This article first appeared in the 28 December 2007 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Benazir Bhutto’s assassination eliminates an obstacle to the sustained success of al-Qaeda, writes Richard Whelan.
Pakistan has recently been described by the International Institute for Strategic Studies as the front line in the war against Islamist terrorism.
The assassination yesterday of Benazir Bhutto can only be understood from the perspective of the importance of Pakistan to the worldwide struggle of al-Qaeda. The continued use of Pakistani territory facilitates three important elements of this deadly struggle.
Firstly, the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan can be attributed to Pashtun tribal disenchantment with the Karzai government, but more importantly the unhindered access to men and material from across the border in Pakistan.
The Taliban, ousted from Afghanistan after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, has established itself in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s western province of Baluchistan, where its leadership is thought to be located. In addition, al-Qaeda’s top leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are thought to be located in the federally administered tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, a region over which the Pakistani government has never exercised effective control.
Nato now accepts that it cannot defeat the Taliban.
It is understood that victory over the Taliban can only be achieved through a political deal with certain elements of the Pashtun tribes allied to the Taliban – on which presumably Irishman Michael Semple, EU acting mission head, was working – and by seriously curtailing support for the insurgency from across the Pakistani border.
History has shown that an insurgency with continued availability of men and material across an open border can never be defeated.
Secondly, it has recently become clear to UK and European intelligence services that many al-Qaeda attacks in Britain were directed from Pakistan. Al-Qaeda has several camps there for training British citizens of Pakistani origin for terrorist activities.
Although these attacks have not been particularly successful to date, they display the continued relevance and resilience of al-Qaeda and show its desire and ability to attack the West.
Finally, in Pakistan itself, there has been a steady penetration of extremist religious thinking and a growing number of terrorist attacks over the last three years, culminating in yesterday’s gun and suicide assassination of People’s Party leader Bhutto.
This followed an unsuccessful assassination attempt on her political party convoy following her arrival in Pakistan last October to contest the presidential election.
From this perspective and taking account of current Pakistani political arrangements, the assassination of Bhutto unfortunately makes huge sense. Of the three serious candidates for power in Pakistan today, Bhutto was the only one to present a strong secular alternative to the population of 166 million.
Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf has been engaged in a delicate balancing act to maintain power for some time. Part of that balancing act were sustained electoral pacts with religious parties.
Although such parties have never obtained more than 10 or 11 per cent of the popular vote, their support has maintained Musharraf in power. In return he has both inflated their electoral success and representation which has allowed them to significantly expand their influence throughout all levels of Pakistani society.
The only other major alternative centre of power, former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, is supported by Saudi Arabia and also has strong religious connections and support.
With Bhutto’s assassination, the availability of a secular alternative to curtail the continuing growth of extremist religious influence, whether as a sole centre of power or in an election deal with Musharraf, is removed.
Pakistan is now left with few alternatives to some sort of religious electoral arrangement or a religious government which will enable al- Qaeda to continue its activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and worldwide.
Finally, claims from Bhutto’s supporters that Musharraf had some role in her assassination may have an element of truth to them, as it is well known that religious extremism has penetrated the Pakistani army and its ISI Intelligence Service which are key power brokers there.