An elusive Taliban leader with links to Al Qaeda is emerging as the key suspect in Thursday’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto, killed as she campaigned for a third term as Pakistan’s prime minister.
Intelligence services in Pakistan and the West yesterday identified Baitullah Mehsud, a 34-year-old pro-Taliban militant commander, as the man behind the plot to kill Bhutto, leader of the popular Pakistan Peoples Party, in the run-up to Jan. 8 elections in the nuclear-armed nation.
Yesterday, Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, cited an intercepted telephone conversation between Mehsud and one of his operatives as proof the terrorist organization was responsible.
“We have an intercept from this morning in which he congratulated his people for carrying out this cowardly act,” Cheema said.
“We have irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda and its networks are trying to destabilize the government,” he added. “They have been systematically attacking our government, and now a political icon.”
“Irrefutable”, eh? Insert Inigo Montoya quote here:
The government released no audiotape of Mehsud’s purported conversation in the Pashto language with another militant, whom he called Maulvi Sahib, or religious leader. But, in a government-provided transcript, Mehsud is quoted congratulating Maulvi Sahib for the deadly work of the two men who were apparently directly involved in Bhutto’s assassination.
Unsurprisingly, the PPP has called “bullshit”:
The Pakistan Peoples Party rejected government claims that a Taliban commander linked to al-Qaeda was behind the assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto, as the death toll from rioting rose to 32.
Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban commander linked to al-Qaeda, is suspected of plotting the Dec. 27 suicide attack that killed Bhutto, the Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told reporters yesterday. Mehsud denied the claim, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a spokesman.
The government “is trying to divert the investigations into Bhutto’s killing,” Farhatullah Babar, her spokesman, said in a phone interview today. “Mehsud had already denied he planned to assassinate Bhutto.”
“If the government had accepted our demand of holding an independent inquiry by overseas experts into the Oct. 19 bombing on Bhutto, this would not have happened,” Babar said.
Also, in an article examining the shifting explanation re: cause of death, The Star touches upon why Pakitsan’s gov’t is trying so desperately to establish the convoluted “bumped her head” narrative:
The question of whether she died of violence or an unfortunate accident is important because if she did not die because of foul play there is less chance that her death would be considered that of a martyr.
At this point, I would say their efforts aren’t succeeding. Unified in anger and frustration, Bhutto’s supporters continue to demonstratively express their emotions, as chaos threatens to engulf the nation:
Masked gunmen killed a supporter of Benazir Bhutto early on Saturday, while security forces shot dead two other party activists as a mob tried to force its way into an oilfield, police said.
The killings take the death toll since Bhutto’s assassination on Thursday to 40, including four policemen, and came as protesters torched shops, lorries, welfare centers and ambulances overnight as violence entered a third day.
A 27-year-old man wearing a tunic made from a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) flag had just shouted “Bhutto is great” when he was gunned down while returning from the mausoleum where Bhutto was buried on Friday, police said.
“Two gunmen were waiting in a vehicle, their faces covered, and they opened fire,” said Shaukat Ali Shah, deputy inspector general of police in the city of Hyderabad in Sindh.
Separately, up to 400 PPP activists carrying banners portraits of Bhutto and wielding bricks, tried to burst into an oilfield facility near Hyderabad before dawn, when security forces acted on orders to shoot violent protesters on sight.
“The mob was warned,” Shah said. “Two people were killed.”
Almost all of the deaths since Bhutto’s killing occurred in the southern province of Sindh, the PPP’s power base, where the Election Commission said several of its offices were set on fire and electoral rolls and ballot boxes destroyed.
VOA reports that Musharraf wants “firm action” to be taken against rioters, reportedly telling security officials “those looting and plundering cannot be allowed to damage lives and property in the guise of protest.” Cutting through the euphemistic fog, Pakistani blogger Inspirex reports that “[a]ccording to varios [sic] news reports, Sindh Rangers have been issued Shoot at Sight orders across the province.” Metroblogging Karachi has posted several personal accounts of the violence currently gripping the region.
Regardless, whether matryr status will have any lasting effect on events in Pakistan (other than inspiring protests and rehabilitating Bhutto’s spotty reputation) remains to be seen. As analyst Ayesha Siddiqa notes:
…”al-Qaida” is just a name which can be used to mean everything or nothing. It will now be difficult to find out who exactly killed Benazir – especially when the government made sure they washed away all forensic evidence in the twelve hours after the murder.
