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People of Pakistan at a Critical Crossroads

The brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto has dealt a serious blow to Pakistan’s very fabric of existence, which is now imperiled. Since its founding in 1947, the country has been plagued much of the time by political crises. An overview of its turbulent history gives an insight into the torturous road it has traveled.

The first political assassination took place in the same garden (Liaquat Bagh) where Benazir Bhutto was killed. Then it was Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan felled by an assassin’s bullet. Prime ministers and other leaders have come and gone, but neither those in power nor the opposition have been able to agree on a viable system that would allow Pakistan to function as a proper state — a state for which millions of people have sacrificed their lives and property.

Apologists for the country speak of external factors. Yes, all can agree that Pakistan was caught in the Cold War crossfire between the United States and the Soviet Union. It had to choose sides and fast, and it did by allying itself with Washington, receiving the first batch of F-86 Saber jets to strengthen its nascent air force and provide some muscle for the fledgling country.

Pakistan’s foreign policymakers heeded the advice of then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who believed in pacts that would enable countries friendly to the US to have access to US foreign aid. Dulles suffered from “pactitis.” He initiated the Baghdad Pact, which quickly dissolved after the revolution of 1958 in Iraq. It then became the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). The three main players, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, were viewed as the bulwark against Russian ambitions in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Then Pakistan became a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) — another loose outfit designed to deter Russian influence in that part of the world.

Firmly entrenched in the American camp and building up its armed forces, the country lagged on the political front, and it was up to Gen. Ayub Khan to come to the rescue and bring some semblance of “enforced order.” Despite being accused of dictatorship, the Ayub era was one of relative calm and economic progress, and it enhanced the country’s image abroad. However, he left in 1968 and was followed by another general — Yahya Khan. During that period, the nation’s history became a political joke that ended with the breakup of Pakistan in 1971.

Since that time, the country has not seen any peace. A hanged prime minister, the Afghan War and the influence of the Kalashnikov culture, prime ministers in and out of office and then another general who came at a time when an event of historic global proportions was to take place — Sept. 11, 2001.

To Pervez Musharraf’s credit, he navigated Pakistan through very dangerous waters. He calmed the hardliners in the US who wanted Pakistan to be judged a “terrorist state.” He made overtures to India and obtained both financial and military support for the country.

However, the people thought otherwise. They wanted participation in the political process, and they had to get it through the only two individuals who could muster support — Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Both returned to the country. The political process restarted, and, after the withdrawal of emergency rules, elections were slated for Jan. 8. After surviving an earlier assassination attempt, now Benazir is dead, leaving behind a genuinely grieving Sharif along with millions of Pakistanis across the nation.

One might ask, “What now?”

Sanity should prevail after the initial shock and grief. The leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — one of the few political parties that cuts across provincial lines — should appeal for calm and order. They should rise above party politics and pettiness. Their own future is at stake.

Politics in Pakistan has become deadly and dull. The same faces come across posters in every election. It is time for new, younger political leaders to appear on the scene — to be tried and tested. It is also not conducive to the changed political scene in Pakistan to cast blame on anyone else for the killings. Conspiracy theories and rumors abound in Pakistan, and the saner elements of society should see to it that such theories do not flourish, for they will further divide an already fragmented nation.

Friends of Pakistan also should help. Pakistan is an important and strategic ally in the fight against terror. The US views it as a bastion of American policies in the Middle East. It thus becomes imperative to the US and the GCC states that Pakistan improves its security and stability. Any bloody, tumultuous upheaval will have far-reaching consequences; however, no resolution is possible unless the Pakistanis themselves choose to seek it.

To fend off any pessimistic view of the future of their country, the people of Pakistan should rise as one entity and fight the forces of darkness. Nawaz Sharif, the Islamic parties and the PPP should get their heads together and focus on a strategy — not to create a psyche of fear and level accusations against President Musharraf, but to forge a national unity government that will steer the country out of this bloody mess.

The US and other allies may want Musharraf to stick to the election date, but the emotionally charged atmosphere cannot bear the brunt of an election. Unfortunately, the lack of political maturity among many of the party leaders could engulf them in a confrontation with the only remaining semblance of order — the army. That could lead to what amounts to national suicide.

Pakistan is a great country with many caring, dedicated men and women — patriots who have an undying love for their country. They should be given a chance to have their voices heard. The demagogues, the manipulators, bigots and zealots should not hold sway. The only way then to stop the country from being ungovernable is to stick to the tenets of unity, faith and discipline espoused by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder and first governor-general. That is the nation’s only hope for survival.


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