The Musharraf government's ability to answer that question may determine its future

ADNAN R. KHAN January 28 2008


The Musharraf government's ability to answer that question may determine its future

ADNAN R. KHAN January 28 2008

It could, morbidly, be called a stroke of genius: in the midst of thousands of supporters at a rally in a large public park, assassins murder the most popular leader in Pakistan and then blow themselves up to erase the evidence. No one takes responsibility, spawning chaos and conspiracy theories that have spiralled Pakistan into its worst crisis ever.

So many questions still remain unanswered in what Pakistan, and the world at large, is calling the worst political assassination in this 60-year-old nation’s turbulent history one already littered with assassinations and politically motivated killings. The murder of Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27, allegedly by Islamic militants, is the lens through which Pakistan’s many problems have come into focus. Extremists, corruption and nepotism, militarism, dictatorship and democracy—the challenges Pakistan faces are as complex as the conspiracy theories circling around Bhutto’s grave. From the mystery surrounding the cause of death to the debate over who was behind it, in the bubbling cauldron of accusations and counter-accusations Pakistan is being forced to face its own demons.

Is it up to the task?

That question looms darkly over President Pervez Musharraf, hinging on how clearly and decisively he can clear up the issues surrounding Bhutto’s murder and bring those responsible to justice. “This investigation is the new benchmark for Musharraf,” says Enver Baig, a Pakistani senator and member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), of which Bhutto was chairwoman, even during her eight years in self-imposed exile due to corruption charges that continued to dog her up until her death. “If he is seen to be covering up for certain elements of the army or intelligence services, then he is finished. If it’s shown that the security apparatus failed in preventing another militant attack, then he is also finished.”

Either way, Musharraf finds himself in the most tenuous position of his nine-year reign, amid suspicions that there may have been official collusion in Bhutto’s assassination. His government has been accused of failing to provide adequate security for Bhutto even after her Oct. 18 homecoming parade was hit by suicide bombers who killed at least 150 of her supporters. And then there is the bungling that took place following her killing. As the government flip-flopped over the way she died, first saying it was due to a bullet wound, and then an unlikely head injury from a lever attached to the sunroof of her car, Musharraf remained uncharacteristically silent. Even as accusations of a cover-up surfaced, after it was revealed that precious evidence at the scene of the explosion could have been destroyed when police washed the site clean within hours of the attack, Musharraf was nowhere to be seen—adding to people’s sense that maybe he had something to hide. “If you place all of the facts in juxtaposition,” says Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the PPP, “you’ll see that the various theories give rise to a tremendous amount of suspicion.”

Those theories have more than enough fodder to feed on. The hasty cleanup of the crime scene is only one in a string of oddities. Another is the medical report signed by the doctors who worked on Bhutto in the emergency room of the Rawalpindi General Hospital, which has been called fraudulent by some PPP members, a claim officials vehemently deny. “That’s an irresponsible thing to say,” says Dr. Azam Yusuf, head of surgery at the hospital and one of the authors of the report. “It will blow up in their faces.” The PPP has officially backed away from accusation of fraud, saying instead that its lawyers are currently “examining their options.” 

Nonetheless, doctors in France who examined the report on behalf of Maclean’s are perplexed. The report, they claim, is not normal. The way the wound to the head is described is compatible with a bullet, says Dr. Vincent Royon, an emergency room doctor in Paris with extensive experience dealing with bullet wounds, referring to the same injury above Bhutto’s right ear that Pakistan’s Interior Ministry claims was caused by an impact with a sunroof lever. “But where is the bullet? I’ve never seen a situation like this before where a bullet wound is described but there is no bullet showing up on X-rays, and no exit wound.” Based on video evidence showing the shooter pointing the gun some 30 or 40 degrees upward, Royon says there would have to be a bullet lodged somewhere in the head, or an exit wound in the head. The chances are very slim, in his opinion, that a bullet travelling at that angle would ricochet off the skull and end up somewhere else—in the neck, for example. Nonetheless, initial reports claimed that Bhutto was also shot in the neck, a claim that mysteriously vanished later in the investigation. Unlikely as Royon says it is, could that have been the exit wound? “Why then isn’t there an examination of the neck in the report?” Royan asks. “I can’t say it’s a falsification, but it is certainly incomplete.”