And it’s not like there isn’t historical precedence for the undertaking of extra-judicial measures on the part of the Pakistani security and intelligence apparatus. In a recently published LRB essay examining the the US-brokered “arranged marriage” between Bhutto and Musharraf, Tariq Ali recalls at length the assassination of Benazir Bhutto’s brother, Murtaza:
[I]n September 1996, as Murtaza and his entourage were returning home from a political meeting, they were ambushed, just outside their house, by some seventy armed policemen accompanied by four senior officers. A number of snipers were positioned in surrounding trees. The street lights had been switched off. Murtaza clearly understood what was happening and got out of his car with his hands raised; his bodyguards were instructed not to open fire. The police opened fire instead and seven men were killed, Murtaza among them. The fatal bullet had been fired at close range. The trap had been carefully laid, but as is the way in Pakistan, the crudeness of the operation – false entries in police logbooks, lost evidence, witnesses arrested and intimidated, the provincial PPP governor (regarded as untrustworthy) dispatched to a non-event in Egypt, a policeman killed who they feared might talk – made it obvious that the decision to execute the prime minister’s brother had been taken at a very high level.
As Robert Fisk, commenting on Ali’s essay, notes:
When Murtaza’s 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, rang her aunt Benazir to ask why witnesses were being arrested – rather than her father’s killers – she says Benazir told her: “Look, you’re very young. You don’t understand things.” Or so Tariq Ali’s exposé would have us believe. Over all this, however, looms the shocking power of Pakistan’s ISI, the Inter Services Intelligence.
This vast institution – corrupt, venal and brutal – works for Musharraf.
But it also worked – and still works – for the Taliban. It also works for the Americans. In fact, it works for everybody. But it is the key which Musharraf can use to open talks with America’s enemies when he feels threatened or wants to put pressure on Afghanistan or wants to appease the ” extremists” and “terrorists” who so oppress George Bush.
Speaking of George and Co., The Guardian reports that the US is scrambling for a Plan B:
US officials based in Pakistan were sounding out senior members of her opposition Pakistan People’s party about a possible successor. They were also in contact with members of the other main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif, even though the US had previously opposed his return to Pakistan because of links between his party and Islamist extremists.
President George Bush called for the election to go ahead, though he avoided mention of whether Pakistan should stick to the January 8 timetable. An announcement on whether to delay the election has been left until the end of the three days of mourning.Asked whether the US was confident that Pakistan could stage an election in January, the US state department spokesman, Tom Casey, said: “Well, we’re going to see what happens.”
The assassination of Bhutto has thrown into disarray Bush administration hopes of establishing a degree of security in Pakistan. Since 9/11, Bush has relied on the military-run government of President Pervez Musharraf as an ally in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. With Musharraf’s loss of popularity, the administration placed its hopes on a return to democracy and the emergence of a Musharraf-Bhutto coalition.
US intelligence analysts warned that al-Qaida, which has a hold in Pakistan’s tribal areas – where the US believes Osama bin Laden is hiding – and in cities such as Karachi would be strengthened by the chaos in the aftermath of the assassination.
John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA, predicted that the chaos would last for weeks at least and that the capacity of Pakistan’s authorities to deal with al-Qaida during that time would be diminished.
WaPo has more:
President Bush held an emergency meeting of his top foreign policy aides yesterday to discuss the deepening crisis in Pakistan, as administration officials and others explored whether Thursday’s assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto marks the beginning of a new Islamic extremist offensive that could spread beyond Pakistan and undermine the U.S. war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.
U.S. officials fear that a renewed campaign by Islamic militants aimed at the Pakistani government, and based along the border with Afghanistan, would complicate U.S. policy in the region by effectively merging the six-year-old war in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s growing turbulence.
“The fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably tied,” said
J. Alexander Thier, a former United Nations official in Afghanistan who is now at the U.S. Institute for Peace.
How the United States responds will hinge largely on the actions of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in whom U.S. officials have mixed confidence. If there is indeed a new challenge by Islamic militants emerging in Pakistan, then the United States will have to do whatever it can to support Musharraf, the U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan said.
“Pakistan must take drastic action against the Taliban in its midst or we will face the prospect of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of al-Qaeda — a threat far more dangerous and real than Hussein’s arsenal ever was,” he said, referring to the deposed Saddam Hussein.
The same WaPo dispatch indicates that the US is running with the Interior Ministry’s al Qaeda/Taliban story (if not dictating it outright):
U.S. intelligence and Defense Department sources said there is increasing evidence that the assassination of Bhutto, a former Pakistani prime minister, was carried out by al-Qaeda or its allies inside Pakistan. The intelligence officials said that in recent weeks their colleagues had passed along warnings to the Pakistani government that al-Qaeda-related groups were planning suicide attacks on Pakistani politicians.
The U.S. and Pakistani governments are focusing on Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, as a possible suspect. A senior U.S. official said that the Bush administration is paying attention to a list provided by Pakistan’s interior ministry indicating that Mehsud’s targets include former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, former interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, and several other cabinet officials and moderate Islamist leaders. “I wouldn’t exactly call it a hit list, but we take it very seriously,” the official said. “All moderates [in Pakistan] are now under threat from this terrorism.”
