Four Years on – Benazir’s Murder Remains Mystery

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Islamabad, in which Benazir Bhutto twice took oath as Prime Minister, had during her exile moved firmly into the U.S. orbit of influence. It looked nothing like the provincial capital I had visited in 1991 or even 2001. Instead by toward the end of the decade it had become a cosmopolitan city where big money and an entrenched mafia had transformed it into a U.S. outpost for Afghanistan.

Today the Islamabad highway – which connects to the airport – has signs to Srinagar, Muzzafarabad, Lahore and Murree, anywhere but local destinations. The nouveau riche display their boorish mentality in high-speed dark tinted Mercedes cars, flashing lights to move drivers off the roads. Middle Eastern and foreign capital has poured in and influenced the architecture of banks, gas stations and mosques. Five Star hotels, amongst them the Marriot Hotel, are barricaded like massive fortresses.

Islamabad is the epicenter for CIA-ISI partnerships and betrayals in a growing battle for control over Afghanistan. As in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan has once again strengthened the Pakistan military. Like the Margalla hills, the war in Afghanistan casts its shadow over the National Assembly and Senate – which today sit amid a formidable ring of security check posts.

What has not changed is the presence of poor people, which Islamabad attempts to brush under the carpet. Behind the veneer of modernity, it is impossible not to notice common people at bus and wagon stops and impoverished way side restaurants, bearded men in loose-fitting shalwar kameez or the few numbers of women in public. The feudal culture is evident in the peasants who trek from their villages to Islamabad, where they end up as domestic servants.

Islamabad – with its filthy rich and powerful – along with its poorer twin garrison city of Rawalpindi, was the perfect setting for the mafia to finally get Benazir Bhutto, who had cheated death from the day she landed in Pakistan. By publicly denouncing Musharraf, Benazir had simultaneously challenged the intelligence agencies and the Islamic militants secretly coddled by them for strategic purposes in the region. The prospects of a Bhutto rousing the masses riled the military, even as the militants were strongly opposed to being ruled by a woman.

That fateful day – Dec 27, 2007 – Benazir drove to Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi in a white Land Cruiser packed with eight people. They included the driver Javed ur Rehman and a retired Major SSP Imtiaz Hussain. Benazir sat behind them between Sindh’s leading feudal Makhdoom Amin Fahim and close companion Naheed Khan. The third tier consisted of Naheed’s husband Safdar Abbasi and security guard, Khalid Shahanshah. Benazir’s personal attendant, Razak Mirani, occupied the last seat.

Eye-witnesses say that security was “very tight” that day at Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi. The rally participants were scanned at the rally entrance, even while armed police men stood on rooftops. The crowd was small and oddly enough, seated on chairs located a considerable distance from the stage.

Party loyalists and photographers swarmed the stage where Benazir – attired in blue with a white dupatta on her head – talked energetically how the militants had taken down the Pakistani flag in Swat, but “we will keep it flying.”

While Benazir spoke, news filtered in that Nawaz Sharif’s procession had been attacked in Islamabad. It created a commotion in the media stand and some of the journalists began to leave the rally. However, Benazir went on speaking.

Although PPP guards were deputed to guard Benazir, subsequent videos indicate her internal security was compromised. You Tube videos show that Benazir’s party member, Khalid Shahanshah gesticulated to “would be” assassins from the stage – a finger sliding across his throat amd eyes rolled toward Benazir. Shahanshah was later killed by unidentified assailants in Karachi and the PPP failed to investigate his murder.

After her speech Benazir walked on the stair case behind the stage and got into her Land Cruiser – parked within municipal precincts. Eye-witnesses said that police had, by then, secured the rally and did not let anyone leave.

Senator Safdar Abbasi, who was with Benazir till her last moment, recalls that she was “very pleased” with the reception she had received. There was a sense of abandon in her as she stepped into her white Land Cruiser and hugged Abbasi’s wife, Naheed Khan – Benazir’s life long protector and companion.

Their bomb proof Cruiser made a right turn on Liaquat road and then on College road where some two hundred or so PPP supporters raced along, raising slogans. Subsequent video footage shows that among them was the killer – a sophisticated looking young man in dark glasses, white shirt and coat, with a gun and explosives. The video shows another man wearing a white hood stood behind him, believed to be his cover suicide bomber.

At that stage, the black Mercedes which carried Benazir’s chief security officer, Rehman Malik – who had served Benazir and Asif well while they lived in exile – was nowhere to be seen. It was a departure from the normal drill, where Benazir’s vehicle normally followed Malik’s vehicle. Traveling with Malik was a former Musharraf loyalist, the retired Lt-Gen. Tauqir Zia – who had joined the PPP only days before – and party men, Babar Awan and Farhatullah Babar.

Blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking around and anxious to invigorate crowd support ahead of her forthcoming election, Benazir decided to respond to the PPP youth who ran along side her white land cruiser while they cried “Wazir-i-Azam – Benazir” (Prime Minister – Benazir).

Abbasi recalls that at that point, “she turned to me and said, `How about some political slogans like “Jeay Bhutto,” (Long live Bhutto) – Safdar?”

Acting on Benazir’s wishes, Safdar took hold of the megaphone from inside the cruiser and bellowed out the catchy slogan, “Nara-i- Nara-i Nara-i Bhutto… (crying, crying, crying Bhutto)” to which the crowd frantically responded “Jeay Jeay Jeay Bhutto.” That was the cue for a smiling Benazir to stand up from the sunroof of the vehicle and wave to the crowd. The frenzied crowd had by now forced the land cruiser to a crawl, giving the sharpshooter the opportunity to aim at Benazir’s head.

Suddenly, shots rang out. Seconds later, Benazir had slumped inside the cruiser, and her blood had spilled all over Naheed’s lap. The shots came from the left side, but the bullets pierced and left wounds on the right side of her head.
“She was instantly dead,” Abbasi claims.

Immediately thereafter, he says there was a loud explosion that cracked the windows of the vehicle and caused the tires to lose air. Video footage later showed that the sharp shooter had fired three shots, looked down and detonated his explosives. Dozens of others were killed as well, at least 15 of whom were disfigured without recognition.

Afghan President Blames Pak based LEJ for Kabul Blast

Carnage in Kabul (Photo

KABUL: Afghan President Hamid Karzai Wednesday blamed the the sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) for a bomb at a Kabul shrine which killed 55 people, demanding justice from Pakistan, his spokesman said.

The comments are likely to antagonise further already tense relations with Islamabad, which boycotted Monday’s Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan following NATO air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

“The president said he blamed the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” said Aimal Faizi following reports of a purported claim from the faction, blamed for scores of similar attacks on Shia Muslims in Pakistan.

“The president said that he will demand Pakistan take executive measures in this regard since this group is based in Pakistan so that justice can be done,” Faizi added.

Karzai’s comments came as he visited victims of the Kabul blast in hospital. He returned to Kabul earlier Wednesday after cutting short a trip to Europe to deal with the fallout of the unprecedented attack on Afghan Shias.

Pakistan asks Kabul to share blast evidence

Pakistan asked Afghanistan to provide evidence to support accusations that LeJ is responsible for the attack.

“Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a banned organisation. We would encourage Kabul to share with us evidence, if any through official channels,” foreign office spokesman Abdul Basit told AFP by text message.

Afghan victims buried as fingers point to Pakistan

An Afghan official had earlier claimed that the bomber who attacked the shrine in Kabul was a Pakistani, affiliated with the sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

Afghans were Wednesday burying 59 people killed in unprecedented bombings against Shia Muslims as officials blamed Pakistani militants, accusing them of trying to whip up Iraq-style sectarian violence.

Investigators are poring over who was behind the coordinated attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul and northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif that the Taliban, the main faction leading a 10-year insurgency, have denied carrying out.

The LeJ has not previously claimed responsibility for any attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Experts suggest that if Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or indeed any other Pakistani militants orchestrated the attacks, then elements in the Afghan Taliban may have played some part, possibly in facilitating the strikes.

Tuesday’s blast on the holiest day in the Shia calendar marked the first major attack on a key religious day in Afghanistan.

The twin blasts have prompted fears of a slide into sectarian violence in Afghanistan.

Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security intelligence agency, confirmed that an investigation into the tragedy was now under way.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry, said the attack was the work of “the Taliban and their associates”, adding no-one else carried out such suicide attacks in Afghanistan.

An Afghan security official speaking on condition of anonymity said the bomber was from the Kurram agency in Pakistan’s border region and was connected to Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

The Afghan source added the attack aimed to “inflame sectarian violence in Afghanistan” but did not provide any evidence to back up his claims.

The official added: “This is not the work of the Taliban or if there is any Taliban involvement, it is very minimal.”

A Western security official speaking anonymously also suggested Pakistani involvement though stressed it was not clear whether this was “institutional”.

“We’re particularly looking at TTP (Tehreek-i-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban) although at the moment we don’t have any proof,” he said. The source added he believed the attack “aimed to weaken Afghan society”.

A Pakistani security official speaking anonymously said Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was closely associated with the Pakistani Taliban.