The sunroof lever theory has little merit, according to Royon—the nature of the head injury does not indicate a blunt impact. However, shrapnel from the bomb blast, though unlikely, is possible. “I’ve never seen a wound from a bomb before,” he says. “But still, you would expect either an exit wound or the presence of a foreign body lodged in the head. The absence of both makes this report highly suspect.”

With Musharraf now admitting on Jan. 12 that a bullet was a possible cause of death, the report’s omissions seem that much more damning. Add to that speculation that security measures at Bhutto’s rally were somehow manipulated to allow the attackers a chance to carry out their mission, and the president is in a tight spot indeed.

One mitigating factor for Musharraf is that it now appears security was sufficient within the park itself where the rally was held. “Security was tight going into the park,” says Ghulam Murtaza, a 37-year-old PPP activist recovering from the blast at Rawalpindi General Hospital. “There were walk-through metal detectors at all of the entrances. We were all checked before we went in.” Other survivors verify Murtaza’s account, adding that the attackers were probably never in the park proper. Instead, they were likely waiting at the gate from which Bhutto’s car exited—unchecked and looking for an opportunity to strike. “There was a rush of people when the car came out,” says Murtaza. “No one tried to stop them. That’s when [Bhutto] stood up out of the sunroof. Then I heard the shots.”

Many Pakistanis are now asking where that crowd outside of the park came from—and why it was allowed to rush the car. Adding to suspicions of foul play is a statement from the police officer in charge of security that day. Recovering from his wounds in hospital, Ishtiaq Hussain Shah described the crowd as “appearing out of nowhere,” chanting PPP slogans. “I don’t know who they were or from where they came,” he said in an interview with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. It was to greet this crowd that Bhutto made the fatal mistake of emerging from the sunroof of her blastproof SUV, offering herself as a target. Shah also said that electricity at the site of the attack suddenly shut down near the end of the rally, disabling metal detectors. Representatives at the power distribution station responsible for electricity in that district of Rawalpindi, however, deny that claim.

Gleaning an overarching criminal intent from a crowd of overzealous well-wishers, and a possible power outage at a time when Pakistan faces regular electricity shutdowns because of a worsening energy crisis, may seem a bit of a stretch. But the atmosphere in this perennially delusional nation is so charged these days that anything is possible. In one report, a PPP member was quoted in an Indian newspaper alleging that a high-tech laser weapon had felled his leader. Another imaginative PPP politician, perhaps trying to liken Bhutto’s assassination to John F. Kennedy’s, said there were two shooters involved—a Pakistani version of the Grassy Knoll theory. “I heard two distinct types of shots,” he told Maclean’s, claiming to be a close friend of Bhutto’s but requesting anonymity. The fact that he was in the process of diving over a brick wall for cover as the shooter fired may have affected his hearing. Witnesses close to the attack who are recovering in hospital beds all say they heard one sound—two or three bursts from a pistol in quick succession and then the blast.

Speculation about laser fire and snipers aside, the leading theories do appear to have one thing in common: the involvement of Islamic militants. No one doubts that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have the most to gain from destabilizing Pakistan. “Our first suspect is al-Qaeda sympathizers,” writes George Friedman, founder of Stratfor, a leading intelligence service based in Austin, Texas, in a Jan. 2 analysis of Bhutto’s assassination, “who would benefit from the confusion spawned by the killing of an important political leader.”

As Musharraf pointed out in his first press conference after the assassination (fully a week later), trying to refute allegations that authorities were somehow complicit in Bhutto’s death, “The security agencies of Pakistan do not indoctrinate youth.” But militant organizations, of which Pakistan has a healthy share, do. The suicide bomber who blew himself up, along with at least 16 PPP supporters, was almost certainly recruited from one of these outfits. Who recruited him? And what of the shooter, the clean-cut young man who, based on video and eyewitness evidence, allegedly fired the fatal shot, hitting Bhutto in the head just above her right ear? Who was his backer? Were there, in fact, two attackers, or, as some are speculating, were the shooter and bomber one and the same person?

These will be difficult questions to answer after so much of the crime scene, including Bhutto’s SUV, has been wiped clean. On Jan. 4, at Musharraf’s request, a special Scotland Yard team arrived in Pakistan, in part to help deal with these difficulties, as Musharraf acknowledged during his press conference. “What we need to have is more expertise, more forensic expertise, which maybe we don’t have,” he conceded. “But we are very conscious of certain sensitivities.” Those “sensitivities” relate specifically to any probe into his or the government and military’s potential involvement in the assassination. That, the Pakistani president said, will not be allowed. In fact, Scotland Yard’s mandate in the investigation does not even include determining the perpetrator, reinforcing the PPP’s claim that the foreign investigators represent nothing more than an insincere attempt to add a veneer of credibility to the investigation.

