After Bhutto

Published December 28, 2007

National Review Online

***National Review Online asked a group of experts on the region to gauge what the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto means for her country.***

Is Pakistan a failed state? Experts debated that question long before today's events. Pakistan is certainly a tragic state, where brilliant, accomplished, cosmopolitan moderns live in sometimes uneasy association with a vast peasant heartland, and the fiercest tribes in the Muslim world. Today Pakistan's unruly juxtapositions lie raw and exposed.

Does Bhutto's assassination portend the end of democracy, Sharif's triumph, chaos, or civil war? An electoral triumph for Sharif, Musharraf's bitter foe, the Islamists' strongest mainstream ally, and no friend of democracy (whatever he now says, and whatever the West now chooses to believe) seems unlikely. The election will probably be called off, and for good reason. In any case, Pakistan has never been a genuine liberal democracy, so on that score less will change than meets the eye.

As for chaos and civil war, Pakistan has already got a low-level version of both. It's easy to see how the assassination of Bhutto could worsen things, yet it's not entirely certain that it will. One of the reasons Pakistan is called a “failed state” is that the government has very little reach. Practically no-one pays taxes. In the heartland and the tribal areas alike, life is governed by local social forms that have little to do with the state. So while Bhutto's assassination could certainly set off demonstrations and turbulence, it's also possible to imagine the vast majority of Pakistani people coming to terms with it as a distant echo from a state that has little effect on their lives. We just don't know.

At a minimum, Pakistan's low-level civil war will go on. The Taliban and al-Qaeda seem lately to be giving less attention to Afghanistan and more attention to Pakistan itself. They would like to sow chaos in Pakistan as a whole, expand their base there, and perhaps use chaos to grab hold of some nuclear material. Will the military clamp down, as it has with some success in Swat, or will the army be paralyzed by its internal divisions, and by covert sympathy for the Taliban? We just don't know.

Pakistan remains a powder keg. Unlike Somalia, where there is no educated and modernized class, and the state has been in total collapse for years, Pakistan embodies all the strengths, and all the weaknesses of modern Muslim social life. That is Pakistan's tragedy, and our problem.

— Stanley Kurtz is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has written extensively about Pakistan.


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