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Pakistan's Simmering Unrest

By Matthew Hennessey | January 9, 2008

Pro-Bhutto graffiti in San Francisco.
Photo by Dav Yaginuma (CC).

In the weeks prior to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the low boil of political unrest in Pakistan was overwhelmed by a U.S. news cycle tilted toward primary election coverage. That thousands of mourners in Hyderabad would chant "We hate Pakistan" this week made me wonder: Why does Pervez Musharraf hang on to power while his would-be successors risk their lives to wrench it from him?

Pakistan is a patchwork of provinces, each dominated by separate ethnic groups. The Punjab, which means "five rivers," is home to more than half of Pakistan's population. This fact, along with its economic advantages in industry and agriculture, makes Punjab the country's most powerful province. Ethnic Punjabis control the two crucial levers of state power in Pakistan: the army and the bureaucracy. Musharraf, born in Delhi prior to the partition of Pakistan from India, is Punjabi.

Baluchistan, in southwest Pakistan, has sought independence since 1948. Dominated politically by Baluch tribes, a recent influx of ethnic Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan has altered the demographic balance of the largest and least populous Pakistani province. This is especially true in Quetta, Baluchistan's largest city, where as many as 1 million Afghan immigrants have settled in recent years.

The Northwest Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, is ruled by Pashtuns. The so-called Durand Line, drawn by India's British administrators in 1893, artificially bisects the Pashto-speaking tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Proximity to and affinity with Pashtuns across the border have led many to call for an independent "Pashtunistan." The southeastern province of Sindh is home to Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. Despite being the first province to ratify the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Sindh is home to separatists bent on liberating Sindhis from Punjabi political domination.

Benazir Bhutto was Sindhi. According to her official biography, she was born into a family with "an illustrious tradition of political activism." Her grandfather Shah Nawaz Bhutto was a wealthy and influential landowner who served as dewan (prime minister) of Junagadh, a princely state in British-ruled India. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, served as Pakistan's foreign minister, president, and prime minister. The Bhutto family provided hope to millions of Pakistanis living on less than $2 a day. But they remain controversial, accused of stealing $1.5 billion from a poor country.

The short history of Pakistan has been marked with blood. The 1970 civil war with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) saw hundreds of thousands massacred and the loss of half of its territory. The frequent and brutal imposition of military rule has failed to prevent political assassinations and unrest. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed in 1979 during the presidency of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq for conspiring to murder a political opponent. Zia-ul-Haq would later die under mysterious circumstances in 1988.

Further complicating these ethnic and political tensions is Pakistan's desperate need for water. The most important water sources, such as the Indus River tributaries, originate across international borders. These rivers form the backbone of food production in Punjab and Sindh. Should their flow be interrupted or fouled, it could have devastating effects on the national economy.

Since taking power in a 1999 military coup, Musharraf has struggled with the same question as his predecessors: How to keep this tangled, thirsty confederation from breaking apart?

Pakistan, some say, is more an army than a nation. Frequent conflict with neighbor and rival India has led to the creation of a fortress state boasting a million-man army, the world's seventh largest military force. In some respects, the army is the only stable institution in the country. As army chief of staff, Musharraf traveled a well-worn path when he seized the reins of power from elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It was the fourth time in Pakistan's history that the head of the army installed himself as head of state.

Musharraf relinquished his position as head of the army in November as a concession to the United States, which has invested heavily in his ability to contain Islamic extremists operating inside Pakistan. Playing both sides against the middle has taken its toll on his ability to govern. He has been the subject of numerous assassination attempts. What's more, keeping his American backers happy hasn't been easy. As one expert with deep ties in the region put it to me recently, "Musharraf does nothing about al-Qaeda, but does everything he can to put lawyers and political opponents in jail."

For the army, Benazir Bhutto represented the voice of America. She signaled her intention to allow U.S. forces to hunt for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. She indicated her willingness to allow U.S. investigators to interview A. Q. Khan, the nuclear scientist said to have been in charge of a rogue proliferation network.

So how much longer can Musharraf hang on against difficult odds?

It's often said that three A's govern Pakistan: Allah, the army, and America. In reality, these forces compete for influence within the country. Pinched between the desire for democracy promotion, a fight against terrorists, and the threat of nuclear proliferation, America finds it difficult and perhaps irresponsible to extract itself from Pakistan's domestic politics. Meanwhile, Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim and elements of the army—particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence unit—are aligned more closely with radical Islam than with America. But if Musharraf can retain the backing of the army he should be able to remain relatively secure.

Of course, staying secure is easier said than done. There are many generals who want his job, just as 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has taken up the family mantle following his mother's death.

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Read More: Democracy, Diplomacy, Governance, Security, War, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Asia

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