Pakistan holds its breath

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 19/10/07):

Generally speaking, there is no upside to a suicide bombing, especially one as pitiless, as treacherous, and as costly of human life as that which hit home in Karachi yesterday.

The slaughter came at the very moment when hope of a better, more prosperous and more democratic future had at last returned to the hearts of millions of impoverished, disillusioned and effectively disenfranchised Pakistanis.

But if, as now seems likely, the mass murder pushes Pakistan's odd couple, General-President Pervez Musharraf and the People's party leader, Benazir Bhutto, into a closer political embrace, the attack will be seen to have backfired. Analysts say that instead of furthering their aims of chaos and disintegration, the violent Islamists who were most probably responsible may unwittingly have boosted the reconciliation process and the cause of national unity.

The attack appears not simply to have been an attempt to assassinate Ms Bhutto, a once and likely future prime minister. It also looked like a direct attempt to break the country's tenuous grip on parliamentary democracy, already seriously undermined by successive, corrupt civilian governments (including those led by Ms Bhutto) and, since 1999, by Gen Musharraf's military-led administration.

Coming as Ms Bhutto's procession headed ponderously towards the tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the nation's founding father, the bombings will also be interpreted, symbolically at least, as a bid to kill the very idea of Pakistan itself.

Gen Musharraf and Ms Bhutto, despite their many political differences, are equally menaced by this new nihilism. And legal challenges aside, their nascent power-sharing agreement now seems more rather than less likely to come to fruition. Gen Musharraf quickly placed the outrage in a broader context. "This was a conspiracy against democracy," he said. Ms Bhutto agreed. Pakistan was under assault by extremists who threatened its existence, she said. "The time has come ... If we want to save Pakistan, we have to have democracy." Despite much lingering mutual suspicion, and accusations yesterday from the Bhutto camp of official complicity in the bombings, the basis of a shared security and governance agenda has now been laid out as starkly as the bodies in Karachi's morgues.

The lessons for other main players in Pakistan's fight for survival are just as evident. The US deplored the killings. But many Pakistanis will feel it shares responsibility for this renewed mayhem in what in some ways, not least financially, is a client state. Pakistani officials say President George Bush's global war on terror has greatly destabilised an already wobbly ally. Anti-Americanism has surged since the 2001 invasion and Nato-led occupation of Afghanistan, and subsequent events in Iraq.

Fierce US pressure on Gen Musharraf to do more to combat the "Talibanisation" of the Pakistan-Afghan border areas, and occasional, highly controversial unilateral US military strikes on Pakistani territory, have further compounded his difficulties in holding the country together. "We tell them, we are doing all we can. But they always want more," an exasperated senior Pakistani diplomat said recently.

Nor has Ms Bhutto escaped Washington's disruptive prescriptions. A strong stance on suppressing the religious militancy that Washington says feeds and nurtures terrorism has been the price demanded for American support for her political rehabilitation. This so-called "deal with the devil" has now made her, rather than the much shot-at Gen Musharraf, the bombers' primary target. After Karachi, the US may conclude that a lighter touch is needed in dealing with both leaders.

Neighbour and nuclear rival India has lessons to learn, too, even as its ministers bemoan the Karachi carnage and call for tougher Pakistani action on terrorism. The bilateral peace process begun in 2003, and encompassing the disputed and terror-racked territories of Kashmir, has lost the little momentum it originally enjoyed. Commentators say both sides could do more, though India, which aspires to regional leadership on other issues, has perhaps the greater responsibility.

Pakistan now enters a perilous period, leading to general elections scheduled to take place by January. More terror attacks are likely. More political and legal disputes are a certainty. As many of Ms Bhutto's supporters made clear, more jobs, more opportunities, higher wages and lower inflation are the people's overriding priorities.

But for a watching world, the bigger, killer question is whether Pakistan will hold together - or fatally fall apart.