With legislative elections in Pakistan rescheduled for next month, the country's political future remains an open question for many analysts in the wake of last week's assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Most experts agree that Bhutto's assassination has weakened President Pervez Musharraf and deprived him of perhaps his best hope to transition Pakistan to democratic rule.
Xenia Dormandy, Director of Harvard University's Belfer Center, says that despite his efforts to maintain law and order, President Musharraf has little room to maneuver. "He doesn't have many choices today. He has just lost the one leading politician who was willing to work with him. She had legitimacy. She had support. But she appears to have been the only leader in Pakistan who did believe that," says Dormandy. "And Musharraf has just lost, potentially, his partner.This is quite tragic for him. Whether he can find a way to manage what is left is thus far unknown."
South Asia expert Amit Pandya of the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center warns that Mr. Musharraf could lose control of the country. "Because he is someone who enjoys little legitimacy and little popular support, it is going to be very difficult for him to respond in any particularly strong way that would contribute to the stability of the country. And I think that it is for that reason that it's important that we recognize that our medium-term interest and possibly even our short-term interest lie in recognizing that the people of Pakistan are ready to engage in a political process of their own, and that the sooner that we support that, the better," says Pandya.
Although legislative elections have been postponed until next month, the Bush administration says it is important that they do take place and that they be free and fair.
But many analysts, including Amit Pandya, point out that Pakistan's transition to democracy will likely be influenced by international pressure on Pervez Musharraf, particularly by the United States. "One has to be very careful about how we push him to move forward with this so-called 'democratization,'" says Pandya. "If on the other hand his powerful patrons and allies in the international community tell him that our principle concern is stability and the law and order situation in the country, then I suspect that he will feel some real pressure to crack down in some fashion, to declare emergency rule or possibly even martial law."
A New Front in The Terror War?
According to terrorism analyst James Carafano of The Heritage Foundation here in Washington, Benazir Bhutto's assassination, although tragic, could open a new front in the war on terror. "One of the outcomes is that people could just get fed up with this. And when they get a democratically elected government, they may actually go after these guys. The real turning point in Iraq [,for example,] was when a bunch of the tribal chiefs became frustrated with the level of violence and the direction that they saw al-Qaida was taking the country and turned their backs on them and essentially started slaughtering al-Qaida agents. This could well be what happens in Pakistan," says Carafano.
But many experts argue that the turmoil that has engulfed the country in the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination is a setback for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. While most analysts say it is important for Pakistan to hold elections and restore the democratic process, others point to the country's fractured political scene.
United States-Pakistan Ties
Patrick Basham, a South Asia expert with the Cato Institute here in Washington, says the priority now is to stabilize Pakistan. "It's not time for panic, but it's certainly time for high anxiety. Pakistan is arguably the most dangerous country in the world. You have the epicenter of anti-U.S. terrorism combined with nuclear bombs. So instability in Pakistan has obvious consequences not only for that country in the region, but also for U.S. allies like the United Kingdom and the United States itself."
Basham cautions that America's widespread unpopularity in Pakistan limits its ability to influence events in that country. He adds that it has become a liability for Pakistani politicians to be seen as closely associated with the United States.
But some experts, including the RAND Corporation's Seth Jones, say the security situation in Pakistan is pushing Pervez Musharraf toward the United States. "The focus of this militant version of extremist Islam that is based in the tribal areas is a direct threat to the Pakistani state. So [controlling] this is in Pakistan's own interest now," says Jones. "I think what you are actually seeing is a convergence of America's and the Pakistan government's interest in dealing with this. As long as the U.S. stays in this sort of 'deep background,' I think a solution over the long run, anyway, is possible."
Hy Rothstein, a security analyst at the United States Naval Postgraduate School, says, "We don't need to create more domestic difficulties for Musharraf with his various constituencies by openly pushing Musharraf. Those are things, I think, are better done in dark rooms where diplomats negotiate and push and work out arrangements."
Since 2001, the United States has given about $10 billion in military aid to Pakistan. It recently allocated some $ 750 million for development and reconstruction projects in the tribal belt region bordering Afghanistan, where support for extremism is strong. The idea is to recruit allies in the troubled area.
But many analysts warn that extremism is growing in Pakistan. Whether the tide will turn, they say, could depend on whether elections now slated for February 18 take place.