An Inside Job? The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is the latest act in the tragicomedy that envelops Pakistani politics. As will no doubt be repeated endlessly the next few days, her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was murdered at the orders of Zia ul-Haq, military dictator of Pakistan during the late 1970s and early 1980s. As will no doubt turn out to be the case, Ms. Bhutto has also been assassinated by the Pakistani government – though most of the international media reports will focus on militant tribal, Taliban, or Al Qaeda elements from the country’s northwestern frontier, as if said groups acted without the knowledge or encouragement of influential parts of the Pakistani government.

The Players

We must understand that the inter-twining of the Pakistani government and militant Islamist groups has been common practice (and common knowledge within international circles) at least since Zia ul-Haq became military ruler in 1977. Many of the generals in the fearsome military intelligence and secret police agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have been adherents of the Deobandi sect of Islam, a militant version of Islam which arose in India as a reaction to British occupation. Deobandi teachings influenced the Taliban, who were of course trained in Deobandi madrassahs within Pakistan.

The ISI detested Bhutto for multiple reasons: they did not want civilian control to disrupt the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program, nor did they trust that a civilian government would continue to fight their guerrilla war against India within the Kashmir. With a mixture of realpolitik and militant ideology, the ISI leadership feared détente and abandonment of terrorist actions supporting those fighting for Kashmiri independence. During Zia’s reign the ISI had been the driving force behind the development of the nuclear arms bazaar run by scientist A.Q. Khan. They were also the main people behind Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – perhaps the most extreme of the mujahedeen, and later they essentially created the Taliban. Let us note that the current head of the Pakistani military, General Ashfaq Kayani, was formerly head of the ISI. While Bhutto did not pose a threat to the ISI – she was not going to dismantle its apparatus nor did she attempt to during her two terms as prime minister – she would not have entirely been their puppet, either, given how apparent it was that the United States backed her campaign to reclaim the prime ministerial slot.

Pervez Musharraf fits into all of this in a more subtle manner than might be gathered by watching television analyses of Bhutto’s assassination. Yes, he has been the subject of assassination attempts from parts of the Pakistani government impatient with his alliance to the United States and how little has been achieved, in their eyes, on the Kashmiri question. Musharraf, however, likely declared martial law recently because he desired to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Bhutto from a position of strength. Musharraf has been pinned between a Bush administration that is increasingly displeased with his lack of action against Pakistani militants, and by those same militants (who made up most of his support base) for being too tied to the United States. The death of Bhutto may have been to send a signal to the Bush administration – there is no alternative now to an open theocracy in Pakistan besides a Musharraf administration.

For similar reasons, we must also inquire how much Nawaz Sharif knew about the attack. Mr. Sharif, birthed into politics from a right-wing Islamic movement and the military as a counter to Ms. Bhutto, is now the only non-military alternative to Musharraf. Given that he had recently entered into an electoral alliance with Benazir, it is unlikely his partisans carried out the attack. How much he may have known, however, is another question.

Governmental complicity?

It is highly unlikely that militant groups inside Pakistan would carry out an attack on Benazir Bhutto without at least tacit acceptance by high-ranking figures inside the Pakistani government. To do so would invite retribution from their allies in Islamabad, who would be displeased with unrest for which they were unprepared. Therefore, unless we see a major crackdown on militant groups over the next week, the most likely culprits are either militants moving with approval from the ISI or Musharraf, or a government directed assassination with their own agents. The Bush administration will now negotiate with the military, or no one at all. It indeed works out in Musharraf and the ISI’s favor, and to the detriment of Sharif, regardless of who wins the soon-to-be postponed elections.

Regardless, Pakistan will enter a period in which the military will likely desire to secure its place, either via elections and negotiation with the new prime minister, or through continuance of military rule via Musharraf’s new presidential term, with elections as window-dressing – business as usual in Pakistan. Although the media will likely portray Ms. Bhutto as a democratic saint, she was not – her desire to see her own return to power far outweighed any desire for a radical reformation of Pakistani politics. However, with her death, it is far less likely that the remaining oppositional leadership, who will immediately assume government complicity, will risk their lives the way Ms. Bhutto seemed willing to do. We have, of course, never really seen a full-fledged civil war in a nuclear power, and it is unlikely we will see Pakistan fall into such a conflict at the present time, but the future – to quote an overused Chinese proverb – will be an interesting time for the Pakistani people.

