Thursday, January 03, 2008

Who Was Benazir Bhutto?

As we were all settling into the torpor following the Christmas holiday, a woman on the other side of the Earth died in an intentional explosion. Like many others in this country, the news flew past me without notice. I had gift certificates to spend, and was preoccupied with some focused relaxation. I wasn't tuned in to the news media at all. So I don't really recall when I heard the news that Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, was killed. Although I knew very little about Bhutto, I was immediately aware that her death was a big deal. After all she had been the very first female head of a Muslim nation, having been elected to the Prime Minister position of Pakistan twice. She had been removed from office due to corruption charges, and had even left her homeland for Dubai. But recently she had returned to her homeland, in an attempt to re-establish her political influence.

Benazir Bhutto was the eldest child of a former Pakistani Prime Minister. She was born a Shiite, but attended Christian primary school. She continued her education in the United States at Harvard. Later she studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University in England. Soon after completing her academic studies, her father was overthrown by a military coup, and executed. Benazir and her mother were kept on house arrest until they were allowed to flee to the United Kingdom. From the UK, Benazir led her father's center-left political party- the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). In 1988, when the PPP won the most seats in the Pakistani National Assembly, Bhutto was sworn in as Prime Minister. She served twenty months until she was removed from office, and then returned for an additional three years in 1993. Bhutto drew much acclaim from the West, and overwhelming criticism in Pakistan, for her attempts to modernize the nation.

Although she had pledged to help the plight of women during her campaign for office, intense political opposition kept her from following through on her promises. Ironically, as Prime Minister, Bhutto supported the rise of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. She believed they would stabilize the troubled nation, and provide trade access to Central Asian republics. There is ample speculation and some documented evidence that Bhutto valued personal economics at the expense of national aims. Along with her husband, she had been accused of striking multiple government deals that resulted in huge windfalls for herself and her extended family. In exile she became the target of International Police for those activities, but that did not stop President Bush and Republican Congressional leaders from embracing her.

Until very recently, Benazir Bhutto had been highly critical of current Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his policies. Musharraf was seeking to delay her return to her homeland until after the general elections. Throughout 2007, the United States had attempted to get Musharraf to step down as military head, and install Bhutto as Prime Minister (despite Pakistani term limits that would prohibit this). The suggestion of amnesty for existing corruption charges and whisperings about a Bhutto/Musharraf power-sharing agreement paved the way for Benazir's final trip home. In exchange for protection against outstanding charges, Bhutto agreed to convince the PPP not to boycott the upcoming presidential elections.

In November of 2007, Musharraf pronounced a state of emergency due to a wave of religious extremism. Bhutto called for its end, and claimed that an open and fair election was not possible under such conditions. She produced a list of demands to be met if Musharraf wanted to stop the PPP from boycotting the election. On December 27th, 2007, Bhutto was assassinated while leaving a PPP campaign rally. Responsibility for the explosion that killed her remains unclear. The Pakistani government claims that Lashkar i Jhangvi (an al Qaeda afilliate) planned and executed the act. Apparently certain al Qaeda commanders considered Bhutto a major American asset and thus wanted her eliminated. The United States government seems to accept this account of the event. However the Bhutto family and the PPP dispute it. They suspect the involvement of Pakistani intelligence agencies, and are calling for a UN investigation into Bhutto's death.

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