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U.S.-Pakistan Policy After Bhutto

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: January 2, 2007

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The assassination of Pakistan’s former prime minister and iconic opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, and the ensuing violence (NYT) there threatens the stability and the political future of the country. The United States had hoped for a deal between Bhutto and Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, expecting that her return to power would lend legitimacy to Musharraf’s increasingly unpopular government. That plan died with Bhutto, and calls from President Bush for Pakistan to go ahead with a January 8 election also fell short, with the electoral commission announcing the vote will be delayed until February 18 (AP).

Options for Washington are limited. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey looks at choices open to Washington in this new Policy Options Paper. He warns if major political parties boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections, “the United States will need to consider options for working with the army and civilian political leaders to manage the removal of President Musharraf.” But the situation remains quite fluid. Bhutto’s killing already has led to a backlash against Musharraf and the army and may even threaten Musharraf’s hold on power (Newsweek). The Guardian writes it is not clear what options the United States has, given its limited leverage with Pakistani citizens and their political leaders.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, like most political parties in the country, was anchored by her personally rather than a particular ideology. As this Backgrounder explains, Pakistan’s democratic institutions lack roots, and it is unclear how deeply Bhutto’s sympathy for the United States runs in the second tier of PPP leadership or in other parties. The New York Times reports that U.S. embassy officials in Islamabad have reached out to members of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, and says this suggests Washington is hard-pressed for trustworthy partners in Pakistan. U.S. policymakers have been suspicious of Sharif due to his alleged ties to Islamists.

The assassination was the latest blow to Pakistan’s political consensus. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and key South Asia policymaker in the 1990s, told CFR.org he believes Bhutto’s assassination was intended to destabilize Pakistan. Indeed, Bhutto, speaking at CFR’s New York headquarters in August 2007, referenced repeated threats to her life from Islamic militants as well as the ties Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, continued to foster with Taliban elements. “Her death brutally exposes how little success Pervez Musharraf has had in cracking down on the jihadists,” writes CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot in Commentary’s blog. “They have only grown stronger on his watch.” 

The U.S. Congress, too, has questioned the effectiveness of nearly $10 billion in aid to Musharraf in the war against terrorism. Last week, it imposed new restrictions (AP) on U.S. assistance to Pakistan. A former Bhutto aide told TIME that Bhutto “was let down by those in Washington who think that sucking up to bad governments around the world is their best policy option.” According to Manjeet Kripalani, BusinessWeek’s Bombay bureau chief, U.S. influence in the country is likely to diminish. “Bush's continued focus on extremists in Pakistan, rather than on reform of the Pakistani military, is likely to create more muddled policy,” she writes.

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