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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


29 December, 2007

The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto marks the accelerating slide of Pakistan into political instability and spreading violence. Welcome the first major crisis of the New Year.

Pakistan's government blames al-Qaida for Bhutto's death. Her followers, by contrast, are convinced the Pervez Musharraf regime was behind the attack. Bhutto narrowly escaped an attempt to kill her upon her return from self-imposed exile to Pakistan on Oct. 18. The following day, she told me high-ranking Musharraf officials were behind the attack.

In fact, she named the culprits in her mind: A powerful Punjabi family, long-time rivals and foes of the Bhutto clan, whom, she claimed, were responsible for tormenting members of her family. Bhutto made it clear her intent, once she regained power, was to exact revenge.

But that's not proof they were involved. Indeed, this week's fatal attack had all the hallmarks of al-Qaida.

If it was al-Qaida, then Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, have just delivered a stunning defeat to the western powers. In one blow, they have wrecked the Bush administration's plans to keep strategic Pakistan under U.S. influence and bring in Bhutto to give a democratic veneer to Musharraf's dictatorship. So where does Bhutto's murder leave Pakistan and its 165 million people? Her People's Party has been decapitated. No strong leader has emerged. It will be impossible to fill Bhutto's shoes. Her adoring supporters saw her as a combination of saint, martyr and redeemer.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is left as the leading political figure, and his party, the Muslim League, as the primary political force. But Musharraf banned Nawaz from running for office. Nawaz's backers, the Saudis, were furious. I interviewed Nawaz at length. A wealthy industrialist-turned-politician, he has zero charisma and modest support. He is disliked by Washington, which has been active in barring him from office and undermining his party as too Islamist. Nawaz has yet to show strong or competent leadership.

This leaves a group of feuding Islamist parties who rarely command over 10-12% of the national vote, and a small party led by sports star Imran Khan. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to fund Musharraf with anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion a month in both overt and secret payments used to rent the army's loyalty and pay it to fight Taliban and Islamist rebels in the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan provinces. Even so, the Punjabi-dominated army is increasingly reluctant to fight anti-Musharraf insurgents.

Some recent polls suggest Pakistan's most respected figure is Osama bin Laden, and the most unpopular, President Musharraf, whose approval ratings hover below 10%. Musharraf is even more unpopular in Pakistan than President George Bush, no mean feat. U.S. and NATO policy in Pakistan has run into a dead end. Having put all its eggs in Musharraf's basket, the U.S. finds itself with no Plan B and nowhere to turn -- except to cultivate a new potential military dictator in the army. The army's new chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, may well fit this role, as this column has previously reported. He is the man to watch in Pakistan.

Claims that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will fall into the hands of extremists are overblown. The nukes are safely under the guard of the army and intelligence service. Besides, extremists could not assemble or arm the devices and Pakistan has no long-ranged delivery systems.

As Musharraf becomes increasingly isolated and both urban violence and armed insurrection spread across Pakistan, it seems likely the armed forces, however reluctantly, may be compelled to again seize power, as it has so many times since this turbulent nation's birth in 1947.

The only person who must be pleased by the chaos now engulfing Pakistan is bin Laden, who vowed to bring down its western-backed regime and suck the United States into yet another debilitating, no-win war there.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2007.

Published at since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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