Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” He has made more than a dozen reporting trips to Pakistan since 1983. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In a world that at times seems obsessed with the Windsor dynasty that occupies the British throne, a political dynasty with a history deeply entwined with one of the world’s most politically sensitive countries gets far less attention.
Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons that neighbors Afghanistan, China, Iran and India, has been long dominated by its powerful military, which in recent years has put increasing pressure on independent media and dissenting voices.
Pakistan’s Bhutto family dynasty, in recent decades, championed a more liberal democratic approach to politics and has provided two of the country’s most important leaders – and today, its youngest foreign minister ever.
I met last week with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who was visiting Washington. He told me that the assassination of his mother, two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was a turning point for him at 19 that pushed him into public service: “I didn’t choose this life. It chose me. The circumstances of her assassination and the events that followed led me down this path where I am today.”
During the Cold War, Pakistan became a key American ally after the Soviet Union invaded Pakistan’s neighbor Afghanistan in 1979. That invasion precipitated a tight alliance between the United States and the military regime of Pakistan’s President, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. The CIA acted as the quartermaster to the Afghan rebels, funneling billions of dollars of weapons to the Pakistani military intelligence service, which in turn supported several of the Afghan groups fighting the Soviets.
In 1989, after being defeated in Afghanistan, the Soviets pulled out – a move that hastened the collapse of the Soviet regime. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the United States closed its embassy in Kabul and washed its hands of the country.
That move would turn out to be a large blunder because Afghanistan then descended into a civil war, out of which emerged a shadowy group, the Taliban, which by 1996 had taken over almost the entire country. The Taliban also gave refuge to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda group, which planned the 9/11 attacks.
In the years before 9/11, Pakistan was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan, seeing in them a force on its western border that would not ally with its main enemy, India.
After September 11, under intense US pressure, the Pakistanis switched allegiance and, at least initially, supported the US-led war against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Deeply enmeshed in all this complex history is the Bhutto family, which, even more than the Kennedys in the United States, is a political dynasty that has shaped the history of their country while also enduring considerable personal tragedy.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bhutto Zardari’s grandfather, was the first democratically elected Prime Minister in Pakistan, but he was later deposed and then hanged by the regime of the Pakistani military dictator Zia in 1979.
A little under a decade later, Bhutto’s daughter Benazir Bhutto, then only 35, became the first female Prime Minister in Pakistan’s history and, indeed, the first female Prime Minister of any Muslim-majority country.
She was a graduate of Harvard and Oxford and orientated to the West, but nonetheless, during her prime ministership, Pakistan’s powerful military began supporting the Taliban as they rose to power in Afghanistan.
In February 1993, a militant from Pakistan, Ramzi Yousef, masterminded the bombing of the World Trade Center, killing six people. Yousef then went back to Pakistan and began plotting to kill Benazir Bhutto, who was then serving as Prime Minister for the second time. The plan failed when the bomb Yousef was building malfunctioned.
In 2000, I met with Benazir Bhutto, who explained to me that “the international Islamist movement saw Pakistan as its base. They saw my party as a liberal threat.” She became a fervent public critic of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the fact that she was the first woman to lead Pakistan made her an even bigger target for Islamist militants.
Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan in 2007 when she was campaigning to become Prime Minister for the third time. The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for her murder.
All this tangled history was going through my mind when I met with her son at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington. Bhutto Zardari was visiting the US capital as his country faces what is arguably the worst crisis since its founding in 1947; by late August, floods of biblical proportions had submerged a third of the country.
Bhutto Zardari told me, “One in seven people, 33 million, are affected. The World Health Organization has warned of a second catastrophe in the form of a health crisis with waterborne diseases. There will also be food insecurity because of the millions of acres of crops destroyed.”
The flooding over the summer has caused an estimated $30 billion in damage.
In addition to the immediate crisis, Bhutto Zardari said now was the time to implement a longer-term solution – “a Green Marshall Plan” for climate-stressed developing countries such as Pakistan that have only a small impact on global warming but are disproportionately suffering its costs.
Bhutto Zardari pointed out that while Pakistan contributes less than 1% of the world’s planet-warming gases, it is one of the countries most affected by climate change. A “Green Marshall Plan” would allow countries such as Pakistan to build infrastructure more resilient to its effects.
Asked about the Taliban, which now control Afghanistan, Bhutto Zardari surprised me when he advocated for greater engagement with them, even though the Afghan Taliban shelters elements of the Pakistani Taliban, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for his mother’s murder. “They are our neighbors,” he said. “Our neighbors aren’t going away, and we need a peaceful, stable Afghanistan, so we don’t see an exodus of Afghan refugees into Pakistan, and we don’t see an exponential increase in terrorism.”
Bhutto Zardari explained that the dire economic situation in Afghanistan made dealing with the Taliban more important since predictions indicate that more than 90% of the Afghan population may soon fall below the poverty line. “History has shown us that theocratic, autocratic regimes, when faced with tough economic times, tend to contract rights rather than expand rights,” said Bhutto Zardari, who studied history at Oxford.
At the end of our interview, we returned to the subject of his mother, Benazir, whom I had met many times over the years, including the first time that she was Prime Minister during the late 1980s and had only recently given birth to him.
Benazir Bhutto was assassinated almost two decades later at age 54 when she was a politician at the height of her powers. She was very much an ally of the United States, an enemy of Islamist terrorists such as al Qaeda and the Taliban, and also an advocate for liberal democracy in Pakistan.
I asked her son, “Would Pakistan have had a very different trajectory if she had become Prime Minister for the third time”? The foreign minister replied, “Yes. I think that’s pretty safe to say.”