Islamist extremists in Pakistan see their opening for control of the country slipping away with the new power-sharing deal between Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. After the completion of the deal, radical Islamists have threatened to assassinate Bhutto if she returns to Pakistan, afraid of the burgeoning moderate coalition that threatens to further marginalize them:
Pakistani Taliban militants vowed to launch suicide bombers against Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, when she returns home after eight years of self-imposed exile.
The path to her return was cleared when General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, last week signed into law an amnesty quashing corruption charges against her.
The general swept to apparent victory yesterday in a presidential vote by federal and provincial politicians. He is likely to form an alliance with Ms Bhutto as premier after parliamentary polls in January – though his election must first be pronounced valid by the supreme court.
But a power-sharing deal between the two long-standing enemies has infuriated many within Pakistan. Security officials fear that it may spur the country’s Islamic extremists to greater efforts against the government.
This comes as no surprise. The return of Bhutto to Pakistani politics heralds a new era of moderate civilian control to Pakistan, cementing an alliance that will keep the Islamists at the margins. They understand this danger and have responded to it in their traditional manner — bloodthirsty violence, or at least the threat of it.
This time, the threat comes from a reliable source. Baitullah Mehsud holds 250 Pakistani soldiers hostage at the moment, and serves both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He speaks for the Islamists, and the open nature of his threat underscores both the danger to Bhutto and the need for a moderate alliance in Pakistan at the moment. The people of Pakistan have to come together to fight the Islamist threat, and when the Taliban openly adopts assassination techniques, it reminds moderates that other differences need to take a lower priority.
Bhutto and her party appear unfazed by the threats, although the PPP has demanded government security for Bhutto when she returns. If Musharraf does not protect Bhutto and she gets killed, the situation will deteriorate quickly within Pakistan and his own political future will be at stake. Musharraf undoubtedly has already prepared for the threat, but the best defense against terrorists is a good and sustained offense. He and Bhutto need to start coordinating with American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and allow us to smash their organization in Waziristan, a move Bhutto has already supported in theory. The longer Musharraf waits, the tougher defense will be against their terrorism.