A United Nations Commission yesterday released a report on the facts and circumstances of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.[PDF] While stopping short of pronouncing criminal guilt, the report serves as a searing indictment of General Pervez Musharraf and the actions – or lack thereof – of authorities under his regime. While the report will likely spur criminal investigations in Pakistan, it serves as a harsh reminder of the vital importance of supporting the struggling movement for democracy in Pakistan.
The report describes the government under Gen. Musharraf as a brutal military dictatorship in which the nation’s premier spy agency – “Inter-Services Intelligence” – was involved in every aspect of people’s lives.
258. This pervasive involvement of intelligence agencies in diverse spheres, which is an open secret, has undermined the rule of law, distorted civilian –military relations and weakened some political and law enforcement institutions. At the same time, it has contributed to wide-spread public distrust in those institutions and fed a generalized political culture that thrives on competing conspiracy theories.
The ISI was notoriously – and openly – cultivating relationships with terrorist organizations which were used as ‘proxies’ in attacks inside Afghanistan and Kashmir. General Hamid Gul, former Director General of the ISI, has publicly declared himself, “an ideologue of Jihad” and continues to defend the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists.
While in key positions at the MI and the ISI, Gul, now 73, is credited with having supervised the jihadist groups in their fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In recent years, Gul has also emerged as a vocal supporter of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which is due in no small part to his opposition to Pakistan’s role in support of the U.S.-led war against these militants.
By contrast, Benazir Bhutto was a democratic leader that favored modernization, liberalization, and democratization for her country. She wanted Pakistan to turn its back on the brutality of the intelligence-jihadist alliance and join the world community.
Ms Bhutto was not only a modernist politician and the leader of a major secular party, she also spoke out strongly and publicly against the extremist Islam espoused by these groups. She was supportive of the United States approach to terrorism, and it was open knowledge that the United Kingdom and United States were aiding in her return to Pakistan. And despite her differences with General Musharraf, she had supported his crackdown on militants, including in the Red Mosque episode in July 2007. Indeed, she had repeatedly castigated General Musharraf for doing a half-hearted job on the terror front. Many believe that Ms Bhutto’s gender was also an issue with the religious extremists who believed that a woman should not lead an Islamic country.
This modern, democratic woman was not just a popular politician, though. Benazir Bhutto had managed to build a sense of hope and yearning for freedom across Pakistan’s deeply divided society. Her message resonated with the poor and the educated middle class alike, and her return to Pakistan threatened to end the brutal Musharraf regime.
217. Several of these sources spoke of the existence of elements within the Establishment who saw her return to an active political life in Pakistan as a threat to their power. These elements included, in particular, those who retain links with radical Islamists, especially the militant jihadi and Taliban groups and are sympathetic to their cause or view them as strategic assets for asserting Pakistan’s role in the region. The development of these organizations and the spread of Islamist extremism, which marginalized secular democratizing forces, was promoted during the General Zia ul Haq military regime (which overthrew the civilian government headed by Ms Bhutto’s father and later executed him); the ISI cultivated these relationships, initially in the context of the Cold War and the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and later in support of Kashmiri insurgents. While several Pakistani current and former intelligence officials told the Commission that their agencies no longer had such ties in 2007, virtually all independent analysts provided information to the contrary and affirmed the ongoing nature of many such links.
Benazir Bhutto was hated by the political establishment under Musharraf not only because she threatened their power, but because of
the policies she advocated – a return to civilian rule and democracy, human rights, negotiations with India, reconciliation with the non-Muslim world, and confrontation with radical Islamists…
Bhutto’s positions read like a manifesto of enlightened democratic reforms, the policies of a leader who could turn Pakistan into a beacon of liberty for the Muslim world, demonstrating firmly that Islam and democracy are not only compatible, they are natural compliments.
215. Ms Bhutto’s relevant policy proposals, including those laid out in the PPP’s Manifesto for 2007, called for restrictions on the power of the military and intelligence agencies. She proposed bringing them under civilian, democratic controls, with provisions for transparency and control of the military budget and spending. She vowed publicly to use reforms to rid the intelligence agencies of elements driven by political or religious motives. Some of the positions taken by Ms Bhutto that touched Establishment concerns included:
a. Her publicly stated position on the need to eliminate all remnants of the military-militant nexus. Her proposal was to eliminate the military and intelligence ties to the Taliban and jihadis, although many in those institutions still publicly regarded these groups as important foreign policy tools to advance national interests against India in the sub-region. In this vein, Ms Bhutto denounced the military’s various truces with Taliban militants in Swat and the tribal areas, arguing that they amounted to appeasement.
b. Her independent position on the urgent need to improve relations with India, and its implications for the Kashmir dispute, which the military had regarded as its policy domain.
c. Her frequent denunciation of the role of the military and the intelligence agencies in domestic politics.
d. The perception of her willingness to accommodate Western concerns. While the military and others in the Establishment were willing to cooperate with the United States, United Kingdom and other Western states, Ms Bhutto was portrayed as overly pliant.
e. Her alleged willingness to compromise Pakistan’s nuclear programme and allow greater Western access to it. The military has kept a tight grip on its nuclear secrets and its persistent refusal to allow international access to Dr A Q Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold nuclear weapons knowledge to other countries. Ms Bhutto had said that she would give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to Dr Khan, although her statement was twisted in some media stories.
The crime scene of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination was hosed down within about an hour. According to the UN report, this is not only extraordinary, it points directly to a military-intelligence cover up.
134. Some senior Pakistani police officials identified further factors suggesting that CPO Saud Aziz was not acting independently. They point out that, while the deliberate hosing down of a scene is unheard of in police practice, it has occurred on a few occasions, in each case when the military has been the target of such attacks and the crime scene was managed by the military directly. Even CPO Saud Aziz, when asserting to the Commission that there were precedents for hosing down a crime scene, acknowledged that all the incidents which he posited as precedents actually involved a military target. The police officials who point out this pattern saw it as further indication that the military was involved in having the crime scene hosed down.
Pakistan today has a democratically elected government that has, in less than two years, passed a number of democratic reforms to protect women and religious minorities. In just the past week, President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, did the truly extraordinary and voluntarily devolved executive power that had been consolidated under military dictatorships.
But democracy in Pakistan is fragile, its roots planted but weak. Men like General Hamid Gul continue to work behind the scenes to topple the democratic government and return a government that rules Pakistan with an iron fist and makes no secret of its antipathy for democracy, free speech and religion, and the rights of women.
The people of Pakistan spoke loudly in their praise for Benazir Bhutto and her democratic policies. Their voice was finally heard in 2008 when they elected the present democratic government. As friends and partners, we Americans have the opportunity to support this popular movement for democracy and justice against the forces of tyranny and terror. The United Nations report on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination reminds us just how vital our support is.