Although it is too soon to know who assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, it is fast becoming apparent that Pakistan remains a crisis for U.S. foreign policy. Hopes of a move towards democracy and an end of the military-dominated rule in the country were dashed with two bullets and a suicide vest on Thursday. Now the U.S. must reassess its stance towards President Pervez Musharraf. The choices are neither plentiful nor especially palatable.
The warning signs have been apparent for years. The Musharraf government has been extremely unpopular — so unpopular that the joke in the country was that Osama bin Laden would have defeated him in a runoff election. Musharraf was in a difficult position: the U.S. approached him following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and convinced him to support American military operations against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Washington had an ally in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.
Musharraf’s decision to support the U.S. was followed by American demands that he step down as commander of the armed forces and implement democratic reforms. These moves led to serious challenges of his leadership from Islamic fundamentalists — including some in the military and intelligence services — who have no desire for Western-style governance. This was a recipe for disaster.
Enter Benazir Bhutto, a respected former prime minister who the U.S. hoped represented a solution to head off the impending disaster. With Bhutto as the prime minister and Musharraf as president, it may have made the government more palatable to the population and still acceptable to the armed forces, the ultimate guarantor of power in the country. Under pressure from the U.S., Musharraf entertained the idea of a power-sharing agreement. In Washington, that would mean still having an ally in Islamabad.
Another recipe for disaster: the thought of a joint Musharraf-Bhutto government was anathema to the multiple Islamic fundamentalist groups in the country. In the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence services, there is sympathy for the Islamists. The Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID), was instrumental in the formation of the Taliban and has a long history of supporting the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980’s that placed the ISID in direct contact with bin Laden and al-Qaida. These fundamentalists are committed to the overthrow of the Musharraf government. They have tried to assassinate him at least three times already. Adding Benazir Bhutto — overtly committed to the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida — to the equation only inflamed radical passions further.
Suicide bomb unlikely
Musharraf sympathizers, including his special operations troops, have already been accused by Bhutto supporters of complicity in the assassination. There is a key point they have overlooked — Musharraf’s followers are not the types to commit suicide. Willingness to commit suicide is usually associated with a religious-based ideology rather than a political ideology. The fact that the killer was able to reach her in Rawalpindi, the home turf of the army and ISID, raises serious questions about Islamist penetration of those services.
The U.S. now finds itself in a difficult position with few options. With former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party threatening to boycott the January elections, assuming they are even held, continuing U.S. support for Musharraf appears to be the only viable option. That support should come with a price tag — aggressive action on the Afghanistan border. While we want democratic reform in Pakistan, we need an ally more.
For the time being, the U.S. national interests require Pakistan as an ally in the continuing fight against terrorism. As long as the Taliban challenges the Karzai government in neighboring Afghanistan, and as long as al-Qaida fighters find safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas (North Western Frontier Province and the Waziristans), we need an ally in Islamabad. I wish we didn’t, but we do.