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WASHINGTON — Defense experts said U.S. troops in Afghanistan will likely see little immediate effect from Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, but could see less border control as that country’s military focuses on its other security concerns.

“The more the Pakistan security forces are diverted from a mission to suppress, control and counter the insurgency … and diverted to handle internal security, the more work is cut out for our forces in Afghanistan,” said retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Christman, a key planner of the first Gulf War and now senior vice president for International Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“I think what the assassination does, frankly, is remind all of us that this is a very, very dangerous environment in which we are operating,” he said.

Jim Schoff, director of Asia/Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, said that even temporary changes could allow the Taliban to advance into and retreat from Afghanistan more easily.

“But beyond that, I can’t see the situation spiraling out of control to where the U.S. military would be asked to join with the Pakistani military to restore order,” he said. “I don’t think there are any major implications right away for the troops.”

Experts said the long-term effects on the region are more difficult to predict. In a policy analysis for the Brookings Institution, senior fellow Stephen Cohen called Bhutto’s death a possible flash point for Pakistan.

“It is likely that separatism will increase, as will violent, extremist Islamism, Benazir’s death will cripple the already besieged, moderate elements of civil society,” he wrote. “We can expect further atrocities … and a new round of farcical elections will produce a weak government that Musharraf will try to manipulate.”

Schoff was calmer in his predictions, but said a “violent spiral” for the country is a clear possibility.

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said that the impact of the assassination “is potentially enormous,” but not in the short term.

Instead, “we won’t know for another 90 days” whether Musharraf’s government falls as a result of Bhutto’s death, or even if the Pakistan army will remain loyal to their president, said McCaffrey, who now works as a military analyst and consultant.

“I’m not sure Musharraf can survive this,” he said.

And if the government does fall, one of the most worrisome scenarios, McCaffrey said, is the possibility that one of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons “could fall into the hands of extremists.”

“We ought to be certain of one thing,” he said, “the next 30 days won’t be pleasant.”

P.J. Crowley, director of homeland security for the politically liberal Center for American Progress, said the status of Pakistan plays a critical role in the larger war on terror in terms of combating political violence and political extremism.

“What happens in Pakistan over the next few weeks and months will be far more important to our security than what happens in Iraq,” he said. “Other than the compromise of a nuclear weapon in Pakistan, this is the worst thing that could have happened, and probably at the worst time.”

Daniel Markey, senior fellow for Asian affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the biggest loss for U.S. officials will likely be a delay in the elections scheduled for next month, a move they had been pushing as a stabilizing step for the entire region.

“It’s a bad day for Pakistan and a bad day for the United States, and it’s one I think we’ll be paying for it for a while,” he said.

Army Lt. Col. Gary Tallman, spokesman for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, said Thursday that Pentagon officials were still assessing the situation, but there has been no change in the movement of military cargo and supplies through Karachi or other U.S. operations in Pakistan.


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