Facts about Benazir Bhutto’s assassination are in short supply. Unfortunately that is unlikely to change. There is a long tradition of failure to investigate political murders in Pakistan. This cannot continue if Pakistan is to become a stable democratic state that serves its people and exists at peace with the world. The first step is that Musharraf invite the international community to advise in the investigation into Bhutto’s death. The investigation will be politically expensive – it may not reach Musharraf himself but it will reach deep into the civilian and military elites running Pakistan. Broad, tough international engagement is essential to seeing this forward – the stakes are very high.
While the Islamists are the most likely suspects, they certainly hated Bhutto as a secular female politician – Bhutto had many other enemies. As I noted after the October attempt on Bhutto’s life:
In courting Western support for her return to Pakistan, Bhutto promised that the International Atomic Energy Agency would receive access to A. Q. Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear program and head of an international clandestine nuclear proliferation ring, who is currently under house arrest. It is inconceivable that Khan carried out his operations without substantial assistance from figures in Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.
A thorough investigation might be a first step to countering the rot pervading Pakistani politics. But if the murderers and their backers can get away with this murder Pakistan’s downward spiral will only continue.
A History of Uninvestigated Political Murders
A thorough investigation into a political murder would be a unique thing in Pakistani history. The October assassination attempt on Bhutto has not been thoroughly investigated – nor for that matter have the numerous assassination attempts on Musharraf. On October 16, 1951 Pakistan’s first Prime Minister was assassinated in Rawalpindi – in the same park where Bhutto was killed. Security forces immediately killed the assassin so little was gleaned about the plot. There remain unanswered questions about the deaths of Bhutto’s own brother Shahnawaz (poisoned in France in 1985) and Murtaza (who was shot by police in 1996.) There are ongoing suspicions that Benazir had a role in Murtaza’s death – suspicions held by other members of the Bhutto family.
For that matter, Pakistan’s most famous artist Abdul Mohamed Ismail – better known as Gulgee – was killed at his home in Karachi recently and little has surfaced from the investigation.
Bhutto’s father, is one of the few exceptions to this terrible trend – Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by Pakistan’s Chief of Staff Zia al-Huq, sentenced to death by courts controlled by Zia, and hanged on April 4, 1979. (General al-Huq was killed in a plane crash that was never thoroughly investigated. Based on the general aviation problems in Pakistan’s history it was probably a mechanical failure.)
Building an Investigation Coalition: ISI vs. CSI
An FBI led investigation, or even its participation, may not be politically tenable. The United States is broadly distrusted in Pakistan, in part because of its close alliance with Musharraf. There are plenty of other nations with capable law enforcement agencies. Ideally many nations would participate – possibly using the Hariri assassination investigation as a model.
The real problem will be getting the Pakistani government to sign on. Many top figures have much to fear. One important move that could swing broader support to an international investigation would be an expanded effort to build peaceful relations between Pakistan and India.
The military is Pakistan’s most powerful institution and its core focus is seeking balance with India, which is an inherently much stronger power. This is why the recent news about US aid to Pakistan being diverted to conventional military capabilities targeted against India is no surprise. From the perspective of the Pakistani military, Islamists are at worst a nuisance and often an asset – India is the real existential threat.
Final settlements in Kashmir are not likely, but frameworks that made a conventional war less likely and helped tamp down terrorist activity could go a long way to giving both sides the leeway to stand down, thus reducing Pakistani anxieties. India, on the whole, with its economic boom and global ambitions, has shown some willingness to reach accommodations with Pakistan. But having been abandoned by the U.S. before and watching the U.S.-Indian relationship grow this will be a hard sell to the Pakistanis. If the threat of national dismemberment (a very real one for Pakistan in a war against India) can be achieved then the moderates in the Pakistani military would be empowered against their extremist colleagues and a real house cleaning, particularly at the ISI could begin. Nothing less will do.
Bhutto was a grand historical figure, talented but flawed. She died in the cause of a secular, moderate Pakistan. If a thorough investigation into her murder helps move Pakistan towards becoming a moderate Muslim democracy her death will not have been in vain.