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Try as Nawaz Sharif might to carry the banner of Benazir Bhutto, he might not be the optimal anti-Musharraf candidate. For one thing, even if Musharraf holds a promised election, Sharif isn't eligible to run, thanks to a ruling of the Musharraf-controlled Electoral Commission. For another, there's another secular, democratic politician waiting in the wings who might resonate with this year's middle-class rejection of Musharraf.

Aitzaz Ahsan was the chief counsel for former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose ouster by Musharraf on dubious charges of personal corruption proved to be the final straw for much of middle-class Pakistan. According to Pakistan expert Barnett Rubin, Ahsan has a good shot at inheriting the reins of the Pakistan People’s Party. A longtime PPP member, respected barrister and democracy advocate, Ahsan's representation of Chaudhry landed him a stint in prison when Musharraf declared emergency rule on November 3. Ahsan, not surprisingly, disagreed with the more conciliatory stance toward Musharraf that brought Bhutto back from exile earlier this year, according to Rubin.

Ahsan has an international profile as well. An old enemy of 80s-vintage dictator Zia ul-Haq, he gained global esteem for his willingness to go to jail for the sake of democracy. After his November detention, 33 U.S. Senators wrote to Musharraf demanding his release. Still, Ahsan's profile is much higher in Pakistan than it is in the United States. But shortly before Christmas, he penned this New York Times op-ed:

Last Thursday morning, I was released to celebrate the Id holidays. But that evening, driving to Islamabad to say prayers at Faisal Mosque, my family and I were surrounded at a rest stop by policemen with guns cocked and I was dragged off and thrown into the back of a police van. After a long and harrowing drive along back roads, I was returned home and to house arrest.

Every day, thousands of lawyers and members of the civil society striving for a liberal and tolerant society in Pakistan demonstrate on the streets. They are bludgeoned by the regime’s brutal police and paramilitary units. Yet they come out again the next day.

People in the United States wonder why extremist militants in Pakistan are winning. What they should ask is why does President Musharraf have so little respect for civil society — and why does he essentially have the backing of American officials?

With Ahsan a potential successor to Bhutto, those questions have a renewed salience. As does his implicit challenge to Washington to support Pakistani democracy:

How long can the leaders of the lawyers’ movement be detained? They will all be out one day. And they will neither be silent nor still.

They will recount the brutal treatment meted out to them for seeking the establishment of a tolerant, democratic, liberal and plural political system in Pakistan. They will state how the writ of habeas corpus was denied to them by the arbitrary and unconstitutional firing of Supreme and High Court justices. They will spell out precisely how one man set aside a Constitution under the pretext of an “emergency,” arrested the judges, packed the judiciary, “amended” the Constitution by a personal decree and then “restored” it to the acclaim of London and Washington.

Correction: Due to an error on my part, this post initially attributed to Husain Haqqani comments that should have been attributed to Barnett Rubin. Haqqani did not make any prognostication to me about Ahsan. I misread my own notes when writing this post, and I apologize for the mistake.

It's not just Bhutto adviser Husain Haqqani. Nawaz Sharif, now Pervez Musharraf's chief political enemy in the wake of Bhutto's assassination, also blamed the dictator for his onetime rival's death. The Hindustan Times:

"Pervez Musharraf is responsible and accountable for what happened today," Sharif told a private news channel in an interview.

"I hold his policies responsible for landing this country into the terrible mess," a shaken Sharif said.

"Nobody has confidence in Musharraf. Everybody wants him to step down and hold the inquiry (into Benazir's death)," he said.

Sharif appears to have wasted little time taking up Bhutto's mantle and consolidating the non-Islamist opposition to Musharraf:

Sharif told Bhutto's supporters that he would fight "your war from now on", and that he shared the grief of "the entire nation".

Sharif was speaking outside the hospital where Bhutto died. "I assure you that I will fight your war from now," Sharif said.

There's no statement as yet on Bhutto's assassination from Richard Boucher. That's notable, considering Boucher is the assistant secretary of state for South Asia. A spokeswoman for Boucher referred me to the general State press office before saying that she was telling reporters to watch for a statement from President Bush.

