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Dumb And Dumber By: Reuben F. Johnson
Weekly Standard | Thursday, January 03, 2008

"They are fecklessly pouring gasoline on a roaring fire," was how a western intelligence official in Islamabad described the actions of the Pakistan government in its handling of the inquest into last Thursday's assassination of former prime minister and political candidate Benazir Bhutto. This comment was made in reference to the assertion by official government spokesmen just after Bhutto's assassination that she had died not from gun shot wounds but had instead been killed when the explosion of a suicide bomber caused her to strike her head on the sunroof handle inside her armored SUV.

These statements were already implausible given that so many eyewitnesses reported seeing an assassin shoot Bhutto in the back of the head seconds before a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest. Given the subsequent drop in government credibility (which was already so low as to be almost non-existent), the likelihood President Gen. Pervez Musharraf will have an international, external investigation into Bhutto's murder forced on him increased exponentially earlier this week when newly released videotapes clearly showed Bhutto being shot in the back of the head and collapsing into her vehicle just prior to when the suicide bomb is triggered.

Bolstering the mounting evidence that it was this gunshot wound that killed her is that fact that her vehicle was so heavily armored that everyone else inside survived the explosion. Had the bomb been enough to kill Bhutto it would have killed all of the vehicle's other occupants as well. Intelligence and diplomatic sources in the Pakistani capitol seem to be of one mind in evaluating the government actions as "so inept that they could not have done worse in handling this crisis if they were doing so on purpose."

On December 31, the government went one step further in inflaming this already volatile situation by attempting to cover up the details of Bhutto's injuries. The Washington Post quoted one of the doctors who treated the slain politician:

"the government took all the medical records right after Ms. Bhutto's time of death was read out," said a visibly shaken doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Sweating and putting his head in his hands, he said: "Look, we have been told by the government to stop talking. And a lot of us feel this is a disgrace."

Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories about "what really happened" have multiplied faster than the plot lines in an Oliver Stone film. "We are back in Dallas again. Bhutto is JFK and the number of 'grassy knolls' keeps increasing by the moment," said the intelligence official. "Some of the scenarios are just plain silly--like the one that claims Bhutto's husband had her killed in order to take over her party. The incredible part is that people actually believe the more implausible ones."

The latest shoe to drop in this chain of events is that Bhutto was preparing to deliver a document to visiting U.S. lawmakers Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Patrick Kennedy that would have detailed plans by the Musharraf government to use the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to steal the upcoming election. Reportedly, ISI has a safe house in Islamabad stuffed full of advanced computer hardware that would be used to hack into the network for the Pakistani Central Election Commission and manipulate the results.

Again, however, the regime in power has not done itself any favors by deciding to postpone the January 8 elections until February 18, which only adds weight to speculation that those in the Musharraf regime are up to no good.

This growing instability within Pakistan after the Bhutto assassination and the recent imposition of martial law by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has increased anxieties worldwide about what would become of the nation's nuclear arsenal in the event of an overthrow of the regime or escalating political violence. Western diplomatic sources state that there are procedures in place to make sure that Islamabad's nuclear weapons remain secure, but the overall situation remains so unpredictable that the issue of "who controls the Islamic bomb" has now even made its way into the rhetoric of the candidates standing for election in the Iowa caucuses.

One of the sources of discontent within the country is the present government's spending on a number of expensive military programs like the JF-17 fighter that is being designed in cooperation with Chengdu Aerospace in China, and which are seen as happening at the expense of more urgent domestic problems. A June 2007 profile of the opposition to Musharraf in the New Yorker by William Dalrymple lists the country's ills: "the published literacy rate is forty-nine per cent, and in some areas the rate is estimated to be as low as fourteen per cent. Instead of investing adequately in education, Musharraf's government is spending money on a fleet of American [Lockheed Martin] F-16s for the Air Force. Health care and other social services for the poor have also been neglected, in contrast to the public services that benefit the wealthy, such as highways and airports--many of which are world-class."

Opposition leaders told Dalrymple that "there is a breakdown of effective government. The political parties have all failed to create an environment where the poor can get what they need from the state. The laws are always twisted for the rich; in fact, there are effectively no laws for them. So the poor have begun to look to alternatives for justice . . . the religious parties and Sharia are increasingly seen as the one source of justice for them. In the long term, flaws in the system will create more room for the fundamentalists."

Conflicts between the military and the opposition are at the heart of the recent conflict over Musharraf's decision to remove the country's chief justice. The military as an institution controls so much of the economy that it is now locked into a death pact that means keeping Musharraf in power at all costs. Too many rice bowls and personal fortunes are at stake if anyone other than a military man sits in the presidential palace. As the prominent opposition leader, Asma Jahangir, told Dalrymple this past summer "the Army is into every business in this country. Except hairdressing."

The result of this lopsidedly militarized state has turned the traditional institutional structure of government on its head. "In most places in this world the relationship between the state and the armed forces is one in which you have a country that has an army," said one Washington, D.C.-based analyst. "Pakistan is an Army that has a country."

Which is why under closer inspection the murder of Bhutto looks exactly like a mob hit in New York. One family (the Pakistani military) controls all the action and they do not want any competition. Financial and business interests and the ability to maintain absolute control over most of what matters in the country and makes money appears to be as big as of a motivation--if not even more so--than all of the postulating about ideological and religious "elements of militant Islamists not being able to tolerate the specter of a female ruler" in the Muslim paradise they seek to build.

If the situation deteriorates further, or if any investigation into Bhutto's death can prove the complicity of the military or intelligence services, the aid that has been promised to Musharraf, including the F-16s, could be in jeopardy. These aircraft are of a different generation and technological level than the earlier models that Islamabad purchased in the 1980s. Given the close cooperation of Pakistan with China's defense industry and the proximity of the U.S. Presidential primaries, the F-16s could come off the table, despite all denials to date to the contrary.

Things are, however, not always as they seem. Reversing the decision to provide Pakistan with 18 (plus an option for 18 more) F-16s would be a blow to Lockheed Martin, but it might also make it easier for the U.S. to make a sale of the aircraft to India, which has finally put out a long-awaited tender for a much larger purchase: 126 medium weight fighters plus options for 63 more. This sale is of such a size and would be such a boost to the U.S. defense industry (if the US can capture the contract over Russian and European competitors) that reversing on the Pakistan deal might in the long run be the proverbial "throwing back a small fish in hopes of catching a bigger one."

Reuben F. Johnson is a contributor to THE WORLDWIDE STANDARD.

Reuben Johnson is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.

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