Stephen P. Cohen
(Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy)


Benazir Bhutto's assassination was horrifying but not surprising. There had been one major attempt on her life in Karachi, which she miraculously escaped. But the death squads were out and it was perhaps a matter of time before they caught up with her.

While Benazir was accused of many things, she was no coward. The former prime minister understood that the politicians' job description includes contact with the people, and she was willing to risk her life to again be a politician in Pakistan.

When she and her husband came to the Brookings Institution just before she departed for Pakistan, she stated a need to restore her contacts with the Pakistani people. She also displayed a far more realistic understanding of Pakistan's problems and the importance of reform. She was a gradualist—she believed in working with the military (even though her own father had been hanged by them).

Her murder removes not only a glamorous and popular personality, the loss is a blow to the idea of a liberal, moderate Pakistan. Will it be a death blow? Can Pakistan recover as a state and as a society? It is hard to be optimistic. This attack took place in the heartland of an army also under attack from radical Islamists; the generals have demonstrated little will to push back.  There are so many suspects that we may never know who was responsible. What we do know is that there is a large "alumni association" of former intelligence operatives, tolerated by the army and the intelligence services—or perhaps simply beyond their reach.

I fear for Pakistan. Its further decay will affect all of its neighbors, Europe and the United States in unpredictable and unpleasant ways. At best, the civil-military oligarchs will reassert themselves, but they have no effective formula for stopping the spread of radicalism in Pakistan. It is probably too late for the United States to do much either: we placed all of our bets on Musharraf, ignoring Benazir’s pleas for some contact or recognition until a few months ago. In Pakistan, it is likely that separatism will increase, as will violent, extremist Islamism.  Benazir's death will cripple the already besieged moderate elements of civil society.

We can expect further atrocities, the army will probably dither (unless the new army chief shows more spine than his predecessor), and a new round of farcical elections will produce a weak government that Musharraf will try to manipulate.

Musharraf will do this—for a while—but Pakistan's problems run so deep that this is unlikely to make much of an impact. As I wrote in "The Idea of Pakistan" in 2003, Pakistan will face a fundamental crisis in five or six years, Benazir Bhutto's assassination may bring that about sooner than later.

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