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Bhutto Bombs

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Well, now Benazir Bhutto is back with a vengeance. It's like the old
days in Pakistan, but worse. After today's bombings, Bhutto's iron
will to remain in Pakistan has probably been strengthened. I went to interview her recently in Dubai for More magazine, and it was clear she would not be deterred by any
such hijinks, though she was obviously worried. Her daughter was in
the next room writing college applications.

But one does wonder who exactly was behind the attack. In the short
time since her arrival on Pakistani soil, Bhutto has managed to thank
the Pakistani Army both for protecting her and her supporters on
their arrival, and for not thwarting or disrupting the celebrations
accompanying her return. Certainly those two ideas say a lot about
the ambivalence of the Pakistani Army concerning Bhutto: thanks for
protecting me and thanks for not attacking me.

And it's not really about ambivalence, but speaks more about an
institution with two faces. Part of the Pakistani Army is moderate
and Western-looking in an old-fashioned way -- Musharraf seems to
have put his money on that side for now. But another part has long
sympathized with the neighboring Taliban and other fundamentalist
strains, including al Qaeda.

A recent poll found 46 percent of the Pakistani people favorable to
bin Laden; which means, as a friend said after the bombings, that if
Benazir has, say, 10,000 people guarding her, then 4,600 of them
support bin Laden, from whose influence she has vowed to remove her
country.

But even if Bhutto survives her plunge back into the cauldron of
Pakistani politics, can she really do much for Pakistan? Poverty
there is worse than ever -- on a daily basis, people commit suicide
in order to escape from hunger and their inability to feed their
families. While she was prime minister, her administration was more
notable for its corruption than for curing Pakistan's ills. Perhaps
now, without her notoriously corrupt husband in tow, she'll be able
to lift her head above the cloud of corruption that's followed her
for these long years, but given the money that must be spent to wage
what amounts to a war on the rogue fundamentalist city -- states that
have been established within Pakistan's borders, it's not going to be
easy to do much about pocketbook issues for the average Pakistani.

And as for democracy. Sure, Bhutto would like Pakistan to be
democratic. As long as she's the head of state. She has that tendency
of all populist politicians (of her father, in particular) to equate
the state with herself. Even before the bombs went off today, you
could pretty safely say that the euphoria of her return would
guarantee her election, but now -- given the attack -- her victory
is virtually assured.

Before the bombs, she was a complicated character for many
Pakistanis. They were wary of her reputation, concerned about her
power-deal with the reviled Musharraf, quite aware that her two
previous administrations had achieved very little, and worried about
her supposed autocratic tendencies. But in the face of this
assassination attempt, people will tend to gulp, and to notice what
they might lose in losing the person of Benazir Bhutto. Her death
might mean an end to dynastic politics in Pakistan, which would be
good (although there are Bhuttos galore -- if not of so lofty a
caliber -- lined up to fill any power vacuum they can find). But the
loss of a figure who in so many ways represents the desire for some
kind of future middle ground for Pakistan would really be
devastating. Bhutto's return has changed in a day all the terms of
the debate.

And the attempt on her life, in which so many were killed and
injured, has at least for a while turned her from just another hack
politician, seeking power, back into what she was at the beginning of
her political career: a beloved symbol of Pakistan, and precious. .