PAKISTAN: POSSIBLE POST-BENAZIR SCENARIOS
The Pakistani Election Commissions seems to be diffident whether it would be able to hold the general elections on January 8,2008, asscheduled. This is because much of the public anger in Sindh over the assassination of Mrs.Benazir Bhutto has been directed against thelocal offices of the Election Commission and their officials. Mobs have set fire to at least eight offices of the Election Commission and burntdown their records, including the ballot papers.
2. President Pervez Musharraf has wisely indicated that he would go by the advice of Benazir's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) as to whetherhe should postpone the elections and , if so, by how many weeks. Mr.Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), who initiallyindicated in the moments after her assassination that his party would not contest the elections so long as Musharraf was the President,now seems to be having second thoughts under American prodding. His supporters have been saying that they will go by the advice of thenew PPP leadership. If the new leadership decides to participate in the postponed elections, so will the PML, they say.
3. A much embarrassed and chastised Musharraf has also been sending assurances to the parties opposed to him that the elections wouldbe free and fair and that he would have no difficulty in working with the new PPP leadership, if it won the elections. He has, however, beensilent on his position if the PML of Nawaz Sharif wins the elections.
4. The credibility of the Musharraf Government, which was already weakened due to its failure to protect Benazir, has been further damagedby the shockingly inept manner in which the Ministry of the Interior, which was responsible for her protection, handled the sequel to theassassination. They first planted stories in the media that the Interior Ministry had recommended security for Benazir at the same level asprovided for a serving Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister's office did not act on the Interior Ministry's recommendation. Thus, a clumsyattempt was made to pass on the blame to Mr.Shaukat Aziz, the former Prime Minister, and Mr.Mohammadmian Soomro, the presentcaretaker Prime Minister.
5. Then, a totally unwarranted story was given to the media that while she was the target of a terrorist attack involving the use of a revolverand an improvised explosive device (IED), her death was not caused by either the bullets fired or by the suicide bomber. According to itsversion, the death was caused by a skull fracture which she sustained when her head struck the lever of the vehicle due to the impact ofthe explosion.
6. The Interior Ministry's version has been strongly repudiated by those in the entourage of Benazir when she was killed as well as by mediapersonnel. According to Benazir's associates, when she stood up to greet her supporters, an unidentified person among the by-standersopened fire on her from close range with a revolver. The bullets struck her neck and head. She collapsed inside the car. Only after shecollapsed, did the explosion take place. According to one media account, someone fired at her. She collapsed bleeding heavily. The driverimmediately drove the car away and then only the explosion took place. That is how neither her car nor any of its occupants sustained anydamage due to the explosion.
7. In an editorial, the "Daily Times" of Lahore (December 30,2007) said: "Originally, there was a statement from the interior minister that MsBhutto was hit in the neck and head by a shrapnel from the bomb explosion and she bled to death in hospital. There was no mention of anygunman or bullets fired at Ms Bhutto. However, this was contradicted by Mr Amin Fahim who was sitting next to Ms Bhutto when she firststood up and waved to the crowd from the sunroof of the bullet proof car and later slumped to her seat, following which there was a bombexplosion a minute or two later. In Mr Amin’s version, the explosion happened after she had already slumped in her seat and not before.Later, when eye-witness reports came in, including one from a foreign photographer who was twenty yards from the slow moving car whenhe heard the shots and ducked, followed by an explosion after the car had passed, the government admitted that a gunman had beenpresent and fired at her from short range before detonating himself and unleashing an explosion."
8. Talking to the media separately after the Interior Ministry's briefing, some of the doctors, who attended to Benazir after she was broughtto a Rawalpindi hospital, said that in their joint report they had merely said that her death was caused by an "open head injury withdepressed skull fracture, leading to cardiopulmonary arrest." The inference that this head injury must have been caused by her headstriking against the lever of the vehicle was that of the Interior Ministry and not of the doctors. The doctors said that since they did not havean opportunity to perform an autopsy, they were not in a position to say what might have caused the injury.
9. Embarrassed by this, officials of the Interior Ministry have been claiming that autopsy was not performed since Benazir's family wasagainst it and that now to remove the suspicions, they would be prepared to have the body exhumed in order to permit an autopsy.
10. Similarly, Baitullah Mehsud's reported denial of the Interior Ministry's claim that two of his followers had killed her has added to theembarrassment of the Government. Close associates of Benazir have revealed that after the October 18,2007, attack on her at Karachi,Baitullah had sent her a message denying any involvement in the attempt and assuring her that he did not pose any threat to her.
