Farzana Shaikh: Musharraf can save his country - by resigning

As Pakistan mourns Benazir Bhutto, its military-dominated government is being accused of actively conniving in the assassination. Even if the President's leadership survives these allegations, he has long since ceased to be of use to the US in the 'war on terror'

Benazir Bhutto's murder will reverberate for years. In a country long accustomed to the killing of its political leaders at the hands of gunmen (Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was shot dead in 1951 at the exact spot where Bhutto became a target), her untimely death will always carry a particular resonance. So did that of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was put to death in 1979 by another kind of "gunman", General Zia-ul-Haq. Both held out the promise (often unfulfilled) of a new kind of politics in a land grown weary of plans hatched in comfortable drawing rooms with ready access to an officers' mess nearby. Both also were made of the mettle to withstand the opprobrium of an elite notoriously contemptuous of democratic politics. As such, both must be recognised for imparting to many millions the self-belief that they could all yet be in control of their country's national destiny.

The daughter, though, was the greater survivor: she saw off long years of imprisonment, even longer years of exile, and some of the most serious allegations of corruption and mismanagement ever to attach to a leader of her stature. That she resisted with such aplomb over more than 20 years in active politics is as much a testimony to the clout of her class as of her astonishing courage in the midst of the treacherous terrain of Pakistan's politics.

How much longer can Pakistan's future be entrusted to President Musharraf and his military-dominated government? Not only have they become the focus of intense popular anger, but their record is compounded by what Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party has called "a pack of lies" over the immediate cause of her death.

These accusations could prove to be potentially fatal to Musharraf's political survival. While some still blame his government for failing to protect Bhutto, despite repeated complaints by her party, many more hold him responsible for creating a climate that, at worst, proved hostile enough to give licence to groups determined to kill her and, at best, urged voters not to support Bhutto. At a meeting in mid-December in Vehari in Punjab, Musharraf appealed to his audience to vote for candidates "who have been with me in the past", prompting protests from opposition parties, which accused him of violating the impartiality of his office.

Nor has Musharraf stepped in to check leaders of the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) who have made no secret of their determination to keep Bhutto from trespassing on Punjab, which they tend to regard as their fiefdom. For some it was no coincidence that Bhutto was killed in Punjab rather than the militant stronghold of the North-West Frontier province.

But the suggestion that the government actively connived in Bhutto's murder is likely to be most damaging to Musharraf. He has been directly implicated for the first time in an email written in October by Bhutto to a friend, the American journalist Mark Siegel, in which she said that if anything happened to her, "I would hold Musharraf responsible". The message, which came with instructions to be used only if Bhutto was killed, follows an earlier letter from Bhutto to Musharraf sent just before her return to Pakistan in October. In it she pointed the finger at Pakistan's shadowy intelligence services, which work closely with the army, for overseeing plans to kill her. At the time, she also named three senior officials (including the head of the intelligence bureau and a close friend of Musharraf's) as being involved in these plans. Further accusations of government complicity surfaced after she alleged that some "former dignitaries of the Zia regime" (believed to be a reference to General Zia's son, Ejaz-ul-Haq, who served under Musharraf as his religious affairs minister) were determined to murder her.

Even if Musharraf emerges unscathed from these allegations, he has to confront an unimpressed United States. A major reassessment of US policy seems imminent in the wake of the collapse of a US-sponsored power-sharing arrangement that rested on Musharraf and Bhutto working in tandem. The US could look for a replacement, but surely Bhutto's leaderless party will not want to oblige. The only other candidate is the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, but Musharraf is highly unlikely to sign up with the man he deposed in 1999. Sharif himself is clearly in no mood to compromise. He is boycotting the elections if they are still held and has called on Musharraf to resign immediately to "save the country".

This could provide the opportunity for the US and Pakistan's friends abroad to seek a fresh start. But there would need to be a real effort to put Pakistan's interests ahead of all others. That means the imperatives of the US-driven "war on terror" may have to take second place. Too much has rested until now on the assumption that the interests of the US, and of the international community as a whole, could best be guaranteed by keeping Musharraf in power.

But many now realise that these interests have been ill-served by Musharraf. Under his watch both al-Qa'ida and the Taliban have gained ground, and they have done so precisely because he chose to co-operate with parties sympathetic to these forces rather than those that questioned the legitimacy of his regime. For the US to move away from a policy that equated the stability of Pakistan with the survival of President Musharraf requires a readiness to accept a genuine political consent. US priorities, which have allowed the military to assume an inordinate role in Pakistan's national politics, must also give way to the task of rebuilding the country's institutions.

Persuading Musharraf to step down and the armed forces to return to the barracks will be far from easy. Musharraf has shown himself to be ruthless in maintaining political power, while the army is unlikely to forgo the huge economic benefits it has come to enjoy. Yet the military remains sensitive to its public image, and the army command, under its new, ostensibly non-political head, Ashfaq Kiyani, could seize this opportunity to engage in a face-saving retreat away from the political limelight.

Farzana Shaikh is an associate fellow of Chatham House, London