Benazir Bhutto's ghost hovers over Saturday's elections for parliament in Pakistan.

The face of the gutsy former prime minister, who was assassinated as she campaigned in Pakistan's last national elections, still adorns commercials of her Pakistan People's Party. (It won in 2008, but is failing this time).

What is missing in this campaign is Bhutto's plea for Pakistan to confront its Taliban problem before the group undermines the state and society. I was in Pakistan at the time and can't forget her passion. But the Pakistani Taliban (known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban or TTP) silenced her with bullets and bombs.

No candidate dares to repeat her anti-Taliban message in this election season. This time, Taliban threats are setting the election tone.

The TTP has launched vicious attacks on candidates of three mainstream secular parties, including Bhutto's, along with the Awami National Party (ANP), which has strength in Pakistan's troubled northwest province. More than 100 people have been killed; the Taliban issued a video telling the public to avoid rallies of these parties, forcing candidates to cancel them.

The leaders of more conservative parties have not been attacked - including the likely next prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan. Perhaps that's because they have studiously avoided criticizing Taliban perpetrators of violence by name.

"No party wants a dispute with the Taliban at this crucial time," says Pakistani journalist Daud Khattak, "or their fate will be like that of ANP, whose candidates can't come out of their homes . . . because they oppose the Taliban."

Meantime, 130 candidates from an extreme Sunni Muslim group, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammaat, which spreads sectarian hatred, are running openly with no problems. This party springs from the same roots as the notorious Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group, which has been murdering hundreds of Shiites. Although this new party won't win many seats, its existence brings sectarian hatred into the political mainstream.

There are two big reasons why all this matters to Americans. First, without help from the next Pakistani government, the U.S. exit from Afghanistan will be a disaster - for America and Pakistan. Second, the next government must decide how to deal with religious militants who seek to gain power in part or all of Pakistan - a state with nuclear weapons. This danger dwarfs any potential Iranian nuclear threat.

Yet the Pakistani election inspires little confidence that the next government can handle either challenge.

Imran Khan, whose late surge has galvanized youth and social media, is so eager to engage in dialogue with the TTP that his critics call him "Taliban Khan." Nawaz Sharif also favors negotiations. Both subscribe to the popular trope that the Pakistani military's fight against the TTP amounts to "fighting America's war."

What Bhutto realized, however, was that the Taliban ideology threatens Pakistan's sovereignty and survival.

She complained that the decision by Pakistan's military and ISI intelligence services to offer safe haven to Afghan Taliban (and, initially, to al-Qaeda) had enabled those extremists to spread their ideology to local Pakistani militants. The ISI's tolerance for local terrorist groups it had trained to fight India expanded the terror network inside Pakistan.

She also knew that talks with the Taliban were useless unless they were willing to recognize the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. Indeed, every time Pakistani leaders have signed deals with local Taliban groups over the past decade, they have reneged, terrorizing Pakistani civilians, cutting off heads, and imposing harsh sharia law.

Pakistan's military - belatedly - seems to understand the domestic part of the problem (if not the danger of harboring Afghan Taliban and Kashmiri terrorists).

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief of staff, recently declared that the war against the TTP is "Pakistan's own war." But the military alone can't solve the TTP problem.

To isolate militants, the next Pakistani prime minister would have to, finally, address the country's shocking lack of infrastructure, including an absence of secular schools that fuels illiteracy and radical religious madrassas. That would undercut militants, and increase popular support for action against terrorist violence.

So far the top candidates, despite populist rhetoric, show little sign they are ready to confront Pakistan's economic problems, let alone stand up to Taliban blackmail. In case anyone needed a reminder of Bhutto's fate, a few days ago a gunman shot dead a prosecutor who was (still) investigating her murder. This prosecutor was also investigating the still unpunished 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistani terrorists.

You get the picture. Unless the next Pakistani leader can muster some of Bhutto's courage, this election spells more trouble for Pakistan - and the United States.