"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
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
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
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.