Mehsud told the BBC earlier this month that the Pakistani government’s actions forced him to react with a “defensive jihad.”
After signing a condolence book for Bhutto at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, Rice said the United States is in contact with “all” of the parties in Pakistan and stressed that the Jan. 8 elections should not be postponed. “Obviously, it’s just very important that the democratic process go forward,” she told reporters.
A quick “compare and contrast review: “Asked whether the US was confident that Pakistan could stage an election in January, the US state department spokesman, Tom Casey, said: “Well, we’re going to see what happens.””
Ok, let’s continue:
“We’ve really got a new situation here in western Pakistan,” said Army Col. Thomas F. Lynch III, who has served in Afghanistan and with Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for Pakistan and the Middle East. He said the assassination marks a “critical new phase” in jihadist operations in Pakistan and predicted that the coming months would bring concentrated attacks on other prominent Pakistanis.
Over at Bread and Roses, the ever-quotable skdadl made the following astute observation:
What is out of control in Pakistan is the military and intelligence elites. They aren’t unified, but the different factions are all very powerful, and any one of them could do something bananas at any time. Musharraf’s days are probably numbered.
I don’t know how this problem is addressed, but one thing I am sure of: Americans don’t know how to address it.
They certainly don’t, but someone forgot to inform the usual suspects of this all-too-apparent fact. I wouldn’t be surprised to see O’Hanlon and Kagan’s preemptive strike optiongiven greater consideration now that Plan Bhutto is no longer on the table.
(This also seems like the perfect time to post a link to Najum Mushtaq’s aptly titled The Neocons on Pakistan: Neat, Simple, and Dangerously Naïve.)
Mr. Sharif, a former prime minister who had brought a raft of corruption charges against Ms. Bhutto and her family, needs to forge an alliance with her currently leaderless political party to challenge the government of President Pervez Musharraf. On Saturday, he flew on a chartered plane to Moenjodaro, where South Asian civilization was born some 5,000 years ago, and from there he drove in a long, dusty convoy of cars to this ancestral village of Ms. Bhutto’s, where senior leaders of both their parties met briefly to condole and discuss the way forward.
Mr. Sharif has already said his party would boycott the polls, scheduled for next month. Aboard the plane to Moenjodaro, he said he hoped Ms. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party would join the boycott.
The party was noncommittal. Farhatullah Babar, a party spokesman, said it was too early for his organization to make a decision about whether to go ahead and contest the elections. The party’s executive council is scheduled to meet Sunday afternoon to discuss its future plans, including “how the party will be led and by whom,” he said.
If Ms. Bhutto’s party does forge ahead with elections, it is unclear whether Mr. Sharif will be persuaded to drop the boycott and join the race. A Peoples Party spokeswoman, Sherry Rehman, said both parties shared the same goal: the restoration of democracy. “We had a very good meeting,” she said Saturday evening. “They were very deeply aggrieved by our loss. They said it’s their loss.”
As they say, developing…
Update 2: The Pakistani Spectator makes note of the obvious parallel between the Kennedys and the Bhuttos.
Update 3: Bloomberg News updates its report from earlier today:
The [PPP] will name Bhutto’s successor tomorrow and may also decide on whether to participate in the elections or call for postponement, AAJ television channel reported, citing Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari. Bhutto has named a successor in her will, Zardari said.
Update 4: Sylvia @ Problem Chylde has compiled an exhaustive, must read collection of Bhutto-related links, including this unfortunate post from Moe @ Jezebel (yes, Jezebel *sigh*):
So, was Musharraf, who’d just grudgingly conceded to share power with Bhutto and give up his army leadership position, behind the hit? That’s what conspiracy theorists inside my kitchen seem to believe. But then you’ve gotta wonder how he did it. Did Mr. Enemy of Terrorism Musharraf contract out a suicide bomber from Al Qaeda Inc.? Or does the Pakistani Army have a top-secret suicide unit, and if so, what do you have to do to get yourself enlisted in that? Josh Foust, of Registan.net and “That’s So Jane’s!” columns of yore says the theory doesn’t make sense. “She works much better as an opponent than as a martyr” for Musharraf, he claims. CNN seems to be focused on the question of what happens next: will they invoke military rule? (Isn’t that what you would do?)
Ok, I don’t expect Foreign Affairs or Le Monde diplomatique to opine on Paris Hilton’s recent inheritance trouble. Methinks the folks @ Gawker Media should avoid attempts at serious foreign policy analysis (note: ZOMG Bhutto was gettin’ teh FAT!!111 doesn’t cut it) and stick to their area of expertise, ie, insubstantial celebrity panty-sniffing. To quote Ilyka Damen, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”