The assassination of Benazir Bhutto leaves Pakistan on the edge of a precipice, writes Graham Usher in Islamabad
Pakistan is still coming to grips with the murder of Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister and the Muslim world's most identifiable female leader. The human consequences have already been convulsive.
Since her assassination in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi on 27 December 58 people have been killed and banks, government offices, cars and shops left smouldering wrecks. In the most emblematic destruction railway stations have been ransacked, severing Bhutto's native Sindh province from the rest of Pakistan. "It's a country we no longer want to be part of," said an outraged member of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in Sindh.
The political meltdown may be no less traumatic. One consequence will almost certainly be a delay of parliamentary elections scheduled for 8 January. On 1 January Pakistan's Election Commission said it would be "impossible" to hold elections in Sindh and Punjab provinces under the circumstances. On 2 January President Pervez Musharraf was expected to announce the postponement in an address to the nation in which he counselled peace and reconciliation.
He is likely to receive neither. Following a feudal rite of passage in Larkana on 30 December the PPP's new "co-chairperson" -- Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari -- said his party wanted elections on their due date "come what may". Pakistan's other main opposition leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said the same. Both men see any delay as a ruse by Musharraf to spare his ruling Muslim League Party (PML-Q) the backlash it is bound to receive at the polls.
But the whip will come down in any case. Pakistan's next elections are going to be held in the shadow of the murder of Bhutto: following her return to Pakistan in October -- when suicide attacks on her motorcade killed 137 in Karachi -- Bhutto said she knew of at least four groups that wanted her dead.
The first three were the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban movements and Al-Qaeda. The Pakistan government appears to agree with Bhutto's assessment. On 28 December the Interior Ministry said it had "proof" -- a crackly recording of a phone call in Pashu in which two men congratulate each other -- that Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud was responsible for the killing. He has denied his involvement.
"We have no doubt Baitullah Mahsud had nothing to do with the tragic incident," said PPP spokesperson, Farhatullah Babar.
Al-Qaeda is a likelier suspect. Less than three weeks ago Ayman El-Zawahri said Bhutto's return was part of an "American plot" to pressgang Pakistan more fully behind the war in Afghanistan. The method of execution -- a sniper followed by a suicide bomb attack -- had all the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda. And the executioners could easily have been one of Pakistan's many Sunni sectarian groups with links to Osama bin Laden.
And there lies the rub. In the 1980s and 1990s Pakistan's premier Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) set up these groups to prosecute wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir and many officers -- "rogue" or otherwise -- still have ties to them. Bhutto said it was this nexus of military officers, Islamic militants and ruling PML-Q politicians that posed the greatest threat to her life. Following the Karachi carnage she said she "would hold Musharraf responsible" if the nexus was not investigated or greater security provided.
Neither was. As a result, Pakistan's ruler may turn out to be the greatest political casualty of Bhutto's assassination, rendering her a victory in death she never enjoyed in life.
In the days after the killing, Musharraf was assailed by calls for an international probe into her death, including from Hilary Clinton and the House Appropriations Sub- Committee of the US Congress -- underlining once again that Washington has no permanent allies, only permanent interests. Musharraf also knows an indefinite postponement of the polls will confirm the suspicions of those who charge that Bhutto's murder was a "conspiracy" to keep his regime in place.
But elections hold no redemption either. If -- under foreign and domestic pressure -- there is even remotely free suffrage, Musharraf will see his ruling Muslim League Party routed and a parliament dominated by Sharif and the PPP. The former has made Musharraf's ouster the keystone of his policy, and Zardari cannot revoke the accusations of his wife. Both are recipes for confrontation.
But if he rigs the elections -- as Bhutto said he was planning to do -- he risks a level of political violence that would make the aftermath of her murder look like a small brush fire. And any use of troops to contain the turmoil is dangerous. The Pakistan army has a history of disobeying the decrees of "elected" leaders, especially when they wear civilian clothes, as Musharraf now does.
For the Bush administration, Bhutto's assassination marks a foreign policy failure of Iraq proportions. It was the brain behind her return and attempted tryst with Musharraf. The logic was facile: she and the PPP were to provide a civilian veneer for Musharraf and the army to prosecute the "war on terror" on more resolutely American terms.
In the nine months since the "marriage" was arranged a Taliban-led insurgency has raged in Pakistan, emergency rule has been imposed and the country's most popular opposition leader has been killed, along with at least 800 others. On 28 December Bush was reduced to calling for a "democratic process" that his diplomatic envoys must have told him will be fixed.
The alternative is obvious, at least to many Pakistanis. Musharraf should resign and the PPP and other opposition parties form a government of national unity based on civilian supremacy, the rule of law and a political consensus on how to combat Islamic militancy. Given the calibre of Pakistan's politicians -- ruling and opposition -- there is no certainty such a government will be able to rise to meet the challenge. But there seems no other way to staunch the disintegration threatened by Bhutto's death.