Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pakistan: Dangerous And Violent Nonsense In Wake Of Bhutto Assassination

The dangerous nonsense coming out of Pakistan has reached seemingly impossible new levels of absurdity in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination in Rawalpindi on Thursday.

[Seemingly impossible? Maybe. But the bar has been raised yet again, and this piece has been updated (twice) with even more absurdity than the absurd original.]

The government's story of how she died changed twice in the first 36 hours after her death, and now they don't want to talk about it anymore. Their story of who did it has only changed once, and that's all they want to talk about.

In short, Bhutto's party -- the Pakistan People's Party -- blames the government, and the government blames the terrorists. Which terrorists? Who cares! But if they could be connected to al Qaeda, so much the better...

... unless they also happened to be connected to the ISI, and therefore to Musharraf, and therefore (willingly and wittingly, or otherwise) to the Bush Administration.

We'll have more on these connections -- tenuous though they may be -- below. More on the future of the PPP below as well.

The government's shifting tales of the details of the former Prime Minister's death haven't helped quell the inevitable conspiracy theories; on the contrary, they tend to implicate the government in the murder -- or at least in the coverup.

Not incidentally, three days of violent protests have left at least 40 people dead, and tens of millions of dollars of damage to thousands of buildings and other facilities, including elections offices where voters lists have been "reduced to ashes".

AFP reports:
The interior ministry insists she had no gunshot or shrapnel wounds ...

"This is ridiculous, dangerous nonsense because it is a cover-up of what actually happened," Bhutto's spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who was involved in washing her body for burial, retorted....

"There was a bullet wound I saw that went in from the back of her head and came out the other side," Rehman told AFP.
In any case it is clear that certain factions within the government are playing fast and loose with reality.

According to Javed Iqbal Cheema, spokesman for the Interior Ministry,
“It is not important now how she died because the fact is that we have lost her and the important thing is that who killed her and how can we catch them.”
The Bangkok Post had a slightly different quote, yet quite the same sentiment:
"It is immaterial how she died," he told journalists. "What is more important is, who are the people who killed her? I think we have to uncover those people."
Saeed Shah details the ever-changing story that has now been declared immaterial in Toronto's Globe and Mail:
Babar Awan, a senior People's Party official. He said he saw her body after the attack and there were at least two bullet wounds, one in the neck and one on the top of the head.

"It was a targeted, planned killing," he said. "The firing was from more than one side."
Instead of pronouncing her assassinated, the latest official account gives her a much more prosaic end. Cynics suggested it was an attempt to rein in the legend that has already sprung up of Ms. Bhutto as a martyr for democracy. Others say it's an effort to blunt criticism she wasn't adequately protected.
This is the second time the story has been changed.
Just 24 hours earlier, the government had been putting forward a different account that also contradicted the People's Party version of events. It had said Ms. Bhutto was not killed by gunfire, but by flying shrapnel from the blast.
And that story didn't agree with what the eyewitnesses saw, either.
Nearly all eyewitnesses and accounts by people travelling in her vehicle agree she was first shot and had slumped back into the jeep when the blast occurred.

Amateur video released yesterday shows a gunman firing at least three shots at Ms. Bhutto followed by a huge blast, but the government says the gunman missed.

The doctors at the hospital told journalists and People's Party leaders that she had died as a result of a bullet wound to the neck. Some of the doctors apparently later changed their stories.
So the question remains: How can you catch the people who did it if you don't care to find out what they did? It's a very strange way to solve a crime, so to speak. Some people will probably say it's a good way to keep a crime unsolved.

And it's not the only sign of a coverup:
Ms. Bhutto was sent to her grave yesterday without autopsy. Her body was flown immediately from the hospital, in a sealed coffin, to the burial. So the truth of government assertion that she died in an extraordinary accident will probably never be known.

Mohammadmian Soomro, the caretaker prime minister of Pakistan, told the cabinet that Ms. Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, had insisted on no autopsy.

But in a case of this nature, an autopsy is mandatory under the criminal law of Pakistan, according to leading lawyer Athar Minallah - and it is the state's responsibility.

"It is absurd, because without autopsy it is not possible to investigate," he said.

Firefighters also cleaned the scene of the attack in Rawalpindi with high-pressure hoses within an hour, washing evidence away.
Meanwhile the government has released a transcript of what it claims is a conversation between Baitullah Mehsud and an unidentified tribal leader, which is says proves that Baitullah Mehsud was behind the assassination.
"We have intelligence intercepts indicating that al-Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud is behind her assassination," said Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.

