Benazir Bhutto's death presents the U.S. with a major foreign policy challenge. Washington helped engineer her return to Pakistan in October after eight years in exile. And the Bush administration encouraged a power-sharing deal between her and President Pervez Musharraf, as a way to return the country to civilian rule and to help stabilize it. The U.S. now must consider other options in the wake of Bhutto's assassination.
Without question, Pakistan is a key national security concern for the U.S. The nuclear-armed state is home to al-Qaida and pro-Taliban militants, and the U.S. has provided roughly $10 billion to help Pakistan fight terrorism.
Several months ago, when Musharraf's regime began to wobble, the Bush administration revived its relationship with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Karl Inderfurth, an assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs during the Clinton administration, says Bhutto was seen as vital to restoring democratic rule in Pakistan.
"The U.S. government very much wanted her to be back in the mix, to take part in the elections, possibly be returned as prime minister working with a civilian president — President Musharraf. Very clearly, the U.S. had a preference there that now tragically will not take place," Inderfurth said.
Bhutto's death leaves a major hole in the Bush administration's plans for Pakistan. Because it pinned so many hopes on Bhutto, the U.S. is left without a contingency plan after her assassination. On Thursday, President Bush urged Pakistanis not to let Bhutto's murder derail efforts to restore democratic rule.
"We urge them to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life," Bush said.
Bush phoned Musharraf on Thursday, but the White House would not divulge details of their conversation. It's unclear whether Musharraf will postpone parliamentary elections, scheduled for Jan. 8, or re-impose a state of emergency. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged calm and said Bhutto's murder will test the patience of Pakistanis.
Inderfurth said there will likely be some reassessment in Washington on how best to strengthen Pakistan's nascent movement toward democracy in the wake of Bhutto's death.
"But there is no logical follow-on leader to Benazir Bhutto in terms of her party [the Pakistan Peoples Party]," Inderfurth said. "She was it, she was the leadership — there isn't a person who can just step into the void that will be left by her."
Part of the problem is that Washington focused on personalities, rather than on political parties, according to Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said that in the short term, Washington must build relations with others in Bhutto's party.
Another option is to repair its relations with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the third major player on Pakistan's political scene. But Sharif may not be as open to advances from the U.S. as Bhutto was. Sharif also might boycott the elections next month, which Markey says would not go over well in Washington.
"If it's true that he's decided to boycott the elections, then I don't think that he's made himself any more attractive to Washington as a political partner than he was before," Markey said.
He said the U.S. will likely have to fall back on Musharraf — and pressure him to push ahead with the elections.
But cementing relations with him could hurt America's image in Pakistan further "because he's an unpopular leader; his polling numbers are in the single digits," said P.J. Crowley, a senior fellow and director of homeland security at the Center for American Progress. "And obviously his track record in both stabilizing Pakistan and leading it in a more civil and democratic direction is a mixed bag."
Crowley said that what happens over the next few weeks will be as important to the U.S. as it is to Pakistan.