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Friday, December 28, 2007

Turmoil in Pakistan

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The world scene can change in an instant. With the assassination of former, two-time Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the geopolitical situation became more tense and uncertain thanit had been only seconds before her death. She was killed after the explosive force of an incendiary device strapped to a terrorist caused her to hit her head on a lever in the vehicle she was riding in. At least 28 others also died in the blast, and more than a hundred were injured. Nearly three dozen additional people have been killed in the ensuing unrest. Ironically, Bhutto was killed not far from where Pakistan's first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in October 1951 and where her own father, also a former Prime Minister, was hanged in 1979.

As the opposition leader in Pakistan, Bhutto had played an important role in challenging, balancing, and therefore moderating the government of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in 1999 via a military coup. In addition, her liberal Pakistan People's Party (PPP) provided an outlet for many Pakistanis who are unwilling to knuckle under to the rising tide of Muslim extremism sweeping that part of the world. The latest reports are that al Qaeda elements were behind the assassination, specifically Baitullah Mehsud, a wanted pro-Taliban militant leader based in the South Waziristan tribal region.

Obviously, Pakistan is geopolitically important for two primary reasons: 1) It shares a mountainous border with Afghanistan, where al Qaeda Prime (specifically, Osama bin Laden and his operations chief, Ayman al Zawahiri) is hiding; and 2) the Muslim country is part of the exclusive club of nations that possess nuclear weapons. Should Pakistan fall to radical elements—either the Taliban or its sympathizers in the military and/or the intelligence service—the Doomsday Clock would surely tick several minutes closer to midnight.

So far, Pakistan under Musharraf has remained a useful, though shaky ally of the U.S. throughout the War on Terror. While essentially a military dictator despite his recent resignation from the armed forces, Musharraf has been able to ride herd on the forces of religious extremism, military dominance, and secular liberalism that are the major ideologies of his fractured state. He has had to crack down on the most turbulent tribal areas, enforce loyalty from his own army, and negotiate with Bhutto and her faction. He is in the unenviable position of being everyone's enemy.

Pakistan is intrinsically unstable due to its hodge-podge nature: It is made up of at least five different major ethnic groups (Punjabis, Afghans, Kashmiris, Sindhis, and Balochis); a handful of separate Muslim ideologies; two major geographic regions (the mountain region and the Indus River Valley); and a strong secularist tendency, especially among the educated and urban populations. The army, which accepts enlistees from all of these groups, is for better or worse the prime instrument of stability, due to its power and discipline. With Bhutto's assassination releasing rioters into the streets, martial law and harsh military responses to flare-ups of fighting and looting are likely.

To further compound Pakistan's problems, the upcoming parliamentary elections may be postponed as well. One major party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by another former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has already indicated it will not participate in them if they take place as scheduled on January 8. Bhutto's PPP, by far the largest opposition party, is now without a clear leader—in fact, it has never been without a Bhutto family member as its chairman. It may take weeks or months before a new leader is chosen, and even so, it may fracture into several smaller parties if it fails to reach a consensus on a new chief. Realistically, the Pakistani political scene will probably become even more chaotic.

This may actually work to Musharraf's benefit. With so much turmoil among the various political parties, candidates, and activists, he may emerge as the nation's only viable leader. Love him or hate him, Pakistanis may realize that, even though his regime has angered them in so many ways, he provides a measure of stability that is far preferable to the ravages of civil war. In other words, the devil that you know is better than the devil you don't know.

The United States, in its position as the leader of Western interests, would prefer Musharraf to maintain control and bring swift stability to his country. It has worked successfully with him in the past and knows which levers to push to get results. President Bush and his advisors know that al Qaeda wants nothing more than turmoil and confusion in Pakistan because it works best in such an environment. Through the Taliban, it could offer a stabilizing influence of a sort, particularly in the mountainous western regions of the nation, while procuring Pakistan's nuclear weapons for use in its cause through its supporters in the military and intelligence service. The U.S., then, will probably offer and provide intelligence and clandestine military support to the Musharraf government to help quell the disquiet as soon and as noiselessly as possible.

In a better world, the people of Pakistan would use the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to band together and expulse Muslim extremism from its culture. However, this is a world whose god is Satan the Devil (II Corinthians 4:4), whose hateful, destructive influence has deceived all humanity (Ephesians 2:2; Revelation 12:9). Thus, religious and political turmoil are part of the normal fabric of life—and will be until Jesus Christ returns to this earth to put an end to sectarianism and war by putting Satan away (Revelation 20:1-3) and ruling personally from Jerusalem (Revelation 20:4-6). Then, with Satan unable to broadcast his divisive attitudes, Christ will teach humanity His way of life that brings cooperation, peace, and unity (Isaiah 2:2-4). This glorious future of peace is why Jesus commands us in Matthew 6:10 to pray, "Your Kingdom come." Are we praying for it fervently enough?