Pakistan Becomes Regional Flashpoint after Benazir Assassination

It was bloody end to the checkered political career of one of the most charismatic women world leaders of recent times. The death of the 54-year-old Benazir Bhutto, the once (actually twice) and (many believed) future Prime Minister of Pakistan, killed in a suicide attack as she was leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi, has plunged the country deeper into political turmoil and possibly, civil war. At the very least, the repercussions and aftershocks will be felt for months, maybe years, to come. Apart from Benazir, the last of her generation belonging to a storied political dynasty, the most obvious casualty would be democracy, the fate of the January 8, 2008 parliamentary elections now in doubt.

The Pakistani military, presently the most potent political force in Pakistan, in the sense that it can enforce its will on the rest of the populace under the direction of Gen. (Ret., formally) and President Pervez Musharraf, may once again put in place emergency rule should civil unrest escalate. Bhutto’s supporters rampaged through several cities in the wake of her murder, leaving at least 34 dead (and counting). According to the Associated Press, Bhutto’s supporters ransacked banks, waged shootouts with police and burned trains and stations in a spasm of violence less than two weeks before parliamentary elections. Soldiers patrolled the streets of the southern cities of Hyderabad and Karachi in an effort to quell violence, witnesses said. In many areas, protesters burned tires in commercial districts, most businesses were closed and public transportation had ground to a halt. Paramilitary rangers were given the authority to use live fire against rioters , according to Maj. Asad Ali, army spokesman, saying “We have orders to shoot on sight.”

Many of Bhutto’s furious supporters blamed President Musharraf’s government for the shooting and bombing attack on the former prime minister but the administration was quick to blame Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for her death, claiming it intercepted an Al-Qaeda leader’s message of congratulation for the assassination.

The murky Pakistani political waters notwithstanding, there appears to be only two prime suspects for the killing: Muslim extremists or Musharraf’s minions, or per conspiracy theorists, an unholy alliance of both camps. They had the motive, certainly the resources, and numerous opportunities, given Benazir’s fatalistic penchant for mingling with her throngs of supporters and her known approachability. The assassin had no trouble getting close enough to shoot her in the neck before blowing himself up.

For years, Bhutto was the target of Islamic extremists, particularly Al-Qaeda, being an open adherent of secular modernism and having vowed to combat the international terrorist group. U. S. and Pakistani intelligence officials noted that both before and after Bhutto’s recent return to Pakistan from years of exile, her life had been the object of public threats by assorted militant groups and leaders, not least among them Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputies operating in Pakistan.

The army and Musharaf also had good reason to want Benazir out of the picture, being the most credible threat to the military’s continuing hegemony, in all its various forms. The Pakistani army is one of largest in the world, with an active force of 619,000 personnel and 528,000 men in reserve, larger even than the U.S. The military is also a major political and financial player, having a hand in banks and numerous commercial interests akin to that of a huge conglomerate, but with a license to kill. The army has no qualms about taking over the reins of government whenever it feels the need to supposedly cleanse it of corruption and to reform its bureaucracy before promising to return it to civilian control. All too often, this has led to a corrupt military regime that eventually collapsed. This is the present scenario that impelled Bhutto to return from exile.

That the military could have entered into a tactical alliance with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates to rid themselves of a common thorn in their sides is not so far-fetched. Benazir herself has accused Musharraf of tolerating and giving sanctuary to Muslim extremists, playing this trump card against the U.S. and other Western countries to gain political and financial concessions. An Inquirer editorial reports that

“Bhutto had said in a letter to a friend that Musharraf should be held responsible should anything bad happen to her. She had complained about the half-hearted measures to provide security despite the earlier attempt on her life, including the reduction of the police presence outside her home, as well as the lack of progress in the investigation of the earlier (suicide bombing) incident. She criticized in particular the rejection by the government of offers of assistance from Scotland Yard and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, hinting that the government might have something to hide. In a commentary she wrote for CNN, Bhutto charged that some elements in the Musharraf government were supporting Islamic extremists. ‘My return to my country poses a threat to the forces of extremism that have thrived under the dictatorship,’ she wrote. ‘They want to stop the restoration of democracy at any price’.”

Pakistan has become a regional flashpoint for bloody conflict, should the unrest and violence spill over its volatile borders with India and Afghanistan. Already its jittery neighbors are bracing for the coming backlash which could easily lead to several nightmare scenarios, made all the more worrisome by the fact that Pakistan has readily deployable nuclear weapons. An aggressive military could easily provoke a confrontation with India, to divert the people’s attention and provide a pretext for continued military rule.

The army makes no bones about it espousing a doctrine of limited “offensive-defense” . The main purpose of this strategy is to launch a sizeable offensive into enemy territory rather than wait to be hit from the enemy’s offensive attack. The doctrine is based on the premise that while on the offensive, the enemy can be kept off-balance while allowing the Pakistani army to be able to seize enemy territory of strategic importance which can be used as a bargaining chip on the negotiating table. By pushing the offensive into the enemy territory, the Pakistani military hopes to consolidate its gains inside the enemy’s territory and will attempt to keep the war on the enemy side of the border rather than giving ground on the Pakistani side. This is, plain and simple, a recipe for a war of aggression.

The Taliban, and numerous other jihadist factions operating at the country’s rugged western border with Afghanistan and Iran, would also increase their activities, further destabilizing the region, particularly the fragile Kaizan administration in Kabul.

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