With the governments in both Islamabad and Kabul battling the resurgent Taliban movement on both sides of their border -- and Al-Qaeda using their frontier regions as a safe haven -- dramatic events like the bloody suicide attack on October 18 invariably have an impact on Afghanistan.
Likewise, the spiraling of events in Afghanistan has a spillover effect in Pakistan.
In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, himself a constant target of Islamist militants, condemned the attack. “This proves, once again, that Afghanistan and Pakistan and our international friends must focus the strongest attention in the war against terrorism," Karzai said.
In recent months, the Taliban, with significant support from militants in tribal areas across the border in Pakistan, has been intensifying its insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The result has been a rising number of suicide bombings and guerilla attacks, with casualties among civilians, Afghan government forces and NATO troops rising as the Taliban bids to reassert its Islamist agenda over the territory and to topple the U.S.-backed government of President Karzai.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has been waging its own military campaign in tribal regions such as North and South Waziristan and along other border areas of the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan. For tribal and cultural reasons, those areas have significant links to the Taliban. It is also there that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.
“It's a global conflict, of course, but it is also a regional conflict,” Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, said shortly after news of the attack against Bhutto in Karachi, which came just hours after she had returned to the country after eight years of self-imposed exile. “And within that region, Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly functioning as a single, highly-closely linked political system.”
The blasts targeted Bhutto's motorcade just as the former prime minister, greeted by hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic supporters, was launching her political comeback with pledges to end military rule and fight extremism. Bhutto herself was not hurt, but members of her Pakistan People's Party reportedly were killed.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, the country's army chief who seized power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, condemned the attack as a "conspiracy against democracy." Musharraf had helped pave the way for Bhutto’s return by agreeing to an amnesty for her on corruption charges and a reported power-sharing deal following elections due in January.
Islamist militants in Pakistan, who share not just an ideology but also arms and supplies with their Taliban brethren across the Afghan border, had threatened to kill Bhutto on her return.
Bhutto, in an interview with the French magazine "Paris-Match" just hours after the attack, blamed members of the former military regime of Pakistani General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. She said those forces “stand behind extremism and fanaticism” and that Islamabad must “purge these elements that are still present" in Pakistan's security services.
Zia overthrew Bhutto's father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1977 and had him hanged two years later. Zia himself died in a plane crash in 1988.
Pakistani Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan denied any involvement by government security or intelligence officials. Instead, Pakistan's government has blamed the attack on Islamic militants.
Of course, it’s no secret that elements of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have long played a role in supporting Islamic fundamentalists, including the Taliban, as part of their foreign-policy agenda. That support is alleged to be continuing as the Taliban intensify their campaign in Afghanistan.
To others, however, such links have become more complicated. Briton Michael Griffon, author of “Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan,” says the Islamic movement has undergone key changes in recent years.
“It's not a centrally commanded Taliban with [Mullah] Mohammad Omar at the top,” Griffin told RFE/RL. “It is not even, as it was before, kind of universally supplied by agents or elements within the ISI or Pakistan military. Some bits are better supplied than other bits. Some bits have more backup from Pakistan than other bits. I think probably the southern insurrection based upon Quetta gets better support [from Pakistan] than the one that's fighting Americans in the eastern mountains, the Spingar Mountains."
Rubin says what emerges is a less controlled, more chaotic movement where the destabilization in Afghanistan is now starting to blow back across the border into Pakistan.
“What is happening now as it shows is that the situation in Afghanistan is now fundamentally undermining the political transition in Pakistan,” Rubin said during a New York conference called “Shadow Conflict: Afghanistan and Pakistan” just hours after the attack. “It is delegitimazing and destabilizing the central government in Pakistan. That means in Pakistan we now have a government which, while it has a lot more resources and capabilities than the Afghan government, nonetheless is very unstable at the moment. A political transition that has just been attacked very decisively, we don’t know what the result of that will be, nuclear weapons and the headquarters of Al-Qaeda are in Pakistan.”
No Love Lost
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, a foremost authority on the issue, told RFE/RL that he agrees that elements of the security forces were either negligent or could have been involved. Rashid says Pakistan's army has “no lost love” for Bhutto, particularly after she made a series of recent controversial comments.
"A number of things that [Bhutto] has said have annoyed [Pakistan's] army considerably,” Rashid said. “She has made comments about allowing Dr. A.Q. Khan to be investigated by the [International Atomic Energy Agency]. And she has talked about American troops being allowed to become active in Waziristan. These are issues which probably the army feels today she has no right to be talking about or interfering in."
Bhutto, whose return reportedly was facilitated by the United States, had billed her political comeback as a step toward restoring Pakistani democracy and strengthening its fight against homegrown Islamic extremism.
Both moves, if successful, were seen by many as an obvious boost to the political and security efforts to achieve peace and democracy in Afghanistan. But if it hasn’t dashed those aspirations, the bombing has at least shown them to be overly optimistic, if not mere Western wish fulfillment, says British author Griffin.
In Griffin's opinion, Musharraf has already taken, by Pakistani standards, bold moves to accommodate U.S. antiterrorism policies. He said he wonders how any future democratically elected government headed by Bhutto would be able to persuade the Pakistani military, parts of which have always been reluctant to tackle the militants, to take even stronger steps against the Taliban and other militants, particularly as Musharraf has pledged to leave his post as army chief while serving another term as president.
“I don't see how the military, trying its hardest, if you like, under Musharraf to impose its will in Waziristan, is going to do any better under Bhutto," Griffin said.
For now, Rashid says the attack’s immediate impact could be a delay in January’s parliamentary polls, allowing Islamists to retain the influence they have in politics -- and behind the scenes in the military and elsewhere.
(Contributors to this story include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul and RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev in New York.)