Peter LaVenia is Co-Chair of the NY State Green Party and a PhD candidate in Political Theory, SUNY Albany. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Peter.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on December 28th, 2007 at 8:36am #

    Very good analysis. I have an idea that the US neocons may have seen Bhutto as a “pretty face” to make Musharraf look better on the international stage but she may have seen US support as a lever to dislodge Musharraf and probably had no intention of toeing the US line if elected. The penny may have dropped somewhere in the murky swamps of neoconland and it may have been decided that getting rid of her was the lesser evil. Interestingly, the neocon websites are shedding no tears over her. They’re simply exploiting her death as proof that all good men and true are going to have to roll up their sleeves and kill all those “Islamofascists” etc.

  2. Ajit said on December 28th, 2007 at 10:32am #

    This article shows what is wrong with many leftists today. The writer assumes just because Rawalpindi is a garrison city everything that happens there happens because of the knowledge and approval of Military. In real world , things are messy. Nobody is in control of everything. All these bureaucracies are inefficient and incompetent to varying degrees.

    This article has the same assumptions which are the basis of 911 Truth Movement. Because if something happens it only means someone powerful pulled the strings. There is no place for randomness, no place for the initiatives taken from someone adventurous.

    It is highly unlikely that militant groups inside Pakistan would carry out an attack on Benazir Bhutto without at least tacit acceptance by high-ranking figures inside the Pakistani government. To do so would invite retribution from their allies in Islamabad, who would be displeased with unrest for which they were unprepared.

    Really, By this standard Musharraf faked assassination attempts
    on himself. There has already been 2 or 3 attempts on his life. The Jehadi elements have escaped control. These guys have their own ideas. It is stupid to expect all these jehadi elements will obey orders from higher ups. There is a great deal of unrest in Frontier Province. Hundreds of soldiers have been kidnapped by militants. We wouldn’t know that from this piece.
    The writer also says ISI created Taliban. He probably doesn’t know this move was approved by Benazir Bhutto. She vetoed military’s plans to invade Indian held Kashmir but approved the Taliban Plan.
    Her Interior Minister Nasirullah Babar was the driving force behind the Taliban. She enthusiastically supported Taliban during her second stint as PM.

  3. sk said on December 28th, 2007 at 11:06am #

    FYI, interesting interview of Tariq Ali and Manan Ahmed on Democracy Now this morning.

  4. Max Shields said on December 28th, 2007 at 3:37pm #

    sk, it’s that interview that keeps DN a major alternative. Insightful and very interesting perspectives as is Peter LaVenia article here.

  5. Mike McNiven said on December 29th, 2007 at 12:25am #

    The first coup against her was authorized by the father Bush administration!

  6. B J Sabri said on December 29th, 2007 at 9:01am #

    Actually, this analysis is faulty, short on substance, contextually irrelevant, imperialist at best, cocksure, and is full with manifest anti-Islamic bias since it immediately identified Islamic forces within Pakistan and ties them to the apparatuses of the Pakistani State and its nuclear program.

    When you say, “As will no doubt turn out to be the case, Ms. Bhutto has also been assassinated by the Pakistani government, etc…” you effectively put the nails in the coffin of your analysis. You proposed a limited-vision hypothesis as a model for the assassination of Bhutto, and my question is, based on what yardstick of data you reached that conclusion? And why did you exclude external forces with interest in the occupation of Afghanistan such as the American neocon establishment as recently evidenced by F. Kagan calling for contingency plans to seize Pakistan nuclear weapons, and the Zionist Obama prospecting the use of nuclear weapons in the same country? Why, instead of theory we can rely of Rice’s “creative chaos” theory whereby the assassination of Bhutto could provoke upheaval in the country thus providing the rationales to implement Kagan’s exhortation?

