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Carnage and attempted assassination marks Bhutto’s return to Pakistan

Commentary, 19 October 2007
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
The attack marks beyond any doubt seepage between Pakistan’s political and security woes. Serious doubts must now shroud the practical feasibility of Pakistan holding its parliamentary elections in three months time.

The attack marks beyond any doubt seepage between Pakistan’s political and security woes. Serious doubts must now shroud the practical feasibility of Pakistan holding its parliamentary elections in three months time.

The homecoming of an exiled leader bearing promises to renew the fortunes of their nation, and welcomed by cheering crowds, is the stuff of political folklore. Benazir Bhutto was ready to savour her moment by ending eight years of self-imposed exile with a triumphant return to Pakistan. Returning to Pakistani soil heralded her emergence from Pakistan’s political wilderness, presaging her anticipated ascent to a third term as prime minister. Activists in her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had promised to flood the streets of Karachi, the country’s largest city, to celebrate the moment when her plane touched down.

Triumph was quickly replaced by conflagration. Twin bomb attacks struck the convoy carrying Benazir, killing an estimated 140 of her accompanying supporters and wounding many times that number. Despite several thousand security personnel lining the planned route of the convoy, the massive concentration of people cheering Bhutto left her convoy trundling along at walking speed and presented a massive, lumbering target. At the exact moment of attack Bhutto herself was said to have been taking respite in the lower sections of her specially converted bus, and her absence from the public gantry she had previously been standing on almost certainly saved her life. The exact method of attack was unclear in the immediate aftermath, although a suicide bomber is believed to have been responsible for at least one of the blasts.

The attack marks the biggest loss of life in a single terrorist incident in Pakistan. In its unrealized ambition to kill Bhutto and decapitate the pro-democracy movement, it is also one of the most audacious. Its impact is likely to be felt in both political and security terms, and indeed, at the continuum between these levels that has increasingly come to determine Pakistani affairs.

The weight of expectation resting on Bhutto’s return to the political fray is substantial. With President Pervez Musharraf’s popularity reaching its nadir, Bhutto’s intention to contest parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2008 has been greeted enthusiastically by moderates in Pakistan that have grown tired of military dictatorship. The country’s external backers – principally the US, for whom Pakistan is a substantial counterterrorism ally – have keenly cajoled Bhutto’s political rehabilitation and encouraged that she rule in partnership with Musharraf to rescue his ailing political fortunes and to present a unified front against the religious right.

Paradoxically, her brush with death is likely to enhance her public standing. Having placed herself foursquare against the forces of Islamic extremism, surviving such a devastating encounter will only endear her to the forces of moderation that represent the majority of the country’s public. And just as Musharraf gained international capital from the near-attempts against his life in 2003, Bhutto will similarly have further endeared herself to backers in Washington.

The assassination attempt is the latest in long line of dramas that have marred Pakistani politics in the run up to elections. While the impact of this attack on Bhutto’s anticipated power-sharing deal with Musharraf is unclear, its security implications are palpable. Terrorist violence in Pakistan has hitherto been restricted to the clash between government forces and Islamist militants and principally from Taliban holed up in Pakistan’s border regions with Afghanistan. Islamist suicide attacks have targeted military formations and police check posts with only occasional attacks against urban centres. The Lal Masjid siege this summer represented a further chapter in this struggle between Musharraf and the militants. Now, the attack against Bhutto marks the fusing together of Jihadist violence with the political turmoil of leadership succession.

This development is not without portent. On 17 July this year, sixteen people were killed when a suicide bomber struck the venue of a lawyers rally in Islamabad. The target was a PPP camp that was set to host a speech by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry – a figurehead of the pro-democracy movement. Although the perpetrators of the attack on Bhuttto remain unidentified, the rumour mill has already begun. Jihadist leaders based in Waziristan had issued threats to Bhutto’s life the week before her return, but Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, has told Pakistan’s media that sympathisers within the state intelligence agencies colluded with the extremists to mount this attack.

Regardless of the affiliations of the conspirators, the attack marks beyond any doubt seepage between Pakistan’s political and security woes. Serious doubts must now shroud the practical feasibility of Pakistan holding its parliamentary elections in three months time. The staging of an election and its requisite demands for polling stations will, by necessity, create several thousand fixed locations thronged by crowds. Jihadists based in Pakistan’s mountain regions have displayed a near-limitless capacity to dispatch suicide bombers to complete their grisly missions right across the country. Their ability to engulf a forthcoming election day in carnage must be interpreted as highly credible.

Samir Puri
Defence Analyst with RAND Europe

see also

Fathoming Pakistan's Cycles of Instability
RUSI JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2007

History evidences that bouts of instability in Pakistan are cyclical affairs. A framework for understanding the degree of hazard posed by recent developments must analyze their historical (dis)continuity.

 

 

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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