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March 9, 2011

Pakistan: Who killed Shahbaz Bhatti?

Scott Stockdale

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Immediately after the March 2 assassination of Pakistani Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the finger-pointing began.

Mr. Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet, was ambushed outside his house in Islamabad. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, saying he was punished for being a blasphemer.

Like Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, who was assassinated in January, Mr. Bhatti called for reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which imposes a mandatory death sentence on anyone convicted of insulting Islam. The law is popular with some Muslims but is routinely manipulated to settle rivalries and persecute minorities.

Blaming the recent political assassinations on religious fanatics, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari warned that fanaticism in his nation was a “tinderbox” set to explode across the country and asked Washington to avoid confrontation and work together with Islamabad against terror.

And, of course, continue to send the billions of dollars required for this joint effort.

“The religious fanaticism behind our assassinations is a tinderbox poised to explode across Pakistan. The embers are fanned by the opportunism of those who seek advantages in domestic politics by violently polarizing the society,” Zardari said in an oped in the Washington Post. But he declared that his government will not retreat and will give a determined and calibrated response to terrorists’ activities. It's telling that the Pakistani President felt it necessary to appeal to an American audience.

While reiterating President Zardari's position, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn added another element to the equation when it wrote:

“The real culprit is known to all: an extremist mindset that has, with the sponsorship of some institutions of the state, spread far and wide."

References to "institutions" are usually a euphemism for the military's powerful intelligence agencies that nurtured select jihadist groups in the 80s and 90s and, according to western officials, still do today.

However, this in no way prevents the U.S government from withholding any of the billions of dollars it gives the Pakistani government to combat terrorism. Quite the contrary, the U.S. administration seems to think that – as in Afghanistan – it's not succeeding in Pakistan because it hasn't poured in enough resources.

However, as is often the case, there may be more to it than the government is letting on.

Rafi Usmani, grand mufti of Pakistan, said this could be an American conspiracy to defame the government of Pakistan, Muslims and Islam, while some Islamist leaders and elements in Pakistan’s media suggested that the assassination was a way for the U.S. to deflect attention from the case of Raymond Davis. Mr. Davis is a CIA employee who is accused of killing two Pakistanis.

On Jan. 27, Mr. Davis was arrested by police in Lahore after he shot and killed two local men who he says were trying to rob him as he drove through the city in a white Honda Civic. At the time of his arrest he was carrying a telescope and GPS device, a camera, and loaded Glock semi-automatic pistol.

After Obama administration officials initially claimed that Mr. Davis works for the U.S. Embassy, so he has diplomatic immunity, he's been outed as a C.I.A. Operative. Subsequently, the Obama administration continues to insist Mr. Davis was not involved in any spying or drone operations.

In a recent story published in the Pakistani English-language Express Tribune, a Punjabi police official is quoted as saying Davis was actually working with the Pakistani Taliban in a bid to stoke insecurity in Pakistan and support the argument that its cache of nuclear weapons isn’t safe.

Call records of Davis’s cellphone allegedly establish his link to 27 Taliban militants and a sectarian group known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the police source said.

While the Pakistani federal government would rather have Mr. Davis sent back to the U.S, Punjabi State officials have made it clear that they want to know more clearly what he was doing on the ground and how many more Raymond Davises there may be out there.

“It’s not just about him anymore. It’s become about America’s policies here and the drone attacks. He’s become a focal point for a lot of anger,” a Punjabi official said.

Meanwhile, without convincing proof, it remains a mystery who is behind the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti; but Pakistani government officials know that continued murder and mayhem between ethnic and religious groups in Pakistan – the kind Mr. Davis is alleged to have been stirring up -  is a good way to secure the continued flow of billions of dollars in American aid, and American officials know that this murder and mayhem will ensure continued congressional funding for the “War on Terror” and the war in Afghanistan.

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