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The murder of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007 was almost certainly the hand of Al-Qa’ida inspired militants, which calls into question the US anti-terrorism strategy in Pakistan.
In the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s death, shock and outrage has flared across the country, from the far north in Peshawar to Bhutto’s power base in the city of Karachi and Sindh province, resulting in further insurrection and factional reprisal killings.
President Musharraf is poised to intervene with new emergency measures and the elections scheduled for 8 January appear to be in jeopardy, with opposition contender and former PM Nawaz Sharif announcing a boycott of the election. Once again, plans for a new phase in Pakistan’s democratic development appear to have been sabotaged.
Bhutto’s assassination marks the latest in a string of attacks by Al-Qa’ida linked militants, whose short term goal is to disrupt the resumption of the democratic process in Pakistan and to plunge the country into political chaos.
In October 2007, when there was an unsuccessful attempt on Bhutto, the leader suggested that individuals within the Musharraf Administration had planned to kill her. In the immediate aftermath of Bhutto’s death, members of her family and Nawaz Sharif have accused President Musharraf of ordering her assassination. This plays into the hands of the Islamic extremists who have launched an offensive targeting not only of the current inner circle close to Musharraf but also those who challenge their desired goals. The first phase in this campaign ended in the summer of 2007 with the storming by government troops of the Lal Masjid, a militant madrassa in the heart of Islamabad. More recently, Afthab Khan Sherpao, a Musharraf confidante and Interior Minister responsible for domestic security narrowly survived the second suicide attempt on his life in under a year.
While the immediate consequences for Pakistan’s political plurality and democratic future will be subject to intense international scrutiny in the weeks ahead, the consequences for NATO’s operations north of the Durand line must be regarded as an inherent part of the equation. The extremists understand that the longer Pakistan remains in political upheaval, the greater the gains from their lucrative criminal networks and the opium trade spanning the Pashtun tribal belt. The greater prize for Al-Qa’ida’s ideological leadership is the failure of western policy both north and south of the Durand line.
Herein lies a dilemma for the United States, not simply in the context of Bush’s political legacy but also in light of the waning appetite and support of Musharraf and his cohorts. Many in Washington have called for a carrot-and-stick approach to Islamabad demanding more bang for the buck in containing militancy on the periphery of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in the eradication of al-Qaeda cells operating in Pakistan. This has been complemented with a hedging strategy of behind-the-scenes support for the ostensibly liberal policies of Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). With Benazir Bhutto’s death, this hedging policy has failed; concurrently, Pakistan’s military has suffered an exponential increase in casualties over the last year in the restive north totalling over 2,000 deaths at the last count. Taleban commanders in Quetta continue to recruit a steady stream of young Punjabi and Pathan men to take on ISAF forces in Helmand and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Conspiracy theorists suggest the smoking barrel is the ease with which a suicide attacker could successfully assassinate Bhutto in a city which represents the seat of military power in Pakistan. What these detractors forget is that Musharraf and his closest confidantes remain on top of the militant hit list and that Bhutto made a near-fatal mistake by ignoring intelligence that could have prevented the deaths of 150 young PPP fanatics in Karachi two months ago. In an almost self-fulfilling prophecy, like the other senior members of her clan, Bhutto met a violent end which could prompt the reverse of that to which she claimed to aspire.
Head, Asia Programme, RUSI