|A UN crapshoot in Pakistan
By Sreeram Chaulia
More than 18 months after the assassination of former
Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the United Nations
has begun a formal international inquiry into the "facts and
circumstances" surrounding the traumatic day of December 27,
2007, in Rawalpindi.
That the inquest into the killing of Bhutto while she was on
the campaign trail took so long to take off makes clear that
the UN's three-member team is entering a political minefield
with no guarantee of success in identifying the plot and
masterminds of the killing.
As long as former president, General Pervez Musharraf,
was head of state, the Pakistani government was adamant that
no international investigation into Benazir's death was
necessary. Islamabad claimed to be sure that the leader of
one of the Pakistani Taliban factions, Baitullah Mehsud, was
As a token, Musharraf allowed detectives from London's
Scotland Yard to visit Pakistan to
ascertain the modus operandi of Benazir's killing -
that is, whether it was from the impact of a suicide bomb
explosion that took at least 23 other lives on the spot or
from a sniper's bullets. Even this technical detail has not
be conclusively established to this day.
Musharraf's and the Pakistani military's bid to attribute
Benazir's death to Mehsud did not convince the majority of
Pakistanis, least of all the followers in her Pakistan
People's Party (PPP). The gut instinct of almost every
non-establishment observer during Musharraf's last months in
power (he resigned on August 18, 2008) was that the
notorious security and intelligence apparatus had had a hand
in eliminating Bhutto, who was on a comeback trail after
nearly a decade of formal military rule. When her widower,
Asif Ali Zardari, came to power after an election in
September 2008, it was therefore hoped that the PPP's demand
for an impartial international inquiry into the
assassination would begin immediately.
That the Zardari government took nine more months before the
path was paved for the UN's troika of a Chilean, an
Indonesian and an Irishman to commence the inquiry is reason
to believe that they may be on a mission impossible.
Although Musharraf now spends the evening of his career
enjoying rounds of tennis and squash, his tribe of army
generals and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers are
very much in command behind the scenes. Unless there are
serious rifts within the military-security complex, the UN's
trio can be expected to be frustrated no end, just as the
people of Pakistan have been for the past one-and-half
years, irrespective of whether there was a general or a
civilian in charge of the country.
The UN team's Irish member, Peter Fitzgerald, knows all
about delaying tactics in assassination inquiries since he
headed a UN fact-finding mission into the killing of former
Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 in Beirut.
Syrian agents and pro-Syrian members of the Lebanese
intelligence services, widely suspected of having had a hand
in the murder, blocked all leads to conclusive evidence.
They forced Fitzgerald to report that no satisfactory
international investigation was possible as long as
Lebanon's security services remained under the leadership of
that time. As predicted, the subsequent UN Independent
Investigation Commission was left lamenting that
Syria was not showing "greater and more
meaningful cooperation" on the Hariri case.
Nearly four-and-half years have passed since Hariri's death
by a probable suicide bomber, but the UN-assisted special
tribunal for Lebanon has yet to indict anyone for the
terrorist act which ushered in more instability in an
already volatile country.
The team assigned to the Benazir assassination knows only
too well from the Lebanese experience that high-political
crimes are covered up in thick layers of deception,
obstruction and burning up of traces of evidence. In a
war-ridden and dangerously violent country such as Pakistan,
the task is even more punishing. It is understandable that
the UN team will operate outside the media glare so as not
to raise the bar of expectations for the truth to pop out,
clean and simple.
One special international diplomatic hurdle is also worth
mentioning, although it will not be publicly mentioned by
the UN investigating mission due to the delicacies of
political correctness. Since the Pakistani army has launched
an apparently more determined military offensive against the
Pakistani Taliban in Swat Valley and, now, in Mehsud's lair
of the South Waziristan tribal area, American policymakers
have been all praise for this seemingly newfound zeal of the
military and the ISI to take on the terrorist menace.
Easing their earlier
reservations about the sincerity of
Pakistan's security agencies to flush out and defeat the
Taliban and al-Qaeda, everyone from US National Security
Adviser General James Jones to US special envoy Richard
Holbrooke has of late been back-patting the country's army.
The increased "goodwill for Pakistan in the United States"
could have an unexpected side-effect in the form of
Washington enabling a downgrading of the UN's inquiry into
While the US cannot interfere with Fitzgerald and company to
go slow or easy on the ISI and the Pakistani army's possible
role in the killing, the idea that Pakistan's reluctant
armed forces must be "encouraged" at a crucial time in the
war on the Taliban takes many forms. Generous military and
economic aid from Washington to Islamabad is an obvious
publicized incentive, but the ability of Pakistan's generals
to extract other types of concessions from the Americans is
legendary. Will Bhutto's likely killers get off the hook due
to backdoor American meddling? This factor cannot be
underestimated, as the so-called "rogue elements" in the ISI
and the army have long exploited American weaknesses.
Even in the UN's Hariri probe, there were well-founded hints
that the US was willfully ignoring Syrian interference in
the tribunal's progress as a quid pro quo for
concessions on Middle East peace negotiations. The tribunal
opened in The Hague this year exactly when the Barack Obama
administration launched a flurry of diplomatic moves to
bring Damascus out of the cold as a possible opening to
resolve the Golan Heights dispute with
Israel and to allegedly isolate Iran from
its Arab allies.
Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has already expressed
angst that "the tribunal could be regarded as a bargaining
chip with the Syrians". So, while Washington cannot directly
pressurize a UN-supported tribunal based in The Hague, it
can easily tolerate or wink at Syria's non-cooperation and
allow Bashar al-Assad's government to keep the Hariri
assassination a mystery forever.
The US bears a unique responsibility in aiding the UN to
unearth the truth about Benazir's killing. It was on the
assurances of both Musharraf and the George W Bush
administration that political space would be created for
Bhutto that she decided to return to Pakistan in 2007. As is
the wont in any country rife with conspiracy theories,
hearsay in Pakistan's streets is that the "Americans" and
the army colluded to bump off "Bibi" (Benazir's affectionate
name). Obama, a seeker of the truth in his own political
context, should not allow a farcical finish to either the
Hariri or the Benazir assassination cases.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world
politics at the Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.
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