Mr. Mehsud is a tribal chief in the Waziristan region, on the border with Afghanistan, and the leader of Pakistan's homegrown version of the Taliban. He is said to be close to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is an ally of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

According to a transcript released of a conversation between Mr. Mehsud and an unidentified religious cleric, the tribal chief conveyed his congratulations for the attack.

"It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her," Mr. Mehsud said, according to the transcript, on being told by the cleric that three of his men were behind the assassination.
The article reprints the transcript. The empahsis is mine:
The following is a transcript released by the Pakistani government yesterday of a purported conversation between militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is referred to as Emir Sahib, and another man identified as a Maulvi Sahib, or Mr. Cleric. The government alleges the intercepted conversation proves al-Qaeda was behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto:

Maulvi Sahib: Peace be on you.
Mehsud: Peace be on you, too.
Maulvi Sahib: They were our men there.
Mehsud: Who were they?
Maulvi Sahib : There were Saeed, the second was Badarwala Bilal and Ikramullah was also there.
Mehsud: The three did it?
Maulvi Sahib: Ikramullah and Bilal did it.

Mehsud: Then congratulations to you again.
Mehsud: It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her.
Maulvi Sahib: Praise be to God. I will give you more details when I come.
Mehsud: I will wait for you. Congratulations once again.
Maulvi Sahib: Congratulations to you as well.
Mehsud: Peace be on you.
Maulvi: Same to you.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether this transcript is legitimate, the flow of the conversation seems to show Maulvi Sahib telling Baitullah Mehsud who executed the attack.

Does this show that Baitullah Mehsud was behind it? One might think that if Baitullah Mehsud were responsible for the assassination, he would be the one giving the details.

And one might think the shooter shown in the photo would at least have a beard! But this is Pakistani politics after all, where nothing makes any sense at face value.

Even the alleged connection between Baitullah Mehsud and al Qaeda is in dispute.

And there's been more nonsense elsewhere, including this bit in the US, courtesy of TIME magazine:
An FBI and Department of Homeland Security bulletin sent out Thursday cited unsubstantiated reports that Lashkar-i-Jhangvi had claimed responsibility for Bhutto's assassination. An FBI official said that the bulletin was based on press reports and would not comment on whether the claim had been independently confirmed.
The same TIME article makes even less sense in spots.
"It is probable there are links between Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and al-Qaeda," says [Frederic Grare, a former French diplomat in Pakistan and a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace], "but it is certain they do have links to the government." He adds, "If the government itself says Lashkar-i-Jhangvi is involved, it is suicidal because it opens the door to speculation about their own role."

Indeed, while Pakistani authorities have had a hand in encouraging groups like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Lashkar-i-Tayyba, Islamabad has done little to systematically dismantle these jihadist "armies" now that their original purposes — fighting the Soviets and supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan or fighting the Indians in Kashmir — are over.

"They have nothing else to do," says [Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution], "and they are causing mischief."
The fighting with India over Kashmir is by no means over, and the idea that terrorist groups send out suicide bombers to take out major political figures because they have nothing else to do is most fanciful. Only in America will readers take this sort of dangerous nonsense seriously.

Elsewhere in the article Cohen is quoted as saying:
"Bhutto was the only Pakistani politician willing to stand up and say, 'I don't like violent terrorists,'"
which is clearly false, as anyone who has been following the story of terrorism in Pakistan (here or elsewhere) can attest. It's the same old story: Nobody likes violent terrorists. But some people do like freedom-fighters.

And if the difference between the two is sometimes a bit blurry, well, then, that's quite handy in the propaganda sense, because the more confusing and frightening a subject, the fewer people will take it skeptically. As inhabitants of a nation terminally confused by violent terrorists, many Americans will believe almost anything.

And that makes it more and more inevitable that more and more disconnected terrorist groups will soon be described as affiliated with al Qaeda and/or Osama bin Laden, since such an affiliation is obviously the sine qua non of attracting serious American media attention ... and becoming a target in the GWOT.


As for the violence, an Interior Ministry spokesman enumerated the results of the violence in the first two days after the assassination, according to Dawn:
38 people were killed and 53 injured, 174 banks were gutted, 26 ransacked, 158 offices were burnt, 23 ransacked, 34 petrol stations were set ablaze and two damaged, 370 vehicles were set on fire and 61 damaged, 18 railway stations were torched and four ransacked, 72 train bogies were burnt, 765 shops, offices gutted and 19 offices ransacked.
According to a more detailed report from the Times of India:
Demonstrators have clashed with police and torched hundreds of buildings, trains and vehicles in the wake of the gun and suicide attack that claimed Bhutto's life on Thursday.

