WASHINGTON — The assassination Thursday of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has upended the U.S. strategy of promoting a return to civilian democratic rule in order to stabilize the nuclear-armed South Asian nation and counter the Islamic radicalism now roiling it.
"U.S. policy has just gotten tougher and more complicated," warned Karl "Rick" Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia.
The Bush administration encouraged Bhutto to return home in October from foreign exile to lead the moderate secular Pakistan Peoples Party in parliamentary elections set for next month after eight years of military rule.
Washington also pressed President Pervez Musharraf to allow Bhutto to contest the polls, and then to relinquish his post as army chief of staff and lift a state of emergency, both of which he did earlier this month.
Bhutto's slaying after a campaign rally in the city of Rawalpindi deprived Pakistan of its most popular opposition leader and the one politician who could have spearheaded a democratically elected moderate civilian government.
Bhutto's death is "really a setback to the democratic forces," conceded a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the moment.
The assassination of the Western-educated Bhutto, 54, threatens to embolden the Islamic militants — the main suspects in her slaying — who have been sheltering al Qaida and the Taliban in the lawless tribal region bordering Afghanistan, experts said.
The radicals, widely suspected of maintaining close ties to Islamist elements in Pakistan's military, have beaten back attempts by the Pakistan army to end their control of large swaths of tribal territory while staging dozens of attacks and suicide bombings around the country, mostly against security personnel.
"Any situation that basically destabilizes Pakistan, loosens the authority of the state and enhances chaos favors the fundamentalists," asserted Husain Haqqani, who served as a top advisor to Bhutto during the second of her two stints as prime minister.
Ignoring the sentiment among Pakistani parties, the United States urged Pakistan to go forward with the elections set for Jan. 8.
Pakistanis should "honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life," President Bush said in a terse statement in Crawford, Texas, where he was vacationing.
"The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy. Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice," Bush said. "Mrs. Bhutto ... knew that her return to Pakistan earlier this year put her life at risk. Yet she refused to allow assassins to dictate the course of her country."
There was widespread expectation, however, that Musharraf would postpone the elections following an announcement by the other major opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, that he would boycott the polls.
Moreover, many experts expressed serious doubts that the PPP would be in any shape to contest the elections.
They pointed out that even during her eight years in exile to avoid prosecution on corruption charges, Bhutto exercised extremely tight control over her party, held the post of chairman for life and refused to groom anyone as a potential successor because she would brook no rival.
"One of her greatest failings is that she did not allow to develop a second tier leadership," noted Cohen.
Musharraf, who seized power in an October 1999 military coup, has provided critical support to Bush's war on terrorism.
He ended Pakistan's patronage of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, arrested key al Qaida operatives and deployed the army in the tribal areas, where Osama bin Laden is believed to have re-established training camps and bases for this terrorist network.
In return, Bush rewarded Pakistan with increased aid, including some $10 billion in military assistance, but did little to encourage Musharraf to restore civilian rule, fueling intense anti-American sentiments among a majority of Pakistanis.
Musharraf, however, failed to contain the Islamist violence, which exploded after Pakistan security forces wrest back control of an Islamabad mosque seized by radical students last summer in a battle that left dozens of people dead.
Musharraf then created even more political instability by removing the country's former chief justice of the Supreme Court, igniting nationwide protests led by members of the country's middle class demanding an end to military rule.
He declared a state of emergency on Nov. 2, citing the threat of terrorism, and rounded up thousands of opponents, many of who remain in custody or under house arrest.
The United States then moved to broker a power-sharing arrangement between Bhutto and Musharraf aimed at restoring democratic civilian rule, ending the political unrest and forging a united front against Islamic extremism.
Musharraf agreed to schedule selections, step down as army chief of staff and lift the state of emergency. But the power-sharing negotiations between him and Bhutto broke down.
Special correspondent Saeed Shah in Rawalpindi contributed.