As the assassination of Benazir Bhutto throws U.S.-Pakistani relations into turmoil, it's worth pointing out how the staffing of the U.S.'s Pakistan team indicates that Pakistan isn't exactly a priority for the Bush administration. Boucher is a career foreign service officer, but he has no prior South Asia experience, and his highest-profile portfolios were his two turns as departmental spokesman. The current U.S. ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, used to run State's anti-narcotics efforts -- a none-too-subtle signal that combatting Afghan heroin exportation gets more attention from the administration than figuring out what to do with a nuclear-armed dictatorship that's home to Osama bin Laden and a rising tide of Islamic extremism. Patterson, too, doesn't have experience in the region. The previous, well-regarded ambassador to Pakistan? He's a little busy right now somewhere else.

Matthew Yglesias recently noted how we've got the C-Listers on Pakistan, and suggested Dick Cheney was exploiting the dearth of expertise to control our Pakistan policies. All of which, it should be noted in fairness, are looking super-awesome right now.

Live from Crawford, Texas:

President Bush demanded Thursday that those responsible for the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir be brought to justice.

"The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy," he said. "Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice."

The president was speaking to reporters at a hangar adjacent to his Crawford ranch in central Texas.

Bush expressed his deepest condolences to Bhutto's family and to the families of others slain in the attack and to all the people of Pakistan.

"We stand with the people of Pakistan in their struggle against the forces of terror and extremism. We urge them to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life," he said.

Bush looked tense in delivering a statement that lasted about a minute and he took no questions.

President Bush is making a televised statement as I type, and we'll have that for you as well.

Update: Here's that statement.

A longtime adviser and close friend of assassinated Pakistani ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto places blame for Bhutto's death squarely on the shoulders of U.S.-supported dictator Pervez Musharraf.

After an October attack on Bhutto's life in Karachi, the ex-prime minister warned "certain individuals in the security establishment [about the threat] and nothing was done," says Husain Haqqani, a confidante of Bhutto's for decades. "There is only one possibility: the security establishment and Musharraf are complicit, either by negligence or design. That is the most important thing. She's not the first political leader killed, since Musharraf took power, by the security forces."

Haqqani notes that Bhutto died of a gunshot wound to the neck. "It's like a hit, not a regular suicide bombing," he says. "It's quite clear that someone who considers himself Pakistan's Godfather has a very different attitude toward human life than you and I do."

As for what comes next: Haqqani doubts that Musharraf will go forward with scheduled elections. "The greatest likelihood is that this was aimed not just aimed at Benazir Bhutto but at weakening Pakistan's push for democracy," he says. "But the U.S. has to think long and hard. Musharraf's position is untenable in Pakistan. More and more people are going to blame him for bringing Pakistan to this point, intentionally or unintentionally. It's very clear that terrorism has increased in Pakistan. It's quite clear that poverty has increased in Pakistan. ... anti-Americanism might come in, as people say, 'You know what, why should we support this [pro-U.S.] regime that has not delivered anything to us?'"

Growing emotional, Haqqani says people should know that "Benazir Bhutto was a very warm person. She was a very strong and courageous person, a very forgiving person. To have gone what she went through -- her father assassinated by one military dictator [General Zia ul-Haq], her two brothers assassinated, no one in the elite fully loyal to her... The whole Pakistani security establishment thinks Pakistan should be governed as a national-security state. She resisted that completely, and that doesn't get seen enough. She questioned their right to govern."

