Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, stepped onto the national stage for the first time this week, to give a speech marking the fifth anniversary of Benazir’s murder. Still too young to run for office, the 24-year-old Bhutto’s coming out adds more drama to what will be a pivotal year for Pakistan. National elections, turnover at the top military position, and the denouement in the war in Afghanistan all promise to make 2013 a critical year for a country that is both under siege by terrorism and the center of the global jihadist movement.
Bilawal’s grandfather, uncles, and mother all were murdered in political violence. Zulfikar Bhutto was hung in 1979 by Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, his two uncles died in mysterious plots, and his mother was assassinated by al Qaeda and the Taliban. His family story resembles Pakistan’s reality. Pakistan is a country in the midst of a long and painful crisis. Since 2001, according to the government, 45,000 Pakistanis have died in terrorist-related violence, including 7,000 security personnel. Suicide bombings were unheard of before the 9/11 attacks; there have been 300 since then. The country’s biggest city, Karachi, is a battlefield. One measure of Pakistan’s instability is that the country now has between 300 and 500 private-security firms, employing 300,000 armed guards, most run by ex-generals. The American intelligence community’s new global estimate rates Pakistan among the most likely states in the world to fail by 2030.
Pakistan also remains a state sponsor of terror. Three of the five most wanted on America’s counterterrorism list live in Pakistan. The mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai massacre and head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafiz Saeed, make no effort to hide. He is feted by the army and the political elite, appears on television, and calls for the destruction of India frequently and jihad against America and Israel. The head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, shuttles between Pakistan intelligence (ISI) safe houses in Quetta and Karachi. The emir of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is probably hiding in a villa not much different from the one his predecessor was living in with his wives and children in Abbottabad until May 2011.
Pakistan also has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world, bigger than Great Britain’s. The nukes are in the hands of the generals; the civilian government has only nominal control. President Zardari has only nominal influence over the ISI as well; indeed it deliberately botched the security for Benazir to help get rid of her, and it has conspired for five years to get rid of him, too.
Against the odds, Zardari has survived. By next fall, he will have served five years, becoming the first elected civilian leader to complete a full term in office and pass power to another elected government. It will be a major milestone for Pakistani democracy. Zardari has served years in prison. He often has been called a criminal by many, including in his own family, and the national symbol of corruption. Yet as president he presided over an major transfer of power from the presidency to the prime minister’s office, even the titular National Command Authority over the nukes, to ensure the country is more democratic and stable.
The parliamentary election in the spring will be a replay of every Pakistani election since 1988, pitting Nawaz Sharif’s party against the Bhuttos. Needless to say, many Pakistanis are sick of the same old stale choices. But the odds favor the old parties. Both Sharif and Zardari are committed to cautiously improving relations with India and trying to reform the Pakistani economy. Both have troubled relations with the Army.
If Sharif returns to the prime minister’s job for a third time, it will be a remarkable next turn in his own odyssey. Sharif was removed from the office in 1999 in an illegal coup and barely escaped alive to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. His decision to withdraw Pakistan’s troops in 1999 during the Kargil War prompted his fall from power, but it also may have saved the world from nuclear destruction. It was a brave move. I remember talking to him and his family in the White House the day after he made the decision to pull back. You could see in his eyes that he knew the Army would defame him, but he knew he was in the right.
But many Pakistanis want a new face to lead their country. Out of desperation, some are turning to cricket star Imran Khan to save Pakistan. The ISI is probably helping his campaign behind the scenes to stir up trouble for the others. He is a long shot at best. He is much more anti-American, anti-drone, and ready to make deals with the Taliban to stop the terror at home. Yet he understands well that Pakistan is a country urgently in need of new thinking.
Whoever wins will inherit an economy and government that is in deep trouble. Two thirds of the 185 million Pakistanis are under 30; 40 million of the 70 million ages 5 to 19 years old are not in school. Fewer than 1 million Pakistanis paid taxes last year. Power blackouts are endemic. Clean water is increasingly scarce, even as catastrophic floods are more common. Growth is 3 percent, too little to keep up with population demand.
So it is no wonder that the generals prefer to have the civilians responsible for managing the unmanageable while they guard their prerogatives and decide national-security issues. As important as the elections next spring will be, the far more important issue is who will be the next chief of Army staff.
The incumbent, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was given an unprecedented three-year extension in 2010. He is the epitome of the Pakistani officer corps and the so-called deep state. Pervez Musharraf made him director general of the ISI in 2004. On his watch, the Afghan Taliban recovered and regrouped in Quetta, Osama bin Laden built his hideout 800 yards outside Kayani’s alma mater—the Kakul Military Academy in Abbottabad—in 2005, and planning began for the 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba attack on Mumbai. His term expires in September.
The history of civilians choosing chiefs of Army staff is not encouraging. Zulfikar Bhutto chose Zia ul-Haq, whom he called his “monkey general” because he thought he was apolitical. Zia staged his own coup and then hanged Zulfi. Nawaz Sharif picked Pervez Musharraf, quarreled over the Kargil War, and fired Pervez, who then staged his coup. No wonder Zardari just rolled over Kayani for another three years in 2010. It was the easy way out.
The next COAS will come from the shadowy group of a dozen corps commanders who run the Army. They do not advertise their political views as a rule. By next summer, a consensus will probably emerge in the inner circle on who should succeed Kayani, and the whole world will try to decipher the implications of the choice.
Washington will be watching all of this carefully. U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a low point and may get worse. It is in Afghanistan that the relationship will be most tested in 2013. This past September, the Taliban attacked a base called Camp Bastion, destroying eight U.S. Marine jet aircraft and killing two Marines. The interrogation of the surviving Taliban fighter indicated the attack was planned at an ISI safe haven in Pakistan with Pakistani army expertise. Then in December, the head of Afghan intelligence, Asadullah Khalid, was almost assassinated by a terrorist who the Afghans say came from Pakistan and was sent by the ISI. Incidents like these promise to make 2013 another year of strained relations in the U.S.-Pakistan deadly embrace.