Pakistan: The day after

Markets appear to moving mostly sideways this morning after a selloff yesterday sparked in large part by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.  24 hours after the fact, I'm a little less sanguine about the immediate future as regards Pakistan than I was in my morning and afternoon posts yesterday.  No, Osama won't have his hands on the nukes next week, but based on the writings of people I respect who know a lot more about these things than I do, things could get ugly for a while.

For starters, Juan Cole says U.S. establishment media are failing to grasp the sheer scope of violence in the wake of the assassination:

In contrast, Pakistani newspapers are giving chilling details of large
urban centers turned into ghost towns on Friday morning, with no
transport available, hundreds of thousands of persons stranded far from
home, shops closed, and banks, gas stations, police stations and
automobiles torched. Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana, Sukkur, Jacobabad and
many others in Sindh Province fell victim to the violence (Bhutto was
from Larkana in Sindh but had a residence in Karachi). The police
seemed to be AWOL for the most part in these cities, allowing the
rioting and looting to go on unhindered.

There's more, much more, but you get the picture.

So what of the immediate political future in Pakistan?  Cole is not optimistic:

Pakistan's future is now murky, and to the extent that this nation of
160 million buttresses the eastern flank of American security in the
greater Middle East, its fate is profoundly intertwined with America's
own. The money for the Sept. 11 attacks was wired to Florida from banks
in Pakistan, and al-Qaida used the country for transit to Afghanistan.
Instability in Pakistan may well spill over into Afghanistan, as well,
endangering the some 26,000 U.S. troops and a similar number of NATO
troops in that country. And it is not as if Afghanistan were stable to
begin with. If Pakistani politics finds its footing, if a successor to
Benazir Bhutto is elected in short order by the PPP and the party can
remain united, and if elections are held soon, the crisis could pass.
If there is substantial and ongoing turmoil, however, Muslim radicals
will certainly take advantage of it.

Alas, Cole begs the question of who would take over Bhutto's party, the PPP.  War at the Top of the World author Eric Margolis says there's no one:

Bhutto's murder leaves her Pakistan People's Party in disarray, without
strong leadership. She surrounded herself with pliant yes-men and
brooked no competition. Her party has now been decapitated.

Which means the most pessimistic of Cole's scenarios going forward becomes the most likely:

Pakistan's population is, contrary to the impression of many pundits in
the United States, mostly moderate and uninterested in the Taliban form
of Islam. But if the United States and "democracy" become associated in
their minds with military dictatorship, arbitrary dismissal of judges,
and political instability, they may turn to other kinds of politics,
far less favorable to the United States. Musharraf may hope that the
Pakistani military will stand with him even if the vast majority of
people turn against him. It is a forlorn hope, and a dangerous one, as
the shah of Iran discovered in 1978-79.

Taliban author Ahmed Rashid isn't very optimistic, either :

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has left a huge political vacuum at
the heart of this nuclear-armed state, which appears to be slipping
into an abyss of violence and Islamic extremism. The question of what
happens next is almost impossible to answer, especially at a moment
when Bhutto herself seemed to be the only answer.

And despite the protestations of Bhutto supporters that Musharraf was behind the killing, Rashid sees the hand of al-Qaeda:

The attack — a gunman cut her down before a suicide-bomb explosion
blew up her vehicle, early reports suggest — bore the hallmarks of
training by the al-Qaeda terrorists ensconced in northwest Pakistan.

I remain convinced of what I wrote toward the end of my afternoon post yesterday — that if this was an al-Qaeda operation, it was aimed not only at disrupting the Pakistani elections, but at influencing the early U.S. primaries in favor of the most hawkish candidates — just as a well-timed bin Laden video aimed to hand the 2004 general election to Bush.