The assassination of two-time Pakistani Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Benazir Bhutto is a devastating loss for this pivotal Muslim nation, which finds itself at the center of the ideological battle against global extremism. Bhutto's supporters-who have started to riot in Pakistan's major cities-will direct most of their anger at Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who they view as stifling democracy in Pakistan and helping to create the conditions that led to her assassination. The United States should convince Musharraf to reach out to both PPP leaders and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League/Nawaz (PML/N) in an effort to preserve stability in Pakistan and unite the mainstream political forces and military leadership against al-Qaeda-backed extremists seeking to destabilize the country.
Al-Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates, many of whom are located in Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, marked Benazir Bhutto for assassination soon after she pledged to return to her country to campaign in parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8. Bhutto had taken an unequivocal stand against rising extremism in her country and vowed to fight for the re-establishment of democracy, even after 150 PPP supporters were killed in a bomb attack on her motorcade on October 18. Bhutto had negotiated with Musharraf about her return to the country and her participation in the January elections, but differences between the two leaders surfaced when she accused senior officials surrounding Musharraf of complicity in the October 18 attack. Bhutto had also accused Musharraf of pre-rigging the election in favor of his supporters, but kept her party in the fray in hopes that international observers would help bring transparency and fairness to the electoral process.
Leadership Vacuum Will Fuel Instability
Musharraf will likely postpone elections and focus on maintaining calm in the streets of Pakistan. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has already declared his party will not participate in the election. The PPP, which was started by Bhutto's father, former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, will be in disarray as it struggles to identify a new leader to take the reins of the party.
Musharraf's own popularity has plummeted ever since he dismissed the country's Supreme Court Chief Justice in March, which evoked widespread street protests from the country's lawyers that eventually turned into a campaign to restore civilian-led democracy. Musharraf gave up his military post last month under international pressure but remains at the helm as a civilian president with close ties to the military.
Al-Qaeda and Taliban-affiliated extremists have recently gained ground in northwest Pakistan by spreading an extremist brand of Islam and intimidating the local populations through violence. This nexus of extremists also is responsible for a spate of suicide bombings throughout the country over the last six months, many of which targeted Pakistan's security forces. Bhutto's assassination will fuel concerns that the Pakistan security forces are losing ground in the fight against the extremists.
Faced with the growing challenges to Pakistan's security and stability, Musharraf must focus on building unity and consensus among all political parties and leaders willing to take a stand against the growing extremist threat. Given that Musharraf will be the focus of people's anger over Bhutto's death, he may have to rely on others to carry a message of reconciliation and unity during this moment of crisis. Although Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif harbor significant personal mistrust toward each other, Sharif's links to the security establishment may be one of the few basis points on which a political consensus could potentially emerge.
U.S. Must Stand Firmly Behind Pakistan Leadership
Bhutto's assassination will further poison the political atmosphere in Pakistan and lead to unhelpful finger-pointing similar to that which followed the October 18 attack. The U.S. must continue to bolster the Pakistani state and discourage Pakistan's leaders from engaging in a blame game. Washington also must refrain from calls for sanctions to try to influence events there. The situation in Pakistan is fluid and delicate; calls for conditioning or cutting U.S. assistance would only play into the hands of extremists seeking to create a sense of chaos in the country.
Washington should encourage Musharraf and the military leadership to work with all political parties to establish a consensus for moving forward with an electoral process that sets Pakistan on a path toward becoming a moderate, democratic state engaged with the world. The extremists are touting the assassination of Bhutto as a major success in their campaign to destabilize the country. It is important that Pakistan's leaders counter this perception by demonstrating their ability to achieve a political consensus and recommitting to the democratic process.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.