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Stanley Kurtz on the Bhutto assassination, and the future of Pakistan

Thursday, December 27, 2007

HH: I’m talking now with Stanley Kurtz of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics And Public Policy Center. Stanley also contributes at Welcome back, Stanley. Amazing article you wrote for the Claremont Review of Books earlier this month. I’ve linked to it at, on Pakistan, and I want to start with Noor Muhammad as some background, that we didn’t invent the Mujahideen. We didn’t make this problem, as Charlie Wilson’s War, and a whole bunch of other people are asserting on this grim day for Pakistan.

SK: Well, that’s right, Hugh. You know, when we use the word democracy, say, in conjunction with Pakistan, we think about, we think about what democracy means here, a country where people understand individual rights and religious freedom. But the life of your average person in Pakistan is really radically different from that. They might live in a tribal setting, as exists in these tribal regions that support al Qaeda. That’s where the rebellion I wrote about in Tribes of Terror occurred, a kind of precursor to the Taliban, which drew on a whole set of attitudes about way of life, in which your group, your tribe, is paramount, and the idea of individual freedom in the sense that we mean it, barely exists. And then you’ve got other areas of Pakistan which people say are in a kind of feudal situation, where you’ve got peasants, they’re working on land that really belongs to a great landlord. That landlord might arrange their marriage, might be in charge of their medical care, and they’ll be loyal to that landlord. The notion of a rule of law, or some kind of independent abstract notion of right and wrong, while it’s not completely non-existent, Islam provides that to some degree. But the personal loyalty to your landlord, your leader, your family, the honor of your lineage and tribe, that’s what’s paramount. And in that atmosphere, the rise of Islamists, the rise of the Taliban has occurred. And yes, the United States at times, and the government of Pakistan has tried to take advantage of that, because that’s all that was out there. But the society is really the source of these threats, ultimately.

HH: Now Stanley Kurtz, the piece that you referred to, Tribes of Terror, from the Claremont Review of Books, goes on to explain that Waziristan is basically expanding. It’s exporting itself, and its very dark approach to life, its very brutal approach to life. And that’s very, very troubling. But you also note that in Iraq, we are, in the new counterinsurgency strategy being directed by David Petraeus, taking a book from the British imperial experience, and learning how to balance tribal rivalry in a way that is productive of stability. I think that’s very much overlooked. Can we take those lessons somehow to Pakistan?

SK: It’s not impossible, but I think it’s tough to do it in Pakistan. The tribal elders would be the key to that. And those are the people we’ve worked through, say, over in Anbar in Iraq. The counterparts are the tribal elders. Now in Iraq, there was some attempt by al Qaeda to assassinate the tribal leaders who were working with us. They did assassinate a very prominent tribal leader, but for the most part, they failed in that. Unfortunately, in Waziristan, and in the tribal areas around Waziristan, a lot of the traditional tribal leaders have already been assassinated. In fact, we should keep that in mind when we think of what’s going on with Benazir Bhutto, and the fact that her father was hung in the same city she was killed, and in that very city, the first Pakistani prime minister was assassinated. Assassination is a very typical political tool in a tribal context, and this is almost a default setting of tribes in general, and even of Pakistan. We think of it as something rare and unusual. Can we do what the British did? It’s not totally impossible, but it will be difficult, because we don’t have an active military presence in Waziristan and tribal regions in Pakistan as we did in Iraq.

HH: Now Stanley Kurtz, you began Tribes of Terror by quoting Lord Curzon, long ago the British viceroy of India when Pakistan was part of India, also foreign secretary. His quote, “No patchwork scheme -and all our present recent schemes…are mere patchwork-will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine.” That’s a little bit reminiscent of the assertion that Rome made a desert and called it peace. But will today’s events push Musharraf and the army in that direction?

SK: I certainly think it’s possible. I mean, today was a good day for al Qaeda, and all the while, there’s been talk of Musharraf somehow being responsible. I view al Qaeda and the Taliban as the real perpetrators of this, and what we’re seeing is a kind of low level, slow motion civil war. But it’s not, there are strong forces that are pushing us towards that civil war, but there really are forces that push against an all-out civil war. There are strong factions, even if minority factions within the army, that would not like to take on the Taliban, that even admire the Taliban. And even Musharraf, who has been a target of Taliban assassination, and who al Qaeda has called for his head, even Musharraf, as a Pakistani leader, has certain strategic reasons to leave the Taliban clipped but not totally destroyed. And this is because Pakistan is always keeping in mind its rivalry with India. This is just as important for Pakistan as our rivalry with the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. And with India on one side, Pakistan is essentially sandwiched between India and Afghanistan. And it turns out that the Taliban has been, and could in the future be a kind of tool for Pakistan to have influence in Afghanistan, should the United States and Europeans leave that area. So it’s a very complex situation in which we could see an all-out civil war and a military attack, but there are forces against that. Frankly, Hugh, I think that in some ways, paradoxically, this assassination takes some pressure off Musharraf, because right now, the United States is in a sense forced with a choice between the army and Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif is not a friendly fellow. He’s been pals with the Taliban before, he’s sympathetic to the Islamists. He’s not fully Islamist, but he’s sympathetic to them. In that atmosphere, I think the army’s position is strengthened, as when Bhutto was there, I think that Musharraf went into Swat, put the army into Swat against the Taliban to kind of prove to the United States that they still need him.

HH: Yeah, yeah. We’ve got about a minute left, Stanley, and I want to turn to domestic politics. There’s an argument running around that this helps John McCain. Frankly, the complexity of the Pakistan situation tells me I don’t want a Senator who has never run anything except a committee running this war. I want Rudy or Romney, who are executives, and even on the Democratic side, it’s got to kill Obama. What’s your reaction to the impact of this event, if any, on the presidential race in the United States?

SK: Well, I do think it shifts the overall tone of debate back toward the war on terror, and the danger of terrorism. I think that helps the Republicans. Take a look at what Bill Richardson said, absolutely insane comment about withdrawing aid, all military aid from Pakistan, withdrawing all support for Musharraf, and calling for a front of democratic parties, which of course Sharif would control. Bad news.

HH: Very bad news. Stanley Kurtz, I appreciate you’re being available to us, and Tribes of Terror, must reading, from the Claremont Review of Books. It’s linked at

End of interview.

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