Pakistan After Bhutto

Jayshree Bajoria
Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, December 28, 2007; 1:00 PM

Less than a day after gun and bomb attacks killed Pakistan's iconic opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, her death has already spurred more violence in her fragile homeland. The New York Times reports that violence erupted in cities across Pakistan today, as hundreds of thousands marched in Bhutto's ancestral village for her funeral procession. Several news outlets have quoted a report from the Italian news agency AKI that an al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan claimed credit for Bhutto's killing (CNN). Bhutto, the first woman to lead an Islamic state, hoped to win a third term as prime minister in critical parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8. Her death leaves pressing questions about whether the elections will run on schedule and how fair they will be.

Already signs of political uncertainty and future troubles loom as analysts try to guess at Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's next move. Musharraf announced a three-day period of mourning (Bloomberg) for Bhutto. Pakistan's current Prime Minister Mohammadmian Soomro announced December 28 that elections would be held as scheduled (NDTV) and urged Pakistanis to remain calm. But other news reports suggest a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, will boycott elections (AP). Before Bhutto's assassination, Sharif's supporters were also targeted (WashPost) in a different political rally in Islamabad.

Bhutto's death means the United States will have to rethink its strategy (NPR) for nudging forward democratization in Pakistan. It had been pushing for a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto in the hope that Bhutto's return to power would lend legitamacy to Musharraf's increasingly unpopular government. Despite the recent imposition of emergency rule by Musharraf, Washington remained optimistic about the January elections. In a media conference call following Bhutto's death, CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey said the elections had the potential to move the country forward toward a more manageable civilian-military partnership, adding that "Benazir would have been a significant part of that." December 27th was a bad day for United States, he says, and it "will be paying a price for it for a while."

Facing a great deal of criticism for its support of Musharraf, the United States condemned the attack. President George W. Bush called it an attempt to "undermine Pakistan's democracy." U.S. presidential candidates also expressed concern about the region's stability. The New York Times writes that U.S. embassy officials in Islamabad are now reaching out to members of Sharif's party, and says this suggests Washington is hard pressed for trustworthy partners in Pakistan. In the past, some U.S. policymakers have been suspicious of Sharif due to his alleged ties to Islamists.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and key South Asia policymaker in the 1990s, told he believes Bhutto's assassination was intended to destabilize Pakistan. Bhutto, speaking at CFR's New York headquarters in August 2007, referenced repeated threats to her life from Islamic militants as well as the ties Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, continued to foster with Taliban elements. Indeed, on the day of her return from exile in October, Bhutto narrowly escaped death when her motor cavalcade was hit by a double suicide attack that left some 130 dead in Karachi.

"Her death brutally exposes how little success Pervez Musharraf has had in cracking down on the jihadists," writes CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot in Commentary's blog. "They have only grown stronger on his watch." The U.S. Congress, too, has questioned the effectiveness of nearly $10 billion in aid to Musharraf in the war against terrorism. Last week, it imposed new restrictions (AP) on U.S. assistance to Pakistan. A former Bhutto aide told TIME that Bhutto "was let down by those in Washington who think that sucking up to bad governments around the world is their best policy option." According to CFR's former press fellow Manjeet Kripalani, U.S. influence in the country is likely to diminish. "Bush's continued focus on extremists in Pakistan, rather than on reform of the Pakistani military, is likely to create more muddled policy," Kripalani writes in BusinessWeek. Riedel adds that the only way Pakistan will be able to fight terrorism effectively is to have a "legitimate, democratically-elected, secular government." The situation, however, is fraught. Newsweek's Michael Hirsh, a frequent traveller to Pakistan, wonders if Bhutto's death might lay the foundation for the democratic transformation she never attained in life.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company