The uncertainty over who killed Benazir Bhutto and how has been building all day. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security put out a bulletin this morning that Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the assassination, but the sourcing seems to be a bit shaky:
... [S]uch a claim has not appeared on radical Islamist Web sites that regularly post such messages from al Qaeda and other militant groups.
The source of the claim was apparently Italian news agency, Adnkronos International (AKI), which said that al Qaeda Afghanistan commander and spokesman Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid had telephoned the agency to make the claim.
"We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen," AKI quoted Al-Yazid as saying.
According to AKI, al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri set the wheels in motion for the assassination in October.
One Islamist Web site repeated the claim, but that Web site is not considered a reliable source for Islamist messages by experts in the field.
The DHS official said the claim was "an unconfirmed open source claim of responsibility" and the bulletin was sent out at about 6 p.m. to state and local law enforcement agencies.
The official characterized the bulletin as "information sharing."
Uh huh. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the explanations for exact cause of death are multiplying:
Mystery shrouds the death of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto. In an explosive revelation, Pakistan's Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz on Friday said that Bhutto did not die of bullet wounds.
Nawaz said that Bhutto died from a head injury. At least seven doctors from the Rawalpindi General Hospital – where the leader was rushed immediately after the attack – say there were no bullet marks on Bhutto's body.
The doctors have submitted a report to the Pakistan government in which they say that no post-mortem was performed on Bhutto’s body and they had not received any instructions to perform one.
“The report says she had head injuries – an irregular patch – and the X-ray doesn’t show any bullet in the head. So it was probably the shrapnel or any other thing has struck her in her said [sic]. That damaged her brain, causing it to ooze and her death. The report categorically [says] there’s no wound other than that,” Nawaz told a Pakistani news channel.
According to the Times of London:
The Pakistan Government tonight claimed that Benazir Bhutto did not die from bullet wounds, as previously thought, but from hitting the sunroof of her campaign vehicle.
The dramatic statement came as the murdered political leader's funeral drew to a close and the violence that has convulsed the country since her death intensified.
The interior ministry said at a press conference that video of Ms Bhutto's last moments and an examination by doctors had shown that Ms Bhutto died apparently accidentally, as a suicide bomb blast went off at her political rally in Rawalpindi last night, killing around 20 people. No full post mortem examination had been carried out at the request of Ms Bhutto's husband, it was reported.
Brigadier Javed Cheema, a ministry spokesman, said Ms Bhutto had died from a head wound after smashing against the sunroof’s lever as she tried to shelter inside her car. "There is no evidence of any foreign element in her body," Brigadier Cheema said. "No bullet hit her, nor any splinters hit her. Unfortunately, it was to be that way.
"I wish she had not come out of the roof top of her vehicle."
Agence France Presse has more of that quote:
"If she had not come out of the vehicle, she would have been unhurt, as all the other occupants of the vehicle did not receive any injuries," ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema said.
Bhutto's political associates disagree:
...Ms Bhutto's lawyer and a senior official in the PPP, Farooq Naik, rejected the Government's claim as "baseless".
"It is a pack of lies," he said.
"Two bullets hit her, one in the abdomen and one in the head.
"It was a serious security lapse."
Well, this is fairly transparent, motivationally speaking: If Bhutto essentially killed herself by hitting her head on the car's sunroof, then it's really a moot point whether Musharraf gave her enough protection or not.
Griff Witte and William Branigin have a wide-ranging article in today's Washington Post about the assassination and its consequences, both immediate and possible future. [Well, it was Witte and Branigin, but now it's just Witte, and the article has shrunk to three screens from five -- methinks it's being edited as I blog.] Anyway, I was particularly struck by this passage, on (original) screen 4 -- which I found particularly ironic in light of the massive unrest that has followed Bhutto's assassination (which Witte described earlier in the article):
The Bush administration had played a key role in brokering the agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto that enabled her to return to the country Oct. 18. Officials in Washington had hoped that an alliance of the two moderate leaders might create a robust political force to counter rising extremism in the country.Obviously, the plan failed. But what I find so bitterly ironic is that the Bush administration actually succeeded in achieving precisely the result that bringing Bhutto and Musharraf together was supposed to prevent.
