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Riedel: Bhutto’s Assassination ‘Almost Certainly’ Work of Al-Qaeda

Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 27, 2007

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Bruce Riedel, a former defense and intelligence official who helped make South Asia policy in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, says he believes Benazir Bhutto’s assassination “was almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s Pakistani allies.” He says, “Their objective is to destabilize the Pakistani state, to break up the secular political parties, to break up the army so that Pakistan becomes a politically failing state in which the Islamists in time can come to power much as they have in other failing states.” He says the United States should press the government of President Pervez Musharraf to go ahead with the parliamentary elections—perhaps after a brief pause. “The only way that Pakistan is going to be able to fight terrorism effectively is to have a legitimate democratically elected secular government that can rally the Pakistani people to engage al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist movements,” he says.

Let’s start with an obvious question. In the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who do you think was responsible?

It was almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s Pakistani allies. Al-Qaeda has been trying to kill Ms. Bhutto for decades. She has been the target of assassination attempts by al-Qaeda before. They were most likely responsible for the attack on her when she first returned to Pakistan. Their objective is to destabilize the Pakistani state, to break up the secular political parties, to break up the army so that Pakistan becomes a politically failing state in which the Islamists in time can come to power, much as they have in other failing states where al-Qaeda knows its chances for success are higher.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

There is supposed to be a parliamentary election on January 8, two weeks away. What will happen? Will they be postponed?

There is a good chance that President Pervez Musharraf will postpone the election, at least temporarily, in part to give Ms. Bhutto’s party, the PPP [Pakistan People's Party], a chance to select a new front-runner and to organize itself. If he tries to postpone the election indefinitely, or to in effect shelve them, there will be a very strong backlash in Pakistan because Pakistanis across the political spectrum want an opportunity for elections to produce a new, more legitimate government. I don’t think they would find the argument that terrorists killed a leading figure in the democratic movement an appropriate excuse to shelve democracy. We will see soon how Musharraf acts. I hope he will adhere to the principle of elections with a date certain, even if they are postponed temporarily to give the Pakistan People’s Party a chance to reorganize.

Do they have an obvious replacement for her?

This party was very much Ms. Bhutto’s party. There is no heir apparent on the horizon. They have a significant problem. This might be a boon to the other secular parties, including the one run by Nawaz Sharif. Sharif is clearly not seeking to be elected through this kind of tragedy. He has been an advocate of elections with all political parties running.

Does President Musharraf have a political party?

President Musharraf has a party. It is a splinter of the Sharif party, the Pakistani Muslim League [PML-N]. By most accounts and most polls, [Musharraf’s] party will come in very poorly in this election. There is a widespread feeling among Pakistanis that the Musharraf dictatorship has gone on too long. A recent poll (PDF) by the International Republican Institute shows somewhere around two-thirds of Pakistanis would like to see Musharraf step down and give up power now. It [also] suggests that in a fair election, the opposition parties are likely to do very well. But because they are divided, it was unlikely and it remains unlikely that any single opposition party will have a majority in the new national assembly—there would have to be coalition building.

[Al Qaeda’s] objective is to destabilize the Pakistani state, to break up the secular political parties, to break up the army so that Pakistan becomes a politically failing state in which the Islamists in time can come to power much as they have in other failing states.

Would the PPP have won outright?

I don’t think it would have won a clear majority, but no one knows. Of course another factor is that no election in Pakistani history has ever been entirely free and fair. Every Pakistani election has been tainted by widespread allegations of fraud. It had been expected, even by Ms. Bhutto, that the elections would be tainted by fraud. The question was always going to be whether the level of political machination and rigging of the election would be beyond the pale—that is, so gross and massive that no one would take the election results seriously—or be within the norm of Pakistani politics.

When did you first meet Ms. Bhutto?

My first encounter with Ms. Bhutto was in 1991 when I was working at the White House for President George H.W. Bush as the director for South Asian affairs at the National Security Council. I have seen her again periodically over the years, including when she called on Mrs. Clinton in the second administration when she was in exile. I don’t claim to have a personal relationship with her.

Why did she take such risks when she already had been targeted on her first day back in Pakistan?

Ms. Bhutto was the kind of person who believed that it was imperative for her to be in touch with her followers: that she couldn’t be a leader of a democratic, secular party and hide from view all the time. It was part of her being the symbol of democracy and of women’s rights in a Muslim country that she would be out on the campaign trail. She knew the risks. She knew her own family’s tragic history; her father [former Pakistani president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto] being executed by a previous military dictatorship in 1979; her brother [Murtaza Bhutto] dying in politically motivated violence in 1996.

The only way that Pakistan is going to be able to fight terrorism effectively is to have a legitimate, democratically-elected, secular government that can rally the Pakistani people to engage al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist movements.

She knew the risks, but she felt that being a political figure and standing for democracy meant that you had to be out there among the people and you couldn’t be hiding. There now will be calls in Pakistan for a thorough investigation of the security around her appearance today and whether the government provided sufficient security. I won’t try to preview how this will come out, but there will be a lot of desire to have accountability for the security situation today.

You said earlier that al-Qaeda was responsible, but could it also be military intelligence?

I am sure that conspiracy theories about that will abound in Pakistan. She was widely disliked in the intelligence apparatus, but it was more likely the work of al-Qaeda and its cohorts. Now it is certainly possible that they had penetrated and had sympathizers within the Pakistani security apparatus and had advance knowledge of her movements. It is clear from the al-Qaeda attacks in the past, including on President Musharraf, that al-Qaeda has sympathizers at the highest levels of security, and intelligence which provided information on his movements in the past which facilitated the efforts to kill him.

If you were still working at the White House what advice would you give the president on how the United States should respond?

First, to mourn the loss of the heroic figure. But the more critical point would be to press the Pakistani government to continue to go forward with the elections. The Musharraf government has promised to deliver stability and democracy and today’s events are a tragic indication that it has failed to do both. Instead of stability we have acts of terror in the military capital of the country, Rawalpindi. And instead of democracy, we have one of the leading democratic advocates in the Muslim world killed. The only way that Pakistan is going to be able to fight terrorism effectively is to have a legitimate, democratically-elected, secular government that can rally the Pakistani people to engage al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist movements. The army has failed to do that. The army dictatorship has failed to do so. We should now press for the democratic movement to move forward.

Do you think Sharif will become prime minister?

I don’t know. His party has not been tainted by rumors of backroom deals like Bhutto’s was. He is doing pretty well among Pakistanis who want a government that will be free of Musharraf and to move against him. But I won’t try to predict the outcome of the elections now that we have the new tragedy.

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