The U.N. report on Benazir Bhutto's killing wades directly into the controversial subject of civilian-military relations in Pakistan.
Anyone who has been in Pakistan even briefly knows about the “establishment”. It comes up so often in routine conversations that despite being an English word, it is a part and parcel of the country's local languages. No Pakistani ever needs an explanation of what it means.
But now the United Nations has provided one; its report on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto defining it as “the de facto power structure that has as its permanent core the military high command and intelligence agencies, in particular, the powerful, military-run the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as well as Military Intelligence (MI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB)”.
That the “establishment” should find mention at all in the U.N. report is extraordinary. Usually known for playing safe when it comes to the national sensitivities of its member-states, the three-member U.N. commission set up in February 2009 to investigate Benazir's assassination on a request by the Pakistan People's Party government, was expected to abide by the international organisation's low appetite for political risk.
Its mandate seemed designed to ensure a non-controversial report. As the head of the commission, Heraldo Munoz Valenzuela, declared at a press conference in Islamabad in July 2009, its terms of reference were to “look into the facts and circumstances of the assassination of former Prime Minister” and did not include a criminal investigation.
The commission, which had a former Attorney-General from Indonesia and a retired Irish police official working with Mr. Valenzuela, the Chilean permanent representative to the U.N., was not expected to fix criminal responsibility for the assassination or come out with any new revelations. The widespread belief was that it would accept the Musharraf regime's conclusion that Benazir was ordered killed by the Pakistani Taliban leader, Beithullah Mehsud.
True to these expectations, there is no earth-shattering revelation in the 70-page report. It does not contradict that Beithullah Mehsud might have been the mastermind, though it says the hasty announcement of this by the Musharraf regime pre-empted a proper investigation.
In the main it is a painstaking reconstruction of events, put together by the commission after conducting 250 interviews. One part of the reconstruction deals with the political situation in Pakistan in 2007 — General Pervez Musharraf's attempt to sack the Chief Justice; the movement by the lawyers for his restoration; the secret Benazir-Musharraf negotiations leading up to her return from Dubai; the November 3 emergency; the sacking of the judiciary; the calling of the elections; the campaign by Benazir; and, her assassination.
It details the inadequacy of her security, especially in the light of the bombing of her convoy on the day she landed in Karachi after ending her exile. The second part is a reconstruction of the government response to the assassination — also inadequate.
This is valuable in itself, even thought it covers known ground. For one, in the absence of a proper criminal investigation, it is the only authoritative, independent and cohesive reconstruction of the killing. The importance of this for a proper criminal investigation cannot be overemphasised. It provides a wealth of detail about the lapses in the security arrangements of the former Prime Minister and has helped to focus attention on some of the principal actors, their decisions and their acts of omission and commission. It names government and police officials and at least one serving and one retired military official, holding them responsible for a chain of egregious acts, concluding that many of these acts were deliberate.
In Pakistan, there is all-around satisfaction that the report has blamed the Musharraf regime for failing “profoundly” in its duty to protect Benazir, and after she was killed, to investigate her assassination. The retired General remains a pet hate of the political class and the media, and the report has triggered fresh demands that Pakistan's former military ruler, now a gentleman of leisure who divides his time between the U.S., London and Dubai, be brought back to Pakistan to face trial.
Opponents of Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Law Minister Babar Awan are also sharpening their knives on the report. The two men have been faulted for speeding away from the scene of attack in the car that was the back-up vehicle in Benazir's convoy, leaving her damaged car to fend for itself.
Detractors of President Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP have also gleefully pounced on the commission's incomprehension at the PPP's failure to get a proper criminal investigation going despite coming to power a few months after the killing.
But perhaps the most remarkable portion of the report, one that has been studiously ignored in media commentary and political reaction in Pakistan, is about the “pervasive” role of the “establishment” and how intelligence agencies blocked early attempts at investigating the assassination. It helps throw light on why the PPP never attempted to pursue Benazir's killers and may not be able to do so even now.
It is now part of the record of the world's highest international forum, of which almost all sovereign states are members, that Pakistan's intelligence agencies “severely hampered” the investigation into Benazir's assassination and thus “impeded an unfettered search for the truth”.
The commission found out that the ISI conducted what it calls parallel investigations into both the attack on Benazir's welcoming rally at Karachi that October and her killing three months later, gathering evidence and detaining suspects. But it shared the findings only selectively with the police. The report questions the integrity of such investigations “given the historical and possibly continuing relationships between intelligence agencies and some radical Islamist groups that engage in extremist violence”.
It also puts down some failures of the police and government officials in the Benazir assassination to the “uncertainty in the minds of many officials as to the extent of the involvement of intelligence agencies”. Officials, it says, “in part fearing involvement by the intelligence agencies, were unsure of how vigorously they ought to pursue actions that they knew, as professionals, they should have taken”.
This is perhaps the first time that the country's civilian-military relations have been raked up in an official, public document. Mincing no words, the U.N. wades right to the heart of the ever-relevant debate on the balance of power between the elected government and the military.
“[The] autonomy, pervasive reach and clandestine role of intelligence agencies in Pakistani life underlie many of the problems, omissions and commissions set out in this report. The actions of politicized intelligence agencies undermine democratic governance. Beyond the recent steps that have reportedly been taken to curb the involvement of intelligence agencies in political matters, the democratic rule of law in Pakistan could be greatly strengthened with a thorough review of intelligence agencies based on international best practices in this area,” the report states.
Perhaps it was Mr. Munoz's personal experience of military rule, which he has chronicled in a book called The Dictator's Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet (2008), that prompted this open indictment of the military's role in Pakistan in the report. But, whatever the reason or motives for the commission's extensive comments on the “establishment”, to the PPP's ears, it is music.
When the PPP government asked the U.N. to set up this commission, it came in for warnings from sections of officialdom and the media that national sovereignty was at stake. The Foreign Ministry was particularly unhappy as it felt that it amounted to a government declaration of “no confidence” in its own investigating agencies and would lay open “sensitive” departments to international scrutiny. The Foreign Secretary at the time, Riaz Muhammad Khan, quit some months before he was due to retire after a spat on this issue.
For the PPP, which attempted a “reform” of the intelligence agencies back in the summer of 2008 only to be beaten back by the military, the report is a vindication, a ringing endorsement of all that the party has maintained through most of the four-decades of its existence — that the “establishment” is the real villain in Pakistan. But does the report change anything on the ground? After all those encounters through 2008 and 2009 in which he steadily lost political ground and the Pakistan Army progressively regained political stature, this report finally gives Mr. Zardari a victory over the military. But coming at a time when the PPP government has pretty much accepted the supremacy of the Pakistan Army, the victory has nothing more than notional value.