The shorthand being bandied about in the news that al-Qaeda is responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is so sloppy, so lacking in nuance or understanding of the dynamics of Pakistan, and so self-centered in its reference to America's enemy as to be almost laughable.
Several U.S. defense and intelligence experts are quoted today dismissing even the possibility that President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani government forces, or other domestic elements could be involved, a conclusion that flies in the face of the country's history and ignores the obvious beneficiaries.
Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. Central Command during the Clinton administration, told The Washington Post that there is "no doubt in my mind" that the murderers are linked to al-Qaeda. In an interview with Time magazine, he elaborated: "[T]hey're the only ones who gain from this.... I really think they're trying to ignite Pakistan into the kind of chaos they need to survive."
Former CIA official and National Security Council staffer Bruce Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution, is spouting the same theory, telling Newsweek that the assassination was "almost certainly the work of Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda's Pakistani allies...Their objective is to destabilize the Pakistani state, to break up the secular political parties, to break up the army so that Pakistan becomes a politically failing state in which the Islamists in time can come to power much as they have in other failing states."
To be sure, al-Qaeda has found sanctuary in Pakistan since its founding in 1988. Key al-Qaeda lieutenants such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Sept. 11 organizer, have operated from there. Before Sept. 11, Pakistan was a source of recruits and financing and technical support for al-Qaeda. And since Sept. 11, "al Qaeda" has been tied to various attempts to kill President Musharraf and to attacks on Pakistani Army and intelligence facilities - attacks that have increased in frequency and consequence since the central government sought to control the lawless border region. The thinking is that al-Qaeda has been trying to preserve its freedom of operations and to build relations with like-minded affiliates and Pakistani jihadis.
That said, al-Qaeda -- at least the movement led by and associated with Osama bin Laden -- is in terms of power and importance at the bottom of a long list of anti-democratic factions in Pakistan, including malcontents in the active and retired military, renegade intelligence and secret service elements, radical Islamic political parties, extremist Sunni movements, indigenous terrorist organizations and Afghan and Pakistani "Taliban" movements.
To say that "al-Qaeda" is responsible for Bhutto's assassination -- suggesting Osama bin Laden and an external force -- is to ignore all those political and religious factions inside the country that had the motives and resources to kill the former prime minister. Some of those factions in the government, the military or the intelligence services were likely privy to Bhutto's movements, and they could have actively schemed, if not played a direct role, in getting the suicide attacker to the right place at the right time.
Musharraf, of course, will say that he "warned" Bhutto of the dangers. Though, given that Bhutto's father, another former prime minister, was hanged by a military dictatorship and her two brothers were killed under suspicious circumstances, she no doubt already understood the landscape of domestic threats.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials are trying to verify the claim, via an Italian website, that al-Qaeda was behind the killing. Mustafa Abu al Yazid, al-Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan, allegedly told a reporter: "We have terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahedin." The website reported that the call to assassinate Bhutto came from al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri.
This claim of responsibility is highly suspect. And, if al-Qaeda were involved at all, it's less likely to have dictated decisions than to have been used by domestic factions pursuing their own power objectives. Those factions almost universally have an interest in labeling all lawlessness and terrorism "al Qaeda" activity.
Given Pakistan's history, it is unlikely that the true perpetrators will ever be brought to justice. For the United States though, the al-Qaeda bogey-man has the negative effect of affirming support for Musharraf and his martial law, while ignoring the various extremists who represent the true existential threat to the country. We should not let our al-Qaeda fixation blind us, just as the Soviet threat did in Iran in the 1970s, to the realities that Pakistan could implode of its own accord.