They've got muck; we've got rakes. TPM Muckraker

So you know what they say about early reports. According to the same reporter who received a phone call from al-Qaeda's Afghanistan commander claiming responsibility for the Bhutto slaying, al-Qaeda contracted the hit out to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the group I cited in the last post as having minimal links to al-Qaeda.

“This is our first major victory against those [eg, Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf] who have been siding with infidels [the West] in a fight against al-Qaeda and declared a war against mujahideen,” Mustafa told Asia Times Online by telephone.

He said the death squad consisted of Punjabi associates of the underground anti-Shi’ite militant group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, operating under al-Qaeda orders.

The assassination of Bhutto was apparently only one of the goals of a large al-Qaeda plot, the existence of which was revealed earlier this month.

It's not clear if that plot had any other successful components. An attack on Nawaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf's other civilian rival, failed.

U.S. intelligence officials aren't yet vouching for the claim made by the commander, Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid. And it's all murky as to who actually assassinated the ex-premier. But here's a strategy that al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremists might have sought to execute by killing Bhutto.

Numerous assassination attempts on Pervez Musharraf have failed. So, in true asymmetric-war fashion, why not go after the softer target? Killing Bhutto helps destabilize Pakistan. As an ex-U.S. intelligence official told me yesterday, everyone in Pakistan already believes Musharraf had a hand in her death. So Musharraf suffers a crisis of legitimacy matched with a crisis of security. He has to deal with the already-ensuing riots, thereby diverting his security resources away from whatever not-particularly-successful-anyway counterterrorism efforts they're engaged in. That's a terrorist two-fer.

Investigation suddenly complete! The Pakistani Interior Ministry is blaming Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistani terrorist group not really linked to al-Qaeda, for Benazir Bhutto's assassination:

The Pakistani Interior Ministry said Friday the suicide bomber who killed Benazir Bhutto has been identified as belonging to a militant group with links to al Qaeda, Pakistan's GEO TV reported.

The ministry said the attacker was with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi -- a Sunni Muslim militant group that the Pakistani government has blamed for hundreds of killings -- according to the report.

There was no sign the group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Pakistan opposition leader.

That would seem to support my former U.S. intelligence official's hypothesis. Of course, the idea that the interior ministry has solved the crime already, or that it has no motive to deceive, needs to be put under heavy scrutiny.

David Hicks, the sole detainee at Guantanamo Bay to have been convicted of a crime under the U.S. military tribunal system, will be a free man on Saturday, six years after arriving at Guantanamo. The former Austrailian Outback cowboy received a 7-year sentence (with all but 9 months suspended) in a plea-bargain deal that allowed him to serve the remainder of his time in an Austrailian prison -- provided he remains silent about any abuse he alleges to have suffered in U.S. custody. (AP)

The U.S.-backed Iraqi government announced it will slash half the subsidized items from monthly food rations because of "insufficient funds and spiraling inflation." The Iraqi government says it is unable to supply the rations with several billion dollars at its disposal, although Saddam Hussein was able to maintain the program with less than $1 billion.The cuts are supposed to be introduced in the beginning of 2008 and will affect nearly 10 million people who depend on the rationing system. (IPS)

FEMA has hired a new director of public affairs to replace the official who was in charge during a fake news conference in October. Jonathan Thompson, who was a deputy assistant defense secretary for public affairs, strategy and operations, will be FEMA's new director of external affairs. (New York Times)

Read More →

Who murdered Benazir Bhutto? U.S. authorities don't know. They may never know. And they're not ruling anything in or out.

To recap our debate yesterday, the first-blush assessment from most experts held that al-Qaeda is responsible. Others, including political adversaries of Pervez Musharraf, then suggested Musharraf's government was at least culpable, given the porousness of security Bhutto received in the garrison city of Rawalpindi where she was assassinated. Still others caution that Pakistani Islamic terrorist groups with agendas distinct from al-Qaeda's might be more likely candidates.

That appears to still be the lay of the land. Bhutto's party, the Pakistan People's Party, is demanding an official inquiry, though it's unclear (to me at least) whether Musharraf has agreed to one. But here's one development to watch in the event of a probe. In the Los Angeles Times, Josh Meyer reports that Pakistan hasn't yet replied to U.S. investigators who've offered to help.

Some U.S. intelligence experts and analysts said that there are so many tangled alliances between the extremist groups and Pakistani government agencies that it would be virtually impossible to get to the bottom of who killed Bhutto unless the perpetrators came forward -- with proof. The FBI has offered to send investigators, but Pakistan has not responded, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said.

Read More →

Here I take my lumps like everyone else. Throughout the day I've either said that the most likely culprit for the Bhutto assassination is "the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda," or I've reported the j'accuse issued by others that Pervez Musharraf is in some way culpable. But what if that's all wrong? According to a former intelligence official with deep experience on Pakistan, there's a third, and perhaps more likely culprit: internally-focused Pakistani Islamist militants without significant links to al-Qaeda.

The ex-intel official doesn't have any ground truth. But, s/he says, the organizations with the most to gain and the least to lose by assassinating Bhutto are the groups "like Lashkar e-Toiba, or the Jaish e-Mohammed." Those groups' ties to al-Qaeda are much, much less than that of the Pakistani Taliban, and their focus is entirely domestic. "There are numerous groups that fit in the militant category whose focus began with Kashmir, but they oppose all U.S.-Pakistani relations and all secular politics," the official says. "They strongly disapprove of the role of Benazir, on every ground, and they have every reason to let Musharraf take the blame. They check every box."

Again, it's pure speculation. But the ex-intel official doesn't believe Musharraf has much to gain by killing Bhutto once the cost of international and domestic outrage are factored in. As to why al-Qaeda wouldn't kill Bhutto, the ex-official wasn't as definitive: "It's very possible al-Qaeda had a hand in it, but I'd look carefully at the domestic component." Ideology wouldn't be what divides al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban from the groups this official considers plausible suspects in the killing: "They all oppose the war on terror and would like to see an Islamist Pakistan, something very much like the Taliban in Afghanistan in Pakistan. There are a huge range of groups that I think are candidates. And no one’s talking about them."

However, an Italian news agency reported receiving a claim of responsibility from al-Qaeda's Afghanistan commander:

A spokesperson for the al-Qaeda terrorist network has claimed responsibility for the death on Thursday of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

“We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen,” Al-Qaeda’s commander and main spokesperson Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid told Adnkronos International (AKI) in a phone call from an unknown location, speaking in faltering English.

The New York Sun's Eli Lake -- yeah, yeah, it's a right-wing paper, but Lake is a top-shelf reporter -- has more about the evidence tying al-Qaeda to the assassination. But it's worth keeping the ex-intelligence official's perspective in mind when jumping to conclusions about responsibility.

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."