DNA India : A violent union

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A violent union

K Subrahmanyam | October 22, 2007

The attempt to assassinate Benazir Bhutto was anticipated by the Pakistani government and the information was passed on to her. She was even advised to postpone her trip but she insisted on keeping to her schedule.

She disclosed in her press conference after the assassination attempt that the Musharraf administration obtained intelligence from a friendly Muslim country that four suicide bombers from Al-Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, Pakistan Taliban and Karachi itself were to target her.

On arrival at the airport she said that she had written a letter to General Musharraf that if anything untoward happened to her the responsibility for that would rest on some specific individuals whom she named in her letter to the General.

Subsequently she explained that she did not accuse the Musharraf government for the assassination attempt but individuals who had linkages with extremists and had penetrated into crucial positions in the governmental security setup.

She has demanded sacking of the new Director General, Interservices Intelligence(ISI), Lt General Nadeem Taj while her husband has demanded the removal of the Director General, Intelligence Bureau, Brigadier, Ejaz Shah. The latter had earlier been the contact man for ISI with Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden.

Her accusations of some official connivance at the assassination attempt gains credibility from the fact that streetlights went off while her cavalcade was moving towards Jinnah’s Mazar and secondly the assassins were able to penetrate the outer two rings of officially provided security guards and were stopped only at the innermost security ring manned by trained Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) volunteers.

This halting of the suicide bomber at some 15 yards distance reduced the impact of the explosion on her blast-proof vehicle. Also it was good luck, since at the time of blast she had gone down into the vehicle and was not standing on top of it, which she was doing most of the time.

Benazir has asserted that she would not be cowed down but would keep campaigning for democracy. The assassination attempt would have increased her popularity. It would help Musharraf who has been finalizing a power-sharing deal with her.

The assassination attempt will also have its impact on the Supreme Court judgment on the validity of Musharraf’s election as the President.

Both Musharraf and Bhutto are seen as pro-US and interested in making Pakistan a moderate Islamic state. For the extremists and their sympathisers they have became the prime enemies.

In turn, it brings the Musharraf and Benazir together with common interest of having to contain and frustrate the jehadis. At the same time they have differences on power-sharing.

While Musharraf wants to keep the powers of President as they exist today with authority to dismiss the Prime Minister and dissolve the National Assembly, Bhutto wants the powers provided for the Prime Minister in 1973 constitution as formulated by her father.

The assassination attempt will compel both sides to reach an agreement. Bhutto will now understand that if she is to campaign at all and if her enemies in the administration are to be thwarted she needs Musharraf’s goodwill.

Musharraf understands that Bhutto, if enabled to campaign effectively will be able sweep the polls and he would benefit in terms of legitimacy. While he and Nawaz Sharif have personal animosity there are no personal bad feelings between him and Bhutto.

By entering into power sharing negotiations with her under US mediation both Musharraf and Bhutto have indicated that they can work together. In the light of the attempt, Musharraf’s bargaining position has been strengthened. Bhutto will have to rely on him both for intelligence and security if she is to sustain her campaign.

If Nawaz Sharif comes back he would be under a handicap against Benazir Bhutto’s increased popularity after the assassination attempt.

In the last elections of 2002 PPP did very much better than Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). At the same time he is not tainted in the public view with any connection with the US.

In the forthcoming elections while Benazir and Musharraf will be identified with US and aim to establish a moderate Islamic state, Nawaz Sharif is identified with his determination to end military dominance.

In a sense in the coming elections the US connection will be one of the major factors in determining the outcome.

In the light of this situation, the Pakistan elections if conducted in a free and fair manner will be a litmus test to check the depth of anti-American sentiment in an Islamic country which is the epicenter of Islamic extremism.

The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.