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Bush's Pakistan Policy in Tatters
CAIRO — The assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto has dealt a severe blow to US President George W. Bush, who pinned high political hopes on the return of the slain charismatic opposition leader from exile to share power with close ally incumbent President Pervez Musharraf, American analysts said Friday, December 28.
"US policy is in tatters. The administration was relying on Benazir Bhutto's participation in elections to legitimate Musharraf's continued power as president," Barnett R. Rubin of New York University told The Washington Post.
The Bush administration had a huge stake in the pro-West Bhutto.
Bush focused heavily on promoting reconciliation between the secular opposition leader and Pakistan's increasingly unpopular leader Musharraf, ahead of parliamentary elections set for January to stabilize a precarious political climate.
The Bush administration believed that a power sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf — an indispensable ally in such a volatile nuclear-armed country — would offer the best chance for Pakistan's stability despite Musharraf's democratic shortcomings.
Bhutto's death on Thursday, December 27, shattered those hopes.
Bhutto, who served twice as Pakistan's prime minister between 1988 and 1996, was mortally wounded Thursday in a suicide attack that also killed at least 20 others at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi.
"A bad day for Pakistan; a bad day for the United States," said Daniel Markey, who was a senior State Department official until earlier this year.
"We're going to be paying a price for it for a while."
Bush was told of the assassination during his morning intelligence briefing at his ranch near Crawford, Texas.
"The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy," he said, reading a statement.
Musharraf, who recently stepped down as military chief to become a civilian president, ordered three days of mourning.
In a country in which the overwhelming majority of the population already looked unfavorably upon Washington, the assassination of Bhutto has left a political void and set the US administration preoccupied with alternative plans to "balance" Musharraf's rule, experts say.
"From the US perspective, the PPP (Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party) is the best ally the US has in terms of an institution in Pakistan," Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Post.
For Bhutto, the decision to return to Pakistan was sealed during a telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just a week before Bhutto flew home in October after eight years in exile.
The call culminated more than a year of secret diplomacy and came only when the Bush administration was sure that Bhutto was trustworthy alongside Musharraf.
"The US came to understand that Bhutto was not a threat to stability, but was instead the only possible way that we could guarantee stability and keep the presidency of Musharraf intact," Mark Siegel, who lobbied for Bhutto in Washington and witnessed much of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy, told the Post
Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation, says the assassination of Bhutto has taken the Bush administration unawares.
"The US likely does not have a plan for this contingency as Musharraf remains a critical ally and because Bhutto's participation was hoped to confer legitimacy to the upcoming January elections," she said.
Coleman, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the status quo have become now "very fluid."
"Her return has helped crack open this political situation. It's now very fluid, which makes it uncomfortable and dangerous."