Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Benazir Bhutto, back in Pakistan following eight years in exile with plans to tour the country seeking voter support, is holed up in Karachi after the near-miss attempt on her life. The government has declined to provide her minimal security against renewed assassination attempts on the former prime minister. That points up the shadowy new partnership between Bhutto and Gen. Pervez Musharraf, re-elected president of Pakistan by the electoral college on Oct. 6.

Arbab Rahim, chief minister of Sindh province (that includes Karachi), has refused Bhutto special police protection, tinted auto windows and bomb-jamming equipment. Bhutto for weeks was denied jammers against IEDs and additional armor on her vehicles. But a telephone call from the Pakistani president to Rahim, one of his lieutenants, surely could have given Bhutto the protection she desired.

So, who wants to kill Benazir Bhutto? Not Musharraf, who is astute enough to know his complicity in her death would be devastating for him. Yet he has not been forthcoming in investigating the Oct. 18 bombing in Karachi or preventing its recurrence. That provides a dilemma for President George W. Bush. While his administration depicts the enigmatic Musharraf as a faithful fighter against terrorism, it recognizes that Bhutto as prime minister would be unequivocally against Islamic extremism.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who do not want Bhutto to lead Pakistan's government a third time, are behind the suicide bombing but do not appear to have acted alone. In addition to the bombing that took at least 136 lives, it is unpublicized that snipers fired on her convoy. Not al Qaeda's style, that points to Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), or at least rogue elements within it. Musharraf, though still military commander, does not exercise complete control over ISI (which is considered a state within a state and gave birth to the Taliban in Afghanistan).

It is difficult to identify attempted assassins because Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said he would "categorically reject" help from world-class FBI forensic investigators. Sherpao once was a leader of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) but changed sides in return for being absolved of Musharraf's criminal charges. More than 10 days after the bombing, it is too late for forensic evidence.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the leader of Musharraf's Muslim League-Q party, last week said Bhutto and her husband arranged the Oct. 18 attack to stir up public sympathy. That Bhutto was unhurt, he claimed, lends credence to that theory (though she actually was protected because of an elevated vehicle permitting crowds to see her).

The government has banned mass meetings, purportedly in the interest of public safety. But prohibiting political rallies saves the Muslim League-Q from an embarrassing exhibition of its scant public support and perhaps would enable a rigging of parliamentary elections to prevent a major PPP victory. Bhutto will campaign anyway and plans a trip to Islamabad.

Bhutto's security experts see her safer in Islamabad than in Karachi, saying she can be protected there. Still, one adviser has warned her that the Karachi attack will be resumed in Islamabad. When I interviewed Bhutto in New York in August, I asked whether she thought she might be killed if she returned to Pakistan. She answered by saying she must return. She gives the impression that being in danger is her fate.

Musharraf must know Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos sealed his political doom in 1983 when his associates conspired to murder political rival Benigno Acquino upon his return from exile. Without complicity in the assassination attempt, however, Musharraf has permitted subordinates to take a hostile stance toward Bhutto the last two weeks. He actually needs Bhutto because of her popularity with the people, as she needs him to neutralize the army.

Last Thursday, one week after she was nearly killed, Bhutto assailed the madrasahs, the Islamic schools in Pakistan that are breeding grounds for terrorism. "These political madrasahs preach hatred and churn out brainwashed robots that become arsenals of weapons of violating the constitution of Pakistan," she said. Musharraf has never dared to say anything like that. But the U.S. government, as matchmaker between Bhutto and Musharraf, is cautious about publicly taking sides in Pakistan's crisis.


Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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