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Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

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Kamran Bokhari
Director of Middle East Analysis, Strategic Forecasting, Inc.
Thursday, December 27, 2007; 3:30 PM

Strategic Forecasting, Inc. Director of Middle East Analysis Kamran Bokhari was online Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss the assassination of former Primer Minister Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan and its impacts on the upcoming election and U.S.-Pakistan relations.

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The transcript follows.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is the security adequate in Pakistan for all political leaders expecially those who are in the opposition? How can someone come so close to Ms. Bhutto and cause this tragedy...

Kamran Bokhari: From the Bhutto assassination, we can all see that the state of security in Pakistan is very bad. Mush of this has to do with the situation where the country's intelligence and security apparatus have been infiltrated by jihadists. Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist militant actors have sympathizers within the lower and mid ranks of the security/intelligence agencies, which act as enablers for militant activity.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Who stands to gain the most by the assassination?

Kamran Bokhari: Islamist militants and elements within the Musharraf regime who saw the political comeback of Bhutto as a threat to their interests. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban knew that the return of the PPP to power would lead to a serious campaign against the jihadists. There are also elements within the Musharraf regime that saw Bhutto and her PPP as a threat to their interests.

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New York: I think the assasination of Bhutto is the biggest setback to Nawaz Sharif's party. This will help Benazir's party gain a lot of sympathy all over the country and bring it to absolute majority in coming elections. Thanks.

Kamran Bokhari: Actually, Bhutto's death leaves Sharif as the biggest opposition figure in the country. He is already trying to emerge as a leader by calling for Musharraf to step down. There are also some early indications that suggest that the PPP, the PML-N, and the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami could team up in a street agitation against the Musharraf regime.

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Minneapolis: Thank you for making the time to take our questions. Earlier this week William Arkin reported that the U.S. and Pakistan had reached an agreement for U.S. Special Forces to begin operating in Pakistan along the Afghanistan border. Are today's events likely to impact that agreement?

washingtonpost.com: Early Warning: U.S. Troops Head to Pakistan (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 26)

Kamran Bokhari: The killing of Bhutto has triggered massive political unrest in the country. This means that the security forces will have their hands full with the protests and rioting and won't have the bandwidth to engage in counter-terrorist operations. Therefore, any joint U.S.-Pakistani anti-jihadist operations could be delayed. The U.S. forces can not operate on their own and the Bush administration will not want to exacerbate the already serious situation.

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Seattle: Is there any real chance that the killers will be found and brought to justice? Knowing that her life was in constant danger, Bhutto must have thought about a succession plan. Is there anyone else in the Pakistan Peoples Party who could become an influential head of the party?

Kamran Bokhari: The murky nature of the jihadist infrastructure complicates any moves to apprehend those responsible for the assassination. As for the PPP, it has always been led by a Bhutto since its inception in the late 1960s. Its founder was Ms. Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and after his execution at the hands of the military regime of Gen Zia-ul-Haq in 1979, Benazir had led the party. A PPP without a Bhutto at the helm will likely weaken the party because there is no one of equivalent stature to takeover.

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Boston: Al-Qaeda seems to thrive on the chaos and instability of something like today's assasination. Whether al-Qaeda was responsible for this attack or not, is there any reason to believe this won't help them both in the Afghan/Pakistan region and elsewhere?

Kamran Bokhari: Indeed the jihadists flourish in the midst of chaos be it in Pakistan or in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else. Both al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban are likely to have a hand in this assassination. But they also likely had help from their contacts in and close to the Pakistani state.

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California: If al-Qaeda in the Northwest Provinces is found responsible for this assassination, will the Pakistani people be more open to allowing direct action against them, including attacks by the coalition forces from the Afghan side?

Kamran Bokhari: BHutto's death has sparked a major outrage against a growing anger towards Islamist militants. Moreover, the military itself is the target of jihadist attacks. Therefore, it is quite likely that this will generate a drive towards a major campaign aagainst jihadists and with possible assistance from U.S. and NATO forces. But the tactical details of any such move could complicate matters and sensibilities in the country.

