Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday after addressing a large gathering of her supporters.
The suicide bomb attack also killed at least 22 others, doctors said. It was not immediately clear if Bhutto died from shots fired before the blast, or from wounds caused by bomb shrapnel.
President Pervez Musharraf held an emergency meeting in the hours after the death, according to state media.
He said the killers were the same extremists that Pakistan is fighting a war against, and announced three days of national mourning.
Video of the scene just moments before the explosion showed Bhutto stepping into a heavily guarded vehicle to leave the rally.
Police sources told CNN the bomber, who was riding a motorcycle, blew himself up near Bhutto’s vehicle
The attack came just hours after four supporters of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif died when members of another political party opened fire on them at a rally near the Islamabad airport Thursday, Pakistan police said.
Several other members of Sharif’s party were wounded, police said.
First off, there should be no rush to judgment–we don’t know who planned this or why. It could have been supporters of President Pervez Musharraf hoping to keep him in office; it could have been supporters of Bhutto hoping to use her death to take down the Musharraf regime; it could have been any number of other groups pushing some kind of political agenda, or it could have just been one person with a political axe to grind. As it stands now, nobody knows who did this or why.
In addition, it should be noted that Bhutto has a number of enemies in Pakistan. Though the media portrayed her as the country’s pro-democracy savior, she was partially responsible for Musharraf’s rise in the first place–she was so dogged by charges of corruption and nepotism as Prime Minister that her government was dismissed twice, once in 1993 and again in 1996.
Alex Rossmiller at AMERICAblog has some thoughts on this:
In terms of policy implications, this is reflective of a massive US foreign policy blunder, in that the Bush administration, in a monumentally stupid move, shoved Bhutto down the throat of Musharraf (and the rest of Pakistan) as a savior, despite her lack of broad popular support and general reputation as corrupt. In making someone who didn’t necessarily have the ability to deliver the savior for democracy in Pakistan, we simultaneously set up our own policy to fail and offered Musharraf a return to (or continued) total power in the event that our little power-sharing arrangement didn’t work. We also — though not only us — painted a big fat target on her back. Really a debacle all the way around.
Along these lines, there have been calls for Musharraf to step down–either because he’s responsible for the attack or because he was negligent in going after extremists and providing Bhutto protection. Bill Richardson has released a statement along those lines, and longtime Bhutto advisor Husain Haqqani has also said as much:
“There is only one possibility: the security establishment and Musharraf are complicit, either by negligence or design. That is the most important thing. She’s not the first political leader killed, since Musharraf took power, by the security forces.”
I’m inclined to agree somewhat–Pakistan is home to a wide array of extremist groups, including the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda–Musharraf has done little to combat them, allowing those groups to flourish under his rule. As the July 2007 NIE [PDF] concluded:
Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership.
Bhutto’s assassination is a tragedy, there’s no doubt. And it’s likely that–no matter who is responsible–Musharraf may use this to his political advantage.
Even if he and his people aren’t responsible, his poor leadership in going after extremism has allowed violence like this to happen. No matter what, Musharraf carries some of the blame for this, and he should bear some responsibility.
Should he step down? Certainly not now, when Pakistan is mired in domestic turmoil, but there should be some accounting for his multiple failures over the years.
More as this develops…
UPDATE: John Cole provides some perspective:
Pakistan is important to US security. It is a nuclear power. Its military fostered, then partially turned on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which have bases in the lawless tribal areas of the northern part of the country. And Pakistan is key to the future of its neighbor, Afghanistan. Pakistan is also a key transit route for any energy pipelines built between Iran or Central Asia and India, and so central to the energy security of the United States.
The NYT reported that US Secretary of State Condi Rice tried to fix Musharraf’s subsequent dwindling legitimacy by arranging for Benazir to return to Pakistan to run for prime minister, with Musharraf agreeing to resign from the military and become a civilian president. When the supreme court seemed likely to interfere with his remaining president, he arrested the justices, dismissed them, and replaced them with more pliant jurists. This move threatened to scuttle the Rice Plan, since Benazir now faced the prospect of serving a dictator as his grand vizier, rather than being a proper prime minister.
With Benazir’s assassination, the Rice Plan is in tatters and Bush administration policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan is tottering.
CNN has more:
But it was not immediately clear, however, what if any influence Washington might have or whether Bhutto‘s death would drive the United States into a deeper embrace of Musharraf, whom some believe offers the best chance for Pakistani stability despite his democratic shortcomings.
