Musharraf behind Bhutto assassination?

Pakistan’s biggest city of Karachi is completely shut down after rioters burned dozens of cars and set fire to stores in outrage at the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. All the city’s petrol stations are sealed off and street lights were turned off. Protestors exchanged fire with the police in some parts of the city. Bhutto was killed along with at least 20 others in a suicide blast on an election rally in Rawalpindi. More than 60 were also injured in the attack. (Bloomberg, Dec. 27) At least five are reported dead in the Karachi violence. A passenger train was set on fire at Hyderabad, in Bhutto’s stronghold of Sindh province. At Bhutto’s home town of Larkana, Sindh, crowds set two banks on fire. In Multan some protesters fired shots into the air, and police fired teargas into crowds in Peshawar. When the hundreds of Bhutto supporters outside the hospital in Rawalpindi got word of her death, some smashed the glass door of the emergency unit, threw stones at cars and clashed with police, shouting: “Killer, killer, Musharraf!” (London Times)

While conceding that “it’s too early at this point” to assign blame, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said: “Whoever perpetrated this attack is an enemy of democracy and has used a tactic which al-Qaeda is very familiar with, and that is suicide bombing and the taking of innocent lives to try to disrupt a democratic process.” (AFP) Bruce Riedel, a former US intelligence official who helped make South Asia policy in the Poppy Bush and Clinton administrations, says the assassination “was almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s Pakistani allies.” (Newsweek) Gen. Musharraf has issued the requisite condemnation of the assassination, calling it “a great tragedy.” (PTI) Few mainstream sources today are recalling that Bhutto herself repeatedly invoked official complicity by Musharraf’s security services in the previous attempts on her life.

Writing in the online edition of New York’s The Nation, Aziz Huq in “A Death in Rawalpindi” recalls the long incestuous relationship between Pakistan’s reigning strongman and the radical Islamists now conveniently dubbed “al-Qaeda”:

[T]he assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Liaqut Bagh in Rawalpindi, along with more than a dozen others, echoes back into Pakistan’s troubled history…

It was at Liaquat Bagh that Pakistan’s second prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was killed as he addressed a public meeting in October 1951; four years later, martial law would be declared, even before a first constitution could be promulgated.

And it was close to the site of today’s bombing at Liaqat Bagh, in the Rawalpindi Central Jail, that Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged at 2 AM April 4, 1979. Executions were usually held at dawn, but the military government wanted to avoid public protests. Neither Zulfiqar’s wife nor his daughter was notified in time to be present at Zulfikar’s death, or at his burial.

Like his daughter, Zulfiqar had also been an elected prime minister of Pakistan. Indeed, he had set in motion Pakistan relatively fair elections in March 1977–only to see his victory snatched away by a military coup (“Operation Fairplay”) by his former friend and ally Army-General Muhammad Ziaul Haq. With no little irony, the United States-supported Zia struck on the night of July 4, 1977.

Like today’s American-sustained generalissimo Pervez Musharraf, Zia relied on the mullahs and on machine guns from America to make up the deficit of democracy. Thanks to the intermediating role that Pakistan’s secret services, the ISI, played in the Afghan mujahideen’s war against the Soviet occupation, Zia could rely on American support even as he postponed elections (first slated for 1979), hounded the judiciary into subservience and then elevated puritanical religious factions into national political actors. For it was Zia who first created a federal Shariat Court and a national council, or Majlis-e-Shoora, to preside over his conceit of an “Islamic democracy.”

At his death in August 1988, Zia left behind what political scientist Ayesha Jalal accurately describes as “a subservient, fragmented, highly monetized, corrupt and violent political system”–a system that apparently merits American fealty to its dying day.

Sound familiar? It should. In his years as President and Army Chief, Musharaff gradually chipped away at the political space for PPP and its main electoral competitor, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-Q, as well as imposing increasing pressure on a fiercely independent press. Instead, he relied on the six-party Islamist party alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, which today governs two of Pakistan’s four federal units, Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan. In the past year, he has gutted again the judiciary of independent-minded judges such as Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. And during Musharraf’s tenure, the military leadership has extended its control, kudzu-like, into more and more sectors of the economy, from construction to breakfast cereals. Today, estimates military analyst Ayesha Siddeque, the five conglomerates, or “welfare foundations,” under military control own about $20 billion of assets and twelve billion hectares of land. This stake in the nation’s economic life means the military necessarily has a large and persisting interest in control of the political process…

Since 1955, Pakistan has been ruled by generals with only brief intervals. In the wake of lawyers’ protests, judicial resistance and international pressure, it seemed the thread of democracy might be recaptured. However imperfect Benazir and PPP might have been, at least they relied on the ballot box, and not on the Kalashnikov and the Qur’an. However corrupt the PPP might have been, at least they could be booted out in one election or other.

