(CNSNews.com) - Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday morning, calling into question the political stability of the country she was expected to lead again and its progress towards democracy.
"This is a bad day for Pakistan; it's a bad day for the United States, and I think we're going to be paying a price for it for a while," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, during a conference call briefing with reporters on Thursday.
Those responsible for the shooting and suicide bombing have not been determined. "Indications are that it could be al Qaeda," said Markey.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf blamed extremists, while Bhutto herself had argued that Musharraf's government had not been doing enough to protect her after a suicide bomber killed 136 people in an apparent attempt on her life on October 18, the day she returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile.
Bhutto had faced money laundering and corruption charges when she originally went into exile in Dubai in 1998. This year, the United States had helped broker a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf that allowed her to return to Pakistan and for the charges against her to be dropped. That allowed Bhutto to run for office again, and she was likely win the prime minister position.
The elections were originally scheduled for November, but Musharraf declared emergency rule and initiated martial law on November 3. Musharraf had lifted the state of emergency on December 15, and the elections had been re-scheduled for Jan. 8, 2008.
Herb London, president of the conservative Hudson Institute, told Cybercast News Service that the news is a "great concern to the U.S."
"It was stated before the elections coming up on the 8th that al Qaeda would do what is necessary to disrupt the elections," he said. "The organization has done so."
"In killing Bhutto, it has not only put democracy up for grabs, putting democracy in a precarious situation, but it has also created the impression that ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Agency) and the Musharraf administration were responsible for the murder," he added. "This will unquestionably lead to a loss of confidence by American officials and perhaps even a state of anarchy in Pakistan itself."
London said this will "lead to a reassessment of America's aid to Pakistan and its relationship with the government. Since Pakistan is a key player in the war against radical Islam, the U.S. would like to see stability maintained in this country. Right now, it is impossible to determine when and if stability can be achieved."
But Markey said: "I would imagine that a number of people who have really been pressuring the administration to be harsher toward Musharraf -- to be more demanding of him -- may step back after this tragedy and recognize the level of fragility and instability within Pakistan.
"If anything, this makes them inclined to tread more lightly on these issues rather than push harder and in particular, to recognize the extent to which democracy in Pakistan can't be based on a single individual," he added.
Bob Magginis, a Defense Department analyst, noted that when Bhutto was in power, her policies did not always further U.S. interests. He told Cybercast News Service that she supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan with funds and arms while in office, though she has renounced the group's activities in recent years.
"Bhutto's assassination is a great tragedy for her nation, the region and the cause of democracy," said Joe Cirincione, director of nuclear policy at the liberal Center for American Progress.
"She was not without serious flaws, but Benazir Bhutto was more representative of the aspirations of the people of Pakistan than either the Islamic fundamentalists who may have been behind the attack or the military dictatorship currently ruling the state," Cirincione stated.
"While President Musharraf may use the assassination to reimpose martial law, the attack will certainly increase instability in Pakistan," he told Cybercast News Service. "With an unstable military ruler, enough material for 50 to 100 nuclear bombs, strong Islamic fundamentalist influences in the country and armed, Islamic fundamentalist groups -- including al Qaeda -- operating with its territory, Pakistan is the most dangerous country on earth.
"The nuclear weapons and material are believed secure for now, but increased instability could split the military or distract the units guarding the weapon materials, providing an opening for a raid by an organized radical group," Cirincione added. "For all the focus on Iraq and Iran over the past six years, it is in Pakistan that Osama bin Laden may have his best chance of getting the nuclear weapon we know he wants."
In response to Bhutto's death, riots have broken out in Lahore, Pakistan, and may signal growing unrest with Pakistan's political structure.
"There could well be a backlash against Musharraf and the government, which has tolerated extremists for many years," P.J. Crowley, director of homeland security at the Center for American Progress, told Cybercast News Service.
"The problem for the U.S. is that we will have little choice but to rely on Musharraf in the short term even though he is a deeply unpopular leader," he added. "The key will be a credible investigation of what happened and a clear commitment to free and fair elections as soon as possible.
"Unfortunately, Pakistan does not have strong enough institutions of government to do either of them well," Crowley added.
Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added: "If the killing prompts a wave of revulsion that compels Pakistanis of all stripes, including Musharraf, to face up to the cancer in their midst and attack it resolutely, then Benazir Bhutto's death will have been redeeming."
He told Cybercast News Service that Bhutto's death "ushers in a period of great uncertainty that could undermine the prospects of a stable transition to a civilian government after the forthcoming election."
"It reminds us of the continuing reality that Pakistan remains a country at grave risk and that Islamist radicalism can still affect political outcomes through the street, if not through the polls," he said.
But Magginis said he does not believe the elections are likely to take place on Jan. 8, as Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) does not have a successor and Musharraf will be eager to postpone the elections again.
"We clearly want a peaceful Pakistan," he added, but "we won't see a Western-style political upheaval there because the military won't allow it. That's kind of reassuring."
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