When, in May 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India was killed by a suicide bomber, there was an international outpouring of grief. Recent days have seen the same with the death of Benazir Bhutto: another glamorous, Western-educated scion of a great South Asian political dynasty tragically assassinated at an election rally.
There is, however, an important difference between the two deaths: while Mr. Gandhi was assassinated by Sri Lankan Hindu extremists because of his policy of confronting them, Ms. Bhutto was apparently the victim of Islamist militant groups that she allowed to flourish under her administrations in the 1980s and 1990s.
It was under Ms. Bhutto’s watch that the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, Fast .installed the Tail ban in Afghanistan. It was also at that time that hundreds of young Islamic militants were recruited from the madrassas to do the agency’s dirty work in Indian Kashmir. It seems that, like some terrorist equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster, the extremists turned on both the person and the state that had helped bring them into being.
While it is true that the recruitment of jihadists had started before she took office and that Ms. Bhutto was insufficiently strong–or competent-to have had full control over either the intelligence services or the Pakistani army when she was in office, it is equally naive to believe she had no influence over her country’s foreign policy toward its two most important neighbors, India and Afghanistan.
Everyone now knows how disastrous the rule of the Taliban turned out to be in Afghanistan, how brutally it subjected women and how it allowed al-Qaeda to train in camps within its territory. But another, and in the long term perhaps equally perilous, legacy of Ms. Bhutto’s tenure is often forgotten: the turning of Kashmir into a jihadist playground.
In 1989, when the insurgency in the Indian portion of the disputed region first began, it was largely an amateur affair of young, secular-minded Kashmiri Muslims rising village by village and wielding homemade weapons-firearms fashioned from the steering shafts of rickshaws and so on. By the early ’90s, however, Pakistan was sending over the border thousands of well-trained, heavily armed and ideologically hardened jihadis. Some were the same sorts of exiled Arab radicals who were at the same time forming al-Qaeda in Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan.
By 1993, during Ms. Bhutto’s second term, the Arab and Afghan jihadis (and their Inter-Services Intelligence masters) had really begun to take over the uprising from the locals. It was at this stage that the secular leadership of the.Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front began losing ground to hard-line Islamist outfits like Hizbul Mujahedeen.
I asked Benazir Bhutto about her Kashmir policy and the potential dangers of the growing role of religious extremists in the conflict during an interview in 1994. “India tries to gloss over its policy of repression in Kashmir,” she replied. “India does have might, but has been unable to crush the people of Kashmir. We are not prepared to keep silent, and collude with repression.”
Hamid Gul, who was the head of the intelligence agency during her first administration, was more forthcoming still. “The Kashmiri people have risen up,” he told me, “and it is the national purpose of Pakistan to help liberate them.” He continued, “If the jihadis go out and contain India, tying down their army on their own soil, for a legitimate cause, why should we not support them?”
Benazir Bhutto’s death is, of course, a calamity, particularly as she embodied the hopes of so many liberal Pakistanis. But, contrary to the commentary we’ve seen in the last week, she was not comparable to Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Ms, Bhutto’s governments were widely criticized by Amnesty International and other groups for their use of death squads and terrible record on deaths in police custody, abductions and torture. As for her democratic bona fides, she had no qualms about banning rallies by opposing political parties while in power.
Within her own party, she declared herself the president for life and controlled all decisions. She rejected her brother Murtaza’s bid to challenge her for its leadership and when he persisted, he was shot dead in highly suspicious circumstances during a police ambush outside the Bhutto family home.
Benazir Bhutto was certainly a brave and secular-minded woman. But the obituaries painting her as dying to save democracy distort history. Instead, she was a natural autocrat who did little for human rights, a calculating politician who was complicit in Pakistan’s becoming the region’s principal jihadi paymaster while she also ramped up an insurgency in Kashmir that has brought two nuclear powers to the brink of war.
William Dalrymple is the author, most recently, of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857. This op-ed first appeared in The New York Times, Jan. 4, 2008. Coptright 2008 The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.
Filed under: Benazir Bhutto