A few days before Christmas, Benazir Bhutto e-mailed one of her friends and advisers in Washington, the military analyst and columnist Harlan Ullman. Talking of Pakistan's upcoming parliamentary election, Bhutto said, "The only outcome is for democracy to win. I pray that happens. Otherwise, I fear Pakistan will descend into chaos."
Bhutto's assassination at a rally in Rawalpindi pushes Pakistan closer to the chaos she feared. "Pakistan was facing serious political instability even before this happened," says Washington military analyst Anthony Cordesman. "There is no question this event makes it worse."
The Bush administration, with senior officials still scattered after the Christmas break, was scrambling to assess the situation. President Bush, vacationing in Crawford, Texas, was told of the murder at his usual morning brief. He emerged later to condemn "this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy."
Reconciliation and democracy were the administration's prescription for Pakistan. In background briefings over the past couple of months, State Department officials have been upfront about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's thinking. Rice was convinced that stability in Pakistan required a power-sharing accord between President Pervez Musharraf and the exiled Benazir Bhutto, perhaps the country's most popular civilian political leader. It was administration pressure—along with promises of additional U.S. aid—that persuaded Musharraf to allow Bhutto to return from her eight-year exile in October. And it took Rice's personal dialogue with Bhutto to persuade Bhutto that some form of power sharing with Musharraf offered the best option for stability in Pakistan. A privately negotiated deal to this end between Musharraf and Bhutto broke down. But the other strand of Rice's policy—to persuade Musharraf to doff his military uniform, cede control of the army (at least formally), and rule as an elected civilian president—had worked. Musharraf resigned as army chief of staff at the end of November. And recent polls suggested the scheduled Jan. 8 elections would give Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party a working majority of seats in parliament, duly making Bhutto prime minister—and sealing the Musharraf-Bhutto partnership that was Rice's goal.
This strategy died with Bhutto. With the current unrest, elections are unlikely to be held as scheduled. And Bhutto, the longtime "chairperson for life" of the Pakistan People's Party, leaves no clear successor in the party. Meanwhile, the other main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif—like Bhutto a former prime minister and like Bhutto a recent return from exile—is still forbidden under Pakistani law from taking office again. Besides, Sharif and Musharraf loathe and distrust each other. (Whereas Bhutto had established a real, if wary, relationship with Musharraf.)
In the hours after Bhutto's death, administration officials were teleconferencing, sorting out the facts of the assassination and starting to shape a response. "We're all scrambling," said one midlevel Defense Department official involved in the effort to find out more and to assess the possible consequences. "What everyone agrees is that nothing looks good," he added. But perhaps the administration should have already had a postassassination plan in place: the killing of Benazir Bhutto was always in the cards. Bhutto realized the risk. In her frequent visits to Washington last fall—before her return to Pakistan—she confronted the risk with a certain stoic pride. "Death has always been the price my family has paid," she said at one dinner gathering. "My father was murdered. My two brothers were assassinated. I know there will be those who will want to kill me. But I have a duty to the people of Pakistan."
On the day of her return in October, a suicide bomber struck the triumphal procession escorting her from the Karachi airport to her home, killing more than 100 people. Bhutto herself was the likely target; the bomber had been trying to push through the throng to her car.
Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3. Bhutto condemned this, as did administration officials. But Pakistani officials, among them personal emissaries Musharraf sent to Washington to explain his thinking, insisted that Musharraf feared that the giant election rallies Bhutto was planning to hold around the country would be an irresistible target for further suicide bombings like the Karachi attack. Declaring a state of emergency gave Musharraf the power to ban those rallies, they argued. Under heavy U.S. pressure, though, Musharraf raised the emergency on Dec. 15. Bhutto immediately embarked on a series of rallies. In Rawalpindi, the old military garrison town a short way south of the capital, Islamabad, what Bhutto anticipated came to pass.
So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the killing. The initial presumption in Washington is that Al Qaeda or one of the homegrown Islamist factions in Pakistan was responsible. But as long as the culprits are uncertain, Musharraf's own government will be suspected. Says Cordesman, "So long as we don't know who was responsible, there are going to be people in Pakistan who will allege a conspiracy."
Certainly Washington is going to have questions about the adequacy of the security given to Bhutto. After the Karachi carnage in October, Bhutto accused Musharraf's government of failing to provide proper security. Administration sources in Washington say that Rice personally urged Musharraf to provide Bhutto with at least the same security as that given to his own prime minister. (Musharraf's own security is the responsibility of a special contingent of the Pakistani Army's Special Services Group, headed by a brigadier.) Police did foil at least one attempt to kill Bhutto: at a Bhutto rally in Peshawar only days ago, police arrested a suicide bomber who had an explosive charge hung around his neck.
In this crisis the role of the Pakistani Army will obviously be critical. Washington has long seen the army as a force for stability in Pakistan. Back in the 1980s the then-president, Zia ul-Haq—a devout Muslim—deliberately promoted both in the army and in Pakistan's main intelligence service, the ISI, officers of similarly devout views. But Musharraf has steadily purged these in an effort to restore an officer corps of nonpartisan professionals. And Musharraf's chosen successor as army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, is in that mold. Kayani did a couple of training courses in the United States, including a spell at Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Kayani is highly regarded by U.S. officers who know him.
If the Pakistani Army is likely to stay united, though, it may be the only thing in Pakistan that does. Ullman, Bhutto's friend and adviser, predicts, "There will be huge unrest. There could even be civil war. This is a catastrophe."
The stakes could scarcely be higher. Ever since 9/11, what has most concerned the Bush administration is the horrific prospect that Islamic terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear weapon. Despite the rhetoric, Saddam Hussein's Iraq never posed that threat. Neither does Iran. But Pakistan does. Pakistan is a failing Muslim state with nuclear weapons and a network of madrassas instilling the call to jihad into thousands of impressionable young men, some of whom have returned to Pakistan from lives as immigrants in Europe precisely to absorb this message. Pakistan is now Al Qaeda's main refuge, and its wild northern frontier is the back base for the Taliban seeking to overthrow the government in neighboring Afghanistan. Afghanistan's embattled President Hamid Karzai was actually Bhutto's last official visitor. "I met with her this morning," Karzai said after news of her death reached him. "I found her to be a very brave woman, with a clear vision for her own country, for Afghanistan and for the region, the vision of democracy and prosperity and peace." Karzai was in Pakistan leading a high-level Afghan delegation that was trying to thrash out with Musharraf and his top advisers a common strategy against the Taliban and their allies. The turmoil that now seems almost inevitable in Pakistan will put that "vision of democracy and prosperity and peace" in the region even further out of reach.