On the eve of Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan after eight years in exile, the streets of Karachi are plastered with posters welcoming the two-time former Prime Minister back home. Banners hang from overpasses and the city’s iconic palm trees drip with the red, green and black of her Pakistan People’s Party colors. Billboards, which usually feature ads for Motorola and new shopping centers, have been taken over by greetings from party faithful. Every available wall has been tiled with her image in Warhol-like repetition, and graffiti screams WELCOME HOME, GREAT LEADER.
But Bhutto has received less welcome greetings as well. Baitullah Meshud, the Mullah Omar of the Pakistani Taliban, has threatened to kill her upon arrival, and Karachi police inspectors say they have evidence of at least three different terrorist groups — one affiliated with al-Qaeda — that have been operating in the area. In recent speeches Bhutto has promised that tackling terrorism in Pakistan, which has hit this southern port city the hardest, will be her first priority if she becomes Prime Minister again in general elections slated for January. Her arrival, and a proposed power sharing deal with President General Pervez Musharraf, may actually make things worse.
More than 20,000 police have been assigned to protect Bhutto and her entourage as she makes her way from the Karachi airport to the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founder on Thursday. Snipers will occupy rooftops and flyovers, and bomb disposal units have already started sweeping the route. It’s a journey that usually takes less than an hour. Police and party organizers are expecting an ordeal that could last up to eighteen hours, as fans coming as far away as Kashmir, in the country’s northeast, block her passage in an attempt to get a glimpse of their rehabilitated leader. Bhutto, who was greeted by a million-strong crowd when she returned from exile in 1986 to take up her father’s position as party leader, will be riding in a specially designed bulletproof glass container mounted on a trailer. It’s kind of like the pope-mobile, says PPP information secretary Sherry Rehman, “only without a top.”
Musharraf’s eight years in power have seen unprecedented economic gains, a freer media and better infrastructure, but his increasingly ham-fisted attempts to stay in power have eroded public confidence. A recent survey by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute found that Musharraf’s ratings have reached rock bottom. “As the national mood continues to sour, President Musharraf continues to bear the brunt of this voter dissatisfaction and his approval rating has dropped to an all-time low of 21%, from a high of 63% in September 2006,” says the report.
With that decline in popularity has come a surge in Islamic militancy that Musharraf’s army has been unable to combat. As many as 250 people, including some 45 soldiers, were killed in fierce fighting in Pakistan’s tribal areas last week. Despite promises to the contrary, Musharraf was forced to use aircraft to bomb suspected militant hideouts, escalating the death toll and local anti-government rage. Some analysts are already calling the situation in North and South Waziristan, the locus of the fighting, a “civil war.” On Friday, the eighth anniversary of Musharraf’s coup, militants publicly beheaded six alleged criminals. A week before they executed three soldiers. “The situation in Waziristan is deteriorating rapidly,” says Zafar Iqbal Cheema, chair of the Defense and Strategic Studies department at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University. “The military has become so demoralized that forces are surrendering. It’s a very grim situation and the government is not paying attention to because their survival is at stake elsewhere.”
The Western-backed power-sharing proposal between Musharraf and Bhutto was supposed to burnish the military leader’s legitimacy with her party’s popular support. Instead it has tarnished Bhutto’s reputation as a tireless campaigner against military rule, and brought the ire of Islamic militants against her as well. Now that Musharraf has promised to step down as army chief before he starts his second term as President, it looks as if his vice chief will soon take up command of the military. If things go as planned, says a Western military analyst in Pakistan, “Not much will change. Pakistan will have a new army chief, appointed by Musharraf, and at least initially he will do his bidding.”
To Western governments, who have long seen Musharraf as an important ally in the war on terror, a familiar face at Pakistan’s helm is preferable. But few Pakistanis have confidence that Musharraf — either as military leader or civilian President — can solve a problem that escalated under his watch. Bhutto, loathed by the religious parties for her liberal policies and equally abhorred by the military, doesn’t offer much more hope, despite her campaign pledges. “Islamic militancy is spreading across Pakistan,” says Cheema. “The militants are becoming more assertive even in settled areas, and the government is weak. It doesn’t have enough resources, and the security forces are not committed to the fight.”
Bhutto, as leader of the country, would do little to inspire an unpopular war against fellow Muslims that is largely seen to be at the behest of the United States, say analysts. A superficial power-sharing agreement does little to solve Pakistan’s fundamental problems. Those who take the long view say the best solution would be a true representative democracy that evolves from the will of the people rather than by cynical backroom deals. “We are on an irreversible path to constitutional democracy,” says Nasim Zehra, an Islamabad-based Security analyst and fellow at the Harvard University Asia Center. “But to be banking on individuals at this point as a remedy for extremism is as naive as anybody saying that General Musharraf’s reelection will bring greater stability.”
Few, however, seem willing to wait for Pakistan’s slow evolution to democracy. Kunwar Khalid Yunus, a member of the National Assembly who is aligned with Musharraf’s party, says that the power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, unpopular though it may be, is Pakistan’s best hope for tackling militancy in the present. “Benazir is not going to work alone. She will work in a troika with the new chief of army staff and Musharraf, and their exercise will be the eradication of religious extremism. Together these three forces are going to be more effective than Musharraf alone.” Frustrated Pakistanis can only hope.