By Bill Gertz
The Washington Times
Pentagon officials said the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto yesterday is a setback for what critics say was a misguided attempt by the State Department to pressure Pakistan’s government into adopting greater democratic reforms.
State Department bureaucrats have been directing a behind-the-scenes effort that included the return of Mrs. Bhutto from exile in London in October.
Mrs. Bhutto, a favorite of policy-makers at the State Department, was a key figure in plans for brokering a power-sharing arrangement and democratic reforms in Pakistan, along with exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned in September but who immediately was expelled.
The reality in Pakistan, the defense officials said, is that the country is beset by a small but growing minority of Islamist extremists determined to seize power.
The State Department pressure in Pakistan is likely to fuel further destabilization of the government of President Pervez Musharraf, who recently imposed emergency rule and then lifted it under U.S. pressure, the officials said.
The strategic danger is that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which includes an estimated two dozen warheads, will fall under the control of Islamist extremists, a worry that has led to special operations forces planning for how to secure the weapons in a crisis.
Defense officials have said they have been frustrated with the Musharraf government over its reluctance to cooperate with U.S. military forces in remote border regions. But the officials said that until more progress is made in the global war on terrorism, the current pro-U.S., military-dominated regime in Islamabad is the best option.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters yesterday that the department favors the idea of Pakistan going ahead with planned elections in the next few weeks “as the best way, as the president said, to honor former Prime Minister Bhutto’s memory.”