Will it take a woman's touch to rip out those terrorist roots in Pakistan?
Sadly, the answer is that we probably did need a woman to save Pakistan, and we have just inexcusably lost that woman to assassination. Benazir Bhutto risked her life not just to fight for the security of her people, but to fight for the security of all of us who are targeted by rampaging Al Qaeda terrorism.
Bhutto was an incredibly courageous woman who returned to her country determined to uproot the tentacles of terrorism that were infecting her country, and to improve the plight of her fellow Pakistanis.
Bhutto was democratically elected as prime minister in 1988, when she was only 35, and then again in 1993, but both times she was dismissed from office by the president.
Forced to live abroad, this champion of democracy never gave up. She could have enjoyed the life of a charismatic, beautiful, young and powerful figure on the international scene, yet she knowingly put her life at great peril by returning home for her people.
Her father, democratically-elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was deposed and executed for fighting the same good fight 30 years ago; her husband’s life was put in jeopardy when a political party meeting was broken up by brute force two years ago; her sister-in-law was the victim of an assassination attempt, and still Benazir Bhutto fought on for democracy and a better life for Pakistan.
As we’ve seen time and again, including in the most recent terrorist attempt in London, if you follow an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist’s road, it often leads back to Islamabad. September 11, the attacks on Madrid, the shoe bomber, the London tube bombers and Glasgow all had connections with Pakistan. The recent Red Mosque siege and now Bhutto’s assassination are just glaring proof that the terrorism nurtured in Pakistan and launched abroad has now come home to roost.
I had the privilege of being invited to a private briefing with Bhutto in London before her triumphant return to Pakistan in October. Having just heard Pakistan’s former army chief Gen. Jahangir Karamat’s take on practical steps to tackle the strategic challenges posed by Pakistan’s extremist movement, I was as always fairly underwhelmed with the Pakistan miltary’s party line. So I was keen to hear Bhutto’s thoughts at a briefing down at IISS on the banks of the Thames to see if she had a better solution to offer.
I left impressed with the youngest and first woman prime minister to lead a Muslim nation in the modern age, and was convinced of the wisdom of her tactics in addressing extremism in Pakistan. She was definitely what we needed to "break the back," as she described it, of terrorism there.
If you haven’t read Bhutto’s autobiographies, you owe it to yourself to pick them up. In the U.S. our history is one underpinned by the belief that one person can make a difference. A modern-day David to the Goliath of terrorism, Bhutto proved that one young woman can make a difference.
Since Bhutto left power, Pakistan has seen the rise of religious parties, the growth of militant madrassas, the development of militant groups, the fueling of extremism … not to mention an increasing role in international terrorism.
Until the Red Mosque and a surge in homicide bombings, international attention focused on Pakistan's tribal areas as hotbeds of extremism and neglected to scrutinize the extremism problem flourishing in the nooks and crannies of Islamabad, the country's capital city.
Bhutto astutely emphasized the danger in the president’s backyard, warning that extremism had grown to such an alarming degree that it threatened not only Pakistan, but the region and the rest of the world. Islamabad has lately become an active recruitment, training, and staging site for Al Qaeda, which now controls areas once controlled by the military.
Bhutto's briefing gave me the distinct impression that madrassas are the predominant choice of cover for training militants and for promoting terror in Islamabad. Under the current regime, militants have expanded control to the extent that madrassas are being used as headquarters to house political troops and weapons. Many are equipped with rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs.
Contrary to the status quo, Bhutto took the view that any mosque used to breaking the law, housing weapons, sheltering irregular troops or teaching hate must be shut down.
Bhutto believed that "Madrassas are schools where children study with pens and books, not militant headquarters where guns and hate flourish." But the current madrassa culture has best been symbolized by the Red Mosque siege — a place of prayer and peace being converted into a military garrison.
President Pervez Musharraf’s regime was talking a good talk about reforming mosques, but he clearly failed miserably to walk the walk. In fact, a militant cleric was chosen to oversee madrassa demilitarization reform; does anyone see a conflict of interest there?
Even better, he was caught smuggling weapons after his appointment. Did he get in trouble? No. Lucky for him, a minister who has twice publicly condoned homicide bombers was on hand to get him out of his scrape scot-free.
For Bhutto, extremism was not just a military problem. Instead, she pointed directly to development and democracy as the means to address the roots of the extremism being cultivated in the madrassas.
She said that in her view, 20,000 madrassas were breeding a successor generation of international terrorism, hatching conspiracies against planes, buses, trains and — above all — innocent people.
The government after Bhutto diverted money to the military and security services, and as a consequence, families are struggling.
The outrage that Bhutto felt for these suffering families filled the room as she explained how children can be found living among garbage, flies, mosquitoes, and sewage outside the madrassas. "Families desperate to feed and clothe children hand them over to political madrassas" where they provide food, shelter and education, she told us. In addition, the children often receive regular pay from the militants. It is not difficult to see that, unless conditions are improved for the population, the militants will continue to have the home-court advantage.
When Bhutto became prime minister, there were 80,000 villages without electricity. During her brief time in office, she brought electricity to 50,000 of them. She set up a women’s police force and appointed women judges for the first time, explaning that she believed "in our interpretation of Islam that men and women are created equal and must equally share the responsibilities of citizenship."
"Pakistan, under my leadership, became a model to a half-billion Muslim women that do not have to accept 'no' for an answer, that every baby girl has the same rights to a future as every baby boy," she said.
Bhutto believed that without a social welfare system and improved social conditions, the political madrassas would continue to take advantage of the situation and that extremism would continue to spread.
Bhutto was not shy of force when necessary. She very successfully employed force against extremism when in power, but her nuanced approach stood the best chance of success in the long-term.
While the media has widely covered the threat posed by Al Qaeda and the Taliban for some time, it has been slow to wake up to the strategic challenges we face linked with Pakistan’s internal threat.
Bhutto felt that there was a very real possiblity that Al Qaeda could take over that country. It goes without saying that the shift from hiding in madrassas and the tribal regions to setting up a state stronghold would not bode well for the safety of Western civilians.
I left the briefing persuaded that if the election failed to put Bhutto’s democratic team in place, then Al Qaeda and the Taliban would have five more years to spread their tentacles throughout the country.
In losing Benazir Bhutto, we have now lost a modern-day hero who took the fight for us all to terrorism on the front line.
Allison Barrie, a security and terrorism consultant with the Commission for National Security in the 21st Century, has an M.A. from the King’s College War Studies department and has just completed her Ph. D thesis with King’s. She attended law school in England and practiced law for four years at two leading global law firms. Allison has contributed to various projects with Britain’s Ministry of Defense, including Iraq Operation Telic 5 and other operations dealing with imprisoned soldiers, combat experience and management of combat. She has traveled to over 45 countries and performed as a ballet dancer in productions of the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.