Bhutto Assassination: A Made-in-America Mess

The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto will destabilize Pakistan for the near term, the January 8th parliamentary elections will be probably be postponed, but the worst outcome will be the increased Talibanization of that country, the region.  The US shares some responsibility for this mess because it created the deal that brought Bhutto home.

Yesterday, crowds outside the hospital where Bhutto was pronounced dead chanted “Dog, Musharraf, Dog” and “Long live Bhutto!" and "Musharraf is a murderer!”  Her followers believe Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf is behind the assassination in part because of the backroom deal mediated by the US which turned messy.

In mid-2007, the US pushed for a deal in which Musharraf would remain as president but step down as military head, and Bhutto could come home with a chance to become prime minister.  

The US objective has been to keep Musharraf in power because as President Bush has said, the General has been a “good ally” in the war on terror.  Unfortunately, some of Musharraf’s allies objected to Washington’s power-sharing arrangement which might explain events that led to Bhutto’s troubled home coming and her assassination.

The US-Pakistan deal started with a warming-up campaign by both Bhutto and Musharraf.  Bhutto would publicly support Musharraf and keep her followers in line.  Musharraf would take off his general’s uniform but remain president.

Bhutto struck first by publicly endorsing Musharraf’s tough actions at Islamabad’s Red Mosque.  “I’m glad there was no cease-fire with the militants in the mosque because cease-fires simply embolden the militants,” Bhutto told Britain’s Sky TV. She continued, “We have to stop appeasing the militants.”

In October, Bhutto restrained her political allies by forcing them to remain quiet when Musharraf won the parliamentary election for president.  Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) refused to join the opposition’s boycott of the election.

Musharraf eased Bhutto’s transition by releasing her frozen funds and right before her return in October the general signed the National Reconciliation Ordinance giving her amnesty in all court cases against her including all corruption charges.  These actions set Bhutto up for a return to a possible third term as prime minister.

Bhutto’s assassination was on both their minds, however.  Musharraf sent her a message asking her to reconsider returning to Pakistan.  But she came anyway and after the October 18 assassination attempt she answered Musharraf’s letter.  She accused “certain individuals [within the government] who abuse their positions, who abuse their powers” to advance the cause of Islamic militants.  

Her relationship with Musharraf once back home was a complicated and constantly shifting game that included both public hostility and private negotiation. Musharraf postponed parliamentary elections and then imposed emergency rule.  After Musharraf declared emergency rule on November 3rd, Bhutto was placed under house arrest on two different occasions, but allowed to make public appearances.

For her part, Bhutto started attacking Musharraf publicly for refusing to permit democratic reforms and power-sharing.  She proved to be a powerful political figure for Musharraf, however.
Last month, Bhutto announced that her PPP would participate in general elections but reserved the right to boycott “if they have been rigged,” Bhutto said.  She warned, “Unless General Musharraf reverses the course it will be very difficult to have fair elections.” She blamed Pakistan’s current political crisis on Musharraf’s “dictatorship.”  

Of course, she has a strong political track record. In the 2002 general elections her party secured the highest number of votes (28.4%) and eighty seats in the national assembly.  This time around she embraced a populist platform promising five E’s: employment, education, energy, environment, equality.

Bhutto was the most popular candidate running and her PPP was expected to win enough seats for her to become prime minister.

On December 15, Musharraf bowed to political pressure from both Washington and at home to lift the six-week state of emergency and take off his uniform.   The election would go forward and to Musharraf’s dismay Bhutto would likely get what she came home for – the prime ministership.

That dream will never happen.  She was gunned down while campaigning and likely her assassin is a jihadist linked with the Taliban.  All the recent attempts on her life wouldn’t have been possible without the jihadists being enabled by elements within the government because many inside Musharraf’s government feared a Bhutto victory.  The culprits could be as Bhutto alleged in her letter to Musharraf the same Islamists with Pakistani security/intelligence connections.

It’s noteworthy that Bhutto was once a Taliban supporter.  She was in power when the Taliban took power in Kabul in September 1996.  At the time, she viewed the Taliban as a group that could stabilize Afghanistan and enable trade access to its northern neighbors.  It’s reported that her government provided military and financial support for the Taliban.  Recently, however, she has distanced herself from the Taliban to condemn their terrorist acts.

Her switch might have cost her life.  After all, Pakistan has experienced a recent and serious upsurge in Taliban activities.  Musharraf’s state of emergency was in direct response to the radical Talibanization spread across Pakistan.

The immediate impact of Bhutto’s death will be a backlash in the form of violence.  Also, the parliamentary elections which are less than two weeks away will be postponed in part because of predictable allegations by the PPP that Bhutto’s assassination was a government conspiracy.  The just anounced re-imposition of martial law will suppress the media’s access to the facts as well.  We may never know the truth.

The more troubling outcome could be the further Talibanization of Pakistan and the implications that has for the region.  That government could well become very radical, worse than Afghanistan was in 2001.  

The West’s best hope is that Pakistan’s military will restrain the violence and slow the jihadists.  The last thing the region needs is Pakistan with its 80 nuclear weapons and a phalanx of ballistic missiles falling into the hands of Islamic radicals.  That could happen.

Things still could turn out brighter.  Our best hope is that Pakistan’s secular military will control the assassination-related violence and the elections will go forward and moderate democrats will be elected in place of radical Islamists.  That’s what the Bush administration had hoped would be the case and with Bhutto as the prime minister.