Iconic deaths have an established history of spawning conspiracy theories. In the days since Benazir’s assassination, in a country deeply sensitised to political drama, where reality is increasingly fantastical, and established authority labours under a heavy deficit of trust, the “Who killed Benazir?” question is hotly debated in salons, chai-stalls and boardrooms.
“Of course the government killed Benazir,” scoffed my Lahore neighbour. “Why else try to convince us she died of concussion when we saw her being shot on TV? Why hose away evidence? Why no inquiry?” So deep is public rage and grief at Benazir’s loss it will not acknowledge that Musharraf and his puppet government are the prime losers from her death. “Musharraf is a commando, you know; she was thrust on him by the Americans, but he could not stomach her popularity. It was either him or her.”
More cynically, there is an imminent election, and no sooner had Bhutto been buried that political parties began crafting self-serving versions of what happened. In a press conference, her widower, Asif Zardari, was careful not to antagonise the country’s strongest power broker. “We have no quarrel with the army,” he said. Instead he pointed a finger at Musharraf’s civilian government, which would have been swept out of office in a fair and free election. Surreptitiously, their rumour-mongers are now accusing Asif Zardari, arguing that as regent to his son he has the most to gain from the current situation.
The truth is almost certainly more mundane, though no less frightening for that. “Al Qaeda” is an emotive neat shorthand to describe Islamists. These amorphous, faceless groupings are waging war not just against America but for the heart, mind, and body of Pakistan. The prospect of Benazir, in alliance with Musharraf, being able to hunt them down was not one they were willing to countenance. Having failed with a “bomb only” explosion that killed 150 people in Karachi in October, they decided this time for a more precise “gun and bomb” solution. Ideologues, not paid assassins, blow themselves up.
But if this is self-evident , why not admit it? Pakistanis are deeply implicated at several levels. Though the state is not directly involved, the military and the state have over the years spawned a number of groups who are deeply sympathetic to the Islamists (Musharraf’s participation in the war on terror notwithstanding) and continue to assist them. Musharraf cannot point the finger, as institutions he has presided over, in particular elements within the intelligence agencies, are likely to have aided if not actually pulled the trigger. Moreover , Pakistanis find it difficult to acknowledge the Islamist threat, because they are sympathetic to the anti-Americanism of these groups and have an emotional incapacity to criticise anything “Islamic.” It is easier to believe in conspiracies than to accept that a painful battle must be fought against the enemy within. When I asked my driver why no one blamed the jihadists, he shrugged. “When a country descends into anarchy,” he said, “the left hand becomes a stranger to the right.”