The assassination today of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, a top opposition leader, by a suicide bomber on the eve of a crucial parliamentary election early next month means the United States will have to step up pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to track down those responsible for Bhutto’s murder and to truly hold free and fair elections.
When I left Pakistan last week, it was clear that political violence was increasing and that Musharraf’s efforts to manage next month’s parliamentary elections were adding to tensions in urban centers across the country. The reach of terrorist networks in the country’s Northwest was equally evident; Bhutto narrowly survived a suicide attack in October that killed 150 people in Karachi, and about 50 people were killed last week in a suicide bombing at a mosque in northwestern Pakistan aimed at a candidate for parliament and former interior minister.
Nor was the attack on Bhutto the only one to occur today. Four aides to the country’s other leading opposition leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, were killed at a separate election rally in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. Coming almost exactly at the midpoint between President Pervez Musharraf’s lifting of emergency rule on December 15 and next month’s parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8, these murders are only adding to the the political crisis. Violent protests have reportedly broken out in Karachi and other major cities in Pakistan, and Musharraf called an emergency meeting of top government officials to discuss the situation.
So how should the United States respond to this sad and dangerous turn of events? First, the Bush administration must insist that Musharraf find those behind these attacks. After the attempted assassination of Bhutto in Karachi last October, she blamed Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet before returning to Pakistan, Bhutto sent a hand-delivered letter to Musharraf giving him the names of senior Pakistani security officials she suspected might be plotting against her. As the first woman to lead a Muslim-majority country, Bhutto saw vociferous opposition from Islamist extremists who repeatedly threatened her throughout her career.
Some observers have suggested that since this attack was in Rawalpindi, the main center of power for Pakistan’s security establishment, some sort of involvement by members of Pakistan’s security forces is conceivable. After all, some of the country’s security forces are known to be close to Islamist terrorists operating inside Pakistan. Getting to the bottom of today’s attacks in Pakistan’s murky environment in the heat of an election campaign will be no easy task, but finding and naming those responsible must be the first order of business. The United States must make clear this is what we expect.
Today’s attacks, however, put the January 8 elections in further doubt. Some will argue that a temporary and closed-ended postponement of the elections might be necessary to ensure that the process is free and fair. Even before this increased violence, independent observers, including an international pre-election monitoring delegation headed by former U.S. Senate majority leader (and CAP Distinguished Fellow) Tom Daschle raised concerns about the upcoming elections.
Free and fair elections are essential, but the timing must be predicated on a political environment in which such elections are possible. In November, Musharraf sacked the country’s chief justice and other judges, suspended the constitution, instituted emergency rule, arrested thousands of opposition figures, and shut down key media outlets. Although emergency rule was lifted, many of the judges and opposition figures remain in jail. As violence escalates, a temporary postponement of the elections might be best not just for stability but also for the sake of Pakistan’s democratic process.
That’s why U.S. policymakers should resist the temptation to see the situation in simplistic, black-and-white, freedom-versus-terrorism terms. Past experience in Pakistan and elsewhere demonstrates that putting our hopes on a single leader or a single election rarely makes Americans safer or advances stability and prosperity in other countries.
Instead, the Bush administration must help Pakistan’s key government institutions ensure free and fair elections are possible, encourage other nations with a stake in Pakistan’s stability to help protect and support the country’s democratic institutions, and start investing in a credible and comprehensive anti-terrorist strategy that takes into account the safe havens of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan. All three steps are crucial to preserving Pakistan’s democracy, which is essential to ensuring the nation’s nuclear arsenal does not fall into the hands of Islamist extremists.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. To learn more about the Center’s policy positions in the Middle East and West Asia please see: