Benazir Bhutto declared after suicide bombers tried to kill her the first time in October that she, like her father before her, was ultimately willing to sacrifice her life for Pakistan. And so she did today-roiling financial markets across the globe and conjuring key questions about the future of a vitally significant country, starting with who was behind the bombing and how Pakistan will be able to find stability in its aftermath.
Bhutto stated, after the first attempt, that she suspected government forces linked to the intelligence services of being involved in the attack. On that issue, Bhutto may have been less prescient, said Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "If Musharraf wanted to get to her, there were a lot of other things he could have done", he said. Had he felt compelled to undercut her rise to power as prime minister, he could have simply cooked the ballot books, he said. And when Musharraf felt threatened by the judges that undermined his legitimacy, he put them under house arrest but stopped well short of the kind of violence that took Bhutto's life and at least twenty others.
Some prominent Pakistanis are publicly blaming the president for Bhutto's death. "If Musharraf can spend scores on his own security, could he not spend some amount on the security of Bhutto?" asked former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
With Bhutto's death, Musharraf loses the prospect of gaining the international clout that a shared-leadership with Bhutto would have brought, particularly in the United States-which helped broker Bhutto's return to Pakistan after several years living abroad. Still,
Bhutto's slaying will give Musharraf a freer hand. It will allow him to better justify the declaration of emergency that he called on November 3-after firing Supreme Court judges as they were about to rule on the legality of his reelection-and ended on December 15. It could also serve as a pretext for any subsequent declaration of emergency, said Korb. More importantly, Bhutto's death ensures that Musharraf will not be pressed to share much power with the victor of the parliamentary election, if it is still held. If Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party decides to contest an election with a successor, such a figure would lack Bhutto's prominence. And Pakistan's other presumable candidate of national importance, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has so far been legally barred from participating in the election due to his criminal record.
Also, Sharif's return to power would not be similarly hailed in Washington. Sharif is less pro-Western and would turn more of a blind-eye to the groups allied with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. During her leadership, Bhutto also let the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) support the Taliban in Afghanistan, noted Korb, "but it was a completely different era", he added. At that time, the Taliban and its supporters did not need or find a safe-haven in Pakistan. Bhutto had stated her intention to roll-back those safe-havens and had just met with Afghan's President Hamid Karzai, who is visiting Pakistan.
Her support of Karzai, her backing by President Bush and her stated intention of cracking down on violent extremists made her a target of those groups, which are more than likely responsible for her killing. Her death comes at a crucial moment for Pakistan, with elections scheduled for January 8 and Washington applying greater pressure on Musharraf to allow some democratic opening and regain some control over the Federally Administered Tribal areas that are increasingly controlled by former Taliban members and their allies. Korb said Musharraf can still salvage Washington's favor by holding elections-which at any rate were not going to be altogether fair. "My guess is he will allow the elections to go forward", Korb added.
Regardless of whether the elections are held, though, Bhutto's killing confirms that the extremist groups finding refuge in Pakistan can strike anywhere and with dramatic effect. As Asma Jehangir, chairperson of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission has reportedly said, "there is going to be fear and more bloodshed." Certainly, the rest of the world will be watching and reacting.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.