Pakistan is not just another developing nation: It's the second-largest Muslim country in the world (after Indonesia), and a nuclear-armed U.S. ally at the center of a troubled region. It's surrounded not only by China and Iran, but also by predominantly Hindu India, with which it has fought several wars in the last 60 years; and most significantly, Afghanistan, where 26,000 U.S. troops are stationed. The largely uncontrolled border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is rife with Islamic radicals and terrorists, including, it is believed, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the 9/11 attacks.
Indeed, with Pakistan considered the front line in the war against terrorism, it's no wonder that Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called Pakistan "the single most dangerous nation in the world."
The forecast for what lies ahead is cloudy at best. Parliamentary elections, postponed after Bhutto's death, are scheduled for February 18. President Pervez Musharraf, the former head of the Army who took power in a military coup in 1999, promises that the elections will be fair, but he clearly wants to remain in power, and some doubt his intentions.
"The country can't stand another controversial election," says Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for one of the opposition parties. "Our fear is, after Benazir Bhutto's death, a controversial election will be a recipe for disaster."
And disaster in Pakistan would have implications far beyond its borders. Of particular concern is who controls the nation's nuclear arsenal.
"This is a nuclear-armed country," explains Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "It's a country that's potentially a very important sanctuary for terrorists bent on making trouble elsewhere. And it's a country that's been engaged in a long-standing nuclear arms race with its neighbor, India."
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has considered Pakistan a key ally in the war against terrorism. But Washington has been frustrated by President Musharraf's failure to make more progress against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Pakistan.
The Taliban, the radical Islamic group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until a U.S.-led coalition ousted them in 2001, move back and forth across the porous border to attack in Afghanistan. In recent months, they've begun attacking within Pakistan as well, killing policemen and soldiers, and threatening to blow up girls' schools if the students didn't wear the head-to-toe coverings called burqas.
The current period of instability began last November, when Musharraf suspended the country's chief justice, prompting protests by the nation's lawyers. Amid increasing opposition, Musharraf declared martial law. He lifted the state of emergency in mid-December, but Bhutto's assassination less than two weeks later triggered a new wave of violent protests. Bhutto, who had been twice elected Prime Minister and twice thrown out of office on corruption charges, had returned to Pakistan from exile under a deal brokered by the U.S., and was challenging Musharraf's party in the upcoming elections.
India & Pakistan
Many of Bhutto's supporters blame the government for her death, some accusing it of not providing adequate security and others of outright complicity. The government says Al Qaeda is behind the assassination. "The country is facing the gravest challenge from these terrorists and extremist elements," says Javed Iqbal Cheema, the director of Pakistan's National Crisis Management Cell. "They are systematically targeting our state institutions in order to destabilize the country."
These events have taken an enormous toll on the President's popularity. Until recently, Musharraf had broad support. His economic policiespromoting free-market reforms and encouraging foreign investmenthave produced strong economic growth, almost as fast as India's, as well as a growing middle class.
Pakistan was created in 1947 out of the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian independence leader, had pushed for a single united India, with both Muslims and Hindus. But Muslims, led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, insisted on their own state. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the violent aftermath of partition, when more than 10 million people migrated across the new bordersHindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan. (In 1971, what had been East Pakistan broke away and became the independent nation of Bangladesh.)
Since Bhutto's assassination, the main challengers to Musharraf are former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto's party, now led by her husband and 19-year-old son, Bilawal, a student at Oxford University in England. It's unclear whether the elections will nudge the country toward democracy or further destabilize it. "I'm not remotely optimistic," says C. Christine Fair at the Rand Corporation in Washington, who believes the Bush administration remains too focused on keeping Musharraf in power. "The U.S. always looks at the short term for Pakistan; they never look at the big picture."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 140, February 11, 2008)