I spoke a little while ago with a friend whose family is from Pakistan and who follows Pakistani politics. As you've probably heard, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated today in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, just two weeks before her party was expected to do extremely well in national elections, possibly putting her in power as prime minister. Her death has thrown Pakistan in to chaos. But it's quite possible that my friend is correct, that Bhutto's assassination will also end the political career of Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf.
The Bush administration, the Republican candidates for President and wingers of all varieties will be invoking the specter of "TERRA!" and arguing that this killing is proof that we need a bellicose foreign policy under the command of another bellicose Republican. Of course, that's wrong. Pakistan's government has been under the control of the military for much of its history, and often those dictatorships had the sanction of the US. Cold War politics figured heavily in to its history, and the current crisis has its roots in the US/Pakistani creation of the Mujahadeen forces that fought in Afghanistan in the 1980's against the Soviets. While it certainly has huge consequences for the US, this assassination is another chapter in the internal struggles of Pakistan.
It was the creation of those forces for the Afghan war that eventually led to the rise of the Taliban, the creation of al Qaeda, and the radicalization of the mostly Pashtun peoples in the "tribal areas" of Pakistan, where Bin Laden is widely believed to have found a safe haven, most likely with the tacit acceptance of Pakistan's intelligence service, which is believed to be sympathetic to, and probably actively supporting the religious extremists who seek to overturn Pakistan's government. These are the proximate roots of the current struggles in Pakistan.
When Bhutto returned to Pakistan a few months ago, she was almost immediately attacked in an assassination attempt. She blamed Muslim extremists for the previous attack. They had plenty of reason to want Bhutto dead. Odds were good that she would become prime minister, and while it's not clear she would have had much control over the military, she had expressed support for US military action within Pakistan to apprehend Bin Laden. The extremely anti-Shia radicalism of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and similar groups may also have played in to the attack against the secularist Bhutto, who nonetheless came from a prominent Shiite family. When her father was Prime Minister in the 1970's, being Shiite was not as controversial. (About a fifth of Pakistan's population is Shiite.) But the fundamentalists believe Shiites are apostates, and in recent years Bhutto had tried to conceal her Shiite heritage in response.
Thus, Musharraf, while no friend of democracy, may very well be right that this assassination was committed by Muslim extremists. But this is not terrorism in the sense of 9-11-type attacks on the US. Instead, this is political and religious in the context of trying to bring down the secular government of Pakistan, and the horrible image of the US is helping inspire those who may have killed Bhutto and who have also been trying to kill Musharraf.
The US had been pushing Musharraf to accept a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto. He appears to have initially resisted, eventually gave in, but the deal finally fell apart. But whatever the next step was going to be, from the US perspective, it pretty much had to involve Bhutto, who was the only Pakistani politician with enough popular support to sufficiently legitimize the US-backed policy of taking on the Muslim extremists.
Bhutto was also the only politician who could legitimize the continued rule, even shared, of Musharraf. There's not much support in Pakistan for terrorism, and the mass appeal of the Muslim fundamentalists is limited. But Pakistanis rate Musharraf's job performance lower than Americans rate Bush's, and only 15% have a positive view of the U.S.. Now, the best Musharraf can hope for is that he will be blamed for not ensuring sufficient protection for Bhutto; this may make his continued control of Pakistan untenable.
Being out of power might not be the worst thing for Musharraf, who's already been the target of almost a dozen assassination attempts. And then there's this:
The video message, entitledCome to Jihad, features an audio recording of bin Laden urging Pakistanis to avenge the killing of a radical cleric during the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July. “We in [the] al-Qaeda organisation call on Allah to witness that we will retaliate for the blood of Maulana Abd al-Rashid Ghazi,” he says. “Pervez [Musharraf], his ministers, his soldiers and those who help him are all accomplices in spilling the blood of those of the Muslims who have been killed. He who helps him knowingly and willingly is an infidel like him.”
It's quite possible that Musharraf will not be able to continue in power:
"Legitimacy for Musharraf will be deferred if not impossible," said Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation. "The U.S. likely does not have a plan for this contingency as Musharraf remains a critical ally and because Bhutto's participation was hoped to confer legitimacy to the upcoming January elections."
She also warned that the murder could embolden militants in Pakistan to seek out other high-profile targets.
The State Department is already pushing Musharraf to push ahead with the elections in two weeks, but it's hard to imagine how they could provide any legitimacy. And the other main player in the election drama of the last few months, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharrif, has already denounced Musharraf and the election:
"The holding of fair and free elections is not possible in the presence of Pervez Musharraf," [Sharif] said. "Musharraf is the cause of all the problems. The federation of Pakistan cannot remain intact in the presence of President Musharraf," he told a news conference.
"After the killing of Benazir Bhutto, I announce that the Pakistan Muslim League-N will boycott the elections," Sharif said. "I demand that Musharraf should quit immediately."
There's a decent likelihood that the military will hold a coup and and replace Musharraf with another general. Almost two months ago, analyst Vali Nasr—whose The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future I strongly recommend—had already declared removing Musharraf from power a necessity:
Musharraf's interests are no longer those of his military, and the two are now on a collision course. Generals can still end this crisis by going back to the deal Washington brokered with Ms. Bhutto, but only if it does not include Musharraf. Removing Musharraf will send demonstrators home and the Army to its barracks.
The longer Musharraf stays in power the more Pakistan will look like Iran in 1979: an isolated and unpopular ruler hanging on to power only to inflame passions and bring together his Islamic and pro-democracy opposition into a dangerous alliance.
A disastrous outcome in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with weak institutions and rife with extremist ideologies, violence, and deep ethnic and social divisions, will be far worse than what followed the Iranian revolution.
That may be a bit too dire an assessment, as the middle class appears to be fully committed to a secular government; Juan Cole's take is that the conflict in Pakistan is more between the cities and the countryside (which wouldn't be much different from what happened in the Balkan wars). But whatever the case, it would be hard to argue with this observation by a Chatham House analyst:
This is not the first crisis Pakistan has faced since its inception in 1947, but I would be inclined to say that it is the worst convergence of crises we have seen.