Post-Assassination Maneuvers Serve al-Qaeda More Than Pakistan
By Steve Schippert | December 31, 2007
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto can usher in change in many forms in Pakistan, while it will also serve to perpetuate the nation's seemingly constant flux between crisis and utter peril. There are many questions surrounding the actors and circumstances in Bhutto's assassination.
There are few answers, and the least credible among them are coming from the Pakistani government itself in misguided and clumsy attempts at deflecting blame and criticism from itself. And while the principal actors are almost certainly from among the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance's angry ranks, to dismiss its sympathizers and fellow Islamists among Pakistan's military and intelligence is equally is equally foolish.
Musharraf almost certainly had no hand in Bhutto's murder, but he understands that public opinion and accountability for rogue elements within Pakistani military and intelligence lands squarely on his desk. Musharraf is an intelligent and deft politician, termed by some as 'the ultimate survivor.' And the assassination of Benazir Bhutto by his hand - or any other for reasons above - would never serve to strengthen his position among the Pakistani public, already his greatest weakness. Yet, the manner in which the Musharraf government has gone about deflecting direct criticism has done it and the Pakistani president far more harm than good.
Prelude to a Kill: Threats and Attempt
Before Benazir Bhutto had even returned to Pakistan, the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance had marked their target. A spokesman for Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud reportedly told journalists that they would assassinate her. In her overtures to the United States in seeking a return to Pakistani politics included a public position of allowing United States troops to pursue al-Qaeda terrorists within their newly forged Pakistani tribal area lairs. During her flight from Dubai to Pakistan on her return, Benazir Bhutto said that the terrorists who threatened her “don't believe in women governing nations, so they will try to plot against me, but these are risks that must be taken. I'm prepared to take them.” She ultimately paid for that risk with her life, and those of over 160 others killed in the October 18 and December 27 blasts.
After the threats attributed to the Taliban's Baitullah Mehsud, they were made good on the day Bhutto arrived back in Pakistan. During her slow procession through Karachi on October 18, the first attempt on her life was made. In what was likely a two-man team attack, a Russian-made grenade was thrown and detonated near Bhutto's armored vehicle, perhaps an attempt to clear a path for the eventual suicide bomber to get closer to Bhutto. The bomber did get closer, and when his bomb detonated – moments after Bhutto receded back into the protective shell of her armored vehicle – approximately 150 people were killed, half of them believed to be in Bhutto's security detail. Bhutto survived inside her vehicle.
It is important to also note that sniper fire was associated with the October attack, a little discussed but important detail. Benazir Bhutto said that her procession came under gunfire during the attack. And Bhutto's security detail said that it had earlier stopped two men, one with a bomb and the other with a gun. That Bhutto had receded back into her protective vehicle before the attackers were ready saved her life then. And her exposure outside the same sunroof is what cost her her life on December 27, regardless of fantastically revised official claims by the Pakistani government that she died by striking her head while retreating back into her vehicle.
The Assassination: A Near Carbon Copy of October's Attempt
In the successful attack, it appears a near-carbon copy tactically speaking of the failed October attempt. The principal difference is that the gunfire commenced at close range while Bhutto was exposed above her vehicle through the sunroof. Had the timing been slightly different in October, her fate may well have been sealed that day two months prior.
Perhaps a tactical adjustment on the part of the terrorist cells likely involved, the bomber and the (known) gunman were one and the same and closer to Bhutto. The attackers chose her exit route rather than Bhutto's entrance to or commencement of the political opposition rally she was leading. This provided several advantages.
1.By attacking the beginning of the exit route, it almost assured a waving Bhutto dangerously exposed above her vehicle.
2.The risk of detection was lessened by not requiring infiltration into the heart of the Rawalpindi park where the rally was held. Peripheral infiltration would suffice with considerably less risk.
3.Psychologically, while surely not relaxed, there is the potential for perception among Bhutto's immediate security detail that the riskiest part of their security task was behind them. There was the possibility of a potential slight mental relaxing that could make the difference between detection and avoidance.
Immediately after the assassination, Getty Images photographer John Moore described what he saw from close range saying, “I turned around and heard three shots go off and saw her go down, fall down through the sunroof into the car.” Seconds later, the bomb detonated. Over twenty people near the car were killed, though no one inside the vehicle lost their lives. This can be explained by the fact that Bhutto's car sped off as soon as she slumped into it bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound to her neck.
Many questions remain and much detail still unknown. Among the unknown includes speculation of other gunmen in position within nearby buildings, a detail which would directly implicate Pakistani security forces and suggest assistance form rogue elements within. It is one thing to manage an individual infiltration among a crowd, it is quite another to have a man or men in position within buildings that were or should have been cleared.
Another immediate observation on the ground by Bhutto supporters was that there was a sudden dearth of uniformed security immediately before the attack. This would indicate that there was perhaps a psychological relaxation alluded to above as the rally concluded and Mrs. Bhutto was making her exit. It would also perhaps indicate either incompetence on the part of security or perhaps conspiratorial collusion between uniformed Pakistani security and the attackers. In either case, incompetence should not be seen as a lesser of the two latter evils.
The Immediate Aftermath: Blame, Claim and Cover Up
In war reporting, the general rule is that the first report on an incident is wrong, and the second most likely inaccurate. Only later does a real picture of events accurately emerge. In Pakistan, however, and in particular in the case of the Bhutto assassination, the opposite is rule applies. The first reports will eventually emerge as closer to factual and subsequent reports, particularly on the part of the Pakistani government, will prove far from factual. The eventual official Pakistani position is almost comical. It asserts that she died not of gunshot wounds or even shrapnel from the blast, but rather from a skull fracture as the force of the blast supposedly caused her head to strike a sunroof lever on the car.
