I have been on nonstop go the whole day, so I have not been able to read much of the coverage of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. But I gather from this terse commentary by Josh Marshall that it became election fodder rather quickly. Paul Krugman states (what should be) the obvious: It's not about you.
This is who it's about:
In the chaos the confusion after the assassination, the site was littered with pools of blood. Shoes and caps of party workers were lying on the asphalt, and shards of glass were strewn about the ground. Pakistani television cameras captured images of ambulances pushing through crowds of dazed and injured people at the scene of the assassination.
Farah Ispahani, a party official from Ms. Bhutto’s party, said: “It is too soon to confirm the number of dead from the party’s side. Private television channels are reporting 20 dead.” Television channels were also quoting police sources as saying that at least 14 people were dead.
At the hospital where Ms. Bhutto was taken, a large number of police began to cordon off the area as angry party workers smashed windows. Many protesters shouted “Musharraf Dog.” One man was crying hysterically, saying his sister had been killed. Dozens of people in the crowd beat their chests and chanted slogans against Mr. Musharraf.
Nahid Khan, a close aide to Ms. Bhutto, was sobbing in a room next to the operating theater, and the corridors of the hospital swarmed with mourners.
Juan Cole gives us some of the political and historical context:
The Pakistani authorities are blaming Muslim militants for the assassination. That is possible, but everyone in Pakistan remembers that it was the military intelligence, or Inter-Services Intelligence, that promoted Muslim militancy in the two decades before September 11 as a wedge against India in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) faithful will almost certainly blame Pervez Musharraf, and sentiment here is more important than reality, whatever the reality may be. The PPP is one of two very large, long-standing grassroots political parties in Pakistan, and if its followers are radicalized by this event, it could lead to severe turmoil. Just a day before her assassination Benazir had pledged that the PPP would not allow the military to rig the upcoming January 8 parliamentary elections.
Pakistan is important to US security. It is a nuclear power. Its military fostered, then partially turned on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which have bases in the lawless tribal areas of the northern part of the country. And Pakistan is key to the future of its neighbor, Afghanistan. Pakistan is also a key transit route for any energy pipelines built between Iran or Central Asia and India, and so central to the energy security of the United States.
The military government of Pervez Musharraf was shaken by two big crises in 2007, one urban and one rural. The urban crisis was his interference in the rule of law and his dismissal of the supreme court chief justice. The Pakistani middle class has greatly expanded in the last seven years, as others have noted, and educated white collar people need a rule of law to conduct their business. Last June 50,000 protesters came out to defend the supreme court, even though the military had banned rallies. The rural crisis was the attempt of a Neo-Deobandi cult made up of Pushtuns and Baluch from the north to establish themselves in the heart of the capital, Islamabad, at the Red Mosque seminary. They then attempted to impose rural, puritan values on the cosmopolitan city dwellers. When they kidnapped Chinese acupuncturists, accusing them of prostitution, they went too far. Pakistan depends deeply on its alliance with China, and the Islamabad middle classes despise Talibanism. Musharraf ham-fistedly had the military mount a frontal assault on the Red Mosque and its seminary, leaving many dead and his legitimacy in shreds. Most Pakistanis did not rally in favor of the Neo-Deobandi cultists, but to see a military invasion of a mosque was not pleasant (the militants inside turned out to be heavily armed and quite sinister).
The NYT reported that US Secretary of State Condi Rice tried to fix Musharraf's subsequent dwindling legitimacy by arranging for Benazir to return to Pakistan to run for prime minister, with Musharraf agreeing to resign from the military and become a civilian president. When the supreme court seemed likely to interfere with his remaining president, he arrested the justices, dismissed them, and replaced them with more pliant jurists. This move threatened to scuttle the Rice Plan, since Benazir now faced the prospect of serving a dictator as his grand vizier, rather than being a proper prime minister.
With Benazir's assassination, the Rice Plan is in tatters and Bush administration policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan is tottering.
