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Pakistan's Dysfunctional Family

Author: Thomas W. Lippman, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
October 24, 2010
Washington Post

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In the 63 years since Pakistan became an independent country, it has had rulers who were incompetent, corrupt, dictatorial or sometimes all three. Two of those leaders were named Bhutto: Zulfikar Ali, prime minister in the 1970s, deposed in a military coup and later hanged by order of his successor, and his daughter Benazir, prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. She was assassinated as she attempted to return to power in 2007. The current president, Asif Zardari, was her husband.

Wealthy, well-educated and deeply political, the Bhuttos have sometimes been described as the Kennedys of Pakistan, complete with Harvard degrees and violent deaths. But they are more like Renaissance Europe's corrupt Borgias, as becomes all too apparent in this intensely personal, vengeful narrative by Fatima Bhutto, granddaughter of Zulfikar, niece of Benazir and daughter of a third slain Bhutto, Benazir's brother Murtaza. Yet another Bhutto, Shahnawaz, younger brother of Murtaza, was poisoned in 1985.

There are really three books within "Songs of Blood and Sword." One is an account of Pakistan's appalling history since the 1950s. One is a young woman's memoir of her family, which has been at the center of that history. The third is a detective story: Who was responsible for the fatal police shooting of Murtaza Bhutto in 1996?

The author's conclusion, reached after interviews with scores of her father's friends, professors and political allies, is that the police shot Murtaza on orders from his sister Benazir. The motivation, according to Fatima Bhutto, was that Murtaza, once released from the jail where Benazir's government had confined him, was challenging Benazir and her husband for control of the Pakistan People's Party and thus posed a threat to the vast wealth they had amassed through spectacular corruption.

"Benazir and her cronies were now backed against a wall," Fatima writes of her father, who to her was the only person in the family who could do no wrong. "Murtaza's threat was manageable for them when he was behind bars and access to him and his ability to speak to the people were restricted. Now that he was free, he was unstoppable."

Fatima Bhutto found no smoking gun, but she unearthed plenty of circumstantial evidence, including the fact that the police took her wounded father to a hospital where they knew no surgeon was on duty, and that the scene of her father's killing was hosed down and cleansed of evidence within a few hours. A tribunal concluded that Murtaza's killing could not have happened without orders from high authority.

She is disgusted that the chain of death in the Bhutto family has resulted in Asif Zardari's becoming president. "This is the legacy Benazir has left behind for Pakistan," her niece writes -- a "saprophytic culture" in which Zardari is the organism that lives off the corpses. Do not invite Fatima Bhutto and Asif Zardari to the same dinner party. She lives in Karachi, but judging by her account of its political environment, she might be well advised not to return there after her U.S. book tour.

Fatima Bhutto, a journalist who was educated at Columbia and the University of London--breaking the family's Harvard tradition--is not yet 30 years old, and her youth shows in this undisciplined book. It is at least 50 pages too long, larded with self-indulgent emotional outbursts and personality sketches of minor characters, and her reflexive anti-Americanism is tiresome. Her occasional references to U.S. policy sound like snippets of a conversation with Che Guevara, whose poster Murtaza Bhutto mounted in his room at Harvard. She actually believes that U.S. troops herded Vietnamese villagers into urban communities because "that made it much easier for the US army to bomb civilians in their separated enclaves," as if that were the Army's objective.

Yet her book will be valuable to readers who want to understand why Pakistan is such an ungovernable mess. In her account, the country's entire political culture is based on corruption, violence, opportunism, mendacity and a feudal economic system. Even the revered Zulfikar, whose mantle everyone in this book tries to claim, tinkered with the constitution to advance his own power. "He was a polarizing figure," his granddaughter writes. "You either loved Zulfikar or hated him." She loved him, but then she used to love her Aunt Benazir, too.

Thomas W. Lippman is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.