Pakistan’s all-powerful establishment has received a recent setback with the publication of the UN report on the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Some may wonder why the world should be interested in the publication of a report which does not point out the real assassin. However, the importance of the UN report lies in the fact that it indicts Pakistan’s establishment. Pakistan has a history of political assassinations over the years, starting with first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and continuing through the years. Unfortunately, none of these assassinations have ever received proper investigation, and Pakistan’s omnipotent establishment has never been held accountable for its actions and operates without fear.
A saying regarding the former German kingdom of Prussia noted that the Prussian state did not have an army, rather the Prussian army had a state. Many analysts have applied this saying to Pakistan as well. The Pakistani establishment has ruled the state for decades, sometimes behind the scenes and sometimes from the front. No civilian government has ever been able to challenge this establishment.
What comprises the Pakistani establishment? The UN report identifies “the de facto power structure that has as its permanent core the military high command and intelligence agencies, in particular, the powerful, military-run Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as well as Military Intelligence (MI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB).”
For the last two years analysts and writers alike have referred to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government in Pakistan as a “weak civilian government.” The government attempted to seize the initiative on a couple of fronts — for example, trying to bring the head of Pakistan’s intelligence services, ISI, under civilian control. The attempt failed. Most analysts have been writing off the civilian government. Conservative critics are claiming that President Zardari and the PPP-led government are too keen to build ties with Pakistan’s “so-called enemies” like India. And left-wing critics think President Zardari and the PPP have strayed from the left-wing ideology of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The UN report actually shows that the government — and especially President Asif Ali Zardari — is not as weak as it might seem. President Zardari may have proven smarter than most people think. Knowing that he could not openly challenge the establishment, President Zardari allowed a report by the United Nations to speak for him.
Not only does the UN report identify the Pakistani establishment, it also openly names the Pakistani establishment as one of the many sources from which Ms. Bhutto faced threats:
Ms. Bhutto faced threats from a number of sources; these included Al-Qaida, the Taliban, local jihadi groups and potentially from elements in the Pakistani Establishment.
. . .
Ms. Bhutto’s assassination could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken. Responsibility for Ms. Bhutto’s security on the day of her assassination rested with the federal Government, the government of Punjab and the Rawalpindi District Police. None of these entities took the necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced.
The UN report further asserts that the investigation into Ms. Bhutto’s assassination “lacked direction, was ineffective and suffered from a lack of commitment to identify and bring all of the perpetrators to justice.” Furthermore the investigation “was severely hampered by intelligence agencies and other government officials, which impeded an unfettered search for the truth.” Pointing a direct finger at the ISI, the UN report states that though the ISI conducted its own investigation on the assassination it only “selectively shared” its evidence with the police. Also, the report’s authors assert that the local police did not “effectively” investigate Ms. Bhutto’s assassination because they feared that “intelligence agencies” were involved
In the end the recommendation of the UN report is that the Pakistani government needs “to carry out a serious, credible criminal investigation that determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime of historic proportions, and brings those responsible to justice. Doing so would constitute a major step toward ending impunity for political crimes in this country.” Civilian governments have tried but failed to reign in the establishment — maybe the publication of this report will help in this process.
Not accountable to the people, the establishment now has been exposed to the outside world. The report’s publication thus might force the establishment to review its actions and unclench its hold over Pakistani state and society. A report on the assassination of a democracy-seeking former prime minister might end up helping democracy’s progress in Pakistan.