The government's account is the only account that has Mrs. Bhutto outside the car at the time of the blast. In fact, for her armored car to deliver her to the hospital, it necessarily had to distance itself from the bomb before it detonated in order to remain operable. Bombs at close range do horrible damage to rubber tires. For those who were near the bomb, many victim's clothes were ripped completely off their bodies by the force of the blast. The armor would have protected the occupants, but the car would have been disabled at the very least and been unable to deliver a mortally wounded Bhutto to a hospital some distance away.
The government account also differs from the eyewitness account of John Moore, an American photographer who has no apparent axe to grind to cause him to fabricate. So too does it differ from surviving members of Bhutto's security team. Long before there could have been any potential coordination of stories for any untoward information effort, a member of her security detail who was running alongside the vehicle and was injured in the blast said upon arriving at the hospital that he saw Bhutto shot twice, first in the neck and then in the head, after which she collapsed into the vehicle.
The Pakistani government's official explanations gradually shifted from a fatal gunshot wound, to being killed by shrapnel from the blast, to finally one that might be described as the “Magic Sunroof Handle Theory.” The story appears to transition farther from reality and closer to make-believe in equal measures as it transitions from immediate security officials on the scene in Rawalpindi to the uppermost echelons of the Pakistani government in Islamabad.
This is both unfortunate and ill-advised. While followers and members of Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party blame Musharraf, few believe him personally involved. Rather, they blame him for inactions, for “allowing this to happen” by not providing enough security and for having some in his government who would potentially collude with terrorists in order to see her killed. She said as much in a letter to Musharraf, indicating several by name.
The Pakistani government also rapidly produced what it said was a transcript of a call between Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Sahib, where the two congratulated each other on the successful assassination mission carried out by two of their minions. While there should be little doubt about the Taliban-al-Qaeda hand in Bhutto's assassination, the ability of the Pakistani government to produce such exacting intelligence as evidence hours after the assassination when none such was produced after the failed October attempt brings the transcript's credibility into question. Did they have more intelligence on the October attempt? Or was this evidence perhaps manufactured in order to deflect criticism and investigation from the government? The production of the intelligence by itself does not warrant such pointed questions. But within the context of the government's other claims and actions following the Bhutto assassination, they are not unreasonable.
At the end of the day, it makes little difference whether Bhutto was killed by bullets or shrapnel wounds or 'sunroof handle' wounds from the force of the bomb blast. She is dead and Pakistan is shaken once again. But to the Musharraf government, it clearly matters much.
It is highly unlikely that Musharraf is leading a disinformation campaign in order to directly protect known killers and collaborators within his government or to conceal his own direct involvement. Rather, what is happening with the farcical official Pakistani government lines is an admission that Musharraf knows there are Islamists and Islamist sympathizers within Pakistani military and intelligence ranks. What the incredulous version of events seeks to do is sweep such questions under the rug, preferring such uncomfortable and untenable realities – which are truly societal – not be driven to Musharraf's Islamabad doorstep to be dealt with.
Such a cover up may – in the minds of the Pakistani government – serve to defer such things to be dealt with at some other time, perhaps by a different Pakistani leader at a later date. But in reality, it makes the government look even more complicit, giving added fire to the charges of Bhutto's PPP supporters that Musharraf should be held to account for Bhutto's murder. It only serves to further weaken Musharraf's already diminished domestic authority, power and influence.
Pakistan's Persistent Crisis Continues
And this only brings Pakistan closer to the brink of outright domestic crisis, a condition the United States and the West – let alone the Pakistani public – views as dangerous. And while many questions remain and the Pakistani government's official explanation is nearly universally dismissed, Pakistan has rejected an independent outside probe into the Bhutto assassination.
Meanwhile, the scheduled January 8 elections hang in the balance. Benazir Bhutto's son, 19-year old Bilwal Bhutto, has been selected as the PPP's standard bearer and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, has declared that he will 'oversee' Bilwal's chairmanship until he completes his collegiate studies. This does not bid well for a party suddenly – and still – lacking leadership in Benazir's wake.
Yet, the PPP and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N) party have agreed to participate in the elections as scheduled. However, the Pakistani government has not decided yet on whether the elections will proceed as scheduled, though Musharraf made the gesture before the PPP/PML-Q joint announcement that he would honor the wishes of the PPP on whether they desired an elections delay or not.
All of this strife serves the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance in their insurgency. The more turmoil the Pakistani government must manage outside the Federally Administered Tribal Region, the less energy and fewer resources it has to confront the Islamists comfortably entrenched there. And this is the aim behind al-Qaeda's silence on the assassination of Bhutto, hoping an angry PPP will continue to point the finger inwardly at Musharraf and deepen the internal disunity. It affords them another day to plan the next attacks and gather more strength. For their insurgency feeds on inaction and takes comfort in the strategy of 'containment.' Containment, by definition, affords them conquered territory for a base of operations – operations against Pakistan as well as the rest of the region and the West.
As the Pakistani crisis continues and deepens, the United States must quickly reassess its strategy there going forward. The chess board is not static and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is an event which will continue to have a ripple effect on the situation and the dynamics of the crisis at hand.