Ripple Effects Raise Concern


By: Wall Street Journal

U.S. Analysts Worry Extremists May Spread Influence After Killing
By JAY SOLOMON

For decades, the U.S. has watched warily as Pakistan has tangled with India, developed nuclear weapons and fostered alliances with militant Islamist fighters.

Now, the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is stoking fears both of new unrest in her country and of ripple effects in the region as extremist groups are emboldened by the demise of a secular, modern Muslim politician.

Pakistan has been on the front lines of the Bush administration’s war on terror since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Washington insisted that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf sever ties to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, which harbored Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. Pakistan also faced pressure to arrest and imprison militant Islamic activists and fight insurgents spilling over from Afghanistan.

But Pakistan has been a leaky bulwark against radicalism, creating constant friction with the U.S. as the war on terror drifts into its seventh year. Western regions of Pakistan, often controlled by local tribes, are viewed as sanctuaries for newly minted militant groups as well as vestiges of the Taliban and al Qaeda — and perhaps Mr. bin Laden himself. Investigators deconstructing recent al Qaeda plots in Europe and the Middle East often find their roots stretching back to Pakistan.

Some U.S. intelligence analysts fear Ms. Bhutto’s assassination could be part of a broader al Qaeda and Taliban offensive against Pakistan’s secular leadership, focused on spreading militant influence inside the country. Success in this endeavor would pose a direct threat to the U.S. and the broader Western world.

“The global reverberations of yesterday’s attacks underscore the interdependency between the United States and Pakistan,” said Henry A. Crumpton, a former State Department counterterrorism chief and top Central Intelligence Agency official who led U.S. intelligence operations in Afghanistan in 2002. “The U.S. interests there are so important, whether it’s the issue of nuclear weapons, the issue of counterterrorism or the issue of Pakistan-India relations.”

Pakistan is the sole Islamic nation possessing a nuclear arsenal. The Bush administration has spent nearly $11 billion on aid and other programs in Pakistan since 9/11. The money has supported the nation’s fight against al Qaeda. It has also been used to help safeguard Islamabad’s atomic weapons.

Some analysts described fears of the “demonstration effect” of Ms. Bhutto’s killing on Islamist militants seeking power through the gun in Central and South Asia, as well as other Muslim nations. The threat of violence could diminish the ranks of those willing to cooperate with the U.S.

“The whole currency of political assassination could rise” as a result of Ms. Bhutto’s death, said Robert Grenier, who served as the CIA’s Islamabad station chief from 1999 to 2002. “The threat could have the intended intimidating impact and make it harder for any other figures to stand up” against extremism in Pakistan or elsewhere.

Inside Pakistan, thousands of Ms. Bhutto’s supporters took to the streets to protest what they believe was the Pakistani military’s complicity, if not outright involvement, in the assassination. Violence could spread as the country prepares for Ms. Bhutto’s funeral.

Many of Ms. Bhutto’s supporters come from Sindh province in the south and have a historic rivalry with Pakistan’s Punjabi and Pashtun communities. Experts on the region fear these tensions could erupt if Mr. Musharraf and leaders of Ms. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party don’t make a concerted effort to seek a united front.

“The fact that she was assassinated in Punjab will only feed into these tensions,” says Larry Robinson, who served as the U.S. Embassy’s chief political officer in Pakistan from 2003 to 2005. “And the more the security forces focus on political rivalries, the more opening it provides to the Taliban” and other Islamist militants. The attack on Ms. Bhutto occurred in Rawalpindi, near the capital, Islamabad, and the headquarters of the Pakistani military.

Pakistan’s other major civilian political figure, Nawaz Sharif, said his party will boycott Pakistan’s elections planned for next month. The assassination could stoke street protests by his political party, the Pakistan Muslim League, against Mr. Musharraf’s rule.

Pakistan’s problems are causing concern in neighboring India and Afghanistan; Islamist militants have long used Pakistan as a base to launch attacks against these countries. Indian and Afghan leaders have accused Pakistan’s military and its intelligence services of allying with Islamist insurgents to further their influence in western Afghanistan and the disputed region of Kashmir.

American intelligence officials play down any short-term threat to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, saying the weapons are securely in the hands of the military. The Bush administration says it is against a restoration of military rule in the country, although outside experts say that remains a possibility.

Over the longer term, many observers of the region believe Washington, rather than relying on individual politicians, needs to develop more nuanced counterterrorism measures to deny al Qaeda safety in tribal areas of Pakistan and win broader support among Pakistanis for the fight against extremists.

–Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.

Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com

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