"In two days 38 innocent people have lost their lives and 53 have been injured," ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema told a news conference.

"At a time when the nation is mourning the death of Benazir Bhutto in a terrorist attack, some elements of criminal mentality have taken undue advantage of the situation," Cheema said.

More than 100 criminals had escaped when rioters broke open jails, he said.
But by Saturday, despite continued unrest, the spokesman was looking at the bright side:
Cheema said the overall situation was "satisfactory" on Saturday, partly due to the army's presence in several hotspots.

"The situation is getting back to normal rapidly and we hope that in a day or so life will return to normal in the country," he added.

President Pervez Musharraf earlier ordered security chiefs to take firm action to restore order to the country. Paramilitary troops have already been ordered to shoot rioters on sight in the southern city of Karachi.

Cheema also pledged that Pakistani authorities would bring to justice all the "miscreants" behind the unrest.

"I want to say that those who are involved will not be spared... they will face tough punishment," he added.
Do you want some more nonsense? CTV reports a fine bit of lingo-jingo from Cheema:
"This is not an ordinary criminal matter in which we require assistance of the international community. I think we are capable of handling it."
... in which the Interior Ministry spokesman suggests that Pakistani police are incapable of solving the small crimes on their own ... but they can handle the big ones without assistance? Yeah, sure!!

The Parliamentary election scheduled for January 8th is now in doubt. Nawaz Sharif has announced his party will boycott. Musharraf's party will run, of course. And the late Benazir Buhtto's PPP will meet on Sunday to decide whether to stand in the election or join the opposition boycott.

According to AFP, the wishes of the former PPP leader will be made known at Sunday's meeting and will be very difficult to disregard.
The PPP was to meet around 3:00pm (1000 GMT) in her home town of Naudero in the south to decide what to do next, with her husband Asif Zardari expected to read out instructions she left about the party's future.

"It will be almost impossible for the party to go against her wishes," said political analyst and columnist Shafqat Mahmood. Party officials said her son Bilawal Bhutto was favourite to take over what has become a political dynasty, with an advisory council running affairs until he finishes his studies at Britain's Oxford University.
The election commission will meet on Monday to decide whether to postpone the January 8 election, but according to the same political analyst, Shafqat Mahmood, their decision depends on the result of the PPP meeting. If PPP decide to boycott, it won't matter much whether the election commission wants to have an election on January 8th or not.

So here we are, on the edge of a great precipice, with emerging opportunities for the forces good and evil to shape the decades to come -- and our collective future now hinges on such weighty matters as whether a dead woman has left instructions to turn over the leadership of her party -- the largest opposition political party in the sixth most-populous nation on earth -- to a 19-year-old university student.

And this is democracy?? Nonsense indeed!

There are dangerous and violent times to come, for certain. But our future may have to wait, because the new prince of the democratic Pakistani opposition is still being trained -- at Oxford!


[update 1]
from Reuters India: Bhutto's son, husband to be co-leaders of party
NAUDERO, Pakistan (Reuters) - The 19-year-old son of assassinated Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal, was on Sunday appointed chairman of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) along with his father, party officials said.

"It has been decided that Bilawal will be the chairman and Mr (Asif Ali) Zardari will be co-chairman," one of the party officials said in the southern town of Naudero, where top officials of Bhutto's party were meeting.

Asif Ali Zardari was Bhutto's husband.
[update 2]
from Dawn: Bhutto party will take part in election: husband
NAUDERO, Pakistan, Dec 30 (AFP) - Slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party will take part in national elections set for January 8, her husband Asif Ali Zardari said at a Press conference Sunday.

He also called on former premier Nawaz Sharif to reverse his decision to boycott the polls, which Sharif had announced in the wake of Bhutto's death on Thursday. “We will go to elections,” Zardari said.
[the photos]
The photos accompanying this piece depict (from top) troops patrolling in Larkana, Benazir Bhutto's hometown, amid the wreckage of burnt-out cars; (2) shops in Larkana utterly destroyed, (3) a soldier on duty in Larkana, (4) a very military-looking person shooting at Benazir Bhutto, (5) soldiers arriving in Hyperabad, and (6) police in Karachi guarding a burning trailer.

[additional reading]
Robert Fisk in the Independent : They don't blame al-Qa'ida. They blame Musharraf
Tariq Ali at London Review of Books: Daughter of the West
Tariq Ali at the Guardian: A tragedy born of military despotism and anarchy
Melanie Colburn at Mother Jones: America's Devil's Game with Extremist Islam