Can Musharraf Survive?

As former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was leaving a campaign rally in downtown Rawalpindi, not far from the headquarters of Pakistan's powerful armed forces, she poked her head out of the open moonroof of her armor-plated white Toyota Land Cruiser to wave at the crowd of admirers lining the street. Suddenly a gunman ran up to her car, peppering it with automatic-weapon fire and then exploding himself in a suicide bombing attack. Bhutto, who was standing inside the car, her head and shoulders exposed, was hit in the head and neck by the bullets, and died almost instantly. At least 20 others lost their lives in the blast that followed.

Her untimely death in the suicide attack deals a major and perhaps even fatal blow to Pakistan's democratic aspirations. Bhutto's return from eight years of self-imposed exile a little more than two months ago had injected new energy and hope into the country's prodemocracy forces, who saw her as their best hope for transforming Pakistan's military-dominated political system into one that was more free and open and more dedicated to helping the mass of Pakistanis, who have yet to benefit from the country's impressive 6 percent economic growth rate. Despite her many political faults and weaknesses, she was a champion of democracy and human rights and an advocate of dealing harshly with the country's armed and determined Islamic militants. These radicals are believed to be the ones most likely to have killed her.

Not only did many Pakistanis see her as a symbol of hope for a more just and democratic society, the West too, led by the United States and Britain, saw her as someone who could work with the unpopular Musharraf to increase political stability and rally opposition to Pakistan's radical Islamists—especially the Al Qaeda supporters who have carved out a safe haven in the country's lawless tribal areas along the western frontier with Afghanistan. Washington and London supported her bid to return from exile, lobbying hard with Musharraf over the past year to get him to allow her to return without her having to face the slew of corruption charges that had been filed against her. Bhutto always claimed that those allegations of corruption, which happened during her two terms as prime minister during the late 1980s and mid-1990s, were politically motivated and that she was innocent.

For the White House and Downing Street, a Bhutto-Musharraf power-sharing arrangement made a dream team. The West envisioned Musharraf as president, continuing to lead the fight against extremism, and Bhutto as prime minister, giving a more popular mandate to the Bush administration's war on terror and added impetus to the anti-jihad campaign.

Bhutto indeed was an outspoken opponent of Islamic extremists. Just before and after her return from exile, she publicly vowed to fight radical Islamists in a more systematic way than Musharraf. She said she could rally more popular support for a battle that many Pakistanis see as a U.S.-led crusade against Islam in which Pakistanis should not be involved. She pledged that if she returned to power she would implement many of Musharraf's failed promises, such as carrying out reforms in the country's thousands of madrassas, or religious schools, many of which teach jihad to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of poor students. She said she would even allow the United States to take unilateral military action against Pakistani tribal insurgents and Al Qaeda in the frontier areas. She also promised to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to interview Abdul Qadir Khan, the discredited father of Pakistan's atomic bomb who also ran a potentially lethal underground market in sensitive nuclear technology and know-how to such states as Iran, Libya and North Korea. Musharraf placed Khan under house arrest but refused to allow any foreigners to interrogate the scientist about his activities.

Largely because of those tough, seemingly pro-Western stands, and because she was a woman vying for political power, she became a target of Islamic extremists. Before she arrived home from exile last October, Baitullah Mehsud, a powerful pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda tribal leader in the South Waziristan tribal area, vowed to greet her with suicide bombers. (He later denied any involvement in the October attack on her motorcade in Karachi.) But Pakistani militants, the Taliban and Al Qaeda doubtless saw her as an imminent political threat. Almost all of the more than 50 suicide bombings that have occurred in Pakistan this year, attacks largely aimed at military targets and senior government officials, have originated from the tribal area, Pakistani investigators say. Several insurgent training camps, which include instruction in suicide and IED attacks, are located in Mehsud's territory.

While Islamic extremists are the most likely perpetrators of the attack, many emotional Pakistanis, especially the devoted rank and file of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, will blame Musharraf, and the powerful military and civilian intelligence agencies he controls, for the killing. That perception will resonate among many Pakistanis. Already, pro-Bhutto crowds have started antiregime rioting in the major cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The house of one government minister has been torched. At least one Bhutto stalwart has publicly pointed the finger of blame at the regime. "This was not the work of Al Qaeda or the Taliban," says a senior PPP stalwart who did not want to be quoted by name. "She told Musharraf this could happen before she came [back from exile, and] he laughed it off. [Pakistanis] know who is to blame for this."

