Telegraph : Pakistan on the edge

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pakistan on the edge

October 20, 2007

Moments before the suicide bomber struck in Karachi, Benazir Bhutto left the exposed upper deck of her bus and retired to the safety of its armoured interior. This spontaneous decision may well have saved her life. It drives home the stark message that any vestige of stability in Pakistan hangs by a thread.

Miss Bhutto's faults as a political leader are formidable: she combines arrogance with indecision, hauteur with incompetence. Her two premierships, both devoid of real achievement, ended in acrimony. Yet, with great courage and resilience, this deeply flawed woman has regained a pivotal position. If a new government emerges, she will probably be at its heart.

The plan is for Gen Pervez Musharraf to step down as army chief and rule as Pakistan's civilian president in coalition with Miss Bhutto as prime minister.

In simple terms, Pakistani politics is a permanent tussle between generals, mullahs and secular, civilian politicians.

Gen Musharraf is an isolated figure, having alienated both civilian "democrats" and Islamist radicals. By joining forces with Miss Bhutto, he could broaden his support, unite the army with the "democrats" and leave the extremists in the cold.

Armed with genuine popular support, a Musharraf-Bhutto government could then purge Pakistan of al-Qa'eda's core leadership. All very clever, if it works. But the flaws in this plan are legion.

The Karachi attack is a vivid reminder that Miss Bhutto and Gen Musharraf both live under the shadow of possible assassination. Moreover, they despise and distrust one another. Any Musharraf-Bhutto administration is likely to be chaotic.

One presently obscure figure may then assume great importance.

Early this month, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani became deputy chief of the army. If Gen Musharraf keeps his promise to resign as army commander, Gen Kiyani will almost certainly take over.

Faced with a chaotic new government, the quiet, highly regarded Gen Kiyani would come under pressure to follow the example of so many of his predecessors - and launch a coup. If so, the plan to bring stability to Pakistan would be shattered.

Any Musharraf-Bhutto coalition must be given a chance.