Assassination extinguishes best U.S. hope


Bhutto Assassinated

December 28, 2007|By Paul Richter

WASHINGTON -- For months, the Bush administration's hopes for political stability in Pakistan rested on the rising influence of Benazir Bhutto. Her death yesterday shattered those hopes and threatened to paralyze U.S. efforts that hinged in part on her survival: the fight against terrorism, the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and stability in the turbulent region.

The Bush administration had a huge stake in Bhutto, the pro-Western former prime minister. U.S. officials were banking heavily that her party would win enough seats in next month's elections to stabilize a precarious political climate. For Pakistan, her death leaves the party in disarray, with no clear leader, and the elections themselves in doubt. For the White House, it leaves a void that will take time to fill.

The assassination dealt a blow to an even closer U.S. ally, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who now might lose the electoral blessing he needs to restore his sagging credibility and legitimacy. Worse, many Pakistanis hold the president and those around him responsible for the assassination, if only because they failed to prevent it.

The setback comes at an especially bad time for the United States, with Islamic militants resurgent in neighboring Afghanistan and focusing more intently on attacking Pakistan itself. The United States has been spending about $1 billion a year in Pakistan.

"A bad day for Pakistan; a bad day for the United States," said Daniel Markey, who was a senior State Department official until earlier this year. "We're going to be paying a price for it for a while."

U.S. officials said their foremost concern was the possibility of civil upheaval. One official noted that the greatest risk was that violence would prove too much even for the Pakistani army, which plays a key role in keeping the country together.

But the assassination extinguishes the administration's best hope for stabilizing the country and confronts U.S. officials with a difficult new challenge in deciding which Pakistani leaders can help wage war on Islamic militants and stabilize a nuclear-armed country.

With Bhutto gone and Musharraf's power in decline, U.S. officials face the question of whether to try to repair their badly damaged relationship with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who unquestionably stands to gains leverage in the fractured political system.

While Sharif has often denounced the United States, he is considered a nationalistic but pragmatic politician by those at home. Even so, the White House would have to overcome the doubts of many administration insiders, who consider him dangerous and unreliable, before seeking a rapprochement.

Peter Rodman, who was the top international security affairs official at the Pentagon until last month, said Sharif "was a wild card and not to be trusted."

Rodman said it was unlikely that a deal with Sharif would provide the same benefit as a deal with Bhutto.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials are "reaching out to a wide range" of Pakistani political figures, said one senior U.S. official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Bhutto's assassination revived questions about whether the administration has focused too much of its support on top allies, such as Musharraf and Bhutto, rather than spreading it more broadly through the Pakistani government and civil society.

"If you want to be a friend to the nation, you may have to do a little better job of being somewhat more balanced with respect to the various legitimate political actors," said John Schlosser, a former State Department official who is now a vice president of Stonebridge International, a consulting firm. "We have over-personalized our relationship with Pakistan; we need to depersonalize it."

The administration said Bhutto's assassination brought no immediate policy changes. But U.S. officials signaled flexibility yesterday on one of their top goals, parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8.

Publicly, the administration said Bhutto's death should not be allowed to force a delay. But privately, U.S. officials said they would accept a postponement, as long as the Musharraf government did not use the assassination to cancel its promised return to more democratic governance.

Markey, the former State Department official, predicted that the administration "will recognize the situation has gotten a great deal messier and won't push too hard, at least in the medium term, as long as it looks like the elections are not indefinitely delayed."

But officials said that Washington would not favor a return by Musharraf to the "emergency" rule that he ended only this month. While American officials are worried at the threat of violence, they believe that the added powers are not needed to suppress violence in the streets.

And emergency rule is likely to compound public unhappiness with Musharraf. Arif Rafiq, an analyst at Pakistan Policy Blog, said Musharraf is likely to face new skepticism and sharp public scrutiny as his government launches its investigation into Bhutto's assassination.

As heavy a blow as it was to U.S. interests, the killing will be even more damaging if it comes to be widely seen in Pakistan as a demonstration that militant groups can strike at the heart of the government with impunity.

C. Christine Fair, a former U.S. official now at the Rand Corp., said it would be a "silver lining" if the attack caused Pakistan's security elite to reconsider their longtime reliance on militant groups.

But she added: "That's a low-probability event."

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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