The flame and the bonfire

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination yesterday may have been expected, but its consequences will be both unpredictable and extremely dangerous. With its 160 million people, Pakistan is a key country in a region that includes Afghanistan, Iran and archrival India. It is in the nuclear-armed powder keg of Southern Asia, which has enough historical, national and ethnic rivalries to provoke a catastrophe. Pakistan suffers from chronic political turbulence and today may be at its most dangerous point since its creation in 1947. Yesterday’s murder deprives the Popular Party, the country’s largest political formation, of its undisputed leader. It leaves the political world without one of its poles and may doom efforts to restore democracy to an impasse. Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October after eight years of voluntary exile, at the urging of the USA and in agreement with dictator Pervez Musharraf. Although she did not keep a steady course and no one knew if she would work with Musharraf or clash with him, Bhutto was a key player in efforts to stabilize her country. That’s what drew the fire of extremists in the security services and among fanatical Islamists. Now her murder may radicalize members of her party and lead to further violence and instability. Musharraf is at a dead end. And the US efforts to support him in order to control areas from which al-Qaida draws its support are not likely to lead anywhere. Afghanistan, where the Pakistani secret services created and sustained the Taliban, will remain unstable, as will the border areas of Pakistan. Control of Kashmir, the cause of two wars with India, remains unresolved, sowing seeds of further conflict. Benazir Bhutto represented the normality and order to which Pakistan needed to return. Yesterday a flame of hope was snuffed out. And a bonfire was lit.