Aitzaz Ahsan...


SHUJA NAWAZ: ... who's the president of the supreme court bar association and a member of her party. But he is a under house arrest. He is probably the most well known within the country and now outside the country. But he cannot operate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, given that, and given what we discussed earlier, Mr. Sharif saying he is not sure he is going to participate in the elections, what happens going forward, Mr. Husain?

SHAHID HUSAIN: I think it will remain confused.

It means that we don't expect resolution of all issues. But it's very -- extremely important that we understand that this leadership cannot deliver the freedom of Pakistan from the past. You do need a crop of people. You do need younger people, because this leadership has been tried and has failed Pakistan. The only hope we can have...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the Musharraf leadership?

SHAHID HUSAIN: Pervez Musharraf, now, actually, Benazir Bhutto. They had their chance. Don't forget that her own government was marred by tremendous corruption. Don't forget that the Afghan rightists, the Taliban were invented by her minister of interior, by her minister of interior.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Invented by her minister of...

SHAHID HUSAIN: Yes, and were patronized by her. They came from madrassas in Pakistan. In fact, the movement of Taliban was started in her -- during her government, patronized by her government.

So, let's not forget that while Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif talk about democracy, their own parties are undemocratic. They didn't allow new leadership too much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to come back on that similar point I asked you a minute ago. Given that, how could Benazir Bhutto have taken this country in a different direction? And...

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, she might have presented the slide downward, but in terms of rapid movement in a more modern direction, towards democratization, more equal society, it would have been very incremental.

But, again, politics is a matter of inches, not miles. And I think she would move Pakistan -- or she would have tried to move Pakistan a matter of inches. And she would have found allies in the military and in the civil society as well.

Possible fallout

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me come back to that first question to you, Steve Cohen. And that is, why does this matter so much to the rest of the world, to the United States, to the wider region, to the fight against the terrorists, the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN COHEN: It's not just that a democracy or a proto-democracy Pakistan has lost a leader by assassination. That resonates in the U.S. and a lot of other countries. It's that the future of Pakistan is at stake. And if Pakistan continues in its present direction, it could be and will be the most dangerous country in the world. That was the conclusion of...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because of nuclear weapons?

STEPHEN COHEN: Nuclear weapons, export of terrorist, spinning off ethnic groups, losing parts of its provinces, mass migration to India. A whole bunch of things could happen. And that's not a -- that may be a worst-case outcome, but it's increasingly a likely outcome for Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And agree that's the likely outcome?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Well, I would have seen the elections and her participation in it not as an end, but rather as a transition, a transition both for her, and for General Musharraf himself, because it's quite clear that the forces that have now been unleashed within Pakistan of discontent, particularly amongst the lowest economic strata in the population, are not going to be resolved by this kind of a command-and-control system, under which Pakistan has been governed for so long.

You need the forces of democracy to slowly take root. And, until they take root, the future of Pakistan is going to be filled with turmoil.

Implications for U.S. policy

Shahid Husain
Former Pakistani Official
Unless both Pakistan and its partners address the fundamental issue of deprivation and lack of linkage between the state of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan, the problem will not be solved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given all that, in the short run, and then in the longer run, what should the U.S. posture toward Pakistan be?

SHAHID HUSAIN: I do not see a quick fix to Pakistan's problem.

There's the long haul. And unless both Pakistan and its partners address the fundamental issue of deprivation and lack of linkage between the state of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan, the problem will not be solved.

So, don't think for a minute that there is quick fix. It will remain confused. It will remain volatile. But we have got to look at the whole issue of human development in Pakistan and work for it not for years, but for decades. This is a situation that has developed for 60 years. And there is no quick fix to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No quick fix?

SHUJA NAWAZ: I agree with that.

And I think, as far as the U.S. is concerned, the U.S. needs to be much more unequivocal in its support for developing systems and institutions, like the judiciary, like the media, like political parties and not...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying it hasn't been that?

SHUJA NAWAZ: It hasn't been that.

When the crunch comes, the United States traditionally -- and history has proven this time and again -- has taken the short-term solution, supported a dictator, supported an autocrat, and not gone for the long-term system-building.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Cohen, short term, long term, what should the U.S. be doing?

STEPHEN COHEN: Short term, we should make a special effort, send the vice president, send another senior official to meet with Pakistani politicians, not just with Musharraf, but the politicians, and tell the army that, this time, there should be a reasonably free election.

The election should have credibility, could, in a sense, put Pakistan in a path where the constitutional rails are again in place, because they have disappeared. There's no rule of law in Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why would they listen if they haven't listened before?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, we have alternatives. We have both a huge assistance program to Pakistan, which we could manipulate, but we also have other friends in the region, Pakistan -- India in particular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ten billion dollars over the last...

STEPHEN COHEN: There's an India option. There's a lot of options we do have. And, of course, Pakistan needs us for many reasons.

And I think it needs us primarily because we're the major outlet to the West. On the other hand, the Saudis and the Chinese are not going to be urging democratization or liberalization. They are going to be urging control, repression. And you may well see Pakistan in the near term with a much more brutal military dictatorship than that we have seen in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think I hear you all describing a long haul here.

STEPHEN COHEN: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Steve Cohen, thank you very much.

Shuja Nawaz, we thank you, and Shahid Husain.

Gentlemen, we appreciate it. Thank you very much.