Monthly Archives: June 2010

Bhutto Documentary Review: Democracy Is the Greatest Revenge

Bhutto film posterLast night I had the good fortune to see the new documentary Bhutto at a public screening hosted by National Geographic. I have been looking forward to the film since I first heard about it a few weeks ago. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

Bhutto was presented to a packed house. Talking to the people at the ticket counter, I learned that the the theatre sat 400, and they had over 700 people request tickets. I was glad I requested mine early.

While some of the crowd were average people curious to learn more about both Benazir Bhutto and her country, Pakistan, the audience also included a number of elite journalists and representatives of the American government. As such, the screening served both as a means to educate an American audience perhaps unfamiliar with the former Pakistani Prime Minister, as well a time for her American friends and colleagues to remember her life and contributions to democracy in the world.

Far from a funereal atmosphere, though, the event was above all a celebration of Benazir Bhutto’s life and her message. As secret service stood watch in the wings, the front rows were filled with representatives from the State Department, Department of Defense, and the White House – all of whom had come to pay their respects to the life and legacy of Benazir Bhutto.

The film was introduced by representatives of National Geographic and PBS (Bhutto will be shown on the PBS series Independent Lens on March 11, 2011), but the highlight of the opening were remarks by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who described to the audience her experience meeting Benazir Bhutto when she addressed a joint session of Congress in 1989, and what a moving and inspirational example Bhutto served for her personally.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi Speaks About Benazir Bhutto

Beginning with Benazir Bhutto’s childhood and the influential political career of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bhutto follows the intellectual and political development of an amazing historical figure. Regardless of one’s personal political sympathies, Benazir Bhutto represents a leader who overcame incredible odds to not only become the first woman elected to lead an Islamic state, but a source of hope and pride for a nation beleaguered by decades of political turmoil. As such, the film introduces audiences who may not have a deep familiarity with this legendary figure to a precocious daughter, an intellectual student, a passionate leader, a devoted mother, and a woman who willingly sacrificed everything for the greater good of her nation.

A great credit to the filmmakers was the way they presented a balanced view of the Pakistani leader. Going into the screening, I was fully prepared for a political hagiography. But what I saw was nothing of the sort. The director gave significant time to critics of Benazir Bhutto, including Gen. Musharraf and a spokesman for Nawaz Sharif, a major political opponent. The film neither avoids her deepest critics, nor the various accusations that those critics made against her. This balance allows for a more complete view of this complex leader of a turbulent nation. That Benazir Bhutto may have made mistakes is not disputed – the film even includes recordings of her admitting as much. But Benazir Bhutto never claimed to be perfect – she only asked that her mistakes be judged in the context of her intent: to bring democracy to her nation.

Early in the film, someone refers to the Bhuttos as the ‘Kennedys of Pakistan’. As the final credits rolled, I could not help but to recall Richard Reeves’ brilliant biography of President Kennedy. There is a (perhaps apocryphal) story that Jackie Kennedy once told her children of Reeves’ work, “If you want to know your father, he is in this book.” As I left the theatre last night, I could not help but think that I had met Benazir Bhutto in this film.

Tariq Ali says in the film that, “the whole story of the Bhuttos has strong elements of a Greek tragedy.” The Bhuttos’ story does, in fact, include tragic elements. I defy anyone to sit through this film without finding tears coming to his or her eyes. But one need not walk away from this film feeling downtrodden. At the conclusion of the presentation, audience members talked among each other of the powerful impact Benazir Bhutto continues to have as a symbol of courage and the promise of a democratic world.

Though Benazir Bhutto’s life ended in tragedy, her story is, in many ways, one that has yet to end. In Pakistan’s democratic movement, Benazir Bhutto lives on. And when the end to this story is finally written, God willing, Benazir Bhutto’s dream will have been realized and Pakistan will be the modern democracy she always knew it could be.

At the end of the film it was clear to the entire audience – citizen and government representative alike – that in murdering Benazir Bhutto, her killers amplified her message, strengthened the resolve of her allies, and brought her dream of a democratic Pakistan that much closer to reality. Bhutto‘s tag line is true: “You can’t murder a legacy.”

Reactions at Sundance Film Festival

Official Trailer

RAND Author Recognizes Pakistan's Progress

"Democracy is the best revenge."

Last week’s Rand report on Pakistan was met with mixed – and often conflicting – reviews. Much of the American press has latched onto criticism in the report that some elements within Pakistan are hesitant to give up the view that some militant groups can be useful as proxy fighters against a potential Indian assault. But this view perpetuated by the American press is not representative of the actual state of democracy in Pakistan.

One of the authors of the Rand report, C. Christine Fair, wrote last week on the website of Foreign Policy magazine that Pakistan has, in fact, made significant progress in a number of key areas since the present government was elected in 2008 – including the challenge of fighting terrorism – and that criticism of Pakistan’s current situation should be viewed in the context of this progress.

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How Petraeus Can Be Successful

Gen. Petraeus meets with Pakistani Gen. Kayani

Following President Obama’s appointing Gen. David Petraeus as Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, commentary has largely been that the change in leadership does not entail a change in strategy. While this is true in the the broader view of American foreign policy and military strategy, progress is often won or lose due to nuance and detail. As such, Gen. Petraeus has a unique opportunity to bring important success to what some complained was a stalled effort in the region.

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Rand Report And Historical Context

Rand Corporation released a new report on Pakistan yesterday that includes a mixed bag of observations and recommendations. While the report does recognize the complicated situation that is religious extremism in Pakistan, it is imperative to a successful American-Pakistan partnership that we consider policy in the proper historical context.

Steve Coll, President of the New America Foundation, spoke with Judy Woodruff on the PBS News Hour last night and his conversation provides a good starting point for discussing key elements of the report.

Mr. Coll rightly notes that Pakistan has suffered immensely from extremist violence. The New York Times reported at the beginning of this year that,

The number of Pakistani civilians killed in militant attacks rose by a third in 2009 over the previous year, according to a new research report, a toll that exceeded even the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan.

Those numbers don’t include the over 7,000 injuries sustained by Pakistani civilians, nor the thousands of Pakistani military and police personnel killed by religious militants.

This is important to keep in mind when discussing Pakistan’s complicity with Taliban and other religious extremist groups. The Rand report recognizes this, noting that “[s]ome of these groups pose a grave threat to the Pakistani state…”

The fact is, the Pakistani state has a self-interest in defeating the Taliban and other groups that engage in religious violence. That’s not to say that there are not elements within Pakistan’s civilian, military, and intelligence services that don’t provide either indirect or direct support for militant groups. But it does mean that claims of an ‘official policy’ of state support for these groups are far fetched at best.

In fact, the present government, has taken unprecedented steps in eliminating the threat of religious militancy. But eliminating the terrorist threat will not happen overnight, and this government has only been in power for less than two years. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes in the new book, The Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater: Militant Islam, Security & Stability

…these problems come not just from continuing official support for religious militancy, but also from an institutional culture and outlook that grew over decades. The road to reversing this course will not be easy, but clearly understanding the problem – and acting upon it – is necessary.

It’s going to take time to root out lingering ties between Pakistani officials and militants. We must also keep in mind that these residual ties to militant groups are firmly rooted in longstanding tensions between Pakistan and India – tensions that past American policies have historically complicated.

Shuja Nawaz, Director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, describes the “roller coaster relationship” between the US and Pakistan as a key reason for lingering relationships between some elements within Pakistan’s security agencies and militant groups.

Though the United States sees itself as standing for democracy and freedom, it has acted in Pakistan over the decades in a shortsighted manner, making alliances largely with the military to advance its own strategic interests. First, it strengthened the hands of the army by increasing its size and heft in the 1950s via the Baghdad Pact against the Soviets. The U.S. looked the other way as martial law was declared by President Iskander Mirza in October 1958, and then as he was overthrown by Ayub Khan later that month. The U.S. decamped from the scene after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, when Pakistan expected the U.S. to assist it. Pakistan then turned to China as its new best friend.

Being abandoned by the US is fresh in Pakistan’s memory, even if too many Americans may have forgotten. Without the confidence that the US will be a neutral arbiter between Pakistan and India and ensure Pakistan’s security and sovereignty, the temptation to resort to the old self-defeating use of militant groups as proxy fighters will continue.

To this end, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi deserves praise for his continued work to bridge the trust gap between the two nuclear powers. But the US must do more to ease Pakistani concerns that the we are not partners for the long-term.

During a panel discussion last week, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross observed that short-sighted American policies during the 1980s resulted in a trust deficit with Pakistan. Discussions of foreign policy related to Pakistan should be framed within the context of a long-term view of political engagement in the region with an eye to future dividends from continuing to support democratic reform. Otherwise, policies that attempt to maximize short-term security gains at the expense of long-term democratic reform in Pakistan will only continue the cycle of mistrust and violence, significantly threatening both Pakistani and American security in the future.

Sherry Rehman (PPP) Speaks Out Against Grant to Banned Group

Member of National Assembly Sherry Rehman (PPP)

Jama’atud Dawa purports to be a charity organization in Pakistan, though it is well known to be a front group for the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. Banned by the Pakistani government, its leader Hafiz Saeed has been in and out of custody over the past few years due to his suspected involvement in terrorist acts including the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Despite the organization’s banned status, however, the government of Punjab recently awarded the group a grand of Rs 82 Million ($959,500). Member of the National Assembly (MNA) Sherry Rehman (PPP) is furious.

