- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

A crisis in Pakistan — potentially of nuclear proportions — was spared by about 30 seconds Sunday, when President Pervez Musharraf narrowly escaped a half-ton bomb that exploded in his car’s exhaust trail. The circumstances of the assassination attempt are strange and alarming. Whoever planted the bomb had to have done so conspicuously, since an explosive of between 800 to 1,000 pounds cannot conceivably be unloaded and planted discreetly, particularly since the bomb was planted on a bridge located just half a mile from the headquarters of the Army’s 10th Corps and one of the most secure areas in the country. Among the possibilities would be, then, that someone in Mr. Musharraf’s inner circle was plotting against him, or at least plotting to warn him quite dramatically. The other theory that has been circulating —that Sunday’s pyrotechnics were orchestrated to rally domestic and international support for the president — has not been backed by any evidence. It would be wise, therefore, to take seriously the threat to Mr. Musharraf’s life.

Regardless of the still-uncertain particulars, the assassination attempt emphasizes the need for Pakistan to prepare for a future without the current president by incrementally strengthening its democracy. This is an important goal in and of itself, but Sunday’s shocker highlights this priority. What would have happened in Pakistan had the bomb killed Mr. Musharraf is open to speculation, but must now be contemplated. The Senate chairman, Mohammedmian Soomro, and the vice chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Yusuf, would share power in the event of a presidential assassination. Both of these figures are seen as politically weak, and their leadership could lead to considerable uncertainty and instability — even a coup. This instability could prompt either leader to ratchet up brinkmanship with India to galvanize nationalism and support. Such an escalation would cause considerable duress and potentially degenerate into a disastrous nuclear exchange. Pakistan and India have fought three non-nuclear wars in their relatively short independent history, two of which were over the still-disputed territory of Kashmir.

Next month, Pakistani officials will meet with Indian counterparts during a meeting of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Islamabad. The attempt on Mr. Musharraf’s life gives the president an excuse to slow progress on its talks with India, primarily over Kashmir. Mr. Musharraf should not take this excuse. Although the rapprochement with India does inflame the extremists in Pakistan and India, Mr. Musharraf and future leaders need to steadily neutralize the Kashmiri issue to mitigate the extremist threat, which materialized on Mr. Musharraf’s heels Sunday. Mr. Musharraf must therefore take steady and sure steps in this direction.

Also, Mr. Musharraf must begin giving his prime minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, more power to bolster Pakistan’s democracy. He should also begin thinking about forming his own political party to legitimize his political role.

If the democratization process is orderly and incremental, America could develop a durable alliance with Islamabad. Pakistan remains a very dangerous country, and a successful assassination attempt on Mr. Musharraf cannot be discounted.

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