The best new estimate for the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the "global war on terror" more broadly, is $15 billion per month. According to the Congressional Research Service, operations and maintenance costs for the wars have risen to $81 billion in fiscal 2008 from $72 billion in fiscal 2007. (Washington Post)

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) presided over a nine-second Senate session on December 26. Webb kept the Senate in session over the holiday in order to block Bush's efforts to make a recess appointment of Steven Bradbury, acting chief of the Justice Department's Office of Legislative Counsel, who has signed two secret torture memos in 2005. (USA Today)

About 1,500 heavily armored, V-hulled Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRPA) trucks have arrived at long last in Iraq, but the vehicle that is saving lives has a major shortcoming: it lacks the maneuverability for urban warfare necessary to fight the Iraqi insurgency. But with nearly 12,000 of the trucks on order in a program that has a projected cost of more than $17 billion, the expensive new Army weapons system is likely to influence how the Army fights. (LA Times)

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Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan and linchpin of a post-Musharraf U.S. strategy in the turbulent South Asian country, was assassinated today in Rawalpindi.

"She has been martyred," said party official Rehman Malik.

Bhutto, 54, died in hospital in Rawalpindi. Ary-One Television said she had been shot in the head.

Police said a suicide bomber fired shots at Bhutto as she was leaving the rally venue in a park before blowing himself up.

"The man first fired at Bhutto's vehicle. She ducked and then he blew himself up," said police officer Mohammad Shahid.

Police said 16 people had been killed in the blast.

Earlier, party officials said Bhutto was safe.

The most likely culprit is the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. But it's not exactly an event met with tears by the Pakistani military, which thoroughly controls the government and the economy. After the summer's turbulence with Islamic radicals and Pervez Musharraf's subsequent declaration of martial law -- designed to crack down not on Islamist militants but the remnants of Pakistan's democratic opposition -- the U.S. prevailed upon Musharraf to ally with Bhutto in the interest of broadening Musharraf's base of support. But the event that would consummate the alliance, next month's election, represented a threat to continued military rule. "The military didn't really want civilian politicians in power," says New York University's Barnett Rubin, a South Asia expert. "They wanted to use them to legitimate indirect [military] rule, and they were going to do it by rigging the election."

U.S. strategy didn't exactly find that so offensive. "The idea was to consolidate the alliance of the so-called moderate forces in the Pakistani military through this election that the military was going to rig but we were going to certify anyway," Rubin observes. That is, as long as Bhutto was in the picture -- since the U.S. had reduced the democratic opposition to the figure of Benazir Bhutto, although her corruption as PM was manifest. Without Bhutto, it is unclear what the U.S. will do.

Bhutto's assassination presents an opportunity for Musharraf. "It's very possible Musharraf will declare [another] state of emergency and postpone the elections," Rubin continues. "That will confirm in many people's minds the idea that the military is behind" the assassination. For it's part, the U.S. will likely "be scrambling to say the election either needs to be held as planned or postponed rather than canceled, but Musharraf is in a position to preempt that."

As a result, Rubin says, U.S. strategy is "in tatters."

A spokeswoman for Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said the senior State Department official will have to get back to TPM.

More outrageous tales from the State Department car dealership: it turns out that contractor DynCorp didn't have to even prove that it in fact purchased dozens of SUVs for which it charged the government. Try to follow the money on this one.

[O]ne Civilian Police task order [on which DynCorp is the contractor] included a requirement for 68 armored Ford Excursions at a fixed price of $113,064. The [State] Department was billed for 68 "armored vehicles" at a unit cost of $123,327. The property list contained 61 Ford Excursions, of which some were described as armored, others uparmored, and others had no notation of armoring. The costs shown on the property list for these 61 Ford Excursions ranged from $43,990 to $150,000 with nine at $122,190, seven with higher costs, and the remaining 45 with costs of $77,000 and below. Thus, OIG could not conclude that the 68 "armored vehicles" in the vouchers were the 68 armored Ford Excursions specified in the task order.

Let's just assume for a minute that they are. To do the math: 68 Excursions at the State Department contract's fixed unit price works out to $7,688,352. But 68 Excursions at the price DynCorp billed the department is $8,386,236. So that's an overcharge of almost $698,000. Nice.

