Damning report

UN report on Benazir assassination

The passage of the 18th Amendment by Pakistan’s National Assembly, rolling back the authoritarian constitutional provisions imposed by Gen Musharraf during the military rule, have been hailed as a major democratic reform. All people of goodwill will wish Pakistan well. As of now, maybe, no more than two cheers are in order.

In a formal sense there is an appearance of civilian ascendancy. The president has been reduced to a figurehead, though saved from corruption hearings on account of his constitutional position. The military has, meanwhile, regained prestige at home as its Waziristan/Swat campaigns have enabled Pakistan to look the US in the eye and win greater recognition for its frontline AfPak posture.

The new amendment allows the chief of army staff a four year term which implies a year’s extension in service for General Kayani. But there is no evidence as yet that the military has abandoned control over critical policies pertaining to security, nuclear issues and relations with India, the US, Afghanistan and China.

The annual defence budget, largely framed by the military, remains a mere one-line entry and is virtually charged to the exchequer without debate. The Kerry-Lugar amendment imposes conditionalities on how Pakistan utilises US military aid; but it remains to be seen how effective this safeguard proves in practice.

Even setting aside past default on this count, how auspicious are the omens even today? The latest UN report on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 on her return to Pakistan from exile is not very reassuring. Almost a year later, the Zardari administration requested Ban Ki Moon to hold a UN inquiry as it feared the involvement of local agencies in what it felt was a staged murder.

Pakistan argued that the government of Pakistan could alone release the report. This too was rejected and the commission’s 70 page findings were finally presented to the media in New York by its chair, the Chilean diplomat Heraldo Munoz, on April 15. The Pakistan ambassador boycotted the function. According to a columnist of ‘Dawn,’ the Pakistani authorities wished the ‘establishment’ to see the report before they shared its contents with the general public.

Why it might have been thought prudent to provide the ‘establishment’ with prior information becomes apparent from the report. It severely indicts the Musharraf regime, of which Kayani was a part, for wilful negligence and cover up, as well as the current PPP interior minister Rehman Malik, who was travelling in the stand-by bullet proof Mercedes car that was, however, found missing from the scene when it could have rushed Benazir Bhutto to hospital.

Truth commission
The military and ISI have been virtually accused by the UN commissioners of preventing an autopsy, hosing down the assassination site, thus removing vital evidence, and obstructing the commission’s own inquiries. The report calls on Pakistan to set up a ‘truth commission’ to get to the bottom of the crime. The unfolding in Islamabad will now be watched with interest.

Of special concern to India is the UN commissioners’ findings that a probable reason for removing Benazir was her “independent position on the urgent need to improve relations with India, and its implications for the Kashmir dispute, which the military regarded as its policy domain.”

Further, the commissioners found evidence that the army and ISI used terrorist groups to further their strategic objectives and that “the bulk of the anti-Indian activity was and still remains the work of groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has close links with the ISI.” The LeT has morphed into the Jammat-ud-Dawa, headed by Hafeez Saeed.
Musharraf quite clearly lied about Kargil, the nuclear proliferator A Q Khan (who was no lone wolf), and the use of jihadi terror against India. Zardari  once again reiterated on April 5 that his government would not allow the soil of Pakistan to be used for cross-border terror against India. We must await evidence of that commitment. How the Bhutto case is now handled will be one test of that; else a policy of bland denial, countercharges of Indian villainy and asking India to dialogue will not wash.

There will be another test in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has been seeking ‘strategic depth’ and a sphere of influence. The US and Nato are up a gum tree and do not know what to do. President Karzai, whom the West sought to undermine, has called a Loya Jirga or gathering of Afghanistan’s tribal elders or highest traditional council on May 2-4 to seek a cross ethno-cultural consensus on a peace process, national integration of insurgent groups and ground rules for carrying forward this process.

This initiative merits support by all regional and international players whose private, self-serving agendas should be subservient to promoting peace and harmony in a traditionally neutral Afghanistan and bringing stability and progress to the entire region. This too will be an acid test of Pakistan’s sincerity in making genuinely new beginnings as a good neighbour. Moreover it will strengthen civilian supremacy and give sustenance to democratic forces in Pakistan.

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