But he added: “This group is on the run and doesn’t have the capacity to carry out attacks inside Afghanistan, particularly in Kabul.”

Pakistani security analyst Hasan Askari emphasised that there was no clear evidence at this stage of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi involvement.

“Lashkar people have ideological affinity with other militant groups operating in Afghanistan including Taliban and they support each other but they (Lashkar) have to establish that their strength is increasing,” he said.

Some analysts have raised fears of more sectarian violence in Afghanistan following the attacks but Shia leaders have urged calm in the aftermath.


Clash Between NATO and Pakistani Troops Defused

KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 30 — A cross-border incident involving NATO and Pakistani forces was quickly defused early on Wednesday with no loss of life, according to Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, the spokesman for the American-led international coalition here.

Few details of the incident were immediately available but it apparently involved heavy artillery fire across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Afghanistan’s Paktika province.

The firing broke out at a time of Pakistani anger over the killing of 24 of its soldiers in a United States air strike on Saturday. Pakistan closed its border to NATO supply convoys and pulled out of an international conference on Afghanistan next week in Bonn in protest at the killings.

Separately, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed regret at Pakistan’s decision to stay away from the Bonn conference.

“Frankly, it is regrettable that Pakistan has decided not to attend the conference in Bonn, because this conference has been long in the planning,” Mrs. Clinton said in Busan, South Korea before flying to Myanmar on Wednesday.

“Pakistan, like the United States, has a profound interest in a secure, stable, increasingly democratic Afghanistan. Our gathering in Bonn this coming Monday is intended to further that goal.”

In the latest border incident, General Jacobson said it was reassuring that normal channels of cooperation and communication had been opened to resolve the issue.

“We haven’t got the details yet but the most important thing is the normal methods of cooperation worked and there were no casualties, no damage despite heavy firing,” he said.

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Nay Pyi Daw, Myanmar.

North Waziristan Militant Hafiz Gul Bahadur Threatens Islamabad

Hafiz Gul Bahadur (Photo courtesy:

MIRAMSHAH: The most powerful militant leader in Pakistan’s North Waziristan border region has threatened to tear up a peace accord and turn his fighters against the Islamabad government.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur has an unofficial non-aggression pact with the military.

Pakistan can’t afford new militant enemies. The army’s hands are full with the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, blamed for many of the suicide bombings across the South Asian country.

Bahadur is known to have links with notorious militant groups in tribal North Waziristan, including the Haqqani network.

Bahadur criticised Pakistani leaders for allowing the United States to conduct drone missile strikes in North Waziristan and said the council of militant groups he heads would no longer hold talks with the government.

“We have been showing patience because of problems being faced by common people but now the government has also resorted to repression on our common people at the behest of foreigners,” Bahadur, who heads a Pakistani Taliban faction, said in a statement distributed in North Waziristan.

He accused the government of firing mortar bombs and cannons on civilians and demolishing a hospital and other buildings in North Waziristan. Army officials were not immediately available for comment.

Local military officials said “terrorists” had used public buildings to launch rocket attacks at military checkpoints.

“We are disbanding the jirga (council) set up for talks with the government. If the government resorts to any repressive act in the future then it will also be very difficult for us to show patience,” said Bahadur.

Bahadur, believed to have thousands of fighters, reached a peace agreement with the Pakistani government in 2007. But it has been strained lately.

Two clerics who are leaders of the committee that overseas the pact, Maulana Gul Ramazan and Hafiz Noorullah Shah, suggested the army had violated the deal.


Three Hindus killed in Pakistan this Week

Three members of the minority Hindu community were killed when unidentified persons attacked a village in Sindh province of southern Pakistan on Monday, officials said.

Another Hindu was seriously injured in the attack at Taluka Chak in Shikarpur district.

President Asif Ali Zardari took “serious note” of the attack on members of the Hindu community and directed authorities to immediately arrest those responsible and bring them to justice.
Zardari had sought an immediate report on the incident, presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said. Zardari instructed Ramesh Lal, a Hindu parliamentarian from Sindh, to go to the village and convey his condolences to the bereaved families.

The President said it was the “moral and legal responsibility of the government to protect members of the minority community against vandalism and atrocities”.

Babar quoted Zardari as saying that the “law would take its course and the culprits will not go unpunished”.

Fight Hard, Talk Hard

Paramilitary Troops Patrol Bajaur in Pakistan's tribal belt - Photo Courtesy: Dawn

It is an axiom that Americans work hard and play hard.