With evidence missing, and the only available medical report questionable at best, a definitive cause of death will be difficult in the absence of a full autopsy. That would require exhuming the body, something both Yusuf, the surgeon at Rawalpindi General, and Musharraf have called for. But the Bhutto family, primarily her husband, is not allowing it. “If investigators request an autopsy,” says Babar, the PPP’s spokesman, “we will consider it.” The sticking point, however, appears to be who the “investigators” are. For the PPP, the only credible investigation can be carried out by the United Nations. In the absence of a UN team, the party will likely not allow anyone to dig up its beloved leader’s remains, adding to speculation that the PPP wants to maintain some level of uncertainty to keep the conspiracy theories of government involvement alive. But Musharraf has flatly rejected any UN-led investigation, telling France’s Le Figaro newspaper that Pakistan has its own institutions to deal with the investigation, with help from the Scotland Yard team.

But, says the PPP’s Babar, “Scotland Yard is being guided by the Pakistani authorities. We believe that they cannot be free agents.” That sentiment, however unlikely, is echoed by many Pakistanis who have lost trust in Musharraf and the government establishment. Will answering the “how” of Bhutto’s killing—no matter how remote that possibility might now be—be enough to overcome that mistrust, even as polls show nearly 50 per cent of people believe the government was somehow involved? In the absence of hard evidence linking al-Qaeda or Taliban militants to the killing, the possibility of conclusively figuring out “whodunit” seems remote.

But looking at the “why” behind Bhutto’s killing could provide some clues as to who carried it out. As with much else surrounding her demise, this is a matter of debate, although most analysts and observers agree that Musharraf was likely not involved. Considering Bhutto’s own moderate outlook, and on-again, off-again deals with him, he had very little to gain from having his only real political rival—and potential ally—killed. With the negative fallout from the state of emergency he declared on Nov. 3 still threatening his future, Bhutto represented the only legitimizing force to Musharraf’s continued rule. Despite Bhutto’s public vow never to support Musharraf after he called the emergency, behind closed doors there was still hope for a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance following the elections that were scheduled for Jan. 8 (they have been postponed until Feb. 18).

However, there is speculation that Musharraf had one thing to gain from eliminating Bhutto: the demise of the PPP. “Politics works differently in Pakistan,” says Baig, the PPP senator. “When you have over 50 per cent illiteracy in the country, you can’t expect people to have a political consciousness. Thirty per cent of the way people vote in elections depends on the local candidate, 70 per cent on the party’s leader.” Killing the leader, following one line of logic, could kill the party. But sympathy for Bhutto and the anger arising from the perception that Musharraf was somehow involved in the assassination have damaged the standing of the PML-Q, the party backing the president; in fact, banking on the sympathy vote, PPP leaders were demanding elections go on as scheduled. Postponing the vote until Feb. 18 could work in Musharraf’s favour, taking the edge off the electorate’s disgust over the killing—and giving time for other factors to come into play.

The process of choosing a new leader, for example, has already hurt the PPP, especially among the educated middle class. Installing Bhutto’s 19-year-old son Bilawal as chairman under the stewardship of her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, based on instructions left in her will, is increasingly viewed as nepotistic and contrary to the ideology of a party that claims to stand for democracy. The mystery over the real contents of the will, which has never been made public despite demands from the PPP’s opponents, has fuelled further speculation that the party is not as interested in democracy as it claims to be. And Zardari’s intransigence over allowing an autopsy also plays into the hands of the PPP’s critics, who question whether the party can be genuinely interested in exposing the killers even as it refuses to countenance such a crucial investigative move.

