Can Musharraf Survive?
Benazir Bhutto's assassination has diminished the Pakistani president's already low public standing. How her death could lead to his political demise.
As former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was leaving a campaign rally in downtown Rawalpindi, not far from the headquarters of Pakistan's powerful armed forces, she poked her head out of the open moonroof of her armor-plated white Toyota Land Cruiser to wave at the crowd of admirers lining the street. Suddenly a gunman ran up to her car, peppering it with automatic-weapon fire and then exploding himself in a suicide bombing attack. Bhutto, who was standing inside the car, her head and shoulders exposed, was hit in the head and neck by the bullets, and died almost instantly. At least 20 others lost their lives in the blast that followed.
Her untimely death in the suicide attack deals a major and perhaps even fatal blow to Pakistan's democratic aspirations. Bhutto's return from eight years of self-imposed exile a little more than two months ago had injected new energy and hope into the country's prodemocracy forces, who saw her as their best hope for transforming Pakistan's military-dominated political system into one that was more free and open and more dedicated to helping the mass of Pakistanis, who have yet to benefit from the country's impressive 6 percent economic growth rate. Despite her many political faults and weaknesses, she was a champion of democracy and human rights and an advocate of dealing harshly with the country's armed and determined Islamic militants. These radicals are believed to be the ones most likely to have killed her.
Not only did many Pakistanis see her as a symbol of hope for a more just and democratic society, the West too, led by the United States and Britain, saw her as someone who could work with the unpopular Musharraf to increase political stability and rally opposition to Pakistan's radical Islamists—especially the Al Qaeda supporters who have carved out a safe haven in the country's lawless tribal areas along the western frontier with Afghanistan. Washington and London supported her bid to return from exile, lobbying hard with Musharraf over the past year to get him to allow her to return without her having to face the slew of corruption charges that had been filed against her. Bhutto always claimed that those allegations of corruption, which happened during her two terms as prime minister during the late 1980s and mid-1990s, were politically motivated and that she was innocent.
For the White House and Downing Street, a Bhutto-Musharraf power-sharing arrangement made a dream team. The West envisioned Musharraf as president, continuing to lead the fight against extremism, and Bhutto as prime minister, giving a more popular mandate to the Bush administration's war on terror and added impetus to the anti-jihad campaign.
Bhutto indeed was an outspoken opponent of Islamic extremists. Just before and after her return from exile, she publicly vowed to fight radical Islamists in a more systematic way than Musharraf. She said she could rally more popular support for a battle that many Pakistanis see as a U.S.-led crusade against Islam in which Pakistanis should not be involved. She pledged that if she returned to power she would implement many of Musharraf's failed promises, such as carrying out reforms in the country's thousands of madrassas, or religious schools, many of which teach jihad to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of poor students. She said she would even allow the United States to take unilateral military action against Pakistani tribal insurgents and Al Qaeda in the frontier areas. She also promised to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to interview Abdul Qadir Khan, the discredited father of Pakistan's atomic bomb who also ran a potentially lethal underground market in sensitive nuclear technology and know-how to such states as Iran, Libya and North Korea. Musharraf placed Khan under house arrest but refused to allow any foreigners to interrogate the scientist about his activities.
Largely because of those tough, seemingly pro-Western stands, and because she was a woman vying for political power, she became a target of Islamic extremists. Before she arrived home from exile last October, Baitullah Mehsud, a powerful pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda tribal leader in the South Waziristan tribal area, vowed to greet her with suicide bombers. (He later denied any involvement in the October attack on her motorcade in Karachi.) But Pakistani militants, the Taliban and Al Qaeda doubtless saw her as an imminent political threat. Almost all of the more than 50 suicide bombings that have occurred in Pakistan this year, attacks largely aimed at military targets and senior government officials, have originated from the tribal area, Pakistani investigators say. Several insurgent training camps, which include instruction in suicide and IED attacks, are located in Mehsud's territory.