What is less known, and at times baffling, are US moves that entail crushing the enemy on the battle field while engaging with its high profile leaders in private.

This fight hard, talk hard strategy – designed to do whatever it takes to succeed, is the hall-mark of a nation moving forward with super power strides. In this scenario, the US finger points to Pakistan’s spy agencies ties with the Haqqani network, even while enlisting its help to negotiate with the Taliban militants.

The Obama war strategy has come full circle as the battle for Kabul enters a decisive stage. With the withdrawal of US surge troops from Afghanistan set in near stone for 2012 – the region has gone into a wait for the Americans to leave type of mode.

With winter fast approaching the fighting season for conventional NATO warfare has shrunk, even while the Taliban keep up their suicide attacks. In examples of guerrilla warfare, they are able to put down a rifle and pick up a plow… to return to fight another day.

Amid this seemingly unending war, the US is zeroing in on Pakistan to dissuade it from supporting Taliban militants who allegedly use the neighboring federally administered tribal areas to attack NATO troops in Afghanistan and return to their safe havens.

The murder of Afghan peace council chief, Burhanuddin Rabbani in September – for which Afghanistan blamed Pakistan – has shifted the strategy all round from talk hard to fight hard.

In her recent visit to Pakistan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let out the frustration that America has been feeling in its inability to rein in Pakistan:
“You can’t keep snakes in your back yard and expect it to only bite neighbors.”

The reference was to Pakistan’s policy of strategic depth, where the US claims that Pakistan backs Taliban militants like the Haqqani network in order to guarantee a friendly Afghanistan vis-à-vis its arch rival, India.

Clinton also played to the naiveté displayed by a member of the audience which met her on the occasion. The woman told the visiting Secretary of State that the US was like a “mother-in-law” that was never satisfied with what her “daughter in law” i.e. Pakistan did.

Laughter is of course the best remedy for tensions, even diplomatic ones – though it has little to do with the underlying causes.

Indeed, there have been major setbacks to US forces lately – topped last week by the deaths of 13 Americans hit by a suicide bomb attack in Kabul. These have occurred as NATO intensifies its assault on Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan that border Pakistan.

Bolstered by the US, the Karzai government has recently done a diplomatic dance with “brotherly Pakistan” – that involves signing a defense deal with India while assuring Pakistan of continuing neighborliness.

The Nov. 2 Istanbul conference on Afghanistan brought President Karzai to appeal to all nations to rein in militants, without singling any one of them.

Pakistan has still not recovered from the shock waves it suffered in May, when the US picked up Osama Bin Laden from under its nose in Abbotabad. Since then, the state has loosened the pressure valve on anti-Americanism. That has enabled politicians to hold rallies of the type held by Islamic parties under former president Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf.

At the same time, Pakistan sanctions US drone attacks in its tribal areas. In recent weeks, the US has intensified and diversified drone attacks here – from North Waziristan to chasing Haqqani fighters in the south of this belt.

For now, it is the interplay of military intelligence and diplomacy that swirls around the longest and most complex war of our times.

Tenth Anniversary of US Invasion of Afghanistan

As the US marks the tenth anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan, pro Taliban terror networks – driven out of Kabul in October 2001 – have reinvented themselves inside Pakistan.

They are enabled by an inept foreign policy and absence of governance that allows the most brutal ideologues to consolidate themselves within failing states.

The militants have found the most fertile ground in Balochistan, where the PPP government – operating on a single principle of obeying the most powerful – teeters between toeing a foreign policy that breeds international isolationism, even as it has become a punching bag for political parties vying to return to power.

For the Hazara Shias in Balochistan – protesting against the failure of the provincial government for failing to protect them – the bigger news is the PPP government in Balochistan is unable to protect itself from terrorism.

This week, Pakistan’s chief opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League (N) spearheaded a rally of political groups outside the parliament in Islamabad to protest issues like the absence of governance that has led to the massacres of Shia Hazaras, and “load-shedding” – a euphemism for massive power outages – that people suffer on account of mismanagement and corruption.

It was an event that brought “strange bed-fellows,” like Nawaz Sharif to ally with the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman – the ideologue cum politician who allied with Sharif’s nemesis, Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf.

But these are shifting alliances that have the March Senate elections in mind, and will be likely disbanded thereafter.

Similarly, the politics that have brought the ethnic MQM back into accepting ministerial positions with the PPP is an alliance built in sand. Indeed, the calm in Karachi can quickly turn into a storm, once criminal elements patronized by every political party returns to action.

Ten years on, the politicking goes on at the expense of real developmental progress …a situation that has grown worse as target assassinations grow from the fall out in Afghanistan.