30 December 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.

The piece above was first published on Sunday, December 30, 2007 on the undiplomatictimes blog. To understand why its opening paragraph describes the background as impenetrably black, we have to consider the following facts which are never part of the narrative about her death:

  • The British government ended its 90-year colonial rule of large parts of India in 1947 by setting off a religious civil war to justify the creation of Pakistan as its post-colonial proxy in the region. The process killed over a million people and made over 14 million people refugees in their ancestral lands.

  • To prevent India and Pakistan from normalizing relations, the British also initiated a war in Kashmir at a time when they controlled the armies on both sides. During that war, a British Army officer created the Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), a spy agency Britain has used to keep effective control of Pakistan. 

  • One of the functions of the ISI has been to sponsor terrorist groups, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that facilitate the opium/heroin trafficking from Afghanistan, Britain's most profitable post-colonial enterprise. It generates some $60 billion per year. 

  • To protect their interest in the Afghan drug trade the British kept all of South Asia in turmoil. The murder of South Asian leaders to prevent regional cooperation has been part of that game-plan. The following are some examples: 

  • Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was murdered in Rawalpindi in 1951 ater he signed a peace pact with India.

  • Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh was assassinated in 1975, four years after he led the secessionist movement that ended Pakistan's genocidal oppression of its eastern province.  

  • Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto was deposed by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 and hanged in 1979, ostensibly for having a political opponent murdered.

  • Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 after a number of other attempts to destabilize India had failed, most notably an internal "revolution" modeled on the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Her 1975-1977 "Emergency" fended off that attempted coup, but she lost power in the subsequent elections. Her assassination followed her return to power.

  • Indira Gandhi's son Rajiv succeeded her and tried to make peace with Pakistan's military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq. They had reached the point of exchanging maps for a settlement in Kashmir when Zia was assassinated in 1988, along with the American Ambassador to Pakistan, a supporter of the peace process.

  • Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi faced a series of destabilizing maneuvers promoted by the British/ISI combine that led to his losing power (see here). He tried to end the British-sponsored Tamil insurrection in Sri Lanka and was assassinated in 1991, ostensibly by a Tamil hit-squad, weeks before an election that would have returned him to the Prime Minister's office.


  • ​President Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka, Rajiv Gandhi's interlocutor, was assassinated in 1993.

  • Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. She was assassinated in 2007 just before an election that would have almost certainly have returned her to power. Hours after her killing, the street where she was murdered was washed down and her car thoroughly cleaned. 

There is little doubt about who killed Benazir. As with all the other murders noted above, the ISI/Brit combine did it.