Bush's Pakistan Strategy in Ashes
For the Bush administration, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto puts a major question mark over its efforts to push democracy in south Asia as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
Bush's seven-year key alliance with Pakistan's military strongman Pervez Musharraf in the fight against terrorism has drawn charges of hypocrisy from the world community - and Pakistanis themselves.
Over the past year, the White House pursued a two-prong strategy of pushing Musharraf for democratic elections while at the same time insisting he clean out the terrorist strongholds in the mountainous border with Afghanistan.
But Pakistan's course over the past year showed just how little Washington can influence Pakistan's internal affairs.
Despite billions of dollars in US aid to combat Al Qaeda in its mountainous border with Afghanistan, the Pakistani military pursued alliances with Islamic tribal factions in the name of fighting extremism. Violence spilled over into Afghanistan and inside Pakistan itself.
Musharraf's declaration of martial law and suspension of the Supreme Court aimed to clamp down on rising civil dissatisfaction from Islamic extremists and democracy advocates - but also angered US President George W. Bush.
The White House insisted Musharraf take off his uniform, remove martial law, govern the country as a civilian president and continue to prepare for elections Jan 8.
Washington also convinced Musharraf to allow the two-time former prime minister Bhutto to return from exile and campaign. It even pushed in vain for Musharraf to accept a power-sharing deal with the popular Bhutto.
Bhutto, in fact, was seen as the hope for rescuing the Islamic world's only nuclear power from escalating militant Islamism - and saving the entire region from catastrophe. In addition, she would have brought the needed civilian, populist stamp of approval to Musharraf's ever-more beleaguered government.
The US has "put a lot of its bets" on Bhutto while failing to cultivate other civil society contacts in Pakistan, said Daniel Markey, a Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a phone conference Thursday.
"Now the US must reassess that strategy and pick up the pieces," he said.
The issue of the Jan 8 elections is first and foremost on Washington's mind. US officials initially said delay would represent a terrorist victory, but by Friday had changed the tune in harmony with delays being floated by the Pakistani government.
US analysts warned however that a threatened boycott by Nawaz Sharif - the country's other main opposition leader and, like Bhutto, a former prime minister - could feed street protests and alienate Washington from working with him as a moderate alternative.
Without Bhutto, who led her party through a family dynasty, or a strong personality as successor at her party's helm, the Bush government reinforced its support for the Musharraf government, saying the failure to protect her from the attack had not eroded US confidence. They noted that even Musharraf had not been able to ward off several attempts on his own life.
"We stand with the people of Pakistan in their struggle against the forces of terror and extremism," Bush said Thursday.
But US diplomats also made clear that they will continue working to bring moderate Pakistani groups together to govern the country. The New York Times reported that US diplomats in Pakistan in the hours after Bhuttos' death had reached out to Sharif despite the arms-length they had kept from his radical Islam beliefs.
"No political system can last long without having legitimacy in the eyes of its people," said State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey.
One of the most incendiary issues is the question of who carried out the attack. After the first attempt on Bhutto's life in October, she blamed Musharraf for allowing the attack and charged he had terrorist infiltrators in his government.
Most Pakistanis "believed that Musharraf or people around Musharraf have great enough animosity for Bhutto ... that someone within government may have perpetrated this," Markey said.
Analysts and US officials however say Musharraf had nothing to gain and all to lose through her death. As conflicting versions of how Bhutto died and claims of Al Qaeda responsibility emerged, the US state department Friday urged a full inquiry.
The US expects the probe to "involve" people from Bhutto's political organisation, Casey said Thursday.
In the broader picture, worries were rising about what Bhutto's assassination could mean for regional stability.
"The biggest threat to India and Afghanistan is a weak Pakistan, not a strong one," Markey said. "A Pakistan that cannot control the flow of militants into Kashmir and Afghanistan is one that is going to hurt Kabul and New Delhi."
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