So much for U.S. influence in the world after seven years of war and military occupation and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans killed in the name of a "global war on terror" in which Pakistan was supposed to be a key ally.
Predictably, U.S. officials are calling Al Qaeda "a likely suspect" in the assassination, but Pakistanis are blaming Musharraf, and the truth (which probably will never be known) could be a complicated mixture, since Musharraf was not above using his ties to Islamists to protect his own power:
The main suspects in the assassination are the foreign and Pakistani Islamist militants who saw Ms Bhutto as a Westernised heretic and an American stooge, and had repeatedly threatened to kill her.
But fingers will also be pointed at the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, (ISI) which has had close ties to the Islamists since the 1970s and has been used by successive Pakistani leaders to suppress political opposition. Ms Bhutto narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in October, when a suicide bomber struck at a rally in Karachi to welcome her back from exile.
Earlier that month two Pakistani militant warlords based in the country’s northwestern areas had threatened to kill her.
One was Baitullah Mehsud, a top militant commander fighting the Pakistani Army in South Waziristan, who has ties to al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taleban. The other was Haji Omar, the leader of the Pakistani Taleban, who is also from South Waziristan and fought with the Afghan Mujahidin against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Ms Bhutto said after the attack that she had received a letter, signed by someone claiming to be a friend of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, threatening to slaughter her like a goat. But she also accused Pakistani authorities of not providing her with sufficient security, and hinted that they may have been complicit in the Karachi attack.
She indicated that she had more to fear from unidentified members of a power structure that she described as allies of the “forces of militancy”.
Analysts say that President Musharraf is unlikely to have ordered her assassination, but that elements of the Army and intelligence service stood to lose money and power if she became prime minister. The ISI includes some Islamists who became radicalised while running the American-funded campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan and were opposed to her on principle. Saudi Arabia is also thought to have frowned on Ms Bhutto as being too secular and Westernised and to have favoured Nawaz Sharif, another former Prime Minister.
One of Bhutto's closest friends and advisers, Husain Haqqani, is convinced Musharraf is responsible:
After an October attack on Bhutto's life in Karachi, the ex-prime minister warned "certain individuals in the security establishment [about the threat] and nothing was done," says Husain Haqqani, a confidante of Bhutto's for decades. "There is only one possibility: the security establishment and Musharraf are complicit, either by negligence or design. That is the most important thing. She's not the first political leader killed, since Musharraf took power, by the security forces."
Haqqani notes that Bhutto died of a gunshot wound to the neck. "It's like a hit, not a regular suicide bombing," he says. "It's quite clear that someone who considers himself Pakistan's Godfather has a very different attitude toward human life than you and I do."
As for what comes next: Haqqani doubts that Musharraf will go forward with scheduled elections. "The greatest likelihood is that this was aimed not just aimed at Benazir Bhutto but at weakening Pakistan's push for democracy," he says. "But the U.S. has to think long and hard. Musharraf's position is untenable in Pakistan. More and more people are going to blame him for bringing Pakistan to this point, intentionally or unintentionally. It's very clear that terrorism has increased in Pakistan. It's quite clear that poverty has increased in Pakistan. ... anti-Americanism might come in, as people say, 'You know what, why should we support this [pro-U.S.] regime that has not delivered anything to us?'"
One has the sense that Bush et al. don't have the slightest clue how to handle these dark forces that it never occurred to them for one second they might be messing with blind.
What we are witnessing in the Islamic world is something we should learn to be somewhat reticent about. There is so much we do not know - and what we do know suggests a period of extreme and dangerous instability we will have only limited capacity to affect, if at all. A Bhutto deal with Musharraf meant a rational, sane option for Pakistan to Western diplomatic minds. But this world is a darker, more irrational place than we know. And these convulsions will surely continue. It may be that our attempt to fix the situation has only made it worse. Which would not be the first time, of course.
Won't be the last, either.