Conspiracy theories and cover-up
By Carol Devine-Molin
Who was behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto as she again campaigned for elective office in Pakistan? The Musharraf government places the blame squarely on the forces of radical Islam, specifically pro-Taliban, al-Qaida-linked tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud who threatened to kill Bhutto even before she arrived back in Pakistan just a few short months ago, with the statement that she would be "welcomed with suicide bombers". On the other hand, the Bhutto camp is blaming Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's army and members of the military-run Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).
Initially, both sides were even at variance on the cause of Bhutto's mortal wounds: Bhutto's family and supporters maintain that she died from gunshot wounds, and possibly shrapnel, brought about by an assassin who got off a series of shots before self-detonating; In contrast, the Musharraf regime first resorted to blatant fabrication, claiming that the bomb blast propelled Bhutto's head into a sunroof lever, thus fracturing her skull. Nobody in their right mind was buying that bunkum. Well now, in what amounts to damage control mode, a government spokesman has requested "forgiveness" for issuing that previous cockamamie "sunroof lever" story, but we're not to fret since the regime absolutely vows to closely scrutinize TV footage and other available evidence moving forward. Ahh, I feel so much better now that I've been reassured by bunch of autocrats, whose stock-in-trade is manipulation and liberal use of "rolling disclosure".
Heaven help us; there's more mystery and intrigue surrounding these circumstances than in any Agatha Christie novel. As if this wasn't enough to make anyone head's spin, the Musharraf government was first unwilling to permit outsiders from abroad to conduct the post-mortem and murder investigation. In a counter move, Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, acting on behalf of his family, contributed to the obfuscation by opposing an autopsy and further examination of the body. That was a smart tactic. Essentially, the Bhutto-Zardari clan doesn't want the Musharraf forces bollixing-up the evidence and making further pronouncements. Paradoxically, until independent forensics can be achieved, both the Musharraf and Bhutto camps benefit from a dearth of information so that they can better spin their particular narrative. It doesn't get any better than this for aficionados of the "who-dunit" genre.
Musharraf is a very bright guy, and it's axiomatic that you never want to do is make a martyr out of a political opponent. Frankly, it's difficult to see how Musharraf benefits from Benazir Bhutto's murder during this intense run-up to the election. Let's start with the fact that the Pakistanis are now very upset with Musharraf because, in their minds, he failed to ensure Bhutto's safety. [It's irrelevant that she was girding for martyrdom, and was patently reckless by emerging from her sunroof and failing to arrange for adequate security]. Moreover, Bhutto's "martyrdom" is sure to create a backlash sympathy vote, which all but guarantees that her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) will perform admirably at the polls, requiring Musharraf to engage in a power-sharing arrangement with the PPP's leaders.
The Bhutto political dynasty continues unabated, despite the tragic loss of Benazir: Although Benazir Bhutto's nineteen year old son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, has been named the chairman of the PPP, he holds somewhat of a ceremonial role until he wraps up his university studies. For now, Bilawal's father, Asif Ali Zardari, is performing the day-to-day political functions of leadership, but Zardari indicates that he does not aspire to the prime minister position. That being said, the PPP is still in the throes of regrouping and reorganizing for the national election that's been postponed until February 18, 2008.
As to Bhutto's allegation that Musharraf and Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, were scheming to rig the upcoming election, excuse me for being blasé, but so what? That story was circulating for awhile, and I would refer the reader to Bob Novak's 12/3/07 column. In any event, Bhutto was reportedly scheduled to meet with Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Patrick Kennedy to discuss the matter on December 27th the day she was assassinated. Even if the charge is accurate, it's par for the course in Pakistan, which arguably has one of the most corrupt political cultures known to mankind.
Let's not forget that as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto was thrown out of office twice due to corruption. Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, known as "Mr. Ten Percent", were regularly soliciting kick backs from companies doing business with Pakistan. Zardari was incarcerated for a lengthy stay, and Bhutto had outstanding charges that Musharraf graciously quashed in October 2007, enabling her return to Pakistan and run for office. And no, I don't think Musharraf et al killed Bhutto, even if she was about to snitch on them with a dossier in tow.
It's the militant forces tied to the Taliban and al-Qaida that had every reason to orchestrate Benazir Bhutto's demise. Although a Left-wing populist, Bhutto had evolved considerably in her political philosophy, and morphed into a pro-democracy, pro-American stance, as she became increasingly determined to save her nation from the scourge of radical Islam. She shared the hope of the Bush administration that the upcoming election would advance both political reconciliation and democratization in Pakistan. Unfortunately, at least in the short run, Bhutto's assassination has generated an expansion of mayhem and instability in Pakistan.
It's instructive to note that the Islamo-fascists are always threatened by the specter of freedom and democratization, which help inoculate a populace against radicalization. Hence, the fanatics are working assiduously to thwart democratization and promote chaos in Pakistan, as they tried in Iraq. And let's not forget that despite her foibles, Bhutto was a brilliant, beautiful, and valiant woman of substance, who was specifically targeted by these Islamic militants due to her gender. Sadly, she wasn't destined to survive long in a culture that's becoming increasingly radicalized. On a more optimistic note, Benazir Bhutto has been elevated to an iconic figure – a woman who, for love of country, remained steadfastly courageous in the face of overwhelming odds.
As to the ongoing probe of the Bhutto's assassination, the Pakistan government is reportedly in possession of phone intercepts that implicate radical chieftain Baitullah Mehsud and his associates. Mehsud is thought to have ordered the October 18, 2007 attack on Bhutto as well; She emerged unscathed from that previous attempt on her life. Mehsud commands forces in South Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan's North-West frontier near Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and other key al-Qaida figures are also believed to be holed up.
That being said, the Jihadi movement has infiltrated not only elements in the armed forces and intelligence services, but individuals throughout Pakistani society. Make no mistake; although they're still in the minority, these compromised "pod people" are well capable of wreaking destruction upon Pakistan. The problem with Musharraf is that he's not acting like a full fledged partner with the US in this war-on-terror. He's trying to finesse the situation and utilize half-measures rather than engaging the radical Islamists in a "no holds barred" manner. It's a bone of contention among many Americans that Musharraf is taking our millions and playing a double game, doing just enough to placate the powers that be.
Understandably, Musharraf feels he's sitting atop a powder keg that could tear his nation apart. But the larger truth is that you can't placate these militant thugs – they have to be dealt with. Right now, a number of al-Qaida leaders and operatives are ensconced in Pakistan's North-West frontier. Obviously, there should be no terror sanctuary. The American and coalition forces need to be able to go in there and clean out that vipers' den.
Musharraf himself is in significant peril of being assassinated by the same fanatics that just murdered Benazir Bhutto. I wouldn't be surprised if Musharraf has had enough of the pressure cooker that he now finds himself in, and bails out (or is pushed out) in the near future. Irrespective of Musharraf, we must continue to maintain Pakistan as one of our key allies in this war-on-terror, and we also need to ensure that its nuclear arsenal is kept in secure hands. If September 11th has taught us anything, it's that we in America must remain alert to circumstances occurring half way around the world, if we intend to stay safe from the terror-masters.
Carol Devine-Molin is a regular contributor to several online magazines.