Assassination in Pakistan

Friday, December 28, 2007

IT IS not known who murdered Benazir Bhutto yesterday, but al-Qaeda and its Islamic extremist allies had by far the most to gain from her death. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford who was twice elected Pakistan's prime minister, Ms. Bhutto was the most powerful advocate of secular democracy in her country; she had the courage to confront both Islamic militants and the autocratic government of President Pervez Musharraf. Though her political record was far from unblemished -- charges of corruption during her time in office appeared well founded -- her return to Pakistan in October and her decision to vigorously contest parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8 offered the hope that Pakistan's moderate forces could shore up the faltering political system by democratic means and then take on the extremists.

Her tragic death may open the way to violence and political chaos that could be exploited by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, unless Mr. Musharraf and the country's surviving moderate forces act quickly and wisely. The odds that they will do so are not good. Mr. Musharraf, who only 12 days ago lifted a state of emergency he imposed to ensure his continuance in power, has been at war with the country's political parties, judiciary, media and human rights advocates. His instinct, as his advisers were already hinting yesterday, will be to call off the elections, which he scheduled only under pressure from the Bush administration. For his part, Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister whose party was running second in pre-election polls to that of Ms. Bhutto, quickly announced yesterday that he would boycott the vote and called on Mr. Musharraf to resign -- in what looked like an irresponsible attempt to take advantage of the outburst of anti-government feeling sparked by the assassination.

With a vital stake in preserving the stability of a country that harbors both a nuclear arsenal and the top leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States must urgently press Mr. Musharraf, Mr. Sharif, and other key Pakistani actors to take steps that will alleviate rather than further inflame the situation. Perhaps most urgent is the capture of those who committed the murder and a full and credible investigation. In the absence of such a clear accounting, conspiracy theories blaming Mr. Musharraf or the military for Ms. Bhutto's death will probably proliferate, to the further benefit of the Islamists. The FBI has worked successfully in Pakistan before, and Ms. Bhutto asked for its help following an earlier assassination attempt against her; the Bush administration should consider whether U.S. investigators could help provide clarity about yesterday's events.

Mr. Musharraf should be restrained from another imposition of martial law, which would again set him at odds with Pakistan's media and civil society but do little to stop al-Qaeda. At the same time, the Bush administration should follow up aggressively on the president's suggestion that Pakistan "honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life." Elections -- held on Jan. 8 or soon afterward -- and a restored democracy remain the best way for the centrist majority in Pakistan to rally against the forces of extremism that yesterday realized a great, though despicable, victory.

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