January Issue 2008
If there were any doubts that 2007 was globally ‘The Year of Pakistan,’ then Benazir Bhutto’s death on December 27, 2007, erased them in one fell swoop. Before the reverberations of the blast from Liaquat Bagh were heard around the world, Pakistan’s global image had already taken a nasty beating as the country’s disturbing ground realities had risen to the fore on the world stage: General Musharraf showed his dictatorial tendencies killing his popularity and credibility, a US intelligence report cited FATA as a Taliban and Al-Qaeda safe haven, and extremists scored territorial and military victories while paramilitary forces suffered major tactical and psychological losses.
The assassination of Benazir, the country’s most popular leader, simply underscored the fact that Pakistan was out of control. And the international electronic media’s news coverage of the PPP chairperson’s murder focused on just that.
Sure, the foreign media discussed many facets of Benazir: her life as a woman, mother, and politician; her rise to power; what drove her; her exile and return; how she dealt with the death threats and eventually her funeral and succession. But the question of “What next for Pakistan?” trumped all others. And the media’s answer gave audiences around the world much to be concerned about.
“It’s not unusual to have confusion at times like this,” said one analyst on Britain’s Sky News. Obvious, but also dead on. Following Benazir’s death there was confusion about how events unfolded, there was mass confusion in the streets and there was even greater confusion on the future of Pakistan.
In terms of Pakistan’s future, Fox News wasn’t so much concerned about the status of the upcoming elections or the health of the PPP, though. It was focused on Pakistan’s potential effect on the war on terror. Seemingly almost every reference to Pakistan by one Fox commentator was prefaced by the adjective nuclear-armed. Just hours after Benazir’s death, the conclusion was that Pakistan was on the brink: it was about to fracture into pieces.
The discussion went something like this: “The country is a powder keg. Remember: Pakistan has nukes. And with the Taliban overrunning the country, is anything secure?”
Sky News helped explain the risk to Pakistan’s nuclear cache by literally drawing viewers a picture in a very Geography 101-style exercise. First was the map pointing out Pakistan’s dubious neighbours: Afghanistan, Iran, China and India. A statistic was added in bold: Pakistan has 50-110 nuclear warheads. The graphic was then populated with all of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Notice how close these facilities are with the Afghanistan border, highlighted the Fox correspondent. And with collusion between some elements in the Pakistan military establishment and militants and extremists (and this is “well documented,” concluded a guest pundit), the nightmare situation was laid out.
On CNN, former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK Akbar Ahmed tried to allay some of the global fears by saying the widespread speculation on the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was unfounded. The country’s nuclear assets are in the control of the military, he stated, adding that the military is the most stable and secure institution in Pakistan.
But views like his received little airtime.
All the foreign television outlets were quick to blame (or allow their guest analysts to blame) Al-Qaeda and Taliban for Benazir’s murder. This comment by a political analyst on Sky News summed up the reasoning: “Al-Qaeda would not have liked her…she was a woman, an educated woman and a liberal political leader with ties to the West.”
But Musharraf, too, was unable to avoid criticism and a share of the responsibility.
“[This is] Musharraf’s last chance. Musharraf is going to wind up in a pool of blood just like Ms Bhutto if he doesn’t throw in with NATO and the United States and throw in tomorrow,” said Fox’s abrasive Bill O’Reilly from Afghanistan. “Musharraf’s been playing a game. He’s been taking our billions, he’s been telling President Bush, and President Clinton before that, what they want to hear. He allows the Islamists and the jihadists to run wild in certain areas of the country… Every United States and NATO intelligence source knows the Taliban runs its operations out of the Pakistani city of Quetta. That’s not a remote city. They could walk in there tomorrow and wipe these guys out. They do not.”
BBC World turned to its favourite Pakistanis for comment: former ambassador Talat Masood and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf chief, Imran Khan. The latter was reached via telephone on Friday, and he unsurprisingly also blamed the chaos in the country on President Musharraf. For six years he has promised to rid Pakistan of terrorism and extremists, said Mr Khan, but things have only become worse. “2007 was the bloodiest year in Pakistan’s history,” he added. By Sunday, the BBC was covering the cricketer-turned-politician’s press conference in Mumbai. After blaming Musharraf some more and calling for the reinstatement of the judiciary, Khan said that holding elections on schedule made no sense. Overall, his position was clear: Musharraf has to go.
On Fox’s top-rated (and probably also top-hated) programme, The O’Reilly Factor, the solution talk turned to money. Patrick Basham of the Cato Institute, a non-profit US think tank, said, putting an end to the flow of aid to Pakistan would send a signal. “We have not got enough bang for the buck. Much of the money has been wasted.” But his co-guest, Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation and a former CIA analyst countered: “Cutting off our assistance to Pakistan would be like cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
But ousting Musharraf was not a recommended solution either. One commentator compared Musharraf with the Shah of Iran. “We did not like him. He was not our model. But then look who we ended up with: the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the country went up in flames.”
Being interviewed on CNN, news icon Dan Rather offered his own “humble opinion” on how the US should be approaching the situation in Pakistan. The strategy of the US and its allies has failed, he said. According to Rather, it was time for the US to seek help and advice from other countries in the region, such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to develop a new strategy in the region. The pendulum had swung towards the extremists, he claimed, saying that Benazir’s murder was the “biggest victory for the extremists since the murder of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1980.”
By Saturday morning, the coverage turned from looking at Pakistan’s potential break-up to Pakistan’s potential cover-up. In Pakistan, Anderson Cooper said there was confusion in Islamabad and described the Baitullah Mehsud intercept as convenient. Wolf Blitzer sought an eyewitness account from a Getty Image photographer, John Moore. While CNN showed his numerous images of Benazir’s last rally and final moments, Moore described what he saw. Blitzer was clearly hoping that somehow in the face of the shocking light, sound and force that ripped through the crowd, Moore saw all the right things to recreate the shooting, the blast and the injuries to Bhutto. Blitzer didn’t get what he wanted. Moore summed it up best: “It is impossible for anyone outside the car to know exactly what happened.”
But for the rest of the West, what is clearly more important is what happens next.