I’ve pulled out some highlights from a conference call press briefing today by Council on Foreign Relations South Asia expert Daniel Markey. Markey served on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff from 2003 to 2007.
It’s a bad day for Pakistan, a bad day for the U.S., and I think we’ll be paying the price for it for a while.
Who Did It: With regard to who did this: all indications from any kind of intelligence and semi intelligence would be it’s al Qaeda – it’s one of the militant groups operating or based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Baitullah Mehsud, one of the militant leaders in conflict with the state of Pakistan has expressed the desire to hit various political candidates including Bhutto, he is a potential candidate. You can’t rule anybody out.
Most Pakistanis who have been watching Pakistani politics unfold believe [President Pervez] Musharraf has great enough animosity that someone affiliated or within the Pakistani government might have perpetrated that. That doesn’t strike me as a realistic assessment of what really happened. [But whatever the reality], the widespread belief has its own political ramifications. Domestically within Pakistan, it is likely to throw off the election process. …
Domestic Political Dynamics: In terms of winners and losers, within [Bhutto’s] Pakistan People’s Party, who is likely to emerge with the mantle of party leadership at this stage?
One of the problems of having a dynastic leadership in Benazir [Bhutto] and before that her father, is there is no obvious candidates for who takes over. She has not anointed a successor and has not made clear who takes over despite the fact that she has obviously been in danger for some time [Bhutto survived an earlier attack in October in which some 140 of her supporters were killed]. At best, we’ll see jockeying within the party and at worst we could see the destruction of the party.
The life’s blood [of the party] is money; you need that to run candidates around the country, to maintain the organization, and Bhutto’s husband who may have now reached Karachi from Dubai, has been the money man. That puts him in an important position to decide who her successor might be.
If the PPP goes down, other parties go up: the PLMN of Nawaz Sharif continues to be an important power player. How this influences Musharraf and the perception of his party, many people hold him accountable or at least negligent for allowing this to happen. [So this hurts him].
Blow to U.S. Policy : With regard to the US and India and other players, it is a significant blow. A blow in the immediate term, in that it raises the stakes in terms of street protests and violence.
One way Pakistan could melt down, in a worst case scenario, is if the street violence gets out of hand and the army is unable to control it. But I don’t think that is likely to happen. This sort of tragic event however makes that really bad outcome more likely to materialize.
More broadly, this is a major loss for Washington: elections scheduled for early January had the potential to take the country forward towards more manageable civilian partnership towards ruling the country. Benazir would have been a significant part of that, despite all her flaws. She was a significant civilian leader who could have worked in part with Musharraf and the army to have manageable political process.
It is the path where the U.S. has essentially put a lot of its bets, and now [the Bush] administration is going to have to reassess that strategy and pick up the pieces.
Possible Successors … Her husband is incredibly corrupt. He is not a legitimate leader but influential. Others within her family: her brothers have been killed, eliminated from the scene. The Bhutto family children are not able to claim positions of leadership.
Others second tier leaders: what is interesting and tragic about the way Bhutto ran her party, the most charismatic of those second tier leaders, she sidelined because she found them to threaten her.
One would be: [Aftab Khan] Sherpao, the former Interior minister, who was just last week attacked in his hometown mosque. Sherpao, the leader of the PPPS, used to be a member of Bhutto’s party, the PPP. Now that she’s gone he may find himself in position to bring back old relationships and assume a party leadership position.
Another alternative possible leader of the PPP: the widely acclaimed Aitzaz Ahsan, the lawyer for Supreme Court chief justice Chaudhry, who has been kicked out and reinstated and removed again from the Judiciary. I believe Atzaz is under house arrest in Lahore.
Impact on Musharraf: The new [Pakistani] Army Chief [Lt. Gen. Ashfaq] Kiyani is very much of a loyalist at this stage to Musharraf. He does not want to impose himself politically on the situation. They work in cooperation. If you did see a real break between Musharraf and Kiyani, it’s a conceivable fact that Musharraf no longer being the army chief really hurt him. But I think they are both on the same page at this point and don’t have too many reasons to break apart.
Street Violence and the Prospects for Further Destabilization in Pakistan:
[Musharraf has learned that militant] groups once seen as helpful to Pakistani security are now recognized as the greatest threat to him, national security and Pakistan in general.
So he has become prone to take more robust steps to attack the threat [from extremists and militants]. That is partially why violence has gone up in past year or so. The groups have seen themselves become the target and struck back.
The tragedy is that Pakistan may have waited too long [to strike militant groups]. And those groups may have become too strong to rein in. That may be what we are seeing now. […]
The big question is street violence and if the government can control it. We will begin to the see the response on the street as early as tomorrow.
Tomorrow morning Pakistani time, we’ll have a better sense of whether the PPP foot soldiers are being egged on by their leadership, who is pushing the PPP party agenda, and whether they are pushing loudly for a return to the streets or … if they are not saying anything. These are all things that need to be watched very seriously.
The cell phone lines between top PPP leaders will be burning up all through the night to determine who is likely to be the spokeperson and who is likely to get out in front. It is not obvious who will play that role. … There is likely to be a great deal of disagreement. It could lead to confusion within the party ranks and may compound the problem of street violence because nobody will be in charge, and nobody can turn it on or off to serve their goals.