Indeed, many of Bhutto's supporters and Musharraf's opponents will say that the government's intelligence agencies were behind the attack because they saw Bhutto as a threat to the political survival of the president, who has ruled Pakistan since overthrowing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999. "This is the darkest, gloomiest day in the history of Pakistan," said Sharif at the Rawalpindi hospital where Bhutto's body lay. "The unthinkable has happened." If the rioting continues, and the popular view that Musharraf may have had something to do with Bhutto's death gathers momentum, then Musharraf may come under heavy pressure to resign. Many Pakistanis may conclude that if he wasn't behind the attack he is responsible for failing to have his ubiquitous security services protect Bhutto.

For now the Pakistani police and paramilitary rangers seem to be handling the emotional civil disturbances that are breaking out. The army is on alert but did not take to the streets in the hours immediately following the attack. That could change if the police are not able to control or subdue the demonstrators and rioters. If Musharraf does call out the military, army head Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, Musharraf's handpicked successor, could ask Musharraf to step down rather than have Pakistani troops firing on crowds in the streets.

Bhutto and Musharraf's relations became tempestuous soon after she arrived from exile. During the months of back-channel negotiations by their aides, and during at least one face-to-face meeting late last summer in Dubai, Bhutto and Musharraf seemed to have reached a political truce. Musharraf believed that in return for his dropping corruption charges against her and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari (known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for the commissions he allegedly charged businessmen angling for government contracts), she would not agitate against him. But Musharraf has said he felt betrayed by Bhutto from the minute she returned and organized a massive political rally in Karachi. She subsequently vowed to lead a campaign caravan from Lahore to Islamabad. Seeing the massive crowds she drew for her Karachi homecoming and fearing that the Lahore-Islamabad cavalcade was a direct threat to his rule, he twice placed her under house arrest. He later said that he felt that she had double-crossed him, and that far from being cooperative, once back in Pakistan she had been confrontational.

But Bhutto was not being disruptive. Rather she was playing a rather clever political game. She had won her return to Pakistan and was then free to position herself ahead of the January elections. In this regard she outmaneuvered her rival, the conservative Nawaz Sharif. Sharif, also a former prime minister, returned from exile in November boasting about his refusal to negotiate with Musharraf and calling for a boycott of the upcoming vote. Bhutto refused to go along with Sharif's calls for an electoral boycott and his equally hardline demand that the Supreme Court justices, who had been deposed at the beginning of Musharraf's state of emergency, be restored immediately as the price for the opposition's participation in the January polls. Bhutto figured that her best chance to return to power and to promote democracy was to participate in the election, even though she said she feared Musharraf would rig it. With Bhutto and her relatively well-organized PPP in the race, Sharif had no alternative but to have his party run as well, even though he and his younger brother Shahbaz had been declared ineligible as candidates by the pro-Musharraf electoral commission.

Bhutto hoped that her PPP would either win a majority or emerge as the largest single party in the next parliament. It was not a blind hope. In the 2002 general elections, which foreign observers declared to be "seriously flawed," the PPP won the largest number of votes nationwide. The party ended up in the opposition when Musharraf engineered the defection of key PPP leaders to his own Pakistan Muslim League, which went on to form the government and control parliament. But Bhutto gambled that enough Pakistanis would buck the blandishments and threats from the ruling power structure to vote for her party. But if the election did turn out to be rigged, she said she would unite with other opposition parties and take to the streets to demand justice.

Musharrraf doubtless feared the charismatic leader's popular political appeal, although he publicly said that claims of her popularity were greatly exaggerated. But it seems inconceivable that he could have gone so far as to have her killed. Her death has diminished his already low public standing and once again called into question his ability to govern and to deal with Islamic extremism. Bhutto's assassination could conceivably lead to Musharraf's political demise, as well, if the popular mood in the wake of her death turns sharply against the president and his regime.