October 18, 2007

Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan – a crisis or the solution?

Benazir BhuttoRadical Islamists attacked the motorcade of returning former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, killing more than a hundred people lined up to see what many believe is the great hope for political reconciliation in the country. The Islamists have made no secret that they are against any role for Bhutto in the government, citing her pro-American stance and support for the war on terror. The fact that she is a woman seeking political power in a Muslim country, actually an Islamic Republic (Jamhuryat Islami Pakistan), exacerbates the issue.

One of the biggest issues we need to consider as we prosecute the war on terror is the future stability of Pakistan. Pakistan is a country with a nuclear weapons arsenal (thanks to the AQ Khan network) and capable delivery systems – having a radical fundamentalist Islamist government take charge is about as bad a scenario that can be imagined. If you are concerned about Iran with nuclear weapons or the security of existing Russian weapons, this should be even more alarming.

The return of Mohtarma (Lady) Benazir Bhutto may usher in a new era of democratic rule in the country. Her father was the first elected prime minister in the new parliamentary government following the dissolution of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). She is the chairwoman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (founded by her father), enjoys great popularity and could serve as a counterbalance to the hugely unpopular regime of military strongman Pervez Musharraf. That’s the hope of many Pakistanis.

It’s not the hope of others in Pakistan. Islamist groups, including al-Qa’idah sympathizers and the transplanted Taliban (there are no shortage of other groups as well), have already vowed to attack Bhutto. We saw the evidence of that today.

Opposition to Bhutto, however, goes beyond the Islamists. There are many in the military and intelligence service – the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISID) – that are opposed to any leader, be it Bhutto or Musharraf, who cooperates with the West. When Musharraf changed the direction of the country after the September 11 attacks, many senior officers in the ISID and military began to distance themselves from the president. In fact, the sophistication of some of the assassination attempts against Musharraf hint at either military or intelligence training. If I was investigating today’s attacks, I would want to know how the perpetrators knew the exact motorcade route.

Back to the nuclear weapons issue. The big fear is that an Islamist government takes over. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that under a Bhutto-Musharraf power-sharing arrangement, Pakistan will retain its nuclear arsenal. Some background on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program - the program was started by Benazir’s father in 1972. By 1988, they had perfected a weapon design and began work on delivery systems. It was during Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s tenure that Pakistan developed two delivery systems – ballistic missiles and modifications to the American-made F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter-bomber.

Pakistan is and will be a nuclear power. Let’s hope it is a responsible democracy with nuclear weapons and continues to be a partner in the war on terrorism. The other option is too frightening to contemplate.