The tragic assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto casts a dark shadow across Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with a long history of militarism and militancy and may auger a deeper and irreversible slide into Islamist violence.
Despite the posthumous accolades, Mrs. Bhutto was a controversial figure. She chose to live outside of Pakistan to avoid her numerous criminal charges of corruption and had a poor track record of delivering on her populist promises during her two prematurely aborted tenures as prime minister.
Despite her many faults, Mrs. Bhutto's party is the only one with national appeal. And even in death her crowd power remains unparalleled.
Her killing has delivered Pervez Musharraf's government yet another perilous blow. While Mrs. Bhutto was unlikely to prevail in the January 2008 elections, her participation would have provided much-needed credibility to the vote and would have conferred a degree of legitimacy to Mr. Musharraf's reconstituted presidency and his numerous constitutional amendments.
As she was assassinated in Rawalpindi — home of the state's varied security and intelligence agencies — many in Pakistan hold Mr. Musharraf accountable. It will be extremely difficult for him to shake the pall of illegitimacy that taints his government. Vocal demands mount for his immediate departure.
The international community continues to wring its hands about Pakistan's command and control, especially over its nuclear assets. While its nuclear weapons are likely secure, the inability of the nation's security forces to keep Mrs. Bhutto safe in Rawalpindi raises myriad questions about basic security in the country.
One week ago, an unsuccessful suicide attack targeted Pakistan's interior minister, the second such assault on him. The successful attack on Mrs. Bhutto will likely embolden militants across Pakistan who have acted with increasing and horrifying impunity in recent years.
There is little doubt these developments will compel the various missions in Pakistan to take a more severe security posture, which in turn will limit their access to the country at a time when all missions must reach out to myriad institutions in Pakistan.
It is also likely Mrs. Bhutto's killing will encourage Washington and London to redouble their commitment to Mr. Musharraf and the army as the sole source of security, silencing the growing critics who have come to see him as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
To preclude the appearance of subordinating democracy to security objectives and to bolster a weakened Mr. Musharraf, the Bush administration prefers that the scheduled elections go forward despite the vocal Pakistani opposition to this plan. Pakistanis do not believe free and fair elections are possible in January — especially when Mrs. Bhutto's party remains in disarray without a clear successor. These two policies ultimately may increase long-term instability and sacrifice a return to a more legitimate democracy in the policy-relevant future.
Mrs. Bhutto's greatest asset was her recent rhetoric condemning militancy in Pakistan and her vows to fight it — though it is doubtful she would have been able to make good on those promises if elected. With her demise, it is doubtful that Pakistanis will embrace the war on terror as their own or continue to believe Pakistan is fighting a war on behalf of Washington.
Indeed, it seems many Pakistanis believe their country's slip into violence has been caused by Mr. Musharraf's alliance with Washington. Under these circumstances, it will be difficult for Mr. Musharraf to convince his polity that Pakistan is fighting for its future — not his.
This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on December 31, 2008.