Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is a national as well as a personal tragedy. For the moment it has fomented chaos in Pakistan. Though the number of deaths in rioting is still relatively low, it could rise far higher in the coming days. Elections are due to be held in a matter of weeks, yet the political party expected to emerge as the winner is now leaderless. So even a clear result is unlikely to provide the stable government that Pakistan needs. Meanwhile, the current government is undermined further by rumors that President Musharraf was behind the assassination. Finally, to the many practical problems facing Pakistan can now be added the psychological blow that its future has just been decisively altered by terrorism.
Bhutto was neither a saint nor a miracle worker. Her previous terms as prime minister had been failures ending in charges of corruption. She had formed alliances with Islamists on occasion and spouted much fashionable anti-Western nonsense. But she had courage: It was the obverse of her manifest hunger for power. She had shown a capacity to learn from her mistakes. And her prescription for Pakistan — “the reconciliation of the values of Islam and the West and . . . a moderate, modern Islam that marginalizes extremists, returns the military from politics to their barracks, treats all citizens and especially women equally, and selects its leaders by free and fair elections” — aimed in the right direction even if it would have been harder to achieve than to outline.
But Bhutto was well aware of that too, since she had embarked on a winding political course that involved sharing power with Musharraf, at least initially, and relying on the army to help defeat al-Qaeda, the radical Muslims, and her other enemies.
We cannot know if she would have succeeded. Given her track record, it is unlikely. But we do know that her death has just blocked the immediate political solution most hopeful for the West. Until Thursday it looked as if Musharraf was scrambling out of the trap of his own emergency rule by giving up his position as head of the army, becoming a civilian president, appointing a newly elected Benazir Bhutto as prime minister, and then benefiting as president from the democratic legitimacy she had won in the elections. Maybe a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance would not have lasted indefinitely. But it would have created the strong political base needed for two vital actions: the campaign against Islamist terrorists and the purge of Islamists from the armed forces and the ISI intelligence network. Bhutto’s assassination throws all that into doubt.
Which tends to exonerate Musharraf. An alliance with Bhutto promised to extend his political life by years. It would have been political suicide for him to turn a blind eye to ISI plans to murder her or even to make her murder easier by providing light security. So if it should turn out that people connected to the military were behind the crime, the logical inference would be that they welcomed the political damage to him as a bonus. Musharraf is undoubtedly damaged goods. But until the alternative to him is something better than confusion piled on chaos, the U.S. cannot simply abandon him as a show of democratic virtue, as too many people now advocate.
America’s and the West’s overriding interests in Pakistan are plain: We want to keep the country an ally in the war against terrorism, ensure its nuclear weapons and knowledge do not fall into other hands, and root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists on both sides of its border with Afghanistan. In order to achieve these aims, we need a stable Pakistani government that has the support of the armed forces even as it proposes to purge them of extremists. The new head of the army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is a reassuring figure in that regard. In light of Bhutto’s murder, Musharraf too might be readier to take on the terrorists on the Afghan border with the same boldness that he showed in ordering the storming of the Red Mosque earlier this year. But a bold and effective civilian politician from the current opposition parties is also needed to provide the democratic legitimacy and mass support for such boldness.
No such figure is on the scene — Nawaz Sharif is neither popular nor strong enough to do the job even if he were willing to do so. Bhutto had crowded out strong rivals in her own party (and her own family too).
As de Gaulle mordantly observed, however, “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” The best policy may therefore be to postpone the elections for a short period to allow new leaders to emerge either in Bhutto’s party or elsewhere. This would be a risky decision, open to distortion, and it does not guarantee the emergence of a suitable leader with courage and common sense. But voting for unknown factors in the aftermath of national tragedy may be worse than a pause for reflection.