The murder of Benazir Bhutto

Dateline: 09 January 2008

The Bush administration is now at odds with the government of General Musharraf in Pakistan. Musharraf’s security services claim that Benazir Bhutto, the murdered opposition leader was killed by a suicide bomber – the blast knocked her against the car she had been traveling in and broke her neck. Bhutto’s party, the Pakistani Peoples’ Party (PPP), believes she was shot in the neck and US intelligence services have information which tends to confirm that.

Why should it matter how she died? This is unclear. What is obviously of much more significance is the question of who killed her. The PPP is in no doubt that it was government forces. Musharraf claims it was al Qaeda. Though Musharraf himself is a key US ally in the War on Terror it is possible that both are right. Al Qaeda has heavily infiltrated the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.

Why was she killed? This is also unclear. Bhutto’s party was favored to win upcoming elections, which have now been postponed. In the aftermath of her death the PPP will probably benefit from a sympathy vote and win still more emphatically. Under her leadership the PPP might have had to form a coalition – possibly with Musharraf’s party, though the two groups had been increasingly hostile over the last couple of months. In the new circumstances the PPP may be able to govern alone.

In the longer term, the outlook for the PPP may not be so rosy. Bhutto was the party’s undisputed leader. In an astonishingly feudal exercise she willed the party to her husband and son. She inherited the party from her father, but not in such a blatant manner. Neither her widower – whom almost everyone believes to be monstrously corrupt – nor her son – a 19 year-old student at Oxford – is an obvious candidate to be Prime Minister.

Cui bono? Who benefits from this assassination? That is the difficult question. Not Musharraf. His party is now likely to be routed at the polls. With Bhutto alive he could possibly have formed a coalition with her – an alliance of the two main secular forces which could have moved decisively against al Qaeda and the Taleban. Unsurprisingly, this was the Bush administration’s favored option. Probably not al Qaeda either. The PPP is now likely to win the elections outright, and it is no friend of religious fundamentalists. Of course, al Qaeda would benefit from a complete collapse of the Pakistani state and a civil war – one possible result of Bhutto’s murder. The other main opposition party, led by former PM Nawaz Sharif, is another loser from the assassination. It is difficult to see that anyone benefits directly.

If the virtually leaderless PPP wins the elections it will probably run a pretty chaotic government. Even under Bhutto PPP governments were not exactly models of excellence – she was a more skilled politician than executive. The PPP loathes al Qaeda and the Taleban. It is a secular party modeled on Britain’s Labour Party. But in these new circumstances it will not necessarily be friendly to the US. It blames Musharraf for Bhutto’s death and Musharraf is America’s ally.

So, while it is not clear that anyone has benefited from this death, it is certainly clear that the US has lost. Administration policy was strained before, and now it is in tatters.

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