We rarely agree with Michael Scheuer, the former CIA officer best known for his "second career" as a Bush Administration critic. But, reacting to the day's events in Pakistan, Mr. Scheuer summed it up nicely, describing the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as a "disaster" for her country, and her chief rival, President Pervez Musharraf. And, by extension, Mr. Musharraf's latest political disaster is an equal calamity for the United States.
For President Musharraf, the fallout from Bhutto's death will prove both immediate and long-lasting. In a nation where politics is often a blood sport, there were immediate charges that elements of Musharraf's government were behind the assassination. Mrs. Bhutto was killed in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, which houses a number of military and intelligence organizations. Witnesses said Bhutto was shot in the chest and neck as she left a campaign rally, moments before a homicide bomber detonated his device, killing 20 additional people. The carefully-executed attack, in the citadel of Pakistan's military, raised immediate charges of government complicity.
"Musharraf, you dog," chanted Bhutto supporters outside the hospital where former prime minister was taken after the attack, and later pronounced dead. Their chant captured the sentiments of millions of Pakistanis, who are blaming Musharraf and his allies for the assassination. Within hours of Bhutto's death, there were reports of violent protests between security forces and her supporters. Information posted at the Pakistani Spectator (and other South Asia blogs) suggest that angry mobs are burning shops and vehicles in Rawalpindi. Roads leading to the capital of Islamabad have reportedly been blocked by police.
Opponents of President Musharraf have legitimate reasons to be suspicious. Pakistan's military (which Musharraf headed until recently) engineered the coup that deposed the government of Bhutto's father in 1979. And Musharraf himself led a 1999 coup that resulted in the removal of another Prime Minister, Naviz Sharif. Just hours before Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, Sharif survived an attack aimed at him. Early accounts suggested that gunfire directed toward Mr. Sharif came from a building controlled by Musharraf supporters.
While a government-sanctioned assassination cannot be ruled out (at this point), there is the more likely possibility that today's strikes were the work of Taliban and Al Qaida-backed terrorists. Attacks by those elements have been on the upswing in recent months, and the killing of Mrs. Bhutto (and the attempted assassination of Mr. Sharif) would satisfy a key terrorist goal: plunging Pakistan into chaos, and further undermining the authority of President Musharraf.
Indeed, today's murder of Benazir Bhutto--and the apparent assassination attempt against Naviz Sharif--will only reinforce public perceptions that Mr. Musharraf is unable to defend his nation against Islamic radicals. Violence that began in the western tribal areas (after Musharraf cut an ill-advised "peace deal" with pro-Taliban forces) spread rapidly to other areas, including Pakistan's major cities. Over the past two months, Islamic terrorists have demonstrated an ability to strike almost at will, staging a pair of high-profile bombings near Pakistani nuclear facilities, the most recent in early December.
Regardless of who carried out today's attacks, Mr. Musharraf will emerge as the loser, with the impact being felt across the political spectrum. Charges of government involvement in the Bhutto assassination will only galvanize the opposition, leading to more protests, unrest and violence only two weeks before scheduled Parliamentary elections. Factions more supportive of President Musharraf will (again) question his ability to deal with the dual threat posed by political upheaval and Islamic terrorism. In the span of a few seconds--the time required for two shots and that explosion--Musharraf's authority was dramatically reduced.
For the U.S., today's events are equally disastrous. In recent months, the Bush Administration has been attempting to walk a diplomatic tightrope, encouraging Pakistan's slow march toward democracy (or, what passes for democracy in that corner of the world), while maintaining support for President Musharraf, perpetually described as A Key Ally in the War on Terror.
That balancing act will prove even more difficult in the weeks to come; a strong backing for the Pakistani government will further inflame anti-U.S. sentiment in the region. On the other hand, abandoning Musharraf would be an even greater mistake, potentially opening the door for a coup, and the takeover of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal by Islamic radicals. Our problems are compounded by the time and effort invested in getting Mrs. Bhutton back into Pakistan and its political process. With her passing, who will fill the vaccum, and maintain her commitment to fighting corruption and the terrorists?
Clearly, the situation in Pakistan is going to get worse before it gets better. And, something else seems painfully clear as well: After a year of stinging defeats, Al Qaida is on the verge of scoring a major strategic victory as 2007 draws to a close. With a few shots and a homicide bombing in Rawalpindi, the terrorist organization (and its Taliban allies) have plunged Pakistan into political chaos, with consequences that reverberate far beyond that nation's borders.
ADDENDUM: While the death of Mrs. Bhutto and her supporters is a human tragedy, it would be a mistake to characterize the late Prime Minister as some sort of political savior or saint. As the Abu Muqawama blog observed:
The folks on NBC, though, are making it sound as if Bhutto was some brave liberal alternative to the Musharraf regime, swallowing hook, line, and sinker this narrative that Benazir Bhutto was some kind of Pakistani Aung San Suu Kyi.
Okay, folks, we all know she was eloquent, went to Harvard and Oxford and was a darling of the English-language media. But she was arguably the most corrupt woman in the history of South Asia. She was removed from office not once but twice on corruption charges. And ruthless? She killed her own brother in 1996.