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Therefore, amidst the reactions of shock and sorrow pouring in over the assassination, what catches the eye is the keenly awaited reaction by US President George W Bush [Images].
Images: Benazir's last moments
With a somber face, breaking his Christmas holiday in his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush swiftly reacted, in person, within three hours of the tragic news filtering in from Rawalpindi. He read out from a written text and refused to take questions from the White House press corps.
It was an unusually lengthy condolence message, understandably so, mourning the loss of a dependable friend. It went by far beyond the calls of protocol. But what stands out is that Bush completely ignored the Pakistani regime led by President Pervez Musharraf [Images]. He pointedly omitted making any reference to his key ally in Islamabad and instead chose to address the Pakistani people. He urged them to 'honour Benazir Bhutto's [Images] memory by continuing with the democratic process'.
The tragic irony could well be that what Bhutto couldn't achieve over the recent years, she might well have managed by laying down her life -- the beginning of a parting of ways between Bush and Musharraf. That might even come to be remembered by posterity as her parting contribution to the democratic transformation of Pakistan -- at the fag end of a tumultuous life which, with warts and all, is still bound to be remembered for the magic she unfailingly wove as the torchbearer of representative government in her country.
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What happens next?
Any keen observer of the Pakistani political chessboard could have noticed that the relations between the Pakistani establishment and the Bush administration were increasingly getting frayed in recent months. It was very obvious that the Pakistani establishment was stubbornly resisting Washington's persistent and continued attempts to induct Bhutto into the leadership structure in Islamabad. Equally, Washington failed to notice that a point of no return was fast reaching. Of late Washington even began stepping up pressure on the Pakistani military by hitting where it hurts -- by tightening the leash of American aid.
The New York Times featured two sensational reports earlier in the week quoting senior Bush administration and US military officials, who spoke with extraordinary candour, disparaging the Pakistani military as unreliable, duplicitous and incorrigibly corrupt. It was a deliberate 'leak' signaling to the tough generals in Rawalpindi that enough is enough. The thrust of the argument was that Islamabad was taking the Bush administration for a ride. The anger was showing that the Bush administration was getting increasingly impatient with Musharraf's regime.
To add to it, last week on Thursday, the US Congress also put for the first time some limited restrictions on US military aid to Pakistan. Washington should have known that such conditions on military aid were bound to have a major effect on relations between the Pakistan military and the Bush administration. Roughly a quarter of Pakistani military's annual budget of $4 billion comes out of American aid.
Al Qaeda owns up Benazir's killing
Thus, it is possible to visualise as well that Bhutto has, arguably, become the tragic victim of a deadly crossfire between the Bush administration and the Pakistani military that has been going on for the past few months. Rather than Al Qaeda [Images] or the Taliban, the likelihood is that sections within the Pakistani establishment, which harbour visceral hatred of the US, and which have links with the extremist jihadi elements, would have masterminded Bhutto's assassination.
With her departure from the Pakistani political scene, the Bush administration has been deprived of its democratic trump card. Correspondingly, Washington's ability to modulate the nature of the future power structure in Islamabad has dramatically diminished. If we look one step ahead, Bush administration will be seriously hamstrung in arm-twisting the military-dominated regime in Islamabad for the foreseeable future.
The plain truth is that on the Pakistani political landscape, there is not a single credible politician who will be prepared to identify himself with the US. In sum, the Pakistani military continues to be strongly placed to call the bluff of the US administration and the US Congress if the latter tries to put pressure by threatening any cut in military aid. In the ultimate analysis, the Bush administration knows -- and the Musharraf regime knows Washington knows -- that the criticality of the war in Afghanistan leaves the US with virtually no choice but to respect the Pakistani military's sensitivities.
Complete coverage: Benazir Bhutto killed
The Pakistani generals know that the stakes are extremely high for the US -- the entire US global strategy riveted on the future role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is on the firing line in Afghanistan. Nothing more, nothing less.
The chemistry between the US and Pakistani military has never been properly understood by onlookers. It was never a simple equation of a master-client relationship. The Pakistani military has consistently shown that it is determined to safeguard at any cost its corporate interests. The Bush administration is just about learning this home truth.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russia [Images]
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