Can Bhutto Survive?

By Robert D. Novak (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/10/07):

Benazir Bhutto, back in Pakistan following eight years in exile, had plans to tour the country seeking voter support. But she is holed up in Karachi after the near-miss attempt on her life. The government has declined to provide the former prime minister minimal security against renewed assassination attempts. That points up the difficulty of a shadowy new partnership between Bhutto and Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was reelected president by Pakistan’s electoral college on Oct. 6.

Arbab Rahim, chief minister of Sindh province, which includes Karachi, has refused Bhutto special police protection, cars with tinted windows and bomb-jamming equipment. For weeks before her return, Bhutto was denied jammers against improvised explosive devices and additional armor on her vehicles. But a telephone call from the Pakistani president to Rahim, one of his lieutenants, surely could have given Bhutto the protection she desired.

So, who wants to kill Benazir Bhutto? Not Musharraf, who is astute enough to know that his complicity in her death would be devastating for him politically. Yet he has not been forthcoming in investigating the Oct. 18 bombing in Karachi or preventing its recurrence. That provides a dilemma for President Bush. While his administration depicts the enigmatic Musharraf as a faithful fighter of terrorism, it recognizes that Bhutto as prime minister would be unequivocally against Islamic extremism.

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which do not want Bhutto to lead Pakistan’s government a third time, were behind the suicide bombing but do not appear to have acted alone. In addition to the bombing, which took 140 lives, snipers fired on her convoy, a fact that was not publicized. Not al-Qaeda’s style, that tactic points to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), or at least to rogue elements within it. Musharraf, though still military commander, does not exercise complete control over the ISI, which is considered a state within a state and gave birth to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is difficult to identify attempted assassins because Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said he would “categorically reject” help from world-class FBI forensic investigators. Sherpao once was a leader of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), but he changed sides in return for being absolved of Musharraf’s criminal charges against him. More than 10 days after the bombing, it is too late for forensic evidence.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the leader of Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League, said last week that Bhutto and her husband arranged the attack to generate public sympathy. That Bhutto was unhurt, he claimed, lends credence to that theory (though she actually was spared because her vehicle was elevated to permit crowds to see her).

The government has banned mass meetings, purportedly in the interest of public safety. But prohibiting political rallies saves the Muslim League from an embarrassing exhibition of its scant public support and perhaps could enable a rigging of parliamentary elections to prevent a major PPP victory. Bhutto will campaign anyway and is planning a trip to Islamabad.

Bhutto’s security experts think she is safer in Islamabad than in Karachi and say she can be protected there. Still, one adviser has warned her that Karachi-style attacks will resume in Islamabad. When I interviewed Bhutto in New York in August, I asked whether she thought she might be killed if she returned to Pakistan. She answered by saying that she had to return. She gives the impression that being in danger is her fate.

Musharraf must know that Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos sealed his political doom in 1983 when his associates conspired to murder political rival Benigno Acquino upon his return from exile. Without complicity in the assassination attempt, however, Musharraf has permitted subordinates to take a hostile stance toward Bhutto the past two weeks. He actually needs Bhutto, because of her popularity with the people, just as she needs him to neutralize the army.

On Thursday, a week after she was nearly killed, Bhutto assailed the Islamic schools in Pakistan that are breeding grounds for terrorism. “These political madrassas preach hatred and churn out brainwashed robots that become arsenals of weapons of violating the constitution of Pakistan,” she said. Musharraf has never dared to say anything like that. But the U.S. government, as matchmaker between Bhutto and Musharraf, is cautious about publicly taking sides in Pakistan’s crisis.