The seemingly unending nightmare of political and extremist violence continues in Pakistan, as is clear from the country’s worst-ever terrorist attacks on Thursday. The brace of bomb blasts that tore through crowds surrounding former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s convoy in Karachi reportedly killed over 150 people at last count and injured hundreds. From all accounts, suicide bombers who mingled with the crowds carried out the attacks as some 150,000 people packed the streets of the port city to greet Ms Bhutto, who was returning home after eight years in self-imposed exile. The bombings hit as her convoy moved slowly through the throng towards the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, where she was to deliver a triumphal address to the people.
The attacks were not unexpected in Karachi, which is a hotbed of sectarian killings. Intelligence reports even warned that various jehadi groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban were planning to carry out such strikes on Ms Bhutto on her return. The fact that the former premier announced the date and place of her return weeks ago probably gave the perpetrators enough time to prepare. Although no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, many elements in Pakistan are opposed to Ms Bhutto’s possible return to power. She is widely seen as a pro-Western moderate and her open statements supporting US policy in the region obviously put her in the cross-hairs of terrorist outfits. She returns to the political scene at a time when Pervez Musharraf’s grip on the presidency is at its weakest since he seized power in a coup eight years ago. The General’s popularity ratings continue to nosedive even as Opposition parties challenged his re-election as president earlier this month. The loyalty of Pakistan’s powerful military and US patronage appear to be just about the only things going for the embattled president. The Bush administration evidently prompted him and Ms Bhutto to work out a deal that would allow the latter to return home without facing corruption charges so that the duo could be used to fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda militants sheltering in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border.
Ironically, the very forces that the general and Ms Bhutto had created now pose the biggest threat to them. For it was during Ms Bhutto’s second term in office in 1994, when General Musharraf was her Director General of Military Operations, that they projected the Taliban as a force to further Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. But now, any military solution they try out against the radicals would likely trigger more turbulence and invite attacks on the Pakistan army. As Pakistan drifts, the problem for India is that Islamabad’s military rulers might try to divert attention by indulging in military adventurism. Which means a real danger of increased militancy in Kashmir, more active insurgencies in the North-east and terrorist strikes in the subcontinent.