By Jeremy Page in Rawalpindi
They came by foot, bicycle, train, car and bus. Thousands of mourners gathered at the Bhutto family mausoleum to mark today’s first anniversary of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister.
Her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and widower Asif Ali Zardari, who swept to power as President after her death, will lead the nation on a day of public mourning.
For many Pakistanis the commemorations are a chance to mourn not just the death of one of their most charismatic politicians but also their country’s subsequent descent into ever deeper political and economic chaos.
At the entrance of Liaquat Bagh Park in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, a shrine marks the spot where Bhutto was assassinated. Mourners lit candles and posed for photographs beneath a giant portrait of “BB”.
Among the visitors was Razim Khan, 37, the owner of a nearby crockery store, who says that he heard the gun and bomb attack that killed her after an election rally.
“We thought it was the blackest day for Pakistan,” he told The Times. “But now things are even worse.” It is a sentiment shared by many in Pakistan, where the word crisis no longer begins to convey the economic, social, political and security problems facing the country of 165 million people.
A recent survey by the International Republican Institute showed that 88 per cent of Pakistanis felt that their country was heading in the wrong direction. Nawaz Sharif, another former Prime Minister who leads the main opposition party, voiced the national mood in an interview with a private television station last week. “The country is beginning to present the look of a failed state,” he said.
His remarks outraged the Government but for many they summed up why Pakistan will top Barack Obama’s foreign policy in-tray when he takes over as US President next month.
Even before last month’s Mumbai attacks, Pakistan was dangerously close to the edge, with its economy in ruins and its army in open war against Taleban and al-Qaeda militants.
A bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September clearly illustrated the capabilities of the militants and the weakness of Pakistan’s security agencies. But since Indian, US and British officials blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani militant group, for the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has also been pushed to the brink of a fourth war with India.
It is now under unprecedented international pressure to crack down on militant groups that its intelligence agency uses to further perceived national interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir. “It’s not enough to say that these are nonstate actors. If they’re operating from Pakistani territory, then they have to be dealt with,” Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said last week.
It was not supposed to be like this. When Bhutto returned to Pakistan last year, the plan was for her to share power with the increasingly unpopular President, Pervez Musharraf, under a deal brokered by US and British officials.
Her assassination triggered a sequence of events that no one predicted. First, Mr Zardari, her widower, took control of her Pakistan People’s Party, which then won an election and formed a coalition government with Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
Mr Sharif then withdrew from the coalition, Mr Musharraf resigned and Mr Zardari won a presidential election, despite his reputation as a corrupt former playboy, nicknamed “Mr 10 Per Cent”.
Mr Zardari now presides over a weak civilian government with no writ over large swathes of Pakistan, and only nominal control of the armed forces and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Mr Zardari has exceeded expectations on the international front, and has repeatedly pledged to crack down on “nonstate actors” using Pakistan to plot terrorist attacks. Most Western officials and analysts do not believe he has the domestic political support to deliver: the IRI survey gave him an approval rating of just 19 per cent.
Many officials and analysts are now urging Mr Obama to overhaul US relations with Pakistan, which has received about $12 billion (£8 billion) in unconditional US military aid since 2002. One of the most radical policy papers published so far comes from Barnett Rubin, of the Centre on International Cooperation, and Ahmed Rashid, the veteran Pakistani journalist. It calls for a “contact group” under the UN Security Council to involve regional powers such as Russia and China in helping to resolve border disputes with India and Afghanistan. “The goal of the next US president must be to put aside the past and the US reluctance to involve competitors, opponents, or enemies in diplomacy.”
Another proposa,l from the Pakistan Policy Working Group, was endorsed by Richard Armitage, the former US Deputy Secretary of State tipped as President-elect Obama’s envoy for South Asia.
Compiled by 13 regional experts, it recommended appointing a civilian ISI chief, expanding US civilian aid to Pakistan, and making military aid conditional on action against militants.
“Pakistan may be the single greatest challenge facing the next American president,” it said. “We must be much smarter about how we work with Pakistan . . . our options in Pakistan are diminishing.” The authors admit that none of these recommendations will be easy to adopt. But something must be done, and done fast, to prevent Pakistan sliding farther into chaos.