The death of the major opposition leader will make it easier for Musharraf to assemble a parliamentary coalition to do his bidding in the coming January elections. It renders more distant the possibility of elections that are not manipulated and leaders who respond to the people rather than to bosses in uniform. And it makes it less likely that the Pakistani military will shift from its symbiotic entanglement with religious hardliners at the polls and in the streets…

It should escape no one’s attention that Musharaff has relied so far on the openly pro-Taliban religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), particularly in the troubled province of Balochistan. News reports have consistently and plausibly identified Balochistan as the hiding place for high-level Al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, who can rely on sympathetic tribal and religious leaders. Musharraf depends for his political survival on political factions that are at minimum sympathetic to America’s core enemy, and at worst are abetting the terrorist leadership’s continued evasion of detection and arrest. In the muck of Pakistan’s domestic politics, the friend of our friend may well be our enemy. Ironically, the Bush Administration has been backing a military leader who, even as he claimed to rein in religious militants, depends on them for his electoral success.

Without democracy, though, there is not even a remote possibility of severing this fatal bond, and putting an end to sanctuary for Al Qaeda’s leadership. Without democracy, there is scant chance that the tribal and religious leaders who have provided the Taliban with a strategic sanctuary can be won over. Without democracy, there is little chance for reform of madrassas that spew out “martyrs” not only for Kashmir and Afghanistan, and also give aid and comfort to the very small number in the West looking for justifications of violence…

The Bush Administration’s policy with respect to Pakistan, in short, is a train wreck. As usual, the White House has assumed that military force–here deployed by a vassal state–could clamp down on terrorism. As usual, it has utterly failed to understand complex relations, here the links between ISI and Al Qaeda going back to the Afghan war, and the way in which corruption and a drift to purely “faith-based” politics push more and more people toward the violently eschatological ideology of our enemies…

The death of Benazir Bhutto shows that the Bush Administration has left itself no way out. Beyond the tragedy of Pakistan’s history cruelly replaying itself, today should go down as the day it became clear how badly the Bush Administration has failed in the region. For on September 12, 2001, there was one failed state that could be a terrorist haven. Today, it is violently and tragically clear, that the Administration’s policies have wrought two more failed states that could, and likely will, sustain terrorist activities in the future.

The two more failed states are, of course, Iraq and Pakistan. Today everyone takes it for granted that the “mission accomplished” victory in Iraq was a sham. We’ve warned before that the quick victory over the Taliban in November 2001 could also prove horrifically Phyrric if the fallout is destabilization of (nuclear-armed) Pakistan.

In her New York Times op-ed piece of Nov. 7, Benazir Bhutto wrote that Nov. 3—the day Musharraf declared martial law—”will be remembered as the blackest day in the history of Pakistan.” It may prove that was only a prelude to the darkness to follow Dec. 27, the day of her own assassination.

See our last post on Pakistan.

ERRATA: Contrary to Aziz Huq’s text, the PML-Q is not Nawaz Sharif’s party but Musharraf’s. Sharif’s is the PML-N.

  1. Al-Qaeda claims Bhutto killing?
    Asia Times Dec. 29 is seemingly first to report al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility (bracketed interjections in original):

    KARACHI – “We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat mujahideen.” These were the words of al-Qaeda’s top commander for Afghanistan operations and spokesperson Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, immediately after the attack that claimed the life of Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto on Thursday (December 27)…

    “This is our first major victory against those [eg, Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf] who have been siding with infidels [the West] in a fight against al-Qaeda and declared a war against mujahideen,” Mustafa told Asia Times Online by telephone.

    He said the death squad consisted of Punjabi associates of the underground anti-Shi’ite militant group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, operating under al-Qaeda orders.

    We noted in June 2002 that Lashkar-i-Jhangvi was one of three groups targeted in Musharraf’s post-9-11 crackdown, along with Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Muhammad. The latter two were most active in the Kashmir resistance—with Jaish-i-Muhhamad also named in the slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the 2001 attack on the New Delhi parliament building. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi was largely accused in attacks on Shi’ites. Lashkar-i-Taiba seems the most active lately, implicated in the 2006 Mumbai bombings, and attacks on Sufis in Kashmir. The three groups were said to have merged as Lashkar-i-Omar—named for Ahmed Omar Sheikh, the Jaish-i-Muhammad leader accused of masterminding the Pearl murder.

    Asia Times paints a grim picture:

    The assassination of Bhutto was apparently only one of the goals of a large al-Qaeda plot, the existence of which was revealed earlier this month.

