Bhutto's Assassination 'Almost Certainly' Work of Al-Qaeda

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Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings InstitutionInterviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, December 27, 2007; 2:46 PM

Bruce Riedel, a former defense and intelligence official who helped make South Asia policy in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, says he believes Benazir Bhutto's assassination "was almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda's Pakistani allies." He says, "Their objective is to destabilize the Pakistani state, to break up the secular political parties, to break up the army so that Pakistan becomes a politically failing state in which the Islamists in time can come to power much as they have in other failing states." He says the United States should press the government of President Pervez Musharraf to go ahead with the parliamentary elections -- perhaps after a brief pause. "The only way that Pakistan is going to be able to fight terrorism effectively is to have a legitimate democratically elected secular government that can rally the Pakistani people to engage al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist movements," he says.

Let's start with an obvious question. In the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who do you think was responsible?

It was almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda's Pakistani allies. Al-Qaeda has been trying to kill Ms. Bhutto for decades. She has been the target of assassination attempts by al-Qaeda before. They were most likely responsible for the attack on her when she first returned to Pakistan. Their objective is to destabilize the Pakistani state, to break up the secular political parties, to break up the army so that Pakistan becomes a politically failing state in which the Islamists in time can come to power, much as they have in other failing states where al-Qaeda knows its chances for success are higher.

There is supposed to be a parliamentary election on January 8, two weeks away. What will happen? Will they be postponed?

There is a good chance that President Pervez Musharraf will postpone the election, at least temporarily, in part to give Ms. Bhutto's party, the PPP [Pakistan People's Party], a chance to select a new front-runner and to organize itself. If he tries to postpone the election indefinitely, or to in effect shelve them, there will be a very strong backlash in Pakistan because Pakistanis across the political spectrum want an opportunity for elections to produce a new, more legitimate government. I don't think they would find the argument that terrorists killed a leading figure in the democratic movement an appropriate excuse to shelve democracy. We will see soon how Musharraf acts. I hope he will adhere to the principle of elections with a date certain, even if they are postponed temporarily to give the Pakistan People's Party a chance to reorganize.

Do they have an obvious replacement for her?

This party was very much Ms. Bhutto's party. There is no heir apparent on the horizon. They have a significant problem. This might be a boon to the other secular parties, including the one run by Nawaz Sharif. Sharif is clearly not seeking to be elected through this kind of tragedy. He has been an advocate of elections with all political parties running.

Does President Musharraf have a political party?

President Musharraf has a party. It is a splinter of the Sharif party, the Pakistani Muslim League [PML-N]. By most accounts and most polls, [Musharraf's] party will come in very poorly in this election. There is a widespread feeling among Pakistanis that the Musharraf dictatorship has gone on too long. A recent poll (PDF) by the International Republican Institute shows somewhere around two-thirds of Pakistanis would like to see Musharraf step down and give up power now. It [also] suggests that in a fair election, the opposition parties are likely to do very well. But because they are divided, it was unlikely and it remains unlikely that any single opposition party will have a majority in the new national assembly -- there would have to be coalition building.

Would the PPP have won outright?

I don't think it would have won a clear majority, but no one knows. Of course another factor is that no election in Pakistani history has ever been entirely free and fair. Every Pakistani election has been tainted by widespread allegations of fraud. It had been expected, even by Ms. Bhutto, that the elections would be tainted by fraud. The question was always going to be whether the level of political machination and rigging of the election would be beyond the pale -- that is, so gross and massive that no one would take the election results seriously -- or be within the norm of Pakistani politics.

When did you first meet Ms. Bhutto?

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