According to a report in Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper, the ruling-party lawmaker is fed up with ‘mollycoddling’ of terrorists, and wants to put a stop to this sort of passive support for terrorist groups.

“The country can no longer afford this mollycoddling of terrorists, and Punjab is fast becoming a victim of its own ambiguity. There can be no military operation against terrorists in Punjab, but there must and should be a police sweep, with enough evidence to obtain convictions through our courts,” she added.

“Instead of building police capacity to throw such a dragnet around terrorists, who openly hold rallies in the streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi, we see money being doled out of the tax-payers pockets through the annual budgetary exercise. If this is not pampering a banned outfit, what is?” asked Rehman.

Sadly, this is not the first example of the ambiguity towards terrorism by the Punjab government referred to by MNA Rehman. In March of this year, Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif (PML-N) caused widespread outrage in the country when he asked the Taliban to “spare Punjab,” which many saw as requesting a separate peace with terrorists.

The statement, mainly for its parochial overtone, also came as a rude shock to those who otherwise have their reservations about the army’s efforts to eliminate Taliban, Al-Qaeda and foreign militants from the country’s lawless tribal region.

While Punjab Governor Salman Taseer — for obvious reasons — was the first to denounce the chief minister and accuse him of being an ally of the Taliban, many others thought Shahbaz Sharif’s appeal to the Taliban to “spare Punjab” amounted to justifying terrorist attacks in the rest of the country.

Noting that such support for , Sherry Rehman has demanded the Punjab government to take back the grant and focus on removing the practices and institutions that allow terrorist and terror-sympathetic groups to operate in Pakistan.

Pakistan's Constitution Must Be Amended To Remove Sectarian Clauses

The murders of over 90 Pakistani citizens last week because of their religious beliefs makes clear that Pakistan’s parliament must amend the Constitution to remove sectarian clauses that in part incite such violence.

Section 260(3) of Pakistan’s constitution defines whom the law considers a Muslim. This is exceedingly important because the constitution restricts certain government offices to Muslims. For example, Section 41(2) requires that the President be “a Muslim of not less than forty-five years of age.”

But more than simply disenfranchising some citizens, the sectarian clauses in the constitution have created second-class citizens of religious minorities, and given fodder for the hateful rhetoric of extremists that encourages such violence as was witnessed last Friday.

In fact, the massacre of the Ahmadis was not the first time that a religious minority has suffered violent attack in recent months. Last August, religious extremists attacked a community of Christians in Gojra, killing many and burning down several dozen homes.

Pakistan’s parliament and President Zardari were quick to condemn the attacks in Gojra and provide funding to compensate victims, but until the government purges the aberrant laws that extremists use to justify these attacks, future violence is all but inevitable.

Cornell doctoral student Basit Riaz Sheikh, agrees. Writing for English-language daily, Express Tribune, Sheikh notes that the sectarian tensions that increasingly flare up today are rooted in the regime of dictator Zia-ul-Haq.

Until 1977, when Bhutto’s government was toppled, Pakistan was free of any major sectarian and ethnic tensions. The ten years of Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime would transform Pakistan from a tolerant society into one marred with ethnic and sectarian divisions and hate-driven politics. He fully crippled the religious freedom of minorities by imposing draconian laws in the name of the Anti-Islamic-Activity Act. Zia vanished, but we continue to pay for his sins.

The remnants of his era, in the shape of many in our media now and others, continue to insinuate hatred against minorities, the West, and all others who disagree with them. It goes beyond my imagination that we let these hate-mongers freely express their extremist sentiments on TV channels under the pretext of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to spread hate.

To build a stronger and a united Pakistan, we need to cleanse our constitution of the provisions that continue to divide us.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has recognized the Zardari government’s progress in the area of religious freedom in Pakistan, but points out that until discriminatory legislation promulgated by previous administrations is removed, religious minorities will continue to suffer.

The Zardari government has taken some positive steps regarding religious freedom. In November 2008, the government appointed prominent minority-rights advocate Shahbaz Bhatti as Federal Minister for Minorities with cabinet rank. Mr. Bhatti has publicly promised that the Zardari government will review Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and that the government is committed to protecting the rights of minority religious communities, including by implementing a five percent quota for religious minorities in federal government employment. In March 2009, the government appointed a Christian jurist as a judge in the Lahore High Court. It is not yet clear what impact these developments will have on religious freedom, which has been severely violated by successive Pakistani governments in the past. Discriminatory legislation, promulgated in previous decades and persistently enforced, has fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the social and legal status of members of religious minorities, including Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians.*

Article 33 of Pakistan’s constitution requires the state to “discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian and provincial prejudices among the citizens.” This vital mission of the government cannot be achieved while sectarian prejudice is codified in the nation’s laws. In order to protect the rights and the safety of all citizens, Pakistan’s Parliament should immediately move to amend the constitution by removing Section 260(3) and other sectarian laws.


*Emphasis added