Saturday, 29 December 2007

Who Killed Bhutto?

The internet and the airwaves are awash with speculation about how, precisely Benazir Bhutto died, and who was responsible for her death. Personally, I don't find much of this 'debate' useful. Her death came as a result of an assassination attempt, whether it was a bullet, a piece of shrapnel, or a fall that killed her is irrelevant at this point. As for who was responsible, there is little doubt that it was the work of extremists. While the question over whether the security arrangements were or were not adequate is one that shouldn't be ignored, it is also of secondary importance. The most important question is to what extent there is collusion with these extremists by members of the state security apparatus.

That there are military insiders who are sympathetic towards, and even active in aiding, the militants is beyond all doubt. There is an informative paper here on some of the recent evidence of extremist infiltration of the higher levels of the Pakistani military. However there seems to be a real question mark over how seriously this threat is being taken by the army leadership and to what extent it is willing, or able, to counter this threat.

Yesterday, when writing about the possible impact of Bhutto's assassination, I wrote:
The assumption is that Musharraf is serious about tackling militancy and is clear-eyed enough to understand what this will entail. Its possible that he doesn't feel militancy is a serious problem, or that a few missile strikes and the doling out of massive quantities of bribe money will "end militancy". Needless to say these tactics have been failing miserably for the last 5 years and will fail miserably again.

In the article I have linked to above, B. Raman writes:

Musharraf is either knowingly dishonest or is living in a make-believe world of his own, unaware of the ground realities. Only a few days before Benazir's assassination, he was bragging to officer trainees in the Defence Services Staff College in Quetta that he had defeated the terrorists outside the tribal belt and would soon be defeating them in the tribal belt too. His reluctance to order an enquiry into the extent of infiltration of Al Qaeda into the GHQ is disturbing. He has convinced himself that not only he is the most popular leader of Pakistan, but also that the entire Armed Forces are devoted to him. Anybody who says otherwise is treated by him as a traitor, arrested and harassed.

As long as Musharraf and the army high command remain reluctant to go through the painful process of a thorough house-cleaning, the security situation will not improve. The problem, of course is that, dragging skeletons out of the cupboard is never good for army morale or cohesion, and with all other possible pillars of support alienated from Musharraf, he needs the army to stand united behind him. As with so many other situations in Musharraf's rule, the inherent contradiction of being a political and military leader has led to a Catch 22 situation.

In a press conference yesterday, the Interior Minister claimed that Baitullah Meshud and Al Qaeda were behind the assassination. An audio recording of a telephone conversation between Meshud and someone else was presented as evidence [you can read the transcript here]. Mehsud has denied his involvement, for whatever that's worth.

Whats interesting here is that firstly, if you read the transcript, it was the unnamed Maulvi who claims responsibility for killing Benazir. Meshud only congratulates him. Secondly, Meshud is speaking by mobile phone, whose location can be easily tracked if one knows what number to look for, and he actually gives his location in the conversation.

What is odd here is that in the press conference, the Pakistani military lays the blame for all the suicide bombings and assassination attempts over the last few months at the feet of Meshud. They are recording his phone conversations, so they know where he is. So if he is regarded as the 'mastermind' of all these terror attacks, why haven't they dropped a precision missile on his head before now? Perhaps there is a reasonable technical explanation, but I don't know what it might be.

That Meshud is a militant leader, I have no doubt. But I am suspicious of this claim that he is personally behind all of these attacks. I'm sure he is cheering them on, and he probably provides a safe-haven and material support for the people behind them from his self-declared Islamic Emirate of Waziristan, but I doubt he is the one ordering and planning the attacks. I get the feeling that one needs to look somewhat closer to home for that. It is quiet possible also that Meshud remains an "intelligence asset" for the military, who are keen to have a force to use against perceived threats in the region [particularly Afghan and Indian intelligence across the Afghan border] with plausible deniability. The military may well be willing to overlook his extracurricular activities in exchange for his services. This also fits well with the military's continuous distinction between 'legitimate' Taliban fighting for their religion and freedom for Afghanistan from 'foreign influences' and 'illegal' Al Qaeda planning terror attacks in Pakistan and abroad. He may simply be a convenient figure for the military to blame for everything - somewhat like how Osama Bin Laden became a catch-all figure to blame to the Americans for all sorts of Islamist militancy a few years back.

No comments: