US forced into 'Plan B' for PakistanKARACHI - Beyond the horrific body count of about 140 people dead and hundreds injured, the major political casualty of last week's bomb attack in Karachi is likely to be the United States-brokered plan to unite President General Pervez Musharraf and former premier Benazir Bhutto in a marriage of convenience.
And while debate swirls in Pakistan over the possible perpetrators of the attack, the biggest winner could be the powerful Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the opposition six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).
The bomb attack during a homecoming procession for Bhutto, who has been in exile for seven years, has caused grave doubts in Washington over Bhutto's ability to deliver in the "war on terror" and to support Musharraf's falling political fortunes.
The Musharraf-Bhutto "marriage" is part of a complex arrangement brokered by Washington and its allies to ensure that a pro-Western government gains power after parliamentary elections in about three months' time.
The New York Times, quoting a US official, indicates Washington's clear second thoughts over its master plan for Pakistan. The paper writes: "Still, even now, there is no great love in the Bush administration for Ms Bhutto ... While American intelligence officials have been frustrated at times with General Musharraf's record in fighting the Islamic militants in northern Pakistan, they have also found a small level of comfort in dealing with him."
The US is concerned that Bhutto's re-entry into Pakistan's political landscape will complicate rather than expedite efforts to pursue insurgents from al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the newspaper maintained.
"This backroom deal I think is going to explode in our face," Bruce Riedel, who advised three US presidents on South Asian issues, told the newspaper in an interview. "Ms Bhutto and Mr Musharraf detest each other, and the concept that they can somehow work collaboratively is a real stretch."
Washington's remarkably quick realization of fault lines in its policy on Pakistan contrasts with its approach to Afghanistan and Iraq, where it has been slow to acknowledge mistakes, if at all.
Key strategic circles in Pakistan now believe that Washington will be forced to change tack by dropping Bhutto and bringing in a religious figure, such as Rehman, who recently resigned as leader of the opposition but remains head of the MMA.
Bhutto would be relegated to a lesser role of just another ally of Musharraf, not the most important one. She always was going to have a difficult time in being accepted in many circles in Pakistan, and could conceivably be content with shuttling back and forth between Pakistan and abroad as a political intellectual rather than immersing herself in full-time politics.
Rehman is already helping the US in negotiations with the Taliban and he is distancing himself from the hardline anti-Musharraf and anti-Western Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakistan, a religious party that forms a part of the MMA. Analysts believe that Rehman, who has already started publicly criticizing Jamaat-i-Islami's policies, will soon part ways with the MAA altogether.
The blast: Who gained?
The day after last week's blast, this correspondent headed for the Anti-Violence Crime Unit of the Crime Investigative Department (CID) of the Sindh Police in Karachi.
The superintendent of police, Farooq Awan, heads the unit. About 90% of all arrests of al-Qaeda members, anti-Shi'ite militants and local jihadi members can be directly or indirectly attributed to Awan's effective coordination with the country's premier intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. His services have earned widespread recognition and he has been feted by the US State Department.
Conversations with Awan's associates and the CID confirmed that at least a week before Bhutto's return, an attack had been feared.
Over the years, Senior Superintendent of Police Raja Omar Khatab and Awan have interrogated very high-profile jihadi leaders and their knowledge is considered to be top notch. Before Bhutto's arrival, both officers coordinated with the Sindh Home Department, where the secretary is retired Brigadier Ghulam Mohammed Mohtram. Mohtram was the provincial chief of military intelligence from 2003 to 2005 and also has a deep understanding of the jihadi movement. This team documented the following:
The information passed on to the Home Department even included details of likely explosives to be used (RDX - which proved to be correct) and the stretch of road that could be considered the danger zone (Karsaz crossing). Home Department officials kept leaders of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) informed about the possible dangers.
But inexplicably, no arrests were made. This is especially strang given the intimate knowledge people such as Khatab and Awan have of jihadi circles - they would surely have been able to pinpoint likely hideouts and possible collaborators and instigate pre-emptive arrests.
Indeed, the intelligence penetration in Karachi's jihadi circles is so deep that although it is still al-Qaeda's largest support base, al-Qaeda does not like to use its local connections there. Even the Taliban only use their Pashtun relatives in Karachi for financial assistance and not renowned - and marked - centers such as the al-Rashid Trust.
Pakistan's intelligence agencies are seldom shy in rounding up suspects, even on the most flimsy of pretexts, and in this case they had advance warning of an attack, yet they did nothing.
Hindsight suggests that while the government appeared to be very honest in its communication with the PPP about the threat, the bombing was allowed to happen.
After the attack, Bhutto conveniently bailed out Musharraf and squarely blamed elements within the government that she labeled the legacy of former dictator General Zia ul-Haq (her old political opponent), and she demanded the sacking of the Intelligence Bureau chief, retired Brigadier Ijaz Shah, a close confidant of Musharraf.
This started the blame game. Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, the president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, pointed the finger at Bhutto herself. He based his assumption on the fact that Bhutto had managed to retreat into her armored vehicle just moments before the blast. In turn, Bhutto accused Chaudhary of "protecting the killers". She presented no evidence to back up her claim. Cricketer-turn-politician Imran Khan and Bhutto's niece, Fatima Bhutto, said that Bhutto knew her procession would be bombed.
Within Pakistan, such accusations and counter-accusations will continue, but in Washington the writing is already on the wall: a new and seemingly impenetrable layer of distrust has been added to relations between Bhutto and the government.
The chief beneficiary will be the person chosen by Washington to take Bhutto's place in the proposed union with Musharraf.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com