Bhutto Assassination Aims to Destabilize Pakistan's Government, Rubin Argues in <I>Wall Street Journal</I> Op/Ed


COMMENTARY

The Musharraf Problem

By BARNETT R. RUBIN
Wall Street Journal (Reprinted with permission)
December 29, 2007; Page A11

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was probably a strategic attack by al Qaeda and its local allies — the Pakistani Taliban — aimed at achieving Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most pressing political objective: destabilizing the government of Pakistan, the nuclear-armed country where al Qaeda has re-established the safe haven it lost in Afghanistan.

Many in Pakistan nevertheless will blame their own military, which has failed to stop the suicide bombings over the past five years, including that of Bhutto’s motorcade in Karachi in October. Pakistani intelligence now claims to have intercepted a phone call from Baitullah Mahsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, offering congratulations for the operation. It may be true. But the skepticism with which this announcement was greeted in Pakistan shows that the Bush administration’s strategy of trying to shore up the power of President (former general) Pervez Musharraf cannot work. Even if it is innocent of involvement in this assassination, the Pakistan military under Mr. Musharraf has no intention of ceding power to civilians.

Pakistani newspapers have already published what they claim are the planned results of the rigged elections. Nothing short of a genuine transition to democracy that replaces rather than complements military rule has a chance of establishing a government with the capacity to regain control of the country’s territory and marginalize the militants.

The murder of Bhutto was not just an attempt to derail Pakistani democracy, or prevent an enlightened Muslim woman from taking power. It was a counterattack, apparently by the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda, against a U.S.-backed transition from direct to indirect military rule in Pakistan by brokering a forced marriage of “moderates.”

According to last July’s National Intelligence Estimate on the al Qaeda threat, bin Laden has re-established his sanctuary in the Pakistani tribal agencies. According to a report by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, the suicide bombers for Pakistan and Afghanistan are trained in these agencies.

Most global terrorist plots since 9/11 can be traced back to these areas. And Pakistan’s military regime, not Iran, has been the main source of rogue nuclear proliferation. It is therefore the U.S. partnership with military rulers in Pakistan that has been and is the problem, not the solution.

Last September, bin Laden released a video declaring jihad on the Pakistani government. When Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile on Oct. 18 — as part of a U.S.-backed strategy to shore up Musharraf’s power through elections — her motorcade was bombed as it passed by several military bases in Karachi, killing over 100.

In October and November, groups allied with the Pakistani Taliban captured several districts in Swat, in the Northwest Frontier Province, not in the tribal agencies. When I was in Pakistan in early November, I was told that this offensive was part of a larger effort by the Pakistani Taliban to surround Peshawar, capital of NWFP, and put increasing pressure on nearby Islamabad, the capital. The next key step, I was told on Nov. 5, would be an attack on Charsadda, northeast of Peshawar, on the Muslim feast of ‘Id al-Adha.

Sure enough, on Dec. 21 a suicide bomber killed around 50 people during ‘Id worship in Charsadda. This suicide attack followed by a week the 500

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