WASHINGTON The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Thursday left in ruins the delicate diplomatic effort the Bush administration had pursued in the past year to reconcile Pakistan's deeply divided political factions. Now it is scrambling to sort through ever more limited options as American influence on Pakistan's internal affairs continues to decline.
On Thursday, officials at the American Embassy in Islamabad reached out to members of the political party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, according to a senior administration official. The very fact that officials are even talking to backers of Sharif, a man those officials have long mistrusted and whose return to Pakistan they discouraged because they believe he has too many ties to Islamist parties, suggests how hard it will be to find a partner the United States fully trusts.
The assassination highlighted, in spectacular fashion, the failure of two of President Bush's main objectives in the region: his quest to bring democracy to the Muslim world and his drive to force out the Islamist militants who have hung on tenaciously in Pakistan, the nuclear-armed state considered ground zero in Bush's fight against
terrorism, despite the administration's long-running effort to root out al-Qaida from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Administration officials say the United States still wants the Pakistani elections to proceed, either as scheduled on Jan. 8 or soon after. But several senior administration officials acknowledged that Musharraf may decide to put off the elections if the already unstable political climate in Pakistan deteriorates further.
An administration official said American Embassy officials were trying to reach out to Pakistani political players across the board.
"Look, most of the people in Musharraf's party came out of Nawaz's party," the official said, referring to Sharif and speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. While he acknowledged that an alliance between Sharif and Musharraf was unlikely given the long-running enmity between the men, he added, "I wouldn't predict anything in politics."
Foreign policy analysts and diplomats said that if there was one thing that Bhutto's assassination had made clear, it was the inability of the United States to manipulate the internal political affairs of Pakistan. Even before the assassination, the United States had limited influence and did not back Bhutto to the hilt.
"We are a player in the Pakistani political system," said Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, adding that as such, the United States was partly to blame for Musharraf's dip in popularity. But, she added, "This is Pakistan. And Pakistan is a very dangerous and violent place."
That said, Pakistan has never been more important for the United States than it is right now as it teeters on the edge of internal chaos. Bush administration officials have been trying mightily to balance the American insistence that Pakistan remain on the path to democracy and Musharraf's unwillingness to risk unrest that would allow al-Qaida and the Taliban to operate more freely, particularly with American and NATO troops next door in Afghanistan.
That is why the administration had been fighting so hard, amid skepticism from many of its allies, to broker an agreement in which the increasingly unpopular Musharraf would share power with Bhutto after presidential and parliamentary elections. American officials viewed the power-sharing proposal partly as a way to force Musharraf onto a democratic path, and partly to relieve the growing pressure for his ouster.
On the basis of that plan, Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October after eight years of self-imposed exile.
But the power-sharing deal never came to fruition as the increasingly besieged Musharraf imposed a series of autocratic measures, including a declaration of emergency rule and the dismantling of the country's Supreme Court, that left him politically weakened.
Administration officials continued to prod Bhutto toward an arranged marriage with Musharraf even during the emergency rule. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte traveled to Pakistan in November and spoke by telephone to Bhutto while Musharraf had her under house arrest. With both sides balking at the power-sharing deal an agreement one Bush official acknowledged was "like putting two pythons in the same cage" Negroponte continued to push Bhutto to agree to the plan, according to Pakistani members of Bhutto's political party.
"I think it was insane," said Teresita Schaffer, a Pakistani expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, of the proposed arranged alliance. "I don't think Musharraf ever wanted to share power."
Up until this week, Bush administration officials were still hoping that Musharraf and Bhutto would form an alliance between their two political parties after Pakistan's Jan. 8 elections, which would bring about as close to a pro-American governing coalition in Pakistan as the United States was likely to get.
Bhutto's assassination upends that plan, but Bush administration officials on Thursday had still not given up hope that Musharraf may be able to strike a ruling coalition with whoever becomes Bhutto's successor in her Pakistan's People's Party.
The problem with that scenario, though, is that Pakistani political parties are much more about strong, powerful individuals like Musharraf, Bhutto or Sharif than about the parties themselves. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Bhutto's second-in-command, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, to offer her sympathy and pledged to continue to support elections in Pakistan, administration officials said.
Bush's continued strong support for Musharraf could further erode his already declining popular support, even if the administration still sees his leadership as the best guarantor of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
"The danger is the centrist elements of Pakistan will be so demoralized," said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He criticized the administration for failing to nurture Pakistan's opposition for so long after Musharraf's coup in 1999. He expressed hope that the United States could still urge moderate parties to ally themselves with Musharraf, forming a governing coalition, assuming that the scheduled elections go ahead.
"It should wake up anybody who thinks that Pakistan is a stable country and that we can deal only with Musharraf," Cohen said of the assassination.