    On December 6, a Pakistani intelligence agency tracked a cell phone conversation between a militant leader and a local cleric, in which a certain Maulana Asadullah Khalidi was named. The same day, Khalidi was arrested during a raid in Karachi. The arrest, in turn, led to the arrest of a very high-profile non-Pakistani militant leader, which, it is said, revealed an operation aimed at wiping out “precious American assets” in Pakistan, including Musharraf and Bhutto.

    The operation is said to have involved hundreds of cells all over Pakistan to track targets and communicate with their command, which would then send out death squads.

    Mustafa referred to a recent address by Bhutto in North West Frontier Province, in which she lambasted Islamic extremism and asked the people to stand against it. Bhutto was the only Pakistani leader who regularly spoke against al-Qaeda.

    See our last post on al-Qaeda.

  2. Musharraf blames Taliban
    Musharraf’s security services point to an obvious culprit—and deny widespread claims that Bhutto was shot in the neck moments before the suicide blast. From the LA Times, Dec. 28:

    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was laid to rest in her ancestral village today, the government of President Pervez Musharraf laid blame for her murder on a pro-Taliban commander but provided no evidence of to back up its claim…

    In addition to blaming pro-Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud for Bhutto’s death, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry made a startling claim: that Bhutto had not been shot, as doctors and eyewitnesses reported, but that she had died of a fracture from striking her head.

    “No bullets … were found in her body,” Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told journalists.

    Incredulous aides to Bhutto scoffed at the notion. “We all saw what happened to her,” said one senior associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity…

    Blaming Baitullah Mahsud requires no great detective work, as the militant leader pledged to assassinate Bhutto as soon as she arrived back in Pakistan. He is also a key leader of the Waziristan insurgency, and has been linked before to terror attacks in Rawalpindi. But, as Bhutto’s supporters are now pointing out, the mere fact that the jihadists are able to attack Rawalpindi with impunity raises eyebrows, as it is the heavily-garrisoned command center for the Pakistani military…

    It gets worse—apparently, no formal autopsy was conducted before Bhutto’s remains were interred. From India’s IBN news agency, Dec. 28:

    In an explosive revelation, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz on Friday said that Bhutto did not die of bullet wounds.

    Nawaz said that Bhutto died from a head injury. At least seven doctors from the Rawalpindi General Hospital – where the leader was rushed immediately after the attack – say there were no bullet marks on Bhutto’s body.

    The doctors have submitted a report to the Pakistan government in which they say that no post-mortem was performed on Bhutto’s body and they had not received any instructions to perform one…

    Government sources say there will be an investigation to determine why no autopsy was conducted.

  3. Police abandoned security posts before Bhutto slaying?
    Kudos to Raw Story for picking this one up. From a Dec. 27 McClatchy Newspapers first-person account by Saeed Shah (emphasis added):

    I was standing near the rally stage, about 30 to 40 yards away from the scene of the shooting. There was pandemonium. On hearing the shots, I started running toward the scene. Then came the explosion. I ran back a bit. I didn’t see the killer, and by the time I got to the gates, Bhutto’s SUV was driving to a Rawalpindi hospital. She didn’t have a chance.


    Police officers had frisked the 3,000 to 4,000 people attending Thursday’s rally when they entered the park, but as the speakers from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party droned on, the police abandoned many of their posts. As she drove out through the gate, her main protection appeared to be her own bodyguards, who wore their usual white T-shirts inscribed: “Willing to die for Benazir.”

    Which recalls the similar claims Bhutto herself made following the Oct. 18 attempt on her life, which claimed 136 lives in Karachi.

  4. Pakistan refuses foreign aid in Bhutto probe
    From Canada’s CTV, Dec. 29:

    Pakistan’s government has refused help from foreign officials in investigating how political figure Benazir Bhutto died, after an official report that she suffered a skull fracture came under criticism.

    “This is not an ordinary criminal matter in which we require assistance of the international community. I think we are capable of handling it,” Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said Saturday.

    According to CTV’s Paul Workman, reporting from Pakistan, a local television crew filming Bhutto’s final moments recorded a man firing a gun close to Bhutto’s SUV.

    Sherry Rehman, who was in the same vehicle as Bhutto when the political leader was slain, told CNN that Bhutto was shot.

    “I have seen the bullet wound at the back of her head,” said Rehman.

    “To say that she was concussed from the sunroof is dangerous nonsense. They are absolving themselves of responsibility for providing her better security.”

    A video released by the government clearly has the sound of at least three shots being fired before the suicide bomber triggered his explosive device.

    Several witnesses say they saw Bhutto hit by bullets.

