With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's survival depends on the outcome of a struggle between the army and Bhutto's Pakistan People's party, now headed by her 19-year-old son Bilawal. The protagonists are mismatched and the odds are that Pakistan will not make it.For all its flaws, the PPP is Pakistan's only true national institution. As well as overwhelming support in the Bhutto family's home province of Sindh, it has substantial support in Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. Like many south Asian political parties, it is a family affair, but it has an enduring platform: opposition to military rule.
Pakistan's army has long defined itself as the guardian of the nation, and successive generals have used this role as their excuse to seize and hold power. But the army is not a national institution. Historically, the Punjab has produced 90% of the officer corps while the Sindh, with 25% of Pakistan's population, is essentially unrepresented. Sindhis tend to see army rule as equivalent to Punjabi rule. The Bhutto killing sparked widespread attacks on federal property in Sindh and could galvanise separatist sentiment in the province.
The PPP's decision to make Bilawal Bhutto chairman is not just about dynastic succession or garnering a sympathy vote. It is also an effort to save the Pakistani federation, which was a central point made at yesterday's news conference announcing the new leadership. But will it work?
Benazir was an extraordinarily gifted politician. She was a brilliant strategist who focused not only on finding a way back to power for a third time but also on constructing a moderate coalition - including power-sharing with Pervez Musharraf - that could defeat extremism, make peace with India and thus create conditions that would get the army out of politics for good. Benazir honed her tactical skills and strategic thinking over nearly 30 years at the helm of the PPP and it is unrealistic to think that her son - by all accounts a bright, studious and forthright young man - could do the same, even with the help of family and Benazir's political associates.
But the larger problem is the Pakistani military. Pakistan's ruling generals have an almost unbroken record of sacrificing the national interest for their personal interest. Musharraf is not as bloodthirsty as his predecessor Zia ul-Haq but is no less keen on power.
Since Musharraf has certainly read the handwriting on the wall and yet still intends to stay in power, there is not much foreign leaders can do, in effect, to encourage his departure. Many Pakistanis - and most Sindhis - believe Musharraf and the army had a role in the Bhutto killing, which took place in a garrison city. Musharraf cannot be trusted to conduct an impartial investigation of the murder of his top rival. He has sacked Pakistan's independent-minded judges and imprisoned its lawyers.
The US and Britain should take the lead in demanding a UN investigation: the facts in this case are every bit as compelling as those that led the UN to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri. The Bhutto killing is tearing Pakistan apart. A UN investigation can help calm passions, but only the permanent departure of the army from power can provide a hope - and it is only a hope - of saving the country.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia and the author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.