    In Short, what is the source of yours, “No Doubt”? And then you tried to convince the reader that the things are the way to describe them, by calling on us that “must understand that the inter-twining of the Pakistani government and militant Islamist groups has been common practice (and common knowledge within international circles)”

    Excuse me Sir, but can you identify these circles? And why is that Pakistani matters are known to these circles? Are you Sir, a part of these circles?

  7. jimmy said on December 29th, 2007 at 9:05pm #

    Superb article… on Mr LaVenia. Not too sure about Mr Ajit and Mr Sabri. Shame they can’t handle the truth. They’re probably the ones that believed the official JFK story as well..If only they knew, the world would be a better place.

  8. Peter LaVenia said on December 30th, 2007 at 11:46am #

    It is, of course, possible that I’m wrong – I don’t claim to be clairvoyant. I’m simply providing an analysis of the situation as I see it, as someone who has studied international relations at an academic level, and with a particular interest in Pakistan.

    Examining the situation, though, as with any murder case, we have to look at who would have a motive to commit the assassination, and who would support such an act. Elements of the Pakistani government had a reason to eliminate Bhutto, as well as the Islamic militants who are connected to the military and state apparatus. It will be interesting to see whether the groups acted on orders from the ISI/Musharraf, or the assassination was tacitly acceded to by said groups.

    Do you deny that Musharraf had the most to lose from a PPP victory in the elections, which would certainly have brought Bhutto into the position of PM, or that the Pakistani state has the resources to conduct such assassinations (and has done so in the past)? Or, that militant religious zealots in the government have ties with Pashtun/Taliban militants and other elements in Waziristan and the Kashmir?

    I would encourage independent analysis and research on this event. It is difficult to trust fully what any government says, and it is likely that the official story emanating from Pakistan and the US government will either be false or only partially true. Yet, unlike events such as 9/11, it is quite possible to believe a military government would have ordered a hit on a prominent and vocal critic of their policies, even she had initially aided them in her previous two terms.

  9. Peter LaVenia said on December 30th, 2007 at 12:27pm #

    This is an important paragraph from one of the better books written recently on Pakistan:

    “But the neo-Talibs and their al-Qaeda sponsors did not rise on their own. US intelligence and senior intelligence sources in India both accused elements of Pakistan’s intelligence establishment and the army of giving succor to the new movement. A hard-core group had emerged that was alleged to have consorted, coached, and sheltered the neo-Taliban et al. They included General Mohammed Aziz, who until October 2004 was Musharraf’s chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; General Hamid Gul, the former director general of the ISI, forced out of office by Benazir Bhutto after planning with Osama bin Laden to assassinate her; General Javid Nasir, the former director general of the ISI who blocked CIA attempts to recall Stinger missiles from Afghanistan; General Mahmood Ahmed, another former ISI director who had been linked by the FBI to the World Trade Center bombers; General Zahir-ul-Islam Abbasi, who had plotted a coup against Benazir Bhutto in 1995 and was pardoned by Musharraf in October 2001; and Squadron Leader Khalid Khawaja, a former ISI officer, a man accused of knowingly leading the Jewish-American reporter Daniel Pearl to meet Islamists in Karachi before they decapitated him in February 2002. Khawaja was already in jail on another matter, having instigated a band of female students at the Jamia Hafsa madrasah in central Islamabad, a seminary very closely connected to the Taliban (and to the ISI’s headquarters in the capital), to demonstrate in support of Osama bin Laden. On 28 March 2007 the same women students stormed a building they said was a brothel, taking three women and two police officers hostage. The deputy imam of the Lal Masjid, Maulana Abdul Aziz, teacher to the students, supported the actions and went even further, telling his congregation that they should become suicide bombers if the government ever decided to move against them. This was not the tribal areas – this was happening, with no reaction from Musharraf, in the nation’s sophisticated capital.” – from Levy, Adrian & Scott-Clark, Catherine. “Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons.” New York: Walker & Co., 2007, pg. 434.

