Before the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Thursday, Pakistan was arguably the world's most unstable nuclear power. Now there's no argument. With the country's strongest hope for a democratic future now lying entombed near her martyred father, Pakistan faces at best a long period of turmoil and uncertainty, and at worst a civil war. Its nuclear arsenal has never been less secure, and Al Qaeda and its sympathizers have never been closer to realizing their dream of obtaining a nuclear device.
Those eager to lay blame for this catastrophe have plenty of targets. At the top of the list is President Pervez Musharraf, who many Pakistanis believe had a hand in Bhutto's murder. That's unlikely, given that her death further weakens his political standing; his best hope to remain in office was to form a coalition government with Bhutto. Musharraf also is being blamed for failing to provide enough security, another questionable charge given Bhutto's insistence on appearing before crowds and standing up through the sunroof of her bulletproof vehicle. Yet Musharraf isn't without fault. The emergency rule he imposed in November shut down private TV and radio stations, and even when channels reopened recently, they were forbidden from airing political content, thus forcing Bhutto and other candidates to do their campaigning via public appearances.
The United States now finds itself with no strong ally in Pakistan besides Musharraf, and no good options remaining for promoting democratic change -- a situation for which the Bush administration is partly to blame. Washington invested all its hopes in Bhutto, failing to cultivate relationships with other Pakistani political leaders.
Yet the person most to blame for the dangerous situation Pakistan now presents to the world -- besides the assassin and his backers -- may be Benazir Bhutto. Her Pakistan People's Party, the country's largest political group, was a dynastic organization ruled entirely by one woman; Bhutto sidelined charismatic leaders who rose within the ranks, seeing them as potential rivals. As a result, there is no one to take her place. To put her own life at enormous risk was certainly courageous, but it also could be seen as reckless and arrogant.
For now, the hopes of Pakistan are riding on Bhutto's party. If it can produce a new leader and call for calm and restraint rather than violence and street protest, there's a chance that elections could still go forward -- if not on Jan. 8, then soon after. Other likely scenarios, such as another declaration of emergency rule by Musharraf or an indefinite postponement of balloting, would only make a bad situation worse.