All eyes on Musharraf

Like a large rock dropped from a great height into a murky pond, Benazir Bhutto's murder has sent shockwaves rippling outwards from Pakistan across the region and the wider international community.

The full impact of this political tsunami may take months to assess. But decisions made in the next few days will be crucial in preventing an immediate, nationwide descent into chaos. As so often in the past, all eyes are on Pervez Musharraf.

The assassination is widely seen as having further weakened Pakistan's embattled president. Some of Bhutto's aides accuse him of complicity in her death or, at the very least, failing to ensure adequate security.

The other main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, opaquely blamed "the rulers" and called for a general strike. The anti-Musharraf campaign is likely to gather pace once the three-day mourning period ends, partly to deny him the power he still wields, partly as a way of settling scores.

It is Musharraf - not Bhutto's Pakistan People's party (PPP) or Sharif's Muslim League or the religious parties in their north-western fastnesses - who must decide whether to postpone or cancel the January 8 election, re-impose the state of emergency, and use the army to try to suppress street demonstrators.

But Musharraf also has the power to reject divisive action and reboot a strategy of national reconciliation, dialogue and "enlightened moderation".

Putting off the election indefinitely and launching a new security crackdown could provoke exactly the national popular explosion that has so far been avoided. What he decides in the coming days may settle his and Pakistan's fate.

The US, whose attempts to manipulate Pakistan's politics have failed so miserably, now finds itself in a quandary. Washington has spent the year gently pulling the rug from under the president. Now it is scrambling to advise and influence him.

US contacts are also under way with Sharif and the PPP leadership - but the immediate, urgent priority is control and for that, Musharraf is still the best short-term bet.

Writing his blog, foreign secretary David Miliband called for wide-ranging change in the way Pakistan is run. He urged "politicians, community and faith leaders, business people and military chiefs (to) build a political system that can sustain itself (and) a social deal that tackles inequalities of opportunity".

But the American strategic analysts,, suggested the primary, pragmatic concern was preventing further political fragmentation. "No one in the dynasty is ready to step in... the PPP is now likely to weaken," it said.

"The crisis of governance currently seen in Pakistan's Pashtun areas could spread to other parts of the country. Bhutto's absence gives the establishment forces an opportunity to strengthen their hold on power."

Stratfor also warns that the biggest winners, whether or not they were responsible for the assassination, may be al-Qaida and the Taliban.

"They want Pakistan's security forces to be busy containing political unrest and violence rather than performing counter-jihadist operations in north-western Pakistan," it said.

If Musharraf failed to get a grip, he, too, could be outflanked. Domestic unrest "could reach a point at which army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani steps in and imposes martial law".

That would effectively take Pakistan full circle, back to 1999 when then army chief Musharraf overthrew Sharif in the name of national salvation. It is not now inconceivable that the US, out of options, might once again swallow talk of democratisation and accept a "military solution" with a new face.

By emboldening the Islamist extremists she vowed to defeat, Bhutto's killing also has negative implications for Afghanistan and the US and Nato military campaigns there.

"Arguably the greatest reverse suffered by the US in its war on terror has been the rejuvenation of al-Qaida and the Taliban - a revival the intelligence community believes is owed to their ability to secure a sanctuary in Pakistan, " said Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment.

But having put their money on Bhutto, who promised to do what Musharraf signally failed to do and clear Pakistan's Afghan border territories of jihadis, the US and its principal associate, Britain, now find themselves even further from their objective.

On the other side of the Afghan border, Hamid Karzai, Kabul's pro-western president, says he is "deeply pained" by the death of "this brave sister of ours".

There are good reasons to worry about Karzai, too. This veteran survivor of several assassination attempts may now be the jihadis' number one target - and in western eyes, his loss would be similarly catastrophic.

But in a Pakistan, shocked, grieving, and newly scornful of western machinations, geopolitical considerations are not uppermost. One man alone is the quarry, the symbol of a nation's woes. The cry goes up on all sides: "Get Musharraf".

Simon Tisdall