Not since John F. Kennedy’s assassination 44 years ago have so many conspiracy theories swirled around a political murder that now consumes Pakistan, the world’s most unstable nuclear state.
The husband of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Tuesday accused the Pakistani government of a coverup and compared the mysteries surrounding his wife’s killing to those that continue to envelop Kennedy’s death four decades later.
One of those mysteries was a document revealed Tuesday by Bhutto’s party purporting to implicate Pakistan’s security forces in an elaborate plot to rig the upcoming national elections in favor of the sitting government. Bhutto, it said, was set to give copies of the document to two U.S. members of Congress the day she died.
The government denied any such plot. President Pervez Musharraf called the allegation “ridiculous.” But Musharraf prepared today to officially delay the Jan. 8 elections until mid-February, a move that opposition parties say is meant to discourage “sympathy” votes in the wake of Bhutto’s slaying.
Whatever the government’s motives in pushing the election to Feb. 18, Bhutto’s death continues to spawn questions:
Was she killed by al-Qaida or Taliban terrorists, as the government claims? Or was Musharraf’s government involved, either directly or indirectly, through the lax security it provided? How did Bhutto die? Was she shot, as appears to be shown by TV footage? Or did the blast of a suicide bomb cause her to hit her head, as the government claims? If she were shot, why did her family refuse permission to perform an autopsy? Did the 160-page document she was preparing to share with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., on the day of her death provide a motive for the killing?
Those are just some of the questions. Asif Zardari, Bhutto’s husband, yesterday accused the government of a coverup and evoked memories of the Kennedy assassination. “I think soon the chickens are going to lay their eggs, and we will blame them on al-Qaida,” he told the British newspaper, the Guardian, at the family home in Naudero. “Al-Qaida has nothing to fear; why would they fear us? Are they our political opponents?
“They [the government] want to muddy the waters,” Zardari continued. “Even Kennedy’s murder is not solved. What do they do? They always find 10 excuses and 10 people to blame, and one to hang.”
Zardari’s clear assertion is that the government will soon lay official blame on terrorists while many in the opposition coalition suspect the government itself played a part.
Medical personnel who treated Bhutto at a hospital in Rawalpindi are in an especially tough spot, having been pressured by government authorities to remain silent, according to the Washington Post. “The government took all the medical records right after Ms. Bhutto’s time of death was read out,” said a visibly shaken doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the Post reported. Sweating and putting his head in his hands, the doctor reportedly told the Post, “Look, we have been told by the government to stop talking. And a lot of us feel this is a disgrace.”
The general feeling is that if Bhutto was shot at close range, as footage from Britain’s Channel 4 appears to show, then the government security forces would have more to answer for. But, as the government points out, Bhutto’s husband prevented an autopsy that might have settled the matter.
As for the terrorist suspect identified by the government as the probable killer, U.S. intelligence analysts expressed doubt, according to today’s New York Times.
Meanwhile, journalists in the region attempted to place Bhutto’s political life and death in broader perspective.
Ahmad Rashid wrote in the Washington Post: “Bhutto’s death leaves the largest possible vacuum at the core of Pakistan’s shaky and blood-stained political system. [She] was a giant of a politician in a land of political pygmies and acolytes of the military [and she and her party] were the closest anyone in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has even gotten to espousing a secular democratic political culture. In a country where political advances have been made recently only by the Taliban, the role Bhutto filled, trying to bring modernity to this nation of 165 million people, was immensely brave and absolutely necessary if Pakistan is to remain in the polity of nations. Whatever her shortcomings, she loved her country and gave her life for it.”
Rami Khouri offered this view in the Lebanon Daily Star: “It is unacceptable to assassinate politicians, blow up pizza parlors, attack hotels, bomb civilian neighborhoods from the air, or send an army halfway around the world to change an unpleasant regime. All of these forms of violence are explainable by historical and political circumstances, though, so they are not irrational acts, even if they are criminal acts. The fact that they occur simultaneously also suggests that they are linked in some way. The start of a new calendar year will not change the ways of bombers, killers and generals who orchestrate the violence that defiles our societies — whether they are holed up in a mountain cave in central Asia or in a local militia base, comfortable in an Arab presidential palace or an American-European capital, or strutting in the Israeli, Turkish, Iranian and Russian defense ministries. We can, however, start a fresh year by deciding to analyze and understand the cycle of violence more comprehensively and accurately.”
Caroline Glick writes in the Jerusalem Post: “The Pakistan which Bhutto insisted she could save is a pro-jihadist nuclear-armed state. The Pakistani public, military and intelligence services stand in sympathy with al-Qaida and the Taliban. With the support of the public and the collusion of sectors of the military and the intelligence services whose ranks they have seamlessly infiltrated, the Taliban and al-Qaida daily extend their control over more and more of the country.
“U.S. officials claim that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure and under the full control of the military. Yet given the Pakistani military’s sympathy for al-Qaida and the Taliban, it is irresponsible not to consider the possibility that at least some of the forces charged with securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal have operational links to the jihadists.”
Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.