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Washington: If Musharraf thought that Bhutto was such a threat to his regime, why did he pardon her and allow her back into the country?

Kamran Bokhari: Musharraf didn't see Bhutto as merely a threat. In fact, he was trying to use her in order to strengthen his hold on power. The results of the Jan 8 polls were going to determine the nature of power-sharing mechanism. But Bhutto's death has derailed that process and Musharraf is actually in a very precarious situation himself. He has to be able to show the army that he can as a civilian president contain the unrest.

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Cairo, Egypt: Hi. For the next few years, what is your forecast for the campaign against jihadism in Pakistan and Musharraf's hold on power?

Kamran Bokhari: Pakistan will be the decisive battleground in the fight against jihadism in the next few years because it is the global headquarters of al-Qaeda and the sanctuary it provides to the Taliban. Moreover, because of the historic role the Pakistani military has played in supporting these non-state actors in the past to further the country's foreign polciy objectives in Afghanistan and India.

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Arlington, Va.: Will Bhutto's assasination and other more recent violence by extremists cause the country to spiral further out of control, or will there be a backlash against -- or at least a turning away from -- the extremism that is doing so much harm to Pakistan?

Kamran Bokhari: The situation is likely to get worse before it gets any better. There are two struggles going on simultaneously, which are complicating the counter-terrorism efforts. First, is the civil-military struggle where we have an unprecedented rising from civil society calling for rule of law and end to military regimes. Secondly, we have the struggle between liberal and conservative forces over the role of Islam in the Pakistani state. In addition, we have a growing jihadist insurgency in the country.

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: I'm confused by conflicting information about the strength of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. On one hand, I've read that the Islamists never have received as much as 20 percent of the popular vote. Yet, in addition to controlling the Afghan border areas, they are thought to include a significant portion of the military and other segments of the nation's power structure. So, what exactly is the chance of Pakistan becoming a fundamentalist religious state, or of it descending into religious strife so great that it destabilizes the secular government and society? Thank you.

Kamran Bokhari: The Islamist phenomenon in Pakistan is very complex and consists of many groups and trends. On one hand there are the political Islamist parties who for the last five years have been operating under the coalition called the MMA. Then there are different militants groups operating in the country with links to the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda. Organziationally these two categories are separate from one another but elements from both these types of groups have connections with one another. It is therefore, a very messy situation.

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Fairfax, Va.: What do you see as the impact of this assasination on the region as a whole (Afghanistan, India)?

Kamran Bokhari: Growing political instability and Islamist militancy in Pakistan has a direct impact on both its neighbors. A Pakistan in chaos allows the Taliban in Afghanistan top operate more freely and enhance their own militancy. Similarly, Pakistan undergoing a crisis of governance has security implications for India where Kashmiri militants in India can have more room to manuever.

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Seattle: What short-term and long-term effects, if any, could Bhutto's death have on the Pakistan-U.S. relationship?

Kamran Bokhari: The United States has always dealt with the Pakistani army because the military is the state in the country. But Washington is also aware that the government in Islamabad has to be some sort of civil-military hybrid because of the need to cater to the demands of civilian rule in Pakistan. This is why the Bush administration was working to broker a pwoersharing agreement, which included Musharraf as a civilian president, Bhutto as a prime minister heading a coalition government, and Gen. Kayani as the head of the military. The death of Bhutto has derailed those plans and in fact worsened the situation. Her assassination has left a vacuum and torpedoed U.S. efforst to cobble together a moderate regime to combat growing religious extremism and terrorism.

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Kamran Bokhari: Thank you all for participating in this online discussion. I am grateful to the Washington Post - in particular Christopher Hopkins, the producer of this forum - for granting me the opportunity to share my thoughts. Hopefully, we can do this again in the future. Good afternoon/evening.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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