In Pakistan, Intelligence agencies have gone a tad too far in subverting the state they are supposed to serve. The [UN]commission is correct in observing that “pervasive involvement of intelligence agencies in diverse spheres, which is an open secret, has undermined the rule of law, distorted civilian-military relations and weakened some political and law enforcement institutions. At the same time, it has contributed to widespread public distrust in those institutions and fed a generalised political culture that thrives on competing conspiracy theories.”
Ordinary Pakistanis, especially those who cannot read English, should be given the opportunity to access the report in its entirety, instead of leaving them at the mercy of spin-doctors and prejudiced television anchors trashing the report.
Some forces in Pakistan have already gone into overdrive to discredit the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the assassination of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.
The 65-page report’s focus is on the circumstances surrounding Ms Bhutto’s assassination and the subsequent criminal investigation, or lack of it thereof, but it offers insights into questionable practices that pass as statecraft in present day Pakistan. The legitimacy of the state is already quite low among significant sections of the Pakistani population, and if these deeply entrenched practices continue unabated, it will further corrode those shaky foundations.
The report has done Pakistanis a favour by defining what is known as the ‘establishment’ of the country. Here is how the report defines it: “The Establishment is generally used in Pakistan to refer to those who exercise de facto power; it includes the military high command and the intelligence agencies, together with the top leadership of certain political parties, high-level members of the bureaucracy and business persons that work in alliance with them. The military high command and intelligence agencies form the core of the Establishment and are its most permanent and influential components” (page 50). It states further, “The capability of the Establishment to exercise power in Pakistan is based in large part on the central role played by the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies in the country’s political life” (page 6).
The commission was understandably “mystified” by “the efforts of certain high-ranking Pakistani government authorities to obstruct access to military and intelligence sources”. This attitude speaks volumes about the arbitrary power of the establishment in viewing itself as above the ordinary procedures of law and its ability to get away with it. Although the US and the British governments acknowledge their role in paving the way for Ms Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in 2008, the US authorities frustrated the commission by not permitting it to meet US intelligence officials.
The report castigates the federal government led by Pervez Musharraf for not providing adequate security to Benazir Bhutto, and finds the manner in which the post-assassination criminal investigation was conducted “inexcusable”. Thus, Ms Bhutto joins scores of Pakistani political activists whose deaths were “avoidable” and where the law enforcement and justice institutions did little to bring to justice the perpetrators of those crimes.
We do not have to agree with every sentence of this report, but summarily and prematurely dismissing it is tantamount to accepting “hosing down” the crime scene, allowing higher ups in the police to subvert investigations, letting intelligence agencies hunt and hound individuals without any judicial mandate or political oversight.
Intelligence agencies are part and parcel of modern states. In Pakistan, they have gone a tad too far in subverting the state they are supposed to serve. The commission is correct in observing that “pervasive involvement of intelligence agencies in diverse spheres, which is an open secret, has undermined the rule of law, distorted civilian-military relations and weakened some political and law enforcement institutions. At the same time, it has contributed to widespread public distrust in those institutions and fed a generalised political culture that thrives on competing conspiracy theories” (page 60).
What can the current government do? It should take two of the following three steps without any delay. Taking of the third step is vital, but partly contingent upon the power of the PPP government relative to other forces of the establishment.
Ordinary Pakistanis, especially those who cannot read English, should be given the opportunity to access the report in its entirety, instead of leaving them at the mercy of spin-doctors and prejudiced television anchors trashing the report. The government can, and should, commission speedy and authentic translation of the report in Urdu and regional languages and use the Ministry of Information and other methods to ensure wide distribution of the report.
Secondly, the resourceful forces directly and indirectly named in the report would ensure that the television talk shows put excessive focus on the fact of the passengers of Benazir Bhutto’s backup vehicle leaving the crime scene instead of coming to meaningful help of their fatally injured leader. Moral propriety and political sagacity makes it imperative for all passengers of that car currently holding ministerial berths to resign without any delay and cooperate fully in any future criminal investigation to ascertain the truth behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Their timely resignation will significantly deflate the efforts to distract the public’s attention from the main findings of the report. However, if these passengers refuse to part with their ministries for the time being, and are allowed to retain their portfolios by the prime minister and the president, this act will cast its shadow over the sincerity of the current government in carrying out “credible criminal investigation that determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime of historic proportions”.
Carrying out a credible criminal investigation should be the ultimate and long-term goal of the government. And it is necessary not just to answer many unanswered questions surrounding Benazir’s assassination, but doing so, as the report puts it, “would constitute a major step toward ending impunity for political crimes in this country”. This will not be an easy feat to accomplish. The forces that frustrated the UN commission will inevitably hamper a transparent and vigorous criminal investigation.
The current government has partly redeemed Benazir Bhutto’s political legacy by ensuring the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution. Initiating a credible and rigorous investigation into Ms Bhutto’s assassination will go a long way in restoring people’s trust in Pakistan’s political system.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org