The assassination of Benazir Bhutto will unfortunately speed up the destabilization of Pakistan for the following reasons:
• Bhutto’s supporters will blame President Musharraf for her death, making a rapprochement with Musharraf very difficult. Bhutto had repeatedly requested adequate security measures from the government of Pakistan but was constantly denied that protection.
• Sharif on the other hand, who is an Islamist and is backed by Saudi Wahhabi Salifists, prefers to boycott the upcoming elections and seek confrontation with Musharraf rather than face probable defeat at the ballot box.
• The militant Taliban and their extremist supporters have expanded their base of operations over the past few months and spread their influence closer to the capital city of Islamabad and consider the elimination of Bhutto a great boost for them.
Bhutto had the potential of winning the upcoming elections and steering the country away from extremism and towards democracy. Her elimination has created a theatre in which the three key players are a discredited Musharraf, an Islamist Sharif, and a Taliban/Al Qaeda coalition. This spells trouble to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and the war on terror.
No matter whether elections are held or whether Musharraf re-imposes emergency rule, the prospects for long term stability in Pakistan are very dim. The United States has to immediately do the following:
• Develop a contingency plan regarding the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
• Develop a regional contingency plan to contain and reverse the setback in Pakistan. Pakistan is bordered by Afghanistan and Iran in the west, India in the east and China in the far northeast. Given Pakistan’s geographical reality, and given ongoing U.S. operations in Afghanistan against terrorism, the one country bordering Pakistan that could provide the greatest assistance to the United States is ironically Iran (Shiite led and a prime enemy of the Taliban).