Why write a whodunit when you can’t say who done it?
This is the challenging task undertaken by Heraldo Muñoz, a veteran Chilean diplomat and United Nations official, in his new book, “Getting Away With Murder: Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan.”
In 2009, the UN asked Muñoz to head an investigation into “the facts and circumstances” of the murder of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed by a suicide bomber in December 2007, shortly after she returned home from exile to jump into a heated election campaign.
Official government efforts to finger her killer had utterly failed, and there was evidence that the authorities were somehow involved in the murder plot and working hard to cover up for the killer or killers.
But Pakistan itself had requested the UN investigation, and it was limited from the start to fact-finding alone — a typical stance the UN takes in such inquiries. “The duty of determining criminal responsibility of the perpetrators of the assassination would remain with the Pakistani authorities,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a letter to the Security Council creating the three-member UN commission of inquiry that Muñoz would lead.
The restriction turned out to be unnecessary. In its April 2010 final report, the panel said it could not determine who killed Bhutto and suggested that any number of groups and individuals may have been responsible. Nibbling around the edges of the case, the commission accused the Pakistani authorities of depriving Bhutto of adequate security and then sabotaging the investigation of her death.
“A range of government officials failed profoundly in their efforts first to protect Ms. Bhutto and second to investigate with vigor all those responsible for her murder, not only in the execution of the attack, but also in its conception, planning and financing.”
Convinced much of the story was yet to be told, Muñoz decided to further investigate the case on his own and write about it. That effort, too, has done little to narrow the field of suspects. But Muñoz’s book offers considerable insight into the inner workings of Pakistan, where different parts of the government routinely work at cross-purposes with one another and political life is fueled by rumors and conspiracy theories.
In defending his commission’s failure to identify the killer, Muñoz insists this was beyond his mandate. It’s clear the panel was never meant to play the role of prosecutor or outside tribunal. But it seems silly to argue that instructions to investigate “the facts and circumstances” of a murder rule out naming the killer.
Muñoz’s second line of defense: It seems, he says, as if almost everyone in Pakistan bears some of the blame.
“The list of people and groups that considered Bhutto a hated enemy is long. There are pieces of the murder puzzle but painfully few elements to put them all together,” Muñoz says. “Benazir’s murder 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 Bhutto’s case, as well, “it would seem that the village assassinated her: Al-Qaeda gave the order; the Pakistani Taliban executed the attack, possibly backed or at least encouraged by elements of the Establishment; the [Pervez] 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 her assassination,” he says.
The book is still a fascinating read, however, for its account of the Pakistani history leading up to the killing, and for its insightful analysis of the ever-shifting and unsettling relationship between the United States and Pakistan. That relationship, it turns out, may have played a crucial role in the murder plot.
The young Bhutto, though born to a political family, steered clear of Pakistan’s tumultuous politics after her father, the prime minister, was put to death, accused of conspiring to murder a political rival. Raised outside of her homeland by an English nanny, she grew up speaking little Urdu and barely any Sindhi and earned degrees from Harvard and Oxford.
But she later returned home and twice served as Pakistan’s prime minister before twice fleeing into exile. She won a reputation as a populist and champion of democracy despite many political compromises and her husband’s entanglement in various corruption schemes. At the same time, parts of the military, the establishment, the security services and Islamist extremists grew to fear and hate her.
A desire to end her second exile, which lasted more than a decade, initially drove her to seek a deal with Musharraf, Pakistan’s military strongman, to return home without being thrown in jail. After 9/11, this effort got a big push from the US and Britain, which hoped that Bhutto and the erratic Musharraf would agree to share power, stabilizing Pakistan’s leadership at a time when the West embraced Islamabad as an essential ally in its war on terrorism.
It was in these circumstances that Vice President Dick Cheney, albeit unwittingly, may have helped lay the groundwork for Bhutto’s assassination.
President George W. Bush left Cheney in charge of ties with Pakistan, and Cheney saw his top priority as keeping Islamabad at Washington’s side in battling Islamist extremists.
Musharraf, Muñoz writes, played Cheney like a Stradivarius, assuring him of Pakistan’s steadfast loyalty even as the country’s military-like Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) forces were building up Afghanistan’s Taliban fighters and their Qaeda allies as possible future weapons against India, Pakistan’s biggest enemy.
Then Washington blamed Al Qaeda and the Taliban for 9/11 and signed up Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance to destroy them. Musharraf soon found hundreds of his ISI agents trapped in a cross-fire in the city of Kunduz, near Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan.
Musharraf dialed up the White House and asked for a pause in the Northern Alliance campaign so that he could extricate the Pakistani agents. Cheney was so eager to keep Musharraf happy that he immediately ordered the fighting put on hold, not even telling Secretary of State Colin Powell what he had done, Muñoz writes.
During the pause, Pakistan flew out not only its ISI agents but more than 600 Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. These “foreign terrorist” forces settled in and around Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan tribal areas, forming the extremist hive that a few years later plotted to kill Bhutto. To keep Musharraf happy, Cheney also silenced any US criticism of the Pakistani leader’s resistance to democratic reforms and barred any US efforts to encourage Bhutto to return home.
By 2007, however, Condoleezza Rice replaced Powell as secretary of state and rejected Cheney’s reasoning, viewing Bhutto’s return home as more important than coddling the increasingly unstable Musharraf. Washington, with help from London, began pressuring Musharraf to share power with Bhutto and told Bhutto that the West would ensure her security should she return to Pakistan.
But when Bhutto landed in Karachi on Oct. 18, 2007, there was no power-sharing deal in place and her security was left to Musharraf, her political rival, despite numerous threats against her. She had been told before her return of four different suicide bomber squads that would seek to kill her.
With the Jan. 8, 2008, elections just 11 days away, Bhutto appeared at a rally in Liaquat Bagh, a public park in Rawalpindi where Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was murdered in 1951. Shortly after the rally ended, a 15-year-old standing next to her armored car fired several shots at Bhutto and blew himself up, killing her as she stood, waving to the crowd, through the vehicle’s sunroof.
The elaborate security measures promised by the government had failed to materialize, and a second armored car, included in her motorcade to quickly evacuate her in the event of an attack, disappeared from the scene right before her murder. Her driver had to set out toward the nearest hospital on the rims of its wheels because the blast punctured all four tires. A private car later took over, but it took 34 minutes to get Bhutto to the hospital.
Local security forces later hosed down the crime site, washing away any evidence and blocked an autopsy. Bhutto had sent friends a list of suspects should she be assassinated, but these people were never questioned. Shortly after the UN commission arrived in Pakistan in July 2009 to begin its own look into the murder, Rehman Malik, the interior minister, handed Muñoz what he described as the draft final report of the panel’s yet-to-be-performed investigation.
“This is your own report, ready to be issued, of course, with the changes and additions that you may see fit,” Malik told him.
Cooperation went only downhill from there, the book recounts. Officials attempted to prevent the commission from visiting the murder scene and interviewing key officials. Regular leaks to the local media of the commission’s plans threatened their safety and ensured that huge crowds of reporters stood in their path at every stage of the inquiry.
“It may well be that Benazir Bhutto’s assassination will be another unresolved case in the long history of impunity in Pakistan, and that the controversy surrounding her assassination will endure as much as her memory,” Muñoz concludes.
“Getting Away With Murder: Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan,” by Heraldo Muñoz; 978-0-393-06291-5
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.