At this early stage it’s hard to gauge the fallout and implications of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but the impact will clearly be huge both in Pakistan and in regard to American relations with that country. The situation is disturbing. President Pervez Musharraf only recently lifted a state of emergency. With parliamentary elections scheduled for two weeks from now, opposition leaders Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both former prime ministers, had agreed “to cooperate in some constituencies by not fielding candidates against each other, in a bid to defeat contenders from the Musharraf-backed party.”
Bhutto had strong support from some within the Bush administration because, as the New York Times summarized today, “she was openly critical of Mr. Musharraf’s ineffectiveness at dealing with Islamic militants and welcomed American involvement, unlike…Sharif.” The assassination, the story continued, “adds to the enormous pressure on the Bush Administration over Pakistan, which has sunk billions in aid into the country without accomplishing its main goals of finding Osama bin Laden or ending the activities of Islamic militants and Taliban in border areas with Afghanistan.” Pakistan has also figured in the U.S. presidential race. Just recently, Barack Obama said the U.S. should hunt down bin Laden in Pakistan, with or without Pakistani permission.
I called Wayne White, the former deputy director of the State Department’s Middle East and South Asia intelligence office, to ask for his thoughts on the issues. Our brief interview follows:
How will Bhutto’s assassination play out in regard to the parliamentary elections?
People will watch closely to see where her constituency goes and who it blames for her death. The assumption is that the assassin is an Islamic militant, but there will doubtless be conspiracy theories in Pakistan that blame Musharraf. If those theories take hold it could energize her base and move votes to her party or to [the party of] Nawaz Sharif, the only opposition figure left standing at this point. It’s bad news for Musharraf, which is another reason he probably had nothing to do with this. He was upset by the return of Bhutto and Sharif, but he’s not stupid. The last thing he would want to happen is for one of them to get killed. If he’s thought to be involved in this, it will erode his popularity and base.
How should the United States respond to Bhutto’s assassination?
The administration should stand back and see how things shake out. The best position right now is to not get involved in Pakistan’s internal politics. There is a strong and rising anti-American current over there, which should give us pause. To the extent that the United States signals support for anyone, it weakens that party. We should support the democratic process and not worry about the outcome as long as the winners are from Pakistan’s mainstream secular political class.
What is the best outcome?
Regardless of who wins the election, the best outcome is simply stability. That’s why calls for U.S. intervention in Pakistan, whether justified or not, are highly irresponsible. That fuels militant Islamic sentiment, which is a major force in Pakistan’s politics. The United States is never going to be satisfied with the level of support it gets from the government of Pakistan, because it’s just not politically possible for the government there to side too closely with us. What you want is political leadership with credibility in the country and that will press to the limits of what is possible. Any leader from the country’s political mainstream will do their best to keep a grip on security because terrorism threatens them as well as us. They will be predisposed to help us.
Sharif spoke outside of the hospital where Bhutto died. How do you think he feels about another secular leader being killed by Islamists? He is not going to be averse to cooperation on terrorism, even if he has to be somewhat evasive and secretive about it at times. We should ignore anti-American rhetoric on the part of political candidates, which is designed to win votes–just as much of U.S. election rhetoric should be ignored. Rhetoric won’t have an impact on actions taken after the elections, so ignore the rhetoric and count on the current ruling political class to secure an outcome with which the United States can live.