Sunday, December 30, 2007

Worst Is Yet to Come For Pakistan

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The Question: After Benazir Bhutto's assassination on Thursday, what's next for Pakistan?

Benazir Bhutto's assassination is not only a terrible loss to the political process and the nation of Pakistan - it also shows how fragile the country is to the acts of militants. Her tragic death must be viewed in the context of Pakistan's political and security situation: this is clearly a sign of worse things to come.

First and foremost, it is highly unlikely that the elections will be held as scheduled on January 8, 2008. That might the rallying point for both Benazir's Peoples Party (under the leadership of Amin Fahim) and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League to seek sweeping changes and a return to the rule of law. This is a huge blow to the U.S., as it backed her and General Musharraf and now will be hard-pressed to handle the political process in Pakistan.

Clearly Benazir Bhutto's killing shows the telltale signs of an al-Qaeda style attack. It sends two messages: one to the Pakistani politicians that they should soften their tone against terrorism, and another to the Americans that their political support will be hacked down from the top. This is a huge embarrassment for General Musharraf, because all his claims of victory against terrorism have come to naught. If nothing else, now that he is out of uniform one cannot rule out the Army seeking to remove him, either through constitutional means or otherwise.

There are already reports of violence in the interior of Sindh, where Benazir was very popular, and it would seem that the situation may get out of hand: people will take to the streets, blaming Musharraf for the failure to ensure security in the country. On balance, I would predict that with elections postponed it is highly possible that conspiracy theories will emerge that will weaken President Musharraf and amplify calls for his removal. In the light of civil strife, it would seem that a major change is more likely than ever.

I knew Benazir personally, and the few times we met and discussed politics, although we may have disagreed on issues, I never had a doubt that she was one of the most astute political figures in the country. Her opponent Nawaz Sharif now carries the responsibility of bringing reason into the country and may even suggest a joint government for national reconstruction.

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