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Published: Wednesday, 10/24/2007

Bhutto fascination leads U.S. to meddle in Pakistani politics

THE bomb attack last week on the welcome-home procession for former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto killed 134 people and probably blew up what existed of a U.S. policy toward that country. The only thing that would have been worse would have been if the attack had killed Ms. Bhutto. She wasn't injured.

U.S. policy toward Pakistan has always been complicated. During the Cold War the Soviet Union had close relations with India. The United States countered by staying close to Pakistan.

Then came nuclear weapons in the late 1990s. Neither India nor Pakistan had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and both developed and tested nuclear weapons, putting them on America's black list in spite of their size and importance.

Sept. 11, 2001, reshuffled the deck. Pakistan became essential to America in dealing with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and in trying to catch Osama bin Laden.

The United States found Pakistan under the rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was quite ready to accept aid and restore the relationship that had existed before the rupture over nuclear weapons. But Pakistan's severe internal problems remained, including a dominant role for the military in government. The occasional elected civilian governments tended to become corrupt, and then the military would seize power and a general would rule for a while before returning power to the civilians.

Ms. Bhutto had been prime minister twice but was ousted each time under a cloud of corruption charges, going into voluntary exile. Another former civilian prime minister in exile, Nawaz Sharif, tried to return recently, but, lacking America's blessing, was turned back at the airport by General Musharraf.

Whatever happens in Pakistan, a country of 165 million, takes place against a turbulent political and ethnic background. The North-West Frontier Province and North and South Waziristan are always in some kind of rebellion, as is Baluchistan in the west.

The country is divided ethnically and linguistically, with Punjabi speakers at about 58 percent; Ms. Bhutto's Sindis in the south at 12 percent; Pashtuns, who straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, at 8 percent; Baluchis at 3 percent, and other groups. Competition among them is complicated and sometimes violent.

U.S. interests coincided with General Musharraf's in two places. First, the Pakistan government's lack of firm control of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area was a problem that he and his predecessors had always wished to remedy. Second, Islamic fundamentalists, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, were internal opponents of his, and of Pakistan's central government.

The problems that have developed post-9/11 were because of two factors.

The first was the naive, pious Bush Administration idea that America has the right to convert the whole world to American-style democracy. For Pakistan, that meant that General Musharraf had to give a free hand to civilian political leaders, such as Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif, even though in office they had been crooked. The United States was not going to approve his keeping Pakistan under control in a fashion appropriate to his country because that approach was not democratic.

The second problem was U.S. fascination with Ms. Bhutto, who went to Radcliffe and Harvard, looks good, networks well with Americans, and with whom Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears to have been very taken. Thus, during the electoral period that Pakistan is going through, with legislators just having re-elected General Musharraf president, and parliamentary elections scheduled for January, the United States - and Ms. Rice personally - have reportedly placed heavy pressure on him to let Ms. Bhutto come home, participate in the elections, and perhaps even be prime minister again, forgetting about the corruption charges.

This sort of fascination with English-speaking, comfortable Middle Eastern and Asian leaders is not new. Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi achieved it. So did the late Shah of Iran, former Chinese first lady Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, and a late president of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel. The trouble is that some of these people don't appeal as much to their own people as they do to Americans.

So Ms. Bhutto is back. It's going to be difficult for her even to campaign without getting killed; 134 Pakistanis are already dead and hundreds more wounded because of her return, and the January parliamentary elections are now up in the air.

Why exactly is it necessary for the United States to tamper with Pakistani politics?



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