    The government claimed Friday that Bhutto died of a skull fracture suffered after a suicide bomber’s explosives were detonated. It says that her head struck a lever for her armoured SUV’s sunroof.

  5. Taliban denies Bhutto plot
    From the New York Times, Dec. 30:

    The government has tried to deflect…anger, blaming militants linked to Al Qaeda, specifically Baitullah Mehsud, for having masterminded the attack. But on Saturday, through a spokesman, Mr. Mehsud denied he was responsible and dismissed the allegations, adding fuel to the notion of a government conspiracy.

    “Neither Baitullah Mehsud nor any of his associates were involved in the assassination of Benazir, because raising your hand against women is against our tribal values and customs,” the spokesman, Maulavi Omar, said in a telephone call from the tribal region of South Waziristan. “Only those people who stood to gain politically are involved in Benazir’s murder,” he said.

    One of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, The Daily Times, noted Saturday that such denials were a common tactic used to obscure the origins of the militants’ attacks, and in particular to extend the myth that the bombings are the work of foreign elements, rather than of Pakistanis.

    Al Qaeda in Pakistan now comprises not just foreigners but Pakistani tribesmen from border regions, as well as Punjabis and Urdu speakers and members of banned sectarian and Sunni extremists groups, Najam Sethi, editor of The Daily Times, wrote in a front-page analysis. “Al Qaeda is now as much a Pakistani phenomenon as it is an Arab or foreign element,” he wrote.

    Meanwhile, Islamabad is claiming a smoking gun. From AP, Dec. 29:

    A transcript released by the Pakistani government Friday of a purported conversation between militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is referred to as Emir Sahib, and another man identified as a Maulvi Sahib, or Mr. Cleric. The government alleges the intercepted conversation proves al-Qaida was behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto:
    Maulvi Sahib: Peace be on you.

    Mehsud: Peace be on you, too.

    Maulvi Sahib: How are you Emir Sahib?

    Mehsud: Fine.

    Maulvi Sahib: Congratulations. I arrived now tonight.

    Mehsud: Congratulations to you, too.

    Maulvi Sahib: They were our men there.

    Mehsud: Who were they?

    Maulvi Sahib : There were Saeed, the second was Badarwala Bilal and Ikramullah was also there.

    Mehsud: The three did it?

    Maulvi Sahib: Ikramullah and Bilal did it.

    Mehsud: Then congratulations to you again.

    Maulvi: Where are you? I want to meet with you?

    Mehsud: I am in Makin. Come I am at Anwar Shah’s home.

    Maulvi Sahib: OK I will come.

    Mehsud: Do not inform their family presently.

    Maulvi Sahib: Right.

    Mehsud: It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her.

    Maulvi Sahib: Praise be to God. I will give you more details when I come.

    Mehsud: I will wait for you. Congratulation once again.

    Maulvi Sahib: Congratulations to you as well.

    Mehsud: Any service?

    Mauvliv: Thank you very much?

    Mehsud: Peace be on you.

    Maulvi: Same to you.

  6. Arrest in Bhutto assassination
    Pakistani authorities say they have arrested a teenage boy who confessed to being part of the team ordered to kill Bhutto. He has also apparently named Baitullah Mehsud as the mastermind of the operation. (BBC, Jan. 20) The CIA has also released a formal assessment that Meshud was behind the attack—but the rather obvious conclusion is being met with some skepticism in Pakistan. Reports the New York Times Jan. 19:

    Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director, discussed the agency’s conclusion in an interview with The Washington Post published Friday.

    Some friends and supporters of Ms. Bhutto questioned the C.I.A. conclusions, especially since the former leader was buried before a full forensic investigation had been conducted. The British government has since sent a team from Scotland Yard to participate in the investigation into the assassination.

    “The C.I.A. appears too eager to bail out its liaison services in Pakistan, who are being blamed by most Pakistanis,” said Husain Haqqani, a former adviser to Ms. Bhutto and a professor at Boston University.

    “Given the division inside Pakistan on this issue, it might be better to have an international investigation under the aegis of the U.N.,” Mr. Haqqani said.

  7. Another arrest in Bhutto assassination
    From Pakistan’s Daily Times, Feb. 27:

    LAHORE — Law-enforcement officials arrested on Monday a militant connected to the October 18, 2007, assassination attempt on slain former premier Benazir Bhutto. Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz told AFP that Benazir had accused Qari Saifullah Akhtar of plotting against her in her posthumously published memoirs. A close ally of Al Qaeda’s Mullah Omar, Saifullah was arrested from an under-construction mosque in Ferozwala, intelligence sources told Daily Times. They said his three sons had also been arrested.