The 2007 murder of Benazir Bhutto is one of the great unsolved crimes of recent times; but unsolved crimes are not unusual in Pakistan. Bhutto’s archenemy and predecessor as prime minister, Zia ul-Haq — the executioner of her father — lost his life in a 1988 plane crash that was the clear result of sabotage; there were many suspects, including the KGB and the CIA, but no one was ever charged. Both Bhutto’s brothers, from whom she was estranged, preceded her to the grave: Shahnawaz in 1985, poisoned either by his own hand or, as is far more likely, by one of the many people who wanted him out of the way; and Mir Murtaza in 1996, gunned down gangland-style outside the Bhutto family compound in Karachi. Benazir Bhutto, who was prime minster at the time, did not pressure the police to solve the assassination, and indeed Mir Murtaza’s outspoken daughter, Fatima Bhutto, publicly accused her aunt Benazir of ordering the killing.
Pakistan’s political culture is possibly the most paranoiac in all the world, rife with secrets and conspiracy theories. This may be inevitable considering that every government for the last sixty years, civilian or military, has ruled at the whim of the so-called Establishment — power brokers in the military, the business oligarchy, and above all the in the Pakistani intelligence community, which comprises the Intelligence Bureau, the Military Intelligence, and the powerful, secretive Inter-Services Intelligence. The ISI, writes Heraldo Muñoz, author of Getting Away With Murder: Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan, “has actively intervened in political elections, organized political parties and alliances, and created and managed radical Islamic groups. It draws in the intelligence capacity of the three military service branches in addition to its own autonomous strength. Formally, the ISI communicates information to the prime minister, but in practice it reports to the chief of army staff.”
Muñoz was thrown into the maelstrom of Pakistani political life when he was approached by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in January 2009 to lead a UN commission to investigate Bhutto’s death — a request that originated with the Pakistani government, then led by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari. Muñoz had the credentials for the mission, having presided over the al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council during 2003–4, among other sensitive diplomatic jobs. Getting Away With Murder is the fruit of his yearlong exploration of the mystery, an account not only of the crime and its deliberately botched investigation but also of Pakistan’s dangerous, complex political landscape.
The House of Bhutto rivals those of Atreus or Kennedy for drama and family dysfunction on the grand scale, and Benazir, with her manifest gifts and corresponding, equally outsize flaws, had a personality worthy of it. Her grandfather, Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, the dewaan (prime minister) of the state of Juragadh under the British, established his line as large-scale feudal landowners; his son, the charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, entered political life in independent Pakistan, founded the socialist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and became the nation’s president in 1971. Even as a socialist leader enacting land reforms, however, he never renounced his own status as a feudal lord, and his family consolidated its power. In 1977 he was deposed by his army chief, General Zia ul-Haq, and executed two years later on dubious charges. His sons, Shahnawaz and Mir Murtaza, went into exile; Benazir and her mother, Nusrat, spent long periods of time imprisoned. Benazir’s courage during this period was indisputable, and when, after Zia’s mysterious death, she and the PPP swept the national elections, she was widely seen as the country’s great hope, uniquely qualified to bring it back into the democratic fold. Harvard- and Oxford-educated, secular, nonmilitary, young, attractive, and the first woman to be elected to lead an Islamic state, she seemed to personify change.
But even if she had been all she promised, how much power was she ever really allowed? The army was unwilling to let her assume office, but, as Muñoz says, “Washington stepped in to broker a deal: Benazir would leave foreign policy and the nuclear program in the hands of the army and she would agree not to interfere in the military or defense sector budget and promotions.” She also found herself in no position to rescind the Islamist laws the fundamentalist Zia had put in place, including the brutal Hudood Ordinance, which implemented Sharia law for sexual and other crimes. With the army and the rest of the Establishment hemming her in on so many sides, real reform was beyond Bhutto’s abilities.
Her first term ended when she was removed as prime minister by the president, a creature of the army, and charged with corruption. During her second term, from 1993 to 1996, Bhutto appeared to give up any idea of reform, and she and her husband, Zardari — nicknamed Mister Ten Percent by the hostile press — set about seriously enriching themselves through graft. Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 military coup sent the couple into exile, and there they stayed until 2007, when Musharraf and his backers in Washington and London sought to shore up his slipping power by an alliance with Bhutto, still leader of the PPP. In January of that year, in a secret meeting between Bhutto and Musharraf, a deal was brokered in which Musharraf agreed to retire from the army before the national elections and to drop corruption charges against Bhutto and Zardari if Bhutto would refrain from returning to Pakistan until after the elections. He was vaguely threatening about what would happen if she jumped the gun: “Your security is based on the state of our relationship.”
When, against this advice, Bhutto did decide to return to Pakistan early in order to contest the elections on home ground, the United States also declined to be responsible for her security, simply recommending various contractors to her. Blackwater offered their services for a price of $400,000 per month. Bhutto declined, asking Vice President Dick Cheney to hold Musharraf responsible for her safety (which he did not), and requesting that UK Foreign Secretary David Millibrand pressure Musharraf to remove three individuals in his administration whom she suspected of wishing to harm her — also to no avail. A first attempt was made on her life the very night she arrived back in Karachi, in October 2007 — a bomb attack on her procession that killed 149 people injured 402, though Bhutto escaped uninjured.
