Pakistan Burning: Who's Responsible?

Benazir Bhutto was killed the day before yesterday, and was buried yesterday in Larkana. Even amid the fog of national grief, one question burns clearly and brightly: who is responsible? The inability, or unwillingness, of the government to give that question a definitive answer lies at the very heart of the trauma and violence that continues to engulf Pakistan.

The government has, over the last 48 hours, given several different accounts of Bhutto’s death and the reasons for it. Initial responsibility went to ‘militants’ or ‘terrorists’, a term that stands in for all manner of shadowy bogeymen that haunt the state. The accusation was later narrowed down to Beitullah Masoud, the supposed head of the al-Qaeda organization in Pakistan. The ever-clownish spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, Brig. Iqbal Javed Cheema, released the transcript of a supposedly intercepted conversation between Mehsud and a mullah that not only claims credit for the assassination, but also offers up tactical information that would give the CIA a hard-on. That the transcript itself reads like a dialogue in a middle school melodrama is perhaps a fault of translation, but it’s hard to believe that a two-minute conversation between high-level insurgents would uncover not only culpability but also the full names and locations of operatives.

This pales compared to the confusion over exactly how Bhutto died. Interior and Information Ministry officials had stated, initially, that she died of gunshot wounds before the explosion that took the lives of 24 people; this is consistent with accounts by witnesses of hearing three shots ahead of the bomb. Then, the Interior Minister reported that shrapnel from the explosion fatally wounded her. Most recently, Brig. Cheema claimed that Benazir died of a cracked skull: her head hit the sunroof lever of her Toyota SUV as she was ducking from the explosion. Seven doctors at Rawalpindi General Hospital have confirmed this in writing, although this is completely inconsistent with dying one hour after the explosion on the operating table. There was no post-mortem on the request of her husband Asif Ali Zardari, but the ultimate cause of death would have been crystal clear at the time of arrival at the hospital: most likely a bullet wound in the neck. There is now official denial that any bullets had in fact hit her, despite aired amateur footage that clearly shows a handgun being raised above the crowd and pointed towards her seconds before the attack.

The government’s motives here are opaque. Officials might want to blame Benazir’s death on a cheap plastic auto part rather than shot or shrapnel, but it should be completely obvious that that story would not be taken seriously for a second. They seem to want to create a narrative that blames Bhutto’s death on a series of unfortunate events rather than actual assassination. At extremes, this story paints the death of Benazir Bhutto as her own fault: Cheema Sahib told BBC World News yesterday that she would have survived if she had not been standing up through the sunroof at the time of the attack. This might be true, but is completely irrelevant, and show a bureaucrat refusing to accept any responsibility whatsoever.

The inevitable result of these inane and self-contradictory statements is that blame for the attack is pointed squarely at the government. Attacks against government offices throughout Sindh have intensified over the last day or so; in Islamabad, protestors have been tearing down the posters of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), the President’s own party. The sins are two-fold: first, contrary to the government’s intentions, people are blaming them for failing to protect Benazir Bhutto. In this light, the statements above sound like poor excuses for incompetence. The second, more sinister, is a sin of commission: that state agencies are actually behind the assassination. Benazir said as much about the attempt on her life in October, and there has to date been no evidence that disproves this assertion.

What we have seen over the last two days is an unintentional construction of a narrative that sees the government as the main culprit, by omission or commission or both. That story will inflame the anger of PPP activists against Musharraf and the army for a long time to come, and keep Sindh in flames for weeks, if not longer. It may be the first signs of civil war in the south, as many newspapers mention. In the absence of a sobre, credible, coherent narrative provided by those who are expected to do so, conspiracy theories take on the consistency of hardened concrete.

At heart, military arrogance is at fault: the guardians of a hierarchical, need-to-know institutional culture talking down to a seething civil society. Generals are assuming a level of public trust that does not exist, and are completely oblivious to the negative consequences of statements that cannot be taken seriously. Of course people are suspicious, but all the state has done is to strengthen, focus and channel those suspicions.

In 1951, Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, was shot to death in what is now Liaquat Bagh, outside which Benazir was killed. 56 years later, no one knows who was behind that assassination. Bhutto’s death, like that of her two brothers, will in all likelihood remain unexplained, with a crime scene hosed off by municipal workers soon after the attack and a government uninterested in taking the investigation seriously. But this mystery will have destructive and lasting consequences on the Pakistani polity, the survival of which is now in greater doubt.

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