“This latest tragedy is likely to reinforce beliefs that Pakistan is a dangerous, messy place and potentially very unstable and fragile and that they need to cling to Musharraf even more than they did in the past,” said Daniel Markey, who left the State Department this year and is now a senior fellow at the private Council on Foreign Relations.
“The weight of the administration is still convinced that Musharraf is a helpful rather than a harmful figure,” he said.
“The United States does not have a great deal of leverage where Pakistan is concerned,” said Wendy Sherman, who served as counselor to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “And at the end of the day, the decisions are going to be made by the Pakistani people and by the leadership of Pakistan and not by the United States.”
Other analysts warned that Bhutto’s assassination might further damage Musharraf, whose democratic credentials have been seriously tarnished by growing authoritarianism, and have lead to widespread unrest.
“Legitimacy for Musharraf will be deferred if not impossible,” said Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation. “The U.S. likely does not have a plan for this contingency as Musharraf remains a critical ally and because Bhutto’s participation was hoped to confer legitimacy to the upcoming January elections.”
Pakistan’s future is in turmoil. Musharraf has been hemorrhaging support in recent years, particularly in response to his consolidation of power. He could attempt to use the assassination (and the resulting turmoil) to solidify his power and quell political dissent, but it’s likely that any attempt to do so would simply inflame the opposition, leading to even more violence. And why wouldn’t they react with violence? With Bhutto–their best chance to crack Musharraf’s iron-fisted rule–gone, what do they have to lose now?
Even if Musharraf doesn’t take advantage of the situation, the opposition will. In fact, they’re already blaming him for the assassination. Whether they accuse him of having a hand in it or simply being negligent in fighting extremism, they’ll hold him responsible and call for him to resign. It’s likely that the assassination will erode Musharraf’s support even more, and it could even be the spark that takes down his regime. Of course, whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on who would take power afterwards.
It’s hard to tell where things will go from here, but it’s clear that things will get worse before they get better. The biggest loser here is the Pakistani people, who face increased violence and instability in their country. A close second is Bush administration, who pinned their plan to democratize Pakistan on Bhutto’s victory. She was our leverage against the Musharraf regime–without her threatening his power, the U.S. has lost a lot of leverage in pushing for democratic reforms.
UPDATE II: According to Adnkronos International, Al-Qaeda is claiming responsibility for the attack:
A spokesperson for the al-Qaeda terrorist network has claimed responsibility for the death on Thursday of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
“We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen,” Al-Qaeda’s commander and main spokesperson Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid told Adnkronos International (AKI) in a phone call from an unknown location, speaking in faltering English. Al-Yazid is the main al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan.
It is believed that the decision to kill Bhutto, who is the leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was made by al-Qaeda No. 2, the Egyptian doctor, Ayman al-Zawahiri in October.
Death squads were allegedly constituted for the mission and ultimately one cell comprising a defunct Lashkar-i-Jhangvi’s Punjabi volunteer succeeded in killing Bhutto.
UPDATE III: Turning to the domestic implications of the Bhutto assassination, Matt Yglesias has this to say:
Well, it seems to me that we desperately need to break away from the “trouble abroad, let’s turn to hawkier hawks!” mode of organizing our politics. After all, there was a strategic choice undertaken by the United States of America during the year 2002 to refocus our attention away from Central Asia and the Pakistan/Afghanistan area and toward the Persian Gulf. That was, of course, the “tough,” “strong,” “serious” thing to do.
Then throughout 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 it’s been the case that the “tough,” “strong,” “serious” thing to do is to maintain a massive strategic focus on Iraq in particular and the Persian Gulf in general. Vast quantities of troops, money, and attention lavished on the Gulf was Central Asia languishes.
Whenever there’s violence or political turmoil abroad, our polity–particularly the political press–embraces right-wing hawkey as a solution.
Why, though? Here in the U.S., right-wing hawks made both America and the world less safe–they invested huge amounts of time, effort and money into Iraq, which has devolved into an unstable, violent civil war. Iran has become more poweful due to the fact that they no longer have Iraq to keep them in check. North Korea behan building and testing nuclear weapons, which ended only when hawkishness was abandoned and negotiation was embraced. In addition, the hawks took America’s focus off of Al-Qaeda–which has been re-establishing itself in Pakistan and took credit for the Bhutto assassination–and instead put it all on Iraq.
Clearly, hawkishness has contributed to global instability and violence. In light of recent history, perhaps our political press should re-evaluate the way it perceives–and portrays–events such as this. Hopefully we can put the “trouble abroad, let’s turn to hawkier hawks!” electoral philosophy to rest once and for all.