Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who Killed Benazir?

If mass media coverage of Benazir's murder were a screenplay, it would begin with the directions: "Spotlight crime scene. Background is impenetrably dark."

A week after the event, political analysts and opinion mongers have expanded only minimally on reportage: the country is in turmoil; there are concerns about the security of its nuclear weapons; suspicion that President Musharraf had a hand in the assassination is widespread, but Al Qaeda cannot be ruled out. For the United States, which pushed for Benazir's return as a way to ease the country out of military rule, the assassination is a disaster. Instead of a half-step towards a more legitimate government in Islamabad, it is now stuck with a seriously weakened Musharraf.

The only analyst to go beyond that tight spotlight has been Tariq Ali, the Trotskyist enfant terrible of the 1960s who has evolved into a biriyani-scotch radical welcome on the BBC. The strange thing is, Ali wrote his trenchant analysis well before Benazir was killed, for it appeared in the 11 December issue of the London Review of Books. "The Daughter of the West" is a a total dump on Benazir, dwelling on the corruption of her family and her personal involvement in the killing of her brother Murtaza; one might almost read it as an explanation of why she deserved to be offed. Coming from as well connected a figure as Ali, whose uncle was a former chief of Pakistani military intelligence, and whose relationship with MI-5 must remain a matter of interesting speculation, it is more than the preternatural "scoop" that Robert Fisk of The Independent declared it to be.

It is quite possible that Musharraf ordered the murder; but is it likely? What would be his motivation? He had much more to gain from playing ball with Benazir than from bumping her off; Musharraf is damaged goods in everyone's book and now that he is sans military uniform, there is very little to prevent another ambitious General from elbowing him aside. He would have to be a complete political moron to throw away the only prop that would have allowed him to hobble off the scene with a modicum of dignity.

If Musharraf is not behind Benazir's murder, who is? Certainly not the CIA; Benazir was Washington's baby. And almost certainly not Al Qaeda. The Pakistani government has claimed to have evidence that Al Qaeda was responsible but the alleged perp, a Taliban commander by the name of Baitullah Mehsud, took the unusual step of issuing a public denial. A spokesman for Mehsud called reporters in Peshawar to say (according to one published report): "We are sad over Benazir Bhutto's death. We do not have any enmity with Pakistani leaders and are only opposed to the United States"

The last of the usual suspects is Pakistan's spy service, the infamous Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The evidence here is mute but graphic: video footage of the assassination shows a clean-shaven man with a sleeveless vest, rimless sun glasses and close-cropped hair -- the stereotypical ISI operative -- pointing a gun at Benazir. The fact that the crime scene was immediately hosed clean, as was the bloodied interior of the SUV in which Benazir was riding, also points to an inside job. But why would the ISI kill Bhutto? It is hard to imagine that her third ascent to the prime ministership would have been a threat to its power or many privileges.

It could be that the murder is a calculated response to a too forceful American effort to order Pakistan's internal affairs: the Benazir-Musharraf partnership deal was put in place by gimlet-eyed John Negroponte, whose experience in kicking butt in Cold War Latin America might not have translated well into the izzat-ridden world of Punjabi Islam. If this is a case of the worm turning, then the ISI's British connection becomes a live matter. The ISI was established by the British immediately after Indian independence, at a time when they were stage-managing the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. (Armies on both sides were led by British officers, and Luis "Dickie" Mountbatten was not only free India's first Governor-General, but chairman of the cabinet committee handling the situation in Delhi.)

London maintained a close working relationship with the ISI throughout the Cold War, its influence strengthened by its intimacy with Saudi royals who had clout in Islamabad. A common element binding the intelligence agencies of all three countries -- Britiain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- was resentment at the CIA's dominating role. In the post Cold War era that resentment led Osama bin Laden to (ostensibly) break with his handlers in Saudi intelligence and set up shop in Afghanistan. It caused Pakistani operative Mir Amar Kansi to go on a shooting rampage outside the CIA's headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, in January 1993; and it led to the broad Pakistani role in supporting the 9/11 attacks. British authorities, though swallowing hard over American intervention to force a peace settlement in Ireland, have been less open in expressing their displeasure with Washington, for they have far more at stake; but there is no denying that in recent years London has moved towards an increasingly independent line. The decision to halve the number of British troops in Iraq at a time when the United States is in the middle of a desperate pacification effort is only the most visible indication.

At the United Nations the British ambassador outfoxed American envoy John Bolton and slipped Beijing's candidate for Secretary-General into office, gaining in the process a greater command over high-level UN appointments than London has had for decades. Newly appointed Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon handed Britain the post of Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (which gives it ready access to all the world's trouble spots), and appointed Britons as his political representatives for the peace processes in Nepal and the Middle East, both areas in which British policy has a long and invidious history. Washington neutralized the latter appointment by pushing Tony Blair into the role of Middle East mediator. Such fencing has reached the ground level: a British UN staffer was recently expelled from Afghanistan by President Karzai for having unauthorized contact with the Taliban.

Against that background Benazir's murder might portend much more than instability in Pakistan. It might mean we are in the middle of a large power struggle in Asia, and that could have very dire consequences.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very good and thorough analysis.

However, there is one further suspect worth examining...I am surprised that nobody has analysed Asif Ali Zardari's relationship with his wife. Whether indeed a family member had a motive or hidden agenda?