Pakistan cannot fail

The murder of Benazir Bhutto has further weakened a fragile Pakistan, and only free elections can be

The killing of Benazir Bhutto is widely regarded as a devastating loss for Pakistan, leaving a fathomless void which cannot easily be filled. But perceptions of her varied wildly within the country; from leader who had given hope to the helpless masses, to traitor to Islam and American stooge.

She certainly had many potential enemies, and speculation as to who killed her is the talk of the town here in Islamabad. The Musharraf Government has accused Pakistani Taliban groups and other radical Islamists of the murder, whilst her own Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have pointed the finger at the Musharraf government itself.

The government, with its reputation at an all-time low, is not currently receptive to the idea of an international inquiry, along the lines of that conducted into the death of slain Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.

Why would Islamic radicals kill Benazir? What would they gain from her death? The debate in Pakistan seems endless. Those with the most to gain from Benazir’s death are the leadership of Musharraf's PML (Q), which stood to be vanquished by her entry into Pakistan’s electoral politics. Does this suggest that the PML (Q) leadership actually killed her? It is too early to speculate, and the government remains adamant that al-Qaida and the Taliban are responsible. There is of course a possibility that the assassins did receive assistance from some of Pakistan’s many extremist Islamists. Others speculate that she was killed by her political opponents in connivance with elements in the secret services.

Meanwhile, the upcoming parliamentary elections have been postponed until February 18th. The Musharraf government had been warned to proceed in the parliamentary elections very carefully, because the current political situation poses a potential threat to the federation of Pakistan. Following Benazir’s assassination, there is reportedly a new perception in her family's province of Sindh, that Punjabis have “killed another Bhutto”. Perceptions matter in politics and this one is dangerous for the federation, even if it is likely to fade with time. What is certain is that the delayed elections must take place as promised, and must be fair and free, otherwise the country will suffer another serious period of instability and disorder. The western powers, especially the US, must ensure that this happens.

President Bush had been a firm supporter of Musharraf, considered resolute ally in the war on terror. Since 9/11 the US has provided some $10 billion in military and financial aid to Pakistan. More recently, the US supported the idea of a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf. But the domestic turmoil spawned by Bhutto's assassination has prompted widespread fear in Western circles, particularly concerning the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Whilst maintaining that they are the real enemy, the Musharraf government rejects suggestions that Islamic militants might attack or infiltrate secret nuclear storage facilities. It seems likely though, that in the current instability, the war against terrorism in tribal and border areas will slow down, as Musharraf is obliged to focus on the issue of domestic tranquility.

So what next for Pakistan? The country is in serious political crisis and free and fair elections are the only safe exit possible. Nothing else will work. And Pakistan cannot fail, it is simply too important. A failure of Pakistan will have unimaginable consequences in the region. We dread to even speculate on that at the moment. But a timely intervention may avert another crisis in. Much depends on how the west acts, especially the US, and how soon. Let this be clear to all.