What triggered Benazir’s assassination?

By K. Subrahmanyam, IANS

A leading national daily had articles on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination under the headline “Chronicle of a death foretold”. Both friends and her opponents had warned Benazir about the threats to her life if she returned to Pakistan. Being an exceptionally brave woman and committed to reintroduction of democracy in Pakistan, she accepted the risks and returned home.

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On the first day of her return there was a major blast on her convoy in Karachi resulting in over 140 casualties, and Bhutto escaping narrowly. Yet, she persisted courageously in her election campaign and exposed herself to the bomb blast as she stood up in her armoured vehicle to bid goodbye at the end of her rally at Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi Dec 27.

According to the latest official version, she was killed as her head hit the sunroof lever and suffered a skull fracture. The bomb blast itself was the work of a suicide bomber sent by Al Qaeda and the government claims to have telephone intercepts with Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Al Qaeda leader. It was a carefully planned plot though she might have been killed not by direct shrapnel hit but as an indirect consequence of the blast.

Benazir, by all accounts, was slated to be the new prime minister with Musharraf as president to provide Pakistan a carefully guided democratic government under a power-sharing dispensation reported to have been worked out with US encouragement. Obviously, the US, Musharraf, the army leadership and sections of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) loyal to the army all had a stake in Benazir winning the election and becoming the premier.

But the Jehadi extremists, sections of armed forces and ISI aligned to the extremists did not want Benazir as the prime minister. She had publicly pledged to fight terrorism and even talked of permitting US forces to act against the militias in Pakistani territory in hot pursuit. She had also mentioned she would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to have access to A.Q. Khan, the notorious nuclear proliferator of Pakistan.

While it may be doubted whether she would have been able to carryout these promises under the power sharing defined by the National Command Authority Ordinance and the amended constitution, there was no doubt where she stood vis-à-vis the fight against terrorism. Therefore, for the jehadi extremists she, like Musharraf, was an enemy to be eliminated.

But the assassination was not carried out in tribal areas where the extremists hold sway, but in Rawalpindi where the general headquarters of the army is situated. Not so long ago the army had to be deployed in the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, to clear out the Jehadis who had taken control.

Only a few days back The New York Times came out with the story that bulk of the $5 billion aid given by US to Pakistan to equip the Pakistan Army to fight the militias was diverted to buy sophisticated equipment meant to confront India.

It was obvious from the way hundreds of Pakistani paramilitary forces were taken prisoners by the tribal militants in Waziristan and were used as hostages to negotiate exchange of militia prisoners with security forces that the paramilitary and military forces were not adequately trained for counter insurgency operations against the Jehadi militias in tough tribal terrain. This is the situation six years after Pakistan joined the war on terror.

In spite of Pakistan being hailed as an ally in the war on terrorism and receiving billions of dollars of economic and military aid, Taliban leaders, Al Qaeda top brass Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have been enjoying the safe-haven in Pakistan. Taliban in Afghanistan has got itself reinforced and is fighting the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces of NATO vigorously. There is neo-Taliban in Pakistani tribal territory and the militants are able to use the tribal territory as fallback bases.

These developments raise the question whether Pakistan used the US funds for military purposes effectively. Along with that is the question whether the Pakistan Army and the ISI have the will to take on the Jehadi extremists. In the last six years Musharraf has been talking of taking Pakistan towards a moderate Islamic state but has been at the same time soft on the Jehadi organisations.

The ISI and sections of the army leadership appeared to have been using the Jehadis as instruments of Pakistani strategic and foreign policy in Afghanistan, Kashmir and other places in India. Musharraf pursued this kind of double-edged policy of allying himself with the US in the war on terror and at the same time being tolerant of the activities of Jehadis within Pakistan. The US intelligence agencies and the State Department which ought to have kept a strict watch on the extent of the commitment of Musharraf and the ISI to the war on terrorism indulged in cronyism with the military, intelligence and diplomatic branches of Pakistan and allowed the Jehadi terrorism to be nurtured by stealth and creep into new areas of Pakistan.

India has been pointing out to the US the inadequacy of action on the part of Pakistan in confronting terrorism. The US cronyism vis-à-vis the Pakistani military, intelligence and diplomatic establishments going back to early 1980s prevailed and the result is the overall enhancement of Jehadi extremist threats to US and ISAF forces in Pakistan-Afghanistan area and to Musharraf and civil society within Pakistan.

Musharraf and the Pakistan Army underestimated the Jehadi extremist commitment to ensure victory in their own base territories in Pakistan-Afghanistan area.

For the Jehadi extremists the elections and democracy in Pakistan are an anathema and the pro-American and anti-Jehadi Bhutto was a threat that had to be eliminated. In that sense the responsibility for her assassination must rest with the ambiguous and permissive policies pursued by Musharraf and the US.

Benazir assassination is a turning point. Now the battle has been waged between the Jehadis and Pakistan Army supported by the US. But the battle is going to be long. Since the Pakistan Army and the ISI do not appear to have been fully purged of pro-Jehadi elements more assassinations of civil and army leadership and other spectacular terrorist outrages are to be expected.

The US cronyism in looking away from Pakistani preparations to launch Operation Gibraltar and Operation Grand Slam resulted in the India-Pakistan war of 1965, which in turn led to secession of Bangladesh in 1971. The same cronyism overlooked Pakistani nuclear weapons programme with the Chinese help in 1980s and the consequences of Wahabi conditioning of the Mujahideen during the Afghan war. The same mistakes have been repeated for the third time in the last six years in the war on terror. Benazir has paid with her life for the US not monitoring effectively Pakistan commitment to fight terrorism.

(K. Subrahmanyam is a well-known analyst on strategy and security issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])