Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination on December 27 caused shock, but not surprise. Bhutto herself announced she would hope for the best, but "prepare for the worst," as she prepared for return to her home country from Dubai earlier this autumn. An attempt to kill Bhutto her in October left 135 dead. At least twenty more people were killed in the blast that accompanied her assassination.
Bhutto returned from exile in October as part of an American-brokered power-sharing deal with current President Musharraf, in exchange for his waiver of corruption charges against her. It was broadly hoped, East and West, that Bhutto would help quell a destabilizing combination of spreading militant extremism fomented by Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters in Pakistan's provinces and dissatisfaction with military dictator Musharraf.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Various sources have asserted that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda called for Bhutto's assassination, including American claimants in Pakistan. President Musharraf, in a statement following the assassination, called the attackers "terrorists," by which he meant militant Islamists. American President Bush reiterated his alliance with Musharraf as a "war on terror" ally in his condemnation of Bhutto's killers.
However, others note the possibility of state complicity in the assassination. Pierre Tristam, About.com's Middle East guide has commented on this; other commentaries have made much of the lack of security around Bhutto in the minutes leading up to her assassination. Popular supporters of Bhutto also condemned Musharraf for the attack.
Still others contemplate a more complex concatenation of forces. Indian journalist B. Raman posits Bhutto's assassination as the outcome "of a conspiracy involving anti-US, pro-Al Qaeda jihadi elements, Zia-ul Haq loyalists, junior members of the Pakistan army and, possibly, the Pakistan air force." Pakistan's military and intelligence services are well known for their infiltration by Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers.
Whoever's guilty, in the end, the charges are already pre-scripted. Pakistani reality fits very poorly with the idea of Bhutto as secular liberal in an American mold, and of Pakistan as en route to democracy, just because it has an election scheduled.
The picture of President Musharraf and the military of which he was, until recently, the head, as democratic wannabees who have simply been overcome by (militant Islamist) events is equally at odds with reality. Even the idea of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militant Islamists currently taking over large swaths of the country, as an entirely alien blight that cannot be explained is not quite right. Pakistan, after all, is the birthplace of the Taliban.
This is to say, merely, that we may note that Bhutto's assassination and next steps for Pakistan are being told in a highly scripted way from a "war on terror" script, where good guys are by definition secular liberals and bad guys are by definition terrorists. In order for the U.S., and its allies, including Musharraf, to continue to tell this story, and continue military pursuit of their adversaries, it is also important that all the players appear to play their assigned parts, whether these fit or not.
photo by Molly Bingham.