The return of Benazir Bhutto and her attempted assassination suggest a turbulent period for Pakistani stability
Bhutto returned to the lion’s den of Pakistani politics yesterday. Within just hours of her arrival, she bore witness to the key issues challenging Pakistan. An emotional parade through Karachi, attended by an estimated 150,000 supporters welcoming her return ended in tragedy when two explosions tore through the cavalcade. Hundreds were killed or injured in what amounts to one of the deadliest bombings in Pakistan’s history and one of the top ten deadliest terror attacks in the past nine years (according to the terrorist watch group IntelCenter).
Whoever was to blame, the attacks serve to notify that Pakistani politics remain deeply troubled by violence. This assassination attempt, coming three years after the last attempt on President Musharaff’s life, emphasizes the threat that the political situation could change rapidly.
Pakistani officials have been quick to apportion blame. Groups linked to the Taliban and Al-Qa'ida are easy scapegoats. Recent Pakistani intelligence reports suggested that at least three groups were plotting attacks on Bhutto including Jaish-e-Mohammed and Laskar-e-Tayyaba, two Al-Qa'ida affiliated groups. Jaish-e-Mohammed has a strong base in Karachi, Bhutto's hometown, and is affiliated with extremist Islamic schools there. Karachi is also known as a place where Al-Qaida's top operatives have been able to hide; one of them, Ramzi binalshibh, was captured in the city in September 2002.
If claims by government and security officials, that Jaish-e-Mohammed or Laskar-e-Tayyaba Mehsud were behind the attack prove correct, it underscores the links between domestic political events in Pakistan and broader regional issues, in particular the insurgency in Afghanistan. Both organisations allegedly train suicide bombers in the tribal regions for attacks on US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
However, on Friday, Baitullah Mehsud, a pro-Taliban commander of Jaish-e-Mohammed denied any involvement in the attacks. Surprisingly, Bhutto agrees. Early Friday morning her husband blamed members of the government and intelligence agencies for the assassination attempt. Just last week Ms Bhutto said she felt the real danger came not from Baitullah Mehsud, but from forces within the government.
The identity of the attackers is in many ways irrelevant. The implications of Bhutto’s return and the bombings go beyond whether elements of the army or extremist militant groups are to blame.
A rise in violence from Jaish-e-Mohammed or Laskar-e-Tayyaba Mehsud and similar groups is almost certain. Bhutto has made much of her determination to rally Pakistani moderates to root out Islamic extremism and confront militants in the tribal areas of Waziristan. A number of pro-Taliban and groups linked to Al-Qa'ida therefore promised to meet Bhutto with suicide bombers and attacks. If this attack was not of their doing, it will not be long before suicide attacks attributable to them are attempted.
Though the attack did not necessarily draw on the fissures dividing Pakistan and its role in the war on terror, it may paradoxically provide Musharraf with a window of opportunity to strengthen Pakistan’s role in the U.S. led war. Until now, Musharraf has either been unable or unwilling to confront militants within its borders. Bhutto’s return, alliance and the attack may provide Musharraf with enough of a political shield to confront Pakistan's terrorist problem, whether it was the work of militants or not. This is one of the reasons why the United States has been so supportive of her return. The alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto, and the return of the latter is likely to see a more aggressive approach to extremism at a time when the West has lost faith in the General’s ability to confront radical elements. Indeed, Bhutto’s return came as a new offensive was launched; the army recently deployed two extra divisions to the tribal area on the Afghan-Pakistan border which is a haven for Al-Qa'ida and Taliban militants.
In short, while Bhutto hoped to provide an element of stability to an increasingly fraught political situation, her return may have done the exact opposite and will likely foment an escalation of violence from all sides.
Whether the duumvirate will be able to stand up more effectively to domestic extremism remains to be seen, and depends on whether the alliance holds. It also places under intense scrutiny the belief that the promotion of democracy is a long-term antidote to extremism, a belief under threat in both Iraq and Palestine.
Andrew Legon is a Research Associate with the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.