  10. Shabnam said on December 30th, 2007 at 3:26pm #

    Mr. LaVenia thank you for this article. I was also surprised to see that you did not suspect Washington for what has happened in Pakistan.
    I think although Bush was talking about “democracy” and “rule of law” in Pakistan yet he did not trust Bhutto and in General Bhutto family because of Benazir’s father attitude towards the US. Number of republican candidates including John McKane have supported Perves Musharraf and have warned us that it is very important not to send a mix signal since Musharraf is a partner in the phony “war on terror”. The western leaders including Sarkozy and British prime minister like Bush have condemned the assassination and Brown said: “she has been assassinated by cowards who are afraid of democracy.” Who is afraid of democracy? In the eye of the imperialists and Zionists, only the “Islamists” are afraid of “western democracy.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the “cowardly terrorist attack … also targets the stability and democratic process of Pakistan.” Even Kucinich has said: “This is a very dangerous moment for the world.”
    The Taliban took power in Kabul in September 1966. It was during Bhutto’s rule that he Taliban gained prominence in Afghanistan. She viewed the Taliban as a group that could stabilize Afghanistan and enable trade access to the Central Asian republics.
    So who is going to benefit from her assassination where has created an environment of fear and desperation, similar to post 9/11, at the beginning of the American election where the republicans are not doing well?
    Now, we will hear a lot about the “Islamists” and their threat to America who want to kill Americans and are against our “way of life” and they are against “democracy”. So the question of “security” will jump to the top not Iraq war, health care or the Palestinian question.
    What is the benefit for so called “the Islamic extremists” in killing Bhutto? Most likely one can say NONE with confidence. People of Pakistan are fed up with the “war on terror” which has mainly served the interest of the United states, where they have killed thousand of people in the region and it has created a channel sending billions of dollar to their oppressors, Musharraf and the military – elites – to maintain the status quo.
    I think Bush in order to silent the democrat on the issue of “democracy” in Pakistan, he has presented himself as someone who wants to bring “democracy” and “ the rule of law” to Pakistan by supporting Bhutto in public to improve the republican standing in the general election but he really does not mean it. Musharraf knows that he does not have that much time to maneuver, everyone including republican feel that Musharraf must be replaced with someone who they can trust to help them for future wars in the region against the population and other countries to secure the empire interest against
    Iran, Russia and China.
    The US has filled all senior positions in Pakistan’s military and intelligence service, ISI, with pro-American generals. In case that Musharraf is ousted, the US believes it can maintain firm control over Pakistan.
    Mr. Lavenia, this assassination might be the beginning of the end of Musharraf’s rule by a coup to bring in a new face such as Ashfaq Pervez Kiani who has been educated in Pakistan and the United States.
    The only positions from which a coup can be organized are those of the deputy head of the army and the chiefs of two intelligence services, the ISI, and military Intelligence, MI. The person who is “qualified” to turn against Musharraf might be General Ashfaq Kiani who In October 2007 promoted as a full general, and made the chief of Pakistan Army after Musharraf’s retirement on November 28, 2007.

  11. Shabnam said on December 30th, 2007 at 3:39pm #

    It Should be “The Taliban took power in Kabul in September 1996.” sorry.

  12. Mike McNiven said on January 2nd, 2008 at 3:21am #


    Based on a pattern which started in 1979, it is correct to consider the governments of the following countries as responsible for Benazir’s assassination:

    US/ UK/ Germany/Austria/Switzerland/Israel/China/Netherlands/
    Saudi Arabia/ Iran/Qatar/Kuwait/Egypt/U.A.E./Pakistan.

    1979, is the year that Brzezinski, on behalf of the Trilateral Commission, started the implementation of the imperialist “Green Crescent” theory, against socialism, by creating Islamist regimes! That is also the year that Zia declared Pakistan as an Islamist regime in conformity with his imperialists masters! You know the rest…