Farah Ispahani knows full well the risk involved in running for parliament in Pakistan's upcoming election. As a member of Benazir Bhutto's media team, she witnessed the carnage of her leader's assassination. Her husband, a former advisor to Bhutto and co-chair of a Washington think tank, has mixed feelings about her candidacy: "I am worried about the safety not only of my wife, but many women in Pakistan. Pakistan's violence is multidimensional, it's out of control and the worst thing is that in many cases nobody knows who is projecting the violence," Husain Haqqani said.
The Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto remains shrouded in mystery. Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, has agreed to a little help from Scotland Yard but has warned investigators not to go on any "wild goose chases." A UN investigation into Bhutto's death as requested by her supporters is out of the question, he said.
But with 2007 on the record books as Pakistan's most violent year in history and 2008 already showing signs of continued violence, Musharraf is steadily losing credibility both at home and abroad. In the latest bout of violence, a suicide bomb targeting police officers in the eastern city of Lahore killed 22 policemen and eight civilians outside the city's High Court on Jan. 10. A Jan. 14 suicide bombing in Karachi left 10 dead and dozens wounded.
Haqqani, co-chair of the Hudson Institute's Islam and Democracy Project, told WORLD that the suicide bombings reflect "the government's total inability to contain terrorism" despite massive assistance from the West. "Obviously they are doing something wrong," he added.
Many Pakistanis say the government is behind Bhutto's death. According to a recent poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan, 48 percent of Pakistanis believe that either government agencies or allied politicians were involved in the former prime minister's assassination. Only 17 percent believe the government's claims that al-Qaeda militants were the forces responsible for the atrocity.
Much of the forensic evidence surrounding the assassination was washed away when government workers hosed down the crime scene, furthering speculation that the government was attempting to erase incriminating evidence. Another obstacle was added to the investigations when Bhutto's family refused to permit an autopsy. Investigators have not determined whether Bhutto died from a gunshot fired as she waved through the sunroof of her vehicle or from the impact of a bomb detonated only seconds after the shot was fired.
The government remains firm in its claims that Islamic extremists are behind all of the recent suicide bombings in Pakistan, and Musharraf told CBS in January that Bhutto is ultimately responsible for her own death: "For standing up outside the car, I think it was she to blame alone. Nobody else. Responsibility is hers."
Skepticism and mistrust remain high in the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections on Feb. 19. Originally scheduled for January but postponed after the assassination, the elections will set the groundwork for months to come and could tip the scale in favor of either democracy or dictatorship. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party was ahead in opinion polls even before her assassination, and party members expect the sympathy votes to further boost the party's popularity. If voted to a majority, some opposition party leaders have vowed to vote Musharraf out of power for his decision to suspend the constitution and fire Supreme Court judges last year.
But for democracy to have a chance, Musharraf must enact measures to prevent ballot-rigging, lift press restrictions, and allow international monitoring of the polls.
The United States, Haqqani says, should use its clout to set benchmarks for the elections and persuade Pakistan's military-in control of the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation in the world-to loosen its grip on power. "The mistake that the Bush administration has made is that they have spoken to only one Pakistani for so many years: General Musharraf," Haqqani said. Pakistan's president has positioned his government in such a way that "he can get more and more aid and do less and less against the terrorists," he added.
The situation is even more precarious since Bhutto's death left a void in the nation's leadership. "She was the great populist compromiser. That is gone in Pakistan now. The people who are populist do not compromise, and the people who are willing to compromise do not have popular support. Bhutto had both," Haqqani said.
Pakistan's road to democracy is long and arduous, and those who travel must count the cost. "The country is just awash in arms and weapons. That said, I appreciate my wife's commitment to whatever she believes in so I have to be supportive of her," Haqqani said. "Pakistan has no chance without democracy."
As the United States enters its own election season, Pakistan seems to be one of the primary litmus tests on foreign policy for presidential candidates. And more than a few candidates are struggling to pass.
The blunders began in December when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton referred to President Musharraf as a "candidate" who would be on the ballot in the upcoming election: "If President Musharraf wishes to stand for election, then he should abide by the same rules that every other candidate will have to follow," Clinton told CNN on Dec. 28.
Musharraf, however, was already reelected-fairly or unfairly-to the presidency for his third five-year term last October. Upcoming elections are for the nation's parliament alone and pit the president's party against opposition parties.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called into question his geography skills when he claimed Musharraf was unable to control Pakistan's "eastern borders" with Afghanistan. Bloggers jumped on the opportunity to point out that Afghanistan is on Pakistan's western border (India is on the eastern border). The day prior to his geography gaffe, the former Arkansas governor offered "apologies" for Bhutto's death instead of "condolences" and expressed concern over Pakistan's "continued" martial law two weeks after Musharraf lifted the state of emergency.
Getting the facts right wasn't the only challenge for candidates. Others proposed sweeping solutions that left some voters puzzled.
After attacking Clinton for voting to send troops to Iraq, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama last August said he would consider sending troops into Pakistan to hunt down terrorists. "When I am president, we will wage that war that has to be won," the senator from Illinois told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "The first step must be to get off the wrong battlefield in Iraq and take the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson said during the Jan. 10 Republican debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that supporting stability in Pakistan meant supporting Musharraf: "Our national security interest and whose hands those nuclear weapons are going to be in is an overriding interest of ours. We need to make sure that there is stability in that country . . . that involves supporting Musharraf."
Haqqani says Obama's proposal to send troops into Pakistan would do little to help the United States or Pakistan and claims Thompson's assessment is faulty as well.
"General Musharraf is part of the problem of instability in Pakistan. He is a man whose people do not trust him," Haqqani said. "If a man has such low credibility with his own people, how can he be a credible part of the United States in fighting terrorism? Stability in Pakistan requires national healing . . . of the wounds created in Pakistan from General Musharraf's dictatorship."