Ultimately, though, the chaos and uncertainty strengthens militants intent on the disintegration of Pakistan’s faltering democratic process. Supporters of the al-Qaeda/ Taliban theory point to this as the strongest evidence of a militant plot to kill Bhutto. Extremist leaders had regularly threatened her life. Still, shortly after the assassination, a spokesperson for Baitullah Mehsud, the top commander of the newly formed Tehriki-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban Movement), a coalition of pro-Taliban groups operating in the Tribal Areas along the Afghan border and in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), denied involvement. “If we wanted to kill her,” one senior commander told Maclean's, “we would have done it when she was in Peshawar. But we do not target women and children.” It was an odd statement, considering the group had already promised to kill Bhutto. But then, why would it deny responsibility? And why would militants intent on killing Bhutto risk a possibly unsuccessful attack in Rawalpindi, the heart of Pakistan’s military establishment, where security is the highest it’s been for decades after a string of suicide bombings over the past year?

“Bhutto traveled from Karachi to the Khyber Pass and no one attacked her,” points out Riaz Ali, a PPP supporter paying his respects at the site of her murder. “Why did they attack her here? Where there was real danger, where the Taliban are a real threat, there was no attack.” In fact, Bhutto’s Dec. l-2 visit to Peshawar, capital of the NWFP, gateway to the historic Khyber Pass and gatekeeper to the tribal lands where Taliban and al-Qaeda-inspired militancy is firmly rooted, was hailed as a political coup among moderates. She had entered the hornets’ nest and emerged unscathed, even strengthened, some analysts argued.

One possibility is that the militant leaders preferred to sow their seeds of chaos and derail the democratic process by attacking at the political centre, then allowing the mystery around the assassination to evolve into mass hysteria. Attacking her on their home turf would have made the question of culpability seem obvious. If that’s the case, the strategy seems to be working. Fear and uncertainty now grip many parts of the country. The riots that followed the killing, especially in the southern Sindh province, Bhutto’s ancestral home, have shaken Pakistanis, even in this nation accustomed to violence. In a sign of the lingering tensions, chaos erupted in some major cities in Sindh after a rumour circulated about the assassination of two more major political leaders. The rumour proved false but it sent people racing home, clogging streets with traffic. Store owners shut their shops for fear of more rioting; entire markets were emptied.

The insecurity gripping Pakistan—fear of suicide bombers, fear of riots—has paralyzed election campaigning and threatens to shut down the entire electoral process, something militants have been eager to do. It has also distracted the only real power broker in the country—the army—so that operations against militants in the Tribal Areas and in the northern Swat Valley, which have had some success lately, may have to be wound back. Musharraf has promised to deploy troops throughout the country in the lead-up to the elections, and maintain the deployment for an unspecified period of time after the vote has been held. Those soldiers will have to come from somewhere.

But in Pakistan, nothing is ever simple or straightforward. Bhutto, during her second term as prime minister from 1993 to 1996, was one of the Taliban’s most generous patrons. In a 2002 interview, she was asked if she knew how much money she had funnelled to the militant group, which successive Pakistani leaders, including herself, had bred and nurtured, especially during the upheavals in Afghanistan. Her response: she didn’t know— it was a blank cheque, though in typical Bhutto style she blamed the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency, of pressuring support out of her.

Her recent shift toward a policy of confrontation with Taliban and al-Qaeda militants was tactical and in many ways inevitable. While she was PM, the Taliban were viewed as a political pawn in the power politics of the region, a counterbalance to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which had close ties to India, Pakistan’s long-time nemesis. Since Sept. 11, though, the Taliban has morphed into a monster that has begun to feed on its own mother—Pakistan itself, threatening Bhutto’s moderate, democratic vision. And so she, like Musharraf, cut her ties with them. But as with Musharraf, this made her a lot of enemies, not only among militants, but in parts of the establishment as well, especially pockets of the ISI who still consider the Taliban a strategic ally and maintain a close relationship with them.

Support for the militants is also present in the Pakistani military—part of a larger disconnect in the armed forces, according to Stratfor’s Friedman, that threatens to fragment the army. “The Pakistani army was—and is—not completely united and motivated,” he writes in the Stratfor analysis. “Not only is it divided, one of its major divisions lies between Taliban supporters sympathetic to al-Qaeda and a mixed bag of factions with other competing interests.”

If al-Qaeda/Taliban agents in fact carried out the assassination, and elements in Pakistan’s ISI and the military support the extremists, then could the authorities have also been involved? As it stands, that is just another element in the cacophony of questions that have turned this murder into one of Pakistan’s great mysteries. The problem is, mysteries fuel suspicions and suspicions create fear. And it’s fear that now threatens to tear apart Pakistan. **