And, as Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler reported in a separate WaPo piece today, the consequences of Bhutto's return to Pakistan and her assassination are likely to be worse than if the U.S. had not tried to diddle with the internal workings of a country it knew nothing about:
For Benazir Bhutto, the decision to return to Pakistan was sealed during a telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just a week before Bhutto flew home in October. The call culminated more than a year of secret diplomacy -- and came only when it became clear that the heir to Pakistan's most powerful political dynasty was the only one who could bail out Washington's key ally in the battle against terrorism.
"The U.S. came to understand that Bhutto was not a threat to stability, but was instead the only possible way that we could guarantee stability and keep the presidency of Musharraf intact," said Mark Siegel, who lobbied for Bhutto in Washington and witnessed much of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
But the diplomacy that ended abruptly with Bhutto's assassination yesterday was always an enormous gamble, according to current and former U.S. policymakers, intelligence officials and outside analysts. By entering into the legendary "Great Game" of South Asia, the United States also made its goals and allies more vulnerable -- in a country in which more than 70 percent of the population already looked unfavorably upon Washington.
Bhutto's assassination leaves Pakistan's future -- and Musharraf's -- in doubt, some experts said. "U.S. policy is in tatters. The administration was relying on Benazir Bhutto's participation in elections to legitimate Musharraf's continued power as president," said Barnett R. Rubin of New York University. "Now Musharraf is finished."
Bhutto's assassination also demonstrates the growing power and reach of militant anti-government forces in Pakistan, which pose an existential threat to the country, said J. Alexander Thier, a former U.N. official now at the U.S. Institute for Peace. "The dangerous cocktail of forces of instability exist in Pakistan -- Talibanism, sectarianism, ethnic nationalism -- could react in dangerous and unexpected ways if things unravel further," he said.
But others insist the U.S.-orchestrated deal fundamentally altered Pakistani politics in ways that will be difficult to undo, even though Bhutto is gone. "Her return has helped crack open this political situation. It's now very fluid, which makes it uncomfortable and dangerous," said Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the status quo before she returned was also dangerous from a U.S. perspective. Forcing some movement in the long run was in the U.S. interests."
It wasn't in Bhutto's long-term interests, though, was it? Not that the Bushies are accepting any blame or responsibility:
Xenia Dormandy, former National Security Council expert on South Asia now at Harvard University's Belfer Center, said U.S. meddling is not to blame for Bhutto's death. "It is very clear the United States encouraged" an agreement, she said, "but U.S. policy is in no way responsible for what happened. I don't think we could have played it differently."
So is the administration's finger-pointing at Al Qaeda part of a strategy to deflect blame? Scarecrow at Firedoglake thinks, maybe:
With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the general consensus seems to be that the Bush Administration's policies in Pakistan and central Asia are in a shambles, but that has not stopped the Administration's least credible agency from leaking stories blaming the murder on al Qaeda. Even if that's true, responsibility is a broader concept.
Dropped right in the middle of the New York Times lead story on yesterday's tragic killings is this:On Thursday evening, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to local law enforcement agencies informing them about posts on some Islamic Web sites saying that Al Qaeda was claiming responsibility for the attack, and that the plot was orchestrated by Ayman al-Zawahri, the group’s second-ranking official.
One counterterrorism official in Washington said that the bulletin neither confirmed nor discredited these claims. The official said that American intelligence agencies had yet to come to any firm judgments about who was responsible for Ms. Bhutto’s death.
The likelihood that extremists associated with al Qaeda could be responsible seems accepted by several sources -- see e.g., Tariq Ali, writing for the Guardian. But no official investigation has occurred and no one has explained the security breakdown despite repeated warnings. Apparently no autopsy was performed to confirm whether the gun reportedly found near the suicide bomber was the murder weapon. [CNN reporting this a.m. Bhutto was killed by shrapnel.]
