The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a major contender for head of government in the coming elections, will have repercussions far beyond the region and far beyond the immediate future of Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto was one of Pakistan's most eloquent, distinguished, and western friendly leaders. A Radcliff and Cambridge graduate, she was clearly a force for democracy, for women's rights, and for the economic development of the working class. She however also has a tainted legacy. There were allegations of corruption, and of being too close to Washington.
She was popular among large segments of Pakistani secular society, and hated by pro-Islamist elements.
I had dinner with her a few years ago in Doha, Qatar, and found her very articulate and aware of the growing crisis in Pakistan. She was in the mold of Indira Gandhi, strong South Asian women using her family connections to exercise power in a male dominated society. Bhutto also made a very special contribution. As a Muslim woman who became head of statem, she debunked the idea that women are marginalized in Muslim societies and that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
The political and civil unrest that has already begun in the wake of her death, can potentially derail elections and the restarted process towards democracy restoration. It will once again bring the army to the center of Pakistani affairs, but this time President Musharraf will be more of a participant observer than the man in charge. The responsibility to maintain peace and preserve the integrity of Pakistan is now on the shoulders of General Kayani, who replaced Musharraf as head of the Pakistani military.
Pakistan now confronts a very precarious situation. In recent months, Al Qaeda and Taliban forces and their affiliates have turned inwards and made Pakistan their primary target. In the past five months alone there have been more than 15 attacks killing more than 400 civilians and army personnel. The year has been one of escalating crisis and turmoil inside Pakistan, culminating in an assassination of democracy itself.
Benazir Bhutto had the strongest democratic credentials in Pakistan's political firmament. Her tragic death will fragment the Pakistan People's Party. Even if elections are held on schedule, the outcome will lack legitimacy and will hurt rather than serve the interests of democracy.
The Jihadis in killing her have decisively rendered the forthcoming elections meaningless. Her rival Mia Nawaz Sharief, who is soft on Islamists and hard on Washington, may win and could provide some short term stability. He however will not move against the Jihadis and will definitely reduce Pakistan's already reluctant cooperation with America's war on terror.
The so-called emergency declared by President Musharraf to address this crisis has had little impact as extremist forces continue to murder and terrorize the nation when they wish.
Even more problematic is the fact that these extremists enjoy popular support, much more than any of the nation's leaders. Roughly half of the population in Pakistan says that it supports Bin Ladin.
This support for radicalism will handcuff the government's response. A heavy handed measure, like that taken against the red mosque in Islamabad early this year, will increase support for Jihadis, increase anger against the government and Musharraf, and exacerbate the hostility and violence between the Pakistani army and the jihadi militias.
All this really means that in spite of extreme provocation, the Pakistani government will have to respond with circumspection and avoid direct confrontation with the growing threat of radicalism.
This could be the tipping point. It is important that there be a measured response that shows the government's resolve to combat extremism, but executed with utmost care as to not swing public opinion more in favor of the radicals.
For American foreign policy, this is a big blow. Washington was banking on Ms. Bhutto becoming the next Prime Minister and taking over the baton from President Musharraf as America's frontline ally in the war against terror. In pushing Bhutto's case, Washington had already alienated Musharraf and now we have a diminished and peeved Musharraf and no Bhutto in Islamabad. The Jihadis are rejuvenated and on a roll. America has less leverage and more challenges in a rapidly deteriorating Pakistan.
Pakistan is now America's new monster Afghanistan, with a reconstituted Al Qaeda, reconsolidated Taliban, a population of 150 million Muslims, many of whom think that the U.S. is in a war against Islam, and a cache of nuclear weapons. There should be no doubt that U.S. foreign policy in the region is a failure, and in desperate need for new direction and new ideas.