Pondering Pakistan's Next Move

After Bhutto's death, those who could sway the country's future range from its military and students to the U.S. Whose influence will prevail?
Pakistan People's Party demonstrators shout slogans in Peshawar on Dec. 28 after burning an office of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party that backs President Musharraf. Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images

As Pakistan succumbs to turmoil after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, everyone is asking: What will become of the country?

For now, there is a massive public outpouring of grief and anger. There are riots and deaths in Karachi, Rawalpindi, and Islamabad. Although Bhutto's 19-year-old son Bilawal Zardari has been named chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, the appointment isn't expected to relieve the restlessness of those who crave revenge. The Jan. 8 elections have now been postponed to Feb. 18, but scores of lawyers, who were imprisoned by President Pervez Musharraf in November for protesting for democracy, are still languishing in jail.

The impact of Bhutto's death on Pakistan will have serious consequences for the region. Deferring the elections is a band-aid; the bleeding, agony, and uncertainty continue, as do the activities of the radicals in Pakistan. They need to be quarantined quickly, before Pakistan disintegrates into anarchy. But who or what will make that move is still unclear.

There are several lead roles in the unfolding drama of Pakistan at the moment. President Musharraf, still in charge, though largely absent in the past week, can compel some calm. There is Benazir's ghost, in the form of the Pakistan People's Party, which now has to elect and field a candidate for the upcoming February elections, forcing the democratic opening that she died for. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, an influential politician from Punjab and a real rival for the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani military, has reversed his earlier decision to boycott the elections and nominated a young nephew as his party's candidate to counter Bilawal Zardari's appealing youth. The 600-lb. gorilla in the game is the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, which could step forward in the chaos and once again take the country back into the dubious embrace of military rule. And there is Washington, which could make or break Pakistan by deciding to support Musharraf, the military establishment, or the country's fragile but fierce civil-society movement.

Musharraf's Support

Ideally, Washington should pressure Musharraf into reinstating the judiciary he dismissed in November, and allow Pakistan's civil institutions to appoint a caretaker government for several months before calling for elections again. This would be in the interest of both the U.S. and Pakistan. Thus empowered, these institutions would bring the country back under civilian rule and work to diffuse the radicalism that has attacked Pakistan from within. But Washington continues to support the flailing and increasingly ineffective Musharraf, who is more likely to fall victim to the powerful military machine he once commanded and which sees itself as the natural caretaker of Pakistan.

So, officially, does neighboring India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after expressing the usual shock, came out weakly in support of Musharraf, the man least likely to stand for India's interest. On the streets, however, opinions are different and concern is grave. "India should be supporting democracy in Pakistan, or the region's security will be destabilized over the long term," says M.D. Nalapat, professor of geopolitics at Manipal University in India. The Indian media is blanketed by news of Bhutto's death; fears of a radical takeover in the power vacuum of a nuclear-armed neighbor are high.

Prospect of Wider Civil Strife

Already, South Asia is smoldering, and Pakistan could set it on fire. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and now Pakistan are in the throes of civil strife or radicalized, unstable military rule. Beyond the Bay of Bengal, Burma is simmering with discontent. All these surround India, a country on a path of strong economic growth, intent on attracting foreign direct investment and afraid of the encroachment of socioreligious radicalism. "The ozone layer in the region is fragile, and if it is punctured…South Asia has large numbers of people who can be driven into a frenzy, especially after a leader's assassination," says Uday Bhaskar, a security expert in New Delhi.

The ultimate nightmare scenario? A disintegrating Pakistan, with the states of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, Northwest Frontier Province, and Kashmir going their separate ways. "We could see the Afghanistanization of Pakistan, and an Afghanistan that becomes more unstable," predicts Sundeep Waslekar, president of Mumbai think tank Strategic Foresight Group. That would create a large and turbulent land mass between South Asia and the Middle East, the most terrifying threat yet. A disintegrated Pakistan would naturally end the country's surprising and nascent run of economic growth: Gross domestic product should expand 7% for 2007, and the Karachi Stock Exchange is up 45% for the year.

Students' Clout

But there is one more actor on the Pakistani stage, which has not yet emerged after Bhutto's death—Pakistan's students. This group of 4 million 16-to-23-year-olds made an appearance in an underground resistance movement in November when Musharraf declared a state of emergency and gagged the press. They organized protests and supported civil-society groups inside and outside their institutions, refusing to be intimidated by the police.

In previous years, Pakistan's students have taken to the streets in protest—against General Ayub Khan in the 1960s and General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s—and provided valuable support to democracy supporters like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father. Now, their participation may help decide their country's future. "They are the wild card at this time," says security expert Bhaskar. "It's a volatile demography, and no one knows which way they will pull." If they emerge again, hopefully they will help pull Pakistan—and the region—away from the brink.

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