In the face of suspicions about possible complicity by the Musharraf regime, and without knowing what happened, our FBI and DHS are giving unverified reports to US media in which al Qaeda takes responsibility. It may be true or false, but we have been conditioned to believe it, so it may be enough to divert attention from reports like this Times article:The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Thursday left in ruins the delicate diplomatic effort the Bush administration had pursued in the past year to reconcile Pakistan’s deeply divided political factions. Now it is scrambling to sort through ever more limited options, as American influence on Pakistan’s internal affairs continues to decline. . . .
The assassination highlighted, in spectacular fashion, the failure of two of President Bush’s main objectives in the region: his quest to bring democracy to the Muslim world, and his drive to force out the Islamist militants who have hung on tenaciously in Pakistan, the nuclear-armed state considered ground zero in President Bush’s fight against terrorism, despite the administration’s long-running effort to root out Al Qaeda from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The Bush Administration did not kill Benazir Bhutto; someone else did that. But it appears the Administration convinced her to go back to Pakistan to save a risky policy foolishly built on a despised, repressive military dictator to fight the US "war on terror." Now a courageous woman is dead, another nation is in chaos, the US is further discredited, it can't account for billions in military aid, and we still have an administration that remains a menace to everyone's security as long as they remain in office. But the Administration wants us to believe that only al Qaeda is responsible.
Pretty disgraceful. But Ralph Peters goes the White House one better. Not content with refusing to accept responsibility for Bhutto's murder, Peters actually tells his readers her death is good news for Pakistan:
FOR the next several days, you're going to read and hear a great deal of pious nonsense in the wake of the assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
Her country's better off without her. She may serve Pakistan better after her death than she did in life.
We need have no sympathy with her Islamist assassin and the extremists behind him to recognize that Bhutto was corrupt, divisive, dishonest and utterly devoid of genuine concern for her country.
She was a splendid con, persuading otherwise cynical Western politicians and "hardheaded" journalists that she was not only a brave woman crusading in the Islamic wilderness, but also a thoroughbred democrat.
In fact, Bhutto was a frivolously wealthy feudal landlord amid bleak poverty. The scion of a thieving political dynasty, she was always more concerned with power than with the wellbeing of the average Pakistani. Her program remained one of old-school patronage, not increased productivity or social decency.
Educated in expensive Western schools, she permitted Pakistan's feeble education system to rot - opening the door to Islamists and their religious schools.
During her years as prime minister, Pakistan went backward, not forward. Her husband looted shamelessly and ended up fleeing the country, pursued by the courts. The Islamist threat - which she artfully played both ways - spread like cancer.
But she always knew how to work Westerners - unlike the hapless Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who sought the best for his tormented country but never knew how to package himself.
Military regimes are never appealing to Western sensibilities. Yet, there are desperate hours when they provide the only, slim hope for a country nearing collapse. Democracy is certainly preferable - but, unfortunately, it's not always immediately possible. Like spoiled children, we have to have it now - and damn the consequences.
In Pakistan, the military has its own forms of graft; nonetheless, it remains the least corrupt institution in the country and the only force holding an unnatural state together. In Pakistan back in the '90s, the only people I met who cared a whit about the common man were military officers.
Americans don't like to hear that. But it's the truth.
Bhutto embodied the flaws in Pakistan's political system, not its potential salvation. Both she and her principal rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, failed to offer a practical vision for the future - their political feuds were simply about who would divvy up the spoils.
From its founding, Pakistan has been plagued by cults of personality, by personal, feudal loyalties that stymied the development of healthy government institutions (provoking coups by a disgusted military). When she held the reins of government, Bhutto did nothing to steer in a new direction - she merely sought to enhance her personal power.
Now she's dead. And she may finally render her country a genuine service (if cynical party hacks don't try to blame Musharraf for their own benefit). After the inevitable rioting subsides and the spectacular conspiracy theories cool a bit, her murder may galvanize Pakistanis against the Islamist extremists who've never gained great support among voters, but who nonetheless threaten the state's ability to govern.
It goes on like that. And in this case you don't need to read the whole thing. This is enough to tell you what Ralph Peters is.
If you're looking for a good round-up, Swaraaj Chaujan has one here.