But what the report's saying is that it has no way of knowing if DynCorp really spent the $8,386,236. It's not easy to work out the numbers given the vague way the report describes the expenses cited on the 61 Excursions DynCorp documented. But nine Excursions at $122,190 is $1,099,710. Add another 45 at $77,000 (the maximum cited here), and that's $3,465,000. Take a conservative estimate of the remaining seven with "higher costs" than the $122,190 -- let's say $122,200, a mere $10 more. That's $855,400. Add it all up and you get in the ballpark of $5,420,110.

And that means the State Department's lax bookkeeping requirements allowed DynCorp to, potentially, pocket around (by my calculation) $2,996,126. Whether that in fact happened is unclear by definition. But what's crystal clear is that State's shoddy accounting is practically an invitation to abuse. Why not just have the State Department open its petty cash drawers and save the inspector-general's office the trouble?

For a moment, leave aside the question of missing property. The September 2007 State Department inspector general report provides a blueprint for how lax department rules let contractors in Afghanistan shoehorn all manner of purchases into their conctract costs -- regardless of whether the contract required those specific purchases. As they say on the streets, DynCorp, essentially, got to charge it to the game.

Take one example. On one of DynCorp's task orders for the Civilian Police training contract, the company bought $1.1 million worth of trucks, unspecified in its contract, and charged it to the government. And that was just the start.

Under one of the Civilian Police task orders, the vouchers included charges for 20 Ford F-250s, with a cost of $1.1 million, that were acquired before the modification authorizing their purchase was issued; 18 vehicles consisting of Ford Excursions, John Deere Gators, and Yamaha motorcycles, with a cost of $384,590, that were not specified in the task order; and an additional unknown quantity of John Deere Gators and Ford Excursions, with a cost of $1.4 million, that were not specified in the ask order.

That worked for DynCorp so well on the police contract, the company ran the same game on its ordnance-removal contract:

Although weapons and weapon accessories were not among the property specified for purchase under the WRAP contract, the vouchers included charges of $30,000.

The inspector general concedes that contractors might legitimately need to buy new property during the course of the contract. But the department's requirements -- apparently still in place -- don't allow outside observers enough visibility to determine what's a legitimate expense and what isn't. (Or, in the IG's words, "the Department should assess whether additional property items are needed to meet program requirements, approve new acquisitions before they are made, and modify the contract accordingly.") The absence of such protections is practically an invitation for a contractor to walk into a Ford dealership and hand over Condoleezza Rice's credit card -- which, incidentally, you pay for.

A September 2007 State Department report, obtained by TPMmuckraker, found that contractors DynCorp and Blackwater can't account for $28.4 million in U.S. government-issued property in Afghanistan, including armored cars, guns and radios.

The report, prepared by the State Department inspector-general's office, hits the department for its lack of "adequate internal control over the government property held by contractors." It calls the property lists provided by State officials managing the contract in Afghanistan "incomplete and, therefore, unreliable." The $28.4 million worth of missing or poorly-documented property represents 21 percent of the government property held by DynCorp and Blackwater.

In some cases, the property has disappeared into a bureaucratic morass, thanks to State's improper bookkeeping. But in other cases, the property appears to be simply gone. For instance, the report finds:

OIG [the Office of the Inspector General] found all of the selected WPPS [Worldwide Personnel Protective Service] items on the property list but was unable to locate some of the items (see Table 3), including vehicles, a weapon, generators, computers, radios, and phones, on the Civilian Police and WRAP [Weapons Removal and Abatement Program] lists.

DynCorp holds the Civilian Police and WRAP contracts. The WPPS contract is held by Blackwater, and the report doesn't accuse Blackwater of mishandling government property. But it does say that Blackwater didn't include the cost of 91 percent of items on its property list reviewed by the inspector general. As a result, inspectors were unable to verify that the money cited by Blackwater for the purchase of "any of its vehicles and much of its communications equipment" was properly spent.

It wouldn't be the first time inspectors hit the department for inadequate bookkeeping. In October, Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, chided State for its inability to account for $1.2 billion it had awarded to DynCorp in Iraq.

TPMmuckraker obtained the September 2007 report thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request. We'll have it for you in our Documents Collection shortly. And we'll be presenting you with more from the report throughout the week.