The ad hoc and shortsighted nature of US policy toward Pakistan is on display once again. Benazir Bhutto has been murdered, most likely by religious fanatics. In the West, pundits and diplomats now wring their hands and lament: “Oh no. All our eggs in one basket.” But let's step back for a second to look at how thoroughly bankrupt US policy in that region has become, and recognize the desperate need for a New Diplomacy toward the Muslim world in general.
From the beginning, the putschist General Pervez Musharraf has been backed by the United States as the indispensable ally in the global war on terror. The New York Times reported recently that since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $5 billion to bolster the Pakistani military’s effort to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But -- what a shock! -- much of the aid money was stolen or diverted to build up Pakistan’s military posture vis-a -vis India. Meanwhile, elements of the Pakistan security forces are working with the Taliban.
This game -- Pakistan having it both ways -- was working well for Musharraff. But then he attempted to stack the supreme court and triggered a massive and robust backlash from lawyers and judges, and suddenly the General needed an image makeover.
So, as the Pakistani author Tariq Ali put it, Washington concocted an “arranged marriage”: Bhutto would return to Pakistan, there would be elections, and probably a power-sharing deal with the General. And the status quo would carry on with renewed legitimacy.
But who was Bhutto? As ‘chairperson-for-life’ of the Pakistan Peoples Party she brooked no dissent. The PPP had populist roots, but over the decades its democratic and redistribution programs had devolved into largely meaningless rhetoric.
Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister, in the late 1980’s and then again beginning in 1993, delivered nothing. She was implicated in the murder of her brother. Pakistan under her was one of few countries in the world to recognize the Taliban regime in Kabul. And she grew increasingly corrupt, appointing her husband as Minister for Investment -- meaning he was in charge of all state investments, at home and abroad.
The couple is accused of having accumulated $1.5 billion -- much of it public money. Upon her death she was facing corruption cases in Switzerland, England, and Spain.
Partnered with Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto would not have transformed the deep rot of corruption, poverty, and underdevelopment that fuels a growing discontent -- in the form of Islamic fundamentalism and Pashtun nationalism -- in Pakistan’s frontier provinces. Nor would she have controlled Pakistan’s security forces, which are economically and politically quite powerful and autonomous institutions. In short, Bhutto could not have delivered for Washington, and won the local "war on terror." She could not have provided domestic stability.
And what of Washington's $5 billion largely misspent Pakistani aid? The key ingredient in that fiasco was how much had been diverted to the military face off with India. The threat from India is crucial in understanding why Pakistan supported the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami in Afghanistan, and why fundamentalism is on the rise through out that region.
Pakistan feels menaced by India -- and it is. To move towards stability is not a matter of setting up this leader or that one. It requires a whole new direction for US policy: a New Diplomacy.
The United States could use its power to de-escalate the many interconnected conflicts in South Central Asia. This would require a concatenate series of regional peace conferences involving all the great powers as well as each set of regional powers. The process would take years -- and it might not work. It would have to be on the scale of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, in which the allies redrew the map of the world after WWI. But the New Diplomacy would have to follow a very different progressive logic of de-escalation -- not the imperial logic of winners dividing spoils.
For Pakistan, the New Diplomacy would require a regional conference to deal with the standoff between Pakistan and India. China and Russia would have to be involved in the talks. In other words, a central but often over looked piece of The Global War On Terror is Pakistan’s security. Why does Pakistan tolerate and even support the Taliban to keep Afghanistan, to its West, weak? Because, Pakistan is threatened by India to its East.
Settle the security issue between India and Pakistan -- fix the question of Kashmir -- and then Pakistan can be credibly pressured to stop subverting Afghanistan.
Finally, with a New Diplomacy, the United States must accept the limits of its power. America does not have the right to control everything, nor does it have that power.
The brutal murder of Benazir Bhutto is just the latest proof of that.
Christian Parenti is an investigative journalist and scholar. His most recent book is The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (2004), is an account of the US occupation in Iraq. Parenti has reported from Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and Bolivia.
© 2007 Christian Parenti