Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan and linchpin of a post-Musharraf U.S. strategy in the turbulent South Asian country, was assassinated today in Rawalpindi.
“She has been martyred,” said party official Rehman Malik.
Bhutto, 54, died in hospital in Rawalpindi. Ary-One Television said she had been shot in the head.
Police said a suicide bomber fired shots at Bhutto as she was leaving the rally venue in a park before blowing himself up.
“The man first fired at Bhutto’s vehicle. She ducked and then he blew himself up,” said police officer Mohammad Shahid.
Police said 16 people had been killed in the blast.
Earlier, party officials said Bhutto was safe.
The most likely culprit is the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. But it’s not exactly an event met with tears by the Pakistani military, which thoroughly controls the government and the economy. After the summer’s turbulence with Islamic radicals and Pervez Musharraf’s subsequent declaration of martial law — designed to crack down not on Islamist militants but the remnants of Pakistan’s democratic opposition — the U.S. prevailed upon Musharraf to ally with Bhutto in the interest of broadening Musharraf’s base of support. But the event that would consummate the alliance, next month’s election, represented a threat to continued military rule. “The military didn’t really want civilian politicians in power,” says New York University’s Barnett Rubin, a South Asia expert. “They wanted to use them to legitimate indirect [military] rule, and they were going to do it by rigging the election.”
U.S. strategy didn’t exactly find that so offensive. “The idea was to consolidate the alliance of the so-called moderate forces in the Pakistani military through this election that the military was going to rig but we were going to certify anyway,” Rubin observes. That is, as long as Bhutto was in the picture — since the U.S. had reduced the democratic opposition to the figure of Benazir Bhutto, although her corruption as PM was manifest. Without Bhutto, it is unclear what the U.S. will do.
Bhutto’s assassination presents an opportunity for Musharraf. “It’s very possible Musharraf will declare [another] state of emergency and postpone the elections,” Rubin continues. “That will confirm in many people’s minds the idea that the military is behind” the assassination. For it’s part, the U.S. will likely “be scrambling to say the election either needs to be held as planned or postponed rather than canceled, but Musharraf is in a position to preempt that.”
As a result, Rubin says, U.S. strategy is “in tatters.”
A spokeswoman for Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said the senior State Department official will have to get back to TPM.