The Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have been maintaining a discreet silence on the assassination of Mrs.Benazir Bhutto by as yet unidentified elements at Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), was on a visit to Army establishments in Karachi at the time of her assassination. He immediately cancelled his engagements and returned to Rawalpindi. He and his officers in the General Headquarters (GHQ) as well as in the ISI have avoided any comments or statements or background briefings for the media on her killing. Gen.Kiyani is keeping a tight control over his officers in order to ensure that they do not add to the messy sequel as a result of the loose talk emanating from the Ministry of the Interior, which was responsible for her protection.
Most of the controversy relating to the circumstances surrounding her killing, the cause of her death and the alleged responsibility of Baitullah Mehsud for her death, which has been denied by a spokesman of Baitullah, has been caused by the retired Army officers, who were inducted into the Ministry of the Interior and the Police by Gen.Pervez Musharraf after he seized power in 1999.After coming to power, Musharraf had inducted a large number of retired military officers into the police of the provinces as well as into the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which is part of the Interior Ministry, and into the Ministry itself. He appointed Brig. (retd) Ijaz Shah, who was the Home Secretary of Punjab at the time of the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist, in January-February,2002, as the Director of the IB. Omar Sheikh, the principal accused in the Pearl case, had surrendered to him in Lahore when he was the Home Secretary.
Musharraf also inducted Brig. (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema, another crony of his, into the Interior Ministry and made him in charge of the crisis management cell in the Ministry, which also co-ordinates counter-terrorism actions and investigations. Many other retired military officers were inducted at different levels of the Ministry and the IB. Of course, Mr.Nawaz Sharif also, as the Prime Minister (1990-93), had made Brig. (retd) Imtiaz, a highly controversial retired army officer known for his dislike of Benazir, as the DIB, but there was no systematic militarisation of the IB under Nawaz, similar to what one had been seeing under Musharraf.
As a consequence of Musharraf's policy of militarisation of the Police and the IB, there was a steep fall in the professionalism of these agencies. They were neither able to prevent the increasing number of acts of suicide terrorism nor successfully detect them. The number of acts of suicide terrorism have shot up from six in 2006 to 55 in 2007, including the one involving the murder of Benazir. Most of them have so far remained undetected.
The police in Rawalpindi, where she was killed, come under the dual control of the Ministry of the Interior and the Punjab Government, both hotbeds of Zia-ul-Haq loyalists. Chaudhury Pervez Elahi, who was the Chief Minister of Punjab till December,2007, and his cousin Chaudhury Shujjat Hussain, who is the leader of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide Azam), have always been bitter enemies of the Bhutto family. Ijaz Shah and Lt.Gen.(retd) Hamid Gul, who was the Director-General of the ISI for some months during her first tenure as the Prime Minister (1988 to 90), are also known Zia loyalists.
There are presently not many remnants of the coterie of Zia loyalists among the serving senior officers (Lt.Gens. and above) of the Army and the ISI. Most of the remnants are to be found in the Ministry of the Interior, the IB and the Punjab administration. That is why Benazir apprehended a threat to her security to emanate from these elements. In a letter to Musharraf written before she returned to Pakistan on October 18,2007, she had allegedly named three in particular-- Ijaz Shah, Pervez Elahi and Hamid Gul. Musharraf disregarded her allegations and concerns and entrusted the responsibility for her security to the very elements from which she apprehended a threat to her security.
A careful reading of the comments of Mr.Asif Ali Zardari, her husband, and other leaders of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), known to have been close to her, would indicate that they have been taking care not to implicate the Army and the ISI as institutions in her murder. Instead, they have been directing the needle of suspicion at the persons named by her.
There has been a steady infiltration of Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda elements at the lower and middle levels of the Army and the Air Force and into the GHQ itself. Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organisations were unhappy with her statements that she would allow US troops to hunt for bin Laden in Pakistani territory and the International Atomic Energy Agency at Vienna to interrogate A.Q.Khan, the nuclear scientist. Benazir and her associates were aware of the threat to her security from these Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organisations such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), but they strongly believed that these organisations would not be able to carry out their threat without the complicity of the Zia loyalists in the physical security apparatus.
While there is no evidence so far of any active complicity by the Zia loyalists, there is clear-cut evidence of glaring negligence in physical security, which made the assassination possible. In their frantic efforts to cover up their responsibility for her death, the retired military officers in the Interior Ministry and the Police--particularly Javed Iqbal Cheema-- have been disseminating one contradictory version after another. During an interaction with the media on December 31, 2007, Mr.Mohammadmian Soomro, the caretaker Prime Minister, is reported to have indicated his embarrassment over the clumsy manner in which Cheema had handled the sequel to her killing. But, intriguingly, Musharraf has remained silent in the midst of all this controversy and not taken any action against these officers.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.