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Bombing rocks U.S. plans for Pakistan

By David Whitehouse | October 26, 2007 | Page 1

PAKISTAN'S FUTURE grew more uncertain yet when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's return to the country was met with a suicide bomb attack on October 18. The bombing, which killed at least 134 people, was the worst in Pakistan's history and left Bhutto's supporters stunned.

Pakistan's military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, promised to find the culprits, who are widely believed to be connected to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. After her narrow escape, Bhutto also accused government officials--but not Musharraf himself--of collaborating with the attackers.

Bhutto and Musharraf have built an uneasy alliance in recent months in talks brokered by British and U.S. officials. They hope to prop up Musharraf's increasingly unpopular regime by putting a civilian face on it--in order to prepare a renewed Pakistani offensive against Islamist radicals in the regions that border Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, Bhutto's party helped Musharraf win a new election for president in an electoral college consisting of the parliament, senate and regional parliaments. She hopes to become prime minister again following general elections in January, but needs the support of Musharraf's party to amend the constitution to permit her to serve a third term in office.

In the hours before the attack, Bhutto's welcoming procession drew out more than 100,000 supporters in her home province of Sindh. She had hoped to create a spectacle that would rival the welcome she received in 1986 from 750,000 people in Punjab province.

Back then, she aimed to galvanize opposition to Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator of the day who deposed and hanged her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As prime minister in the 1970s, Z.A. Bhutto garnered a populist following, and Benazir's career benefited from widespread nostalgia for that time of high hopes.

Her latest return, though, became possible through her deal with the current military dictator. On the day before her party helped Musharraf get re-elected, he passed an amnesty for politicians accused of corruption. Bhutto's eight years of "self-imposed exile" were really a flight from prosecution for charges that she and her husband stole millions while she was in office.

This year, Pakistani opposition media reported the assets of her immediate family at $1.5 billion, including money in Swiss bank accounts that are frozen because of the corruption charges.

The amnesty for corruption covers the period 1986 to 1999, pointedly excluding another prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf himself overthrew.

Sharif--who was expelled when he tried to return in September--is Pakistan's only politician whose popularity has risen in the past year. He plans to make another attempt to return in mid-November for the election campaign.

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BHUTTO AND Musharraf's approval ratings have plunged, partly because of their collaboration with the U.S., and with each other. In fact, according to a survey by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, the only major Pakistani institutions whose popularity has grown in the past year are two that have shown increasing independence from the regime--the courts and the media.

The year's first major blow to Musharraf's popularity came when he tried in March to fire Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice of the Supreme Court. An unexpected movement led by lawyers and court officers--which took the streets by the thousands and battled with police--gave the remaining justices the courage to reinstate Chaudhry.

The demonstrations became a focus for dissatisfaction with eight years of military rule, especially among the urban middle class.

Then in July, the government's bloody siege of the Red Mosque in the capital of Islamabad alienated Islamists, whose support for the regime had been crucial in counterbalancing opposition from secular parties.

In the same month, Musharraf responded to U.S. pressure to step up the fight against Islamist militants in the "tribal areas" that border Afghanistan. A new round of fighting led to hundreds of deaths and the capture of 250 soldiers who are still held by Pakistani members of the Taliban.

The rise in domestic opposition led Musharraf to agree to negotiations with Bhutto, a longtime political adversary. If this strange alliance is cemented in the next few months, it could further polarize the fight with the Islamists and alienate Pashto-speaking Pakistanis in the border areas.

The Islamists, though clearly a potent force, command no more than 15 percent support nationwide and cannot take power outside their strongest regional base. Musharraf and Bhutto may hope to divide the Islamist groups--who are now collected in a six-party coalition--making peace with some in order to defeat the others.

But for the moment, the fighting is fiercer than ever. This month, a 10-day battle in the border area of North Waziristan left at least 250 dead. As many as 80,000 villagers were displaced when the army used helicopters and U.S.-supplied F-16s to bomb targets suspected of belonging to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Even if Musharraf and Bhutto do eventually rule in tandem, the Islamists--and U.S. pressure to attack them--aren't the only problem. The middle-class forces that mobilized for democracy this year won't rush to support a military dictator and a corrupt billionaire who leans on him.

And if Bhutto continues to campaign using her father's rhetoric about representing the poor, she will raise hopes among workers that she has neither the power nor the intention to fulfill. Like Musharraf and Sharif, she is committed to a free-market program that has enriched the capitalists, while poverty, unemployment and inflation have grown.

The physical safety of Pakistan's top politicians is still in question. But even if they survive, the uncertainty of Pakistan's future has roots that go much deeper.

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