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Published: Monday, 1/28/2008

The sooner Musharraf leaves Pakistan, the better

Ah, my dear Watson, there we come to the realm of conjecture where the most logical mind may be at fault. Each may form his own hypothesis upon the present evidence, and yours is as likely to be correct as mine.

-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

"The Empty House"

IN THE aftermath of Benazir Bhutto's assassination last month, Pakistan is rife with guesses as to who was behind her assassination. This whodunit ranges from the United States government on one extreme to the al-Qaeda-Taliban axis on the other.

Scattered between the wide spectrum is President Pervez Musharraf and/or his surrogates in the armed forces and his political supporters. Some Pakistanis consider even Ms. Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, a suspect. In a refreshing departure from the usual knee-jerk response however no one has blamed India for Ms. Bhutto's assassination.

The least plausible suspect is the U.S. government.

Was her assassination in the long-term interest of the United States? In an interesting article by Michel Chossudovsky, professor of economics at the University of Toronto and director of the Center for Research on Globalization, the author quotes a U.S. National Intelligence Council and CIA study that foresees the breakup of Pakistan along ethnic lines, a la Yugoslavia.

It is estimated that by 2015 the country would break up, in part because of civil war, Talibanization, and ensuing struggle between competing groups for the control of nuclear weapons. The assassination of Ms. Bhutto was to speed up the process of disintegration. According to this hypothesis the United States will then be able to enter Pakistan to continue the war on terrorism. According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates the Pentagon is "ready, willing, and able" to send U.S. troops to conduct joint combat operations with the Pakistan military against al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas.

A breakup of Pakistan along ethnic and tribal lines would drastically change the regional map. It will bring the southern province of Sindh under the Indian influence and the Northwest Frontier Province would join Afghanistan. The oil and natural gas rich Baluchistan would absorb contiguous areas of Iran and Afghanistan to become an independent Baluchistan. Pakistan, according to this scenario, would be limited to the present province of Punjab.

President Pervez Musharraf and his supporters also are being implicated in Bhutto's assassination. Mr. Musharraf might not have been involved personally, but certain rogue elements in his government might have.

One prime suspect is the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), a huge agency within the army that has had close relations with the CIA and was responsible for coordinating and helping Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party has pointed a finger at Mr. Musharraf and the ISI.

Mr. Musharraf's political supporters are also suspect in this case. His parliamentary support came from the breakaway faction in former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Party. They have been running Punjab, the largest and the most prosperous province. With Ms. Bhutto's return from exile, their chances of electoral success had diminished considerably. A decisive victory by Ms. Bhutto's party would have sent them into the political wilderness and would have subjected them to political retaliation.

The most plausible suspect however remains al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Because of Ms. Bhutto's close ties with the United States and her public commitment to take on the hard-line Islamists if elected prime minister, she was the prime target.

Furthermore, they consider it sacrilegious to have a woman (and a Western educated one) lead an Islamic country. They had already left their calling card when a few months ago they greeted her return from exile with a suicide bombing that left 140 people dead in Karachi. While for the world and for her supporters Ms. Bhutto was a moderate face of Islam, to the misogynist Taliban she was an insult to their narrowly interpreted religion and their myopic worldview. They are still carrying out random suicide bombings in heavily populated urban areas.

After refusing help from abroad, President Musharraf has belatedly invited Britain's Scotland Yard to help investigate the murder. But its role is limited to finding only the cause of her death and not who did it.

The Human Rights Watch, an international group, has asked the UN to investigate Ms. Bhutto's assassination.

The musings of Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes aside, Pakistan is in deep crisis. President Musharraf has outlived his usefulness and the sooner he leaves the better it is for the country. More than one hundred retired senior officers from Pakistan's armed forces have just added their voice to that demand.

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