The second, successful attempt occurred on December 27th, when Bhutto had just delivered a speech at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh. It was an ominous location, for here Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951 (hence the park’s name) and here, too, Benazir Bhutto’s father met his death in Rawalpindi prison. After Bhutto finished her speech and was standing up in the open sunroof of her Land Cruiser waving at the crowds, witnesses heard “a volley of gunfire, followed almost immediately by the thunderous blast of the suicide bomb.” Bhutto disappeared into the interior of the vehicle. In fact, whether she had been killed by a bullet or a bomb was not clear to eyewitnesses. Those inside the van were shaky on their stories. Bhutto was transferred to Rawalpindi Hospital, where doctors tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate her. No autopsy was performed. Immediately after the attack the scene of the assassination was washed down with a high-pressure fire hose. A spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior reported that Bhutto had died of a head injury inflicted by a lever attached to the sunroof of her vehicle. The Ministry of the Interior also said that a tribal leader from the northwest, Baitullah Mehsud, had ordered the assassination with support from al-Qaida.
The quick cleanup, the police’s refusal to allow the hospital to perform an autopsy, and other indicators made it clear that some sort of cover-up was in play. It was the task of Muñoz and his commission to find out who was behind it. As Muñoz writes, the team “soon discovered a country deeply skeptical of authority and the justice system because of widespread political corruption, abundant behind-the-scenes political deal-making, and the regular impunity that had met previous unsolved political assassinations.” People in government and the military were visibly nervous about talking to the UN team. Video footage demonstrated that not only had Bhutto received minimal police protection, but that the police might well have been actively involved in the deed. Evidence collected was minimal and not of much use. The Land Cruiser had been carefully cleaned and scrubbed by the police while the investigation was still underway.
“It is my belief that the police deliberately botched the investigation into Bhutto’s assassination,” Muñoz asserts, unsurprisingly; but why, and were they alone? He speaks of “the suspicion in Pakistani society, and in the international community, that the ISI, in some shape or form, was involved in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.” In any case he is convinced, he says, “that Police Chief Saud Aziz did not act independently in deciding to hose down the crime scene…. The only precedents for hosing down a crime scene involved military targets. Some police officials saw this as further indication that the military was involved.” Many, including Washington, found it convenient to accept the minister of the interior’s fingering of Baitullah Mehsud and al-Qaida.
“Benazir’s murder,” Muñoz writes,
reminds me of the Spanish play Fuente Ovejuna, in which the hated ruler of the village Fuente Ovejuna is killed and the magistrate who investigates the crime cannot find the culprit. During the investigation, every villager interrogated declares that Fuente Ovejuna did it. In Benazir’s case, it would seem that the village assassinated her: Al-Qaida gave the order; the Pakistani Taliban executed the attack, possibly backed or at least encouraged by elements of the Establishment; the Musharraf government facilitated the crime by not providing her with adequate security; local senior policemen attempted a cover-up; Benazir’s lead security team failed to properly safeguard her; and most Pakistani political actors would rather turn the page than continue investigating who was behind the assassination.
Muñoz and his team delivered their somewhat inconclusive report in April 2010. Events continued apace. In 2008, Pervez Musharraf was impeached and went into exile. In 2011 the Rawalpindi court issued a subpoena for his arrest for failing to provide adequate security to Bhutto, and the antiterrorist court charged former chief of police Aziz with criminal conspiracy to murder. In 2012 Interior Minister Malik presented the “final investigation report” by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, which named a staggering twenty-seven terrorist groups as being involved in the murder. At the end of that year Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper characterized the judicial investigations with disappointment: “Repeated and unending investigations, indifferent lawyers, a chaotic judicial system and a government that really didn’t care, have all ensured that Benazir Bhutto’s trial is going nowhere.”
Muñoz describes the byzantine inner workings of Pakistani politics clearly and gives us a good feel for this consummately weird political culture. He is less convincing when it comes to his assessment of Bhutto’s own possibilities, still unfulfilled at the time of her death at the age of fifty-four. “Very likely,” he posits hopefully, “she would have sought to diminish tension with India, rein in the ISI, protect the rights of secular minorities, and advocate peace talks with the Taliban much earlier than is now rumored and recognized as necessary. Perhaps she would have moved gradually to strengthen civilian institutions, reducing the army’s role in politics.”
The question of just how she might have succeeded where no leader before her has done he leaves unexplored. So far from attempting to tame the army and the ISI, Bhutto during her two terms showed a disturbing willingness to compromise with them if it meant she could stay in office and enrich herself and her family. Her last will and testament, in which she disposed of the PPP like a family possession (leaving it to her son Bilawal and to her husband until Bilawal should be old enough to take it over) reveals a woman who saw herself not as a public servant — much less a socialist one! — but as a hereditary monarch.