A long time ago, I worked a summer job at a pet store. They had all the usual pets, including puppies and kittens, various fluffy rodents, fish and birds … and snakes. Snakes were especially popular with some folks, for reasons I never quite understood. The thing is, when a kitten or puppy got loose, everyone was well amused and happy to pick up the animal and get it back to safety. Not so with the snakes. When a snake got loose, we had to shut the store doors, make an announcement, and watch the customers freak out as their worst fears about reptilian intentions drove them to irrrational behavior. But that’s how it is with snakes: While most snakes would like nothing more than to leave people alone and live their lives far away from anything so much bigger than they are, many people are convinced that snakes are aggressive and malicious creatures which can’t resist attacking people. Now, it’s true that snakes are sometimes dangerous because of their venom, and in any cases no one likes getting snake-bit. But in my experience, snakes are most dangerous when they are desperate; a calm snake only attacks its prey but when in a panic it will bite anything that seems to be a threat. This is as true of vipers and cobras, as for grass snakes and garter snakes.
And that, in essence, is what happened Thursday in Rawalpindi. Al Qaeda has lost Iraq, and they are also being driven out of Afghanistan. AQ looked for a new home and found support in Sudan and Somalia, but neither has the resources AQ would need to effectively operate as a global terrorist organization. On the other hand, Pakistan is appealing on a number of levels to Al Qaeda, not least because they still have some of the old Taliban and Fedayeen hanging around. If the media reports are correct, the chief reason Osama bin Laden is still breathing air is because he found friends in the border mountains of Pakistan. All that is left of Al Qaeda’s nasty ambitions rests on Pakistan staying open to them. If Pakistan became a truly democratic republic, this would be the end of Al Qaeda. So it is not a stretch to say that the snakes of Al Qaeda were desperate indeed.
This is not to say that Benazir Bhutto was the worst enemy of Al Qaeda, but she would have revitalized the war against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and increased the government’s credibility in the war. Bhutto held the advantage that she was respected by U.S. officials but owed them no favors, so that she could deal openly and without any appearance of undue western influence. With a new U.S. Administration coming into power in 2009, A Bhutto Administration in Pakistan offered the hope of a completely new beginning in U.S.-Pakistan relations. While the Bush-Musharraf relationship was forged from necessity and the existing conditions, Bhutto could choose to work from a wider range of options, allowing more flexibility in the war against Terrorism, which in Pakistan is effectively always at the front door. The assassination of Bhutto, therefore, is in retrospect obvious necessary for Al Qaeda, and her death appears to have accomplished just what Al Qaeda hopes to achieve.
The key to moving forward from here, is understanding that President Bush was correct in his initial description of the assassination: A desperate, cowardly act. The reason this is important, is because whoever takes office as Pakistan’s next President will have a situation far more to their advantage than may be immediately apparent. Al Qaeda is still dangerous and their doctrine a foul poison on the faith of Islam and a terrible crime against the people of the Middle East, but they are weak and inconstant; a resolute leader in Pakistan could destroy them, if he or she is wise, and it is certainly in Pakistan’s interest to do so.
Al Qaeda is a remarkable organization for a number of reasons, not the least that their greatest successes will eventually bring about their own destruction. Osama believed that a war against the United States would eventually result in the U.S. leaving the Middle East, in the same way that the Soviets did after their loss in Afghanistan. There are many reasons why this was a faulty analysis, but the chief result is that the Bush Administration conducted the war in a far different manner than bin Laden expected, and as a result Al Qaeda suffered the decimation of its manpower and resources. An organization that once maintained offices in over a dozen countries and operated in a dozen more, Al Qaeda has seen its bases destroyed, almost its entire leadership structure killed or captured, and public opinion turned strongly against it, even in Afghanistan. Some writers have compared Bhutto’s assassination to that of JFK, but in reality it is closer to the Lincoln assassination, a bitter useless act which will in the end not help the cause of the murderers.