Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and its aftermath seem all too familiar.

  • A prominent politician of a “third world” country is killed by “unknown foreign parties.”
  • The dead politician either was at odds with the ruling party or power center or had recently offended an ethnic or sectarian minority.
  • The assassination threatens to or actually paralyzes the country’s political life.
  • At least titular control of the political party of the deceased former leader passes to the next of kin, with results very uncertain for weeks or months.
  • International pressure forces the country’s head of state to accept international “technical” assistance in the investigation.
  • In the end, nothing is proven, nothing is resolved.

Even in death, life moves on in these situations, sometimes with added tragedy.

Indira Gandhi

In October 1984, when India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for ordering the Indian army’s assault on the Sikh’s Golden Temple in Amritsar, more than 1,000 rioters were dead within hours. Indira’s son Rajiv succeeded his mother.

(Rajiv was later killed by a bomb while campaigning in 1991 in Tamil Nadu by suspected agents of Sri Lanka’s rebel Tamil Tigers who resented Rajiv’s dispatch of troops when he was prime minister to intervene as “peace-makers” in the island’s civil war. Sonia, Rajiv’s widow, was instrumental in rebuilding Rajiv’s Congress Party and led them to victory in 2004. But as she was foreign-born, she was unable to become prime minister.)

Kabila, Hariri

In January 2001, just days after finally dislodging armed opposition from Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of Congo’s new leader, Laurent Kabila, was shot in the presidential palace. His son, Joseph, inherited a war-torn country that, seven years on and with a 17,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force in the country, is still verging on state failure.

In February 2005 in Lebanon, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, also preparing for an expected electoral win, dies in a massive car bomb explosion detonated as his motorcade passed. Syrian agents are the prime suspects, and the UN Security Council passes a resolution demanding an international investigation. Three months later, his son Saad, who had succeeded his father as party leader, was elected to Lebanon’s parliament.

Musharraf and Blame

And that brings us back to December 27, 2007 in Pakistan, the day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi – less than two weeks before the January 8 parliamentary elections.

The government of President Pervez Musharraf is blaming Islamic extremists in general, and al-Qaeda in particular, or at least an al-Qaeda-inspired group for her assassination.

It could hardly do otherwise. The alternatives, which range from “mere” incompetence to active collusion with or even direction of extremists, aren’t just bad. They’re disastrous.

To Bhutto’s supporters, who had expected that the January 8 election would restore an anti-Musharraf majority civilian government after nine years of military rule, the key question was how the assassins could get close enough to kill her with a handgun. Widespread rioting broke out almost immediately, eliciting responses by heavily armed police and, in some instances, the Pakistani army.

And More Blame

Spokespersons for the Musharraf government, thrown on the defensive by accusations that government-provided security for Bhutto was not only lax but totally non-existent, gave conflicting accounts of the cause of death. Then they were entirely discredited by video footage of the attack obtained from a number of private citizens who had come to see and hear the former prime minister. Moreover, in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview aired January 6, Musharraf blamed Bhutto for ignoring threats to her life and taking unnecessary and provocative risks.

It was almost a case of “protesting too much” on his part. The rumor mills were already working overtime in alleging government collusion if not conspiracy based on the fact that Rawalpindi, where the assassination happened, is a garrison town. If the army could not provide physical security in Rawalpindi, was there any safe place in Pakistan? The early conspiracy theories were then reinforced when, an hour after the assassination, Pakistani authorities washed the murder scene with high-powered hoses, destroying any possibility of finding forensic evidence.

Yet, days later, Musharraf announced that Britain’s New Scotland Yard would provide technical assistance to Pakistani investigators as the latter tried to piece together what happened and why the 100 security personnel present at the campaign stop (as asserted by Musharraf in a meeting with Western correspondents) did not thwart the assassination.


Repercussions of the assassination will reverberate in Pakistani society long past the new date – February 18 – for the parliamentary election that was to have been held January 8. The media have concentrated on White House and Pentagon meetings about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Reportedly, some U.S. officials are said to believe that Pakistan’s army and Musharraf himself might be more receptive to operations by U.S. Special Forces or CIA agents in Pakistan should “actionable intelligence” on Osama bin Laden surface. Given that U.S. pressure on Musharraf contributed to setting in motion the series of events that brought Bhutto back to Pakistan for the January 8 elections, it’s not surprising that ordinary Pakistanis, the Pakistan military, and Musharraf’s inner circle have flatly rejected further U.S. meddling.

Two other less obvious repercussions that would directly affect regional as well as global policies of the Bush administration have largely gone unremarked. In the short term until February 18, should unrest in Pakistan continue or intensify because of new assassination attempts, successful or not, Musharraf may opt to pull army troops away from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. That would permit Taliban and al-Qaeda adherents greater freedom to cross into Afghanistan and attack NATO and indigenous security forces.

Pakistani Peacekeepers

Another possible effect could be felt at the United Nations. The question is whether Islamabad will continue to be willing and able to supply large numbers of troops for the 20 current operations run by the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations. With 10,623 troops, observers, and police detailed to UN peacekeeping, Pakistan is the largest source (just under 13% of the total deployed “blue helmets”) of manpower for these efforts. It may come down to whom would Pakistan want to offend least – the United States in Afghanistan or the UN around the globe – should Islamabad decide to move more forces into internal security.

As of now, however, nothing suggests either a unilateral or a coordinated retrenchment from UN peace operations. As recently as March 7, 2007, Musharraf continued to be positive about continuing Pakistan’s 47-year involvement in UN missions. Speaking at the Pakistan-hosted international conference on effective UN peacekeeping, held at Pakistan’s National Defense University, Musharraf quoted Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, that “Pakistan will never be found lacking in extending material and moral support to the United Nations in upholding the principles of the UN Charter.” He followed that observation by noting that UN force commanders, past (18 missions) and present (six missions), always praised the professionalism of Pakistani soldiers.

Nine Months Later

But these were thoughts enunciated nine months before Musharraf took off his general’s uniform, nine months before Bhutto’s assassination, nine months before Musharraf’s world turned upside down.

Now he may find himself confronting a unified opposition, with Bhutto’s political movement joining forces with the Pakistan Muslim League headed by Pakistan’s other returned former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was thrown out of office and out of Pakistan by Musharraf’s coup.

February 18 may indeed be interesting.

, Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. His blog is The Quakers' Colonel .