11. The panic and confusion in the Interior Ministry after the assassination have given rise to a flood of rumours, with some alleging that theman who fired at Benazir with a revolver was a retired commando of the US-trained Special Services Group, of which Musharraf himselfused to be a member, and that in an attempt to cover this up, the Interior Ministry fabricated an alleged intercept of a telephoneconversation between Baitullah and one of his associates regarding the assassination.
12. There are three possible political scenarios in the aftermath of Benazir's assassination:
SCENARIO NO.1: The PPP elects either Mr.Asif Zardari, Benazir's husband, or Bilawal, her son, as the new President and goes to the polls under the new leadership. Profiting from the sympathy wave, it would emerge as the largest single party, if not as a party with an absolute majority. Musharraf would invite it to form the Government. It is unlikely to last long and would, most probably, be ineffective. While Musharraf and his senior officers would not oppose it in the circumstances after Benazir's assassination, they would feel uncomfortable with it because of their dislike for Zardari. Moreover, Nawaz Sharif's PML would find it difficult to co-operate with it. There could also be a sharpening of the differences inside the PPP between the Zardari loyalists and the traditional party loyalists, who do not like Zardari.
SCENARIO No.2: Zardari and the family decide not to push forward their claim for leadership and propose Maqdoom Amin Fahim, the present No. 2 in the party, as the leader. The PPP comes to power under Amin's leadership. This is a scenario which both Musharraf and the US would prefer. Musharraf and the senior Army officers feel comfortable with Amin. After the 2002 elections, Musharraf had tried to wean him away from Benazir by offering him the post of Prime Minister. Amin declined and remained loyal to her. During Benazir's second tenure as the Prime Minister (1993 to 96), Amin was her Oil Minister. He played a key role in the negotiations involving the Unocal, the US oil company, and the Governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan for the construction of oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. In 1995, during a visit of the then President of Turkmenistan to New York, Unocal had hosted a high-profile reception for him. Benazir had asked Amin to represent her Government in the reception. Amin is fairly well known to the US oil companies and to the officials of the US State Department who held office during the Clinton Administration. Nawaz too may not be averse to supporting Amin in the short term.
SCENARIO No.3: Despite the sympathy wave for the PPP, the PML of Nawaz, secretly or openly supported by the pro-Musharraf PML (Qaide Azam), might emerge as the largest single party or even as a party with an absolute majority. Since Nawaz Sharif is legally barred from contesting the elections and holding office as Prime Minister, his party elects Mr.Shabaz Sharif, his younger brother, as the leader to stake claim as the Prime Minister. His nomination papers have been rejected on the ground that he was an accused in a criminal case, but he is not a convict. Musharraf should not have difficulty in finding a way for him to contest the elections. After the Amin scenario, the Shabaz scenario will be the second preference for Musharraf and the US. The senior Army officers feel comfortable with him. While they would be opposed to Nawaz becoming the Prime Minister, they are unlikely to oppose Shahbaz becoming the Prime Minister. He was the Chief Minister of Punjab when Nawaz was the Prime Minister between 1996 and 99 and Nawaz was using him as his back channel with the US State Department and the Pentagon for secret discussions on various issues such as action against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, threats to Nawaz from Musharraf after the Kargil conflict etc. Shahbaz was in regular touch with Mr.Strobe Talbot and Mr.Karl Inderfurth in the State Department on behalf of Nawaz. The US bureaucracy used to feel comfortable with him and there is no reason why they should not feel comfortable with him in future too.
13. However, a problem, which cannot be avoided, is that after the death of Benazir, Nawaz is the only leader with a national stature, but heand Musharraf cannot get along. Amin and Shahbaz can get along with Musharraf and the US, but neither of them has a national stature.
14. After Benazir's assassination, Pakistan faces a situation in which there is a looming disaster if Musharraf continues in power and anequal disaster without Musharraf. With Al Qaeda and the pro-Al Qaeda organisations spreading their influence into the vitals of the securityestablishment, it will be dangerous to jettison Musharraf abruptly. He has to continue at least for the time being, but the longer he lasts thegreater will be the anger against him among the tribals thereby further exacerbating the problem of jihadi terrorism.
15. While seemingly getting along with him, the US policy-makers should covertly, but energetically facilitate the emergence of a newmilitary leadership, which would vigorously act against Al Qaeda and Taliban while , at the same time, not coming in the way of therestoration of democravy under the pretext of fighting against terrorism. (30-12-07)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For TopicalStudies. Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )