Anyone who has been in Pakistan even briefly knows about the “establishment”. The word comes up so often in routine conversations — a reflection of its role and influence — that despite being an English word, it is a part and parcel of the country’s local languages, and needs absolutely no explanation.

But no less an organisation than the United Nations has now provided one, its report on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto defining the word as “the de facto power structure that has as its permanent core the military high command and intelligence agencies, in particular, the powerful, military-run the ISI as well as MI and the IB. The capability of the Establishment to exercise power in Pakistan is based in large part on the central role played by the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies in the country’s political life, with the military ruling the country directly for 32 of its 62 years as an independent state.”

That the “establishment” should find mention at all in the UN report is extraordinary. Usually known for playing safe when it comes to the national sensitivities of its member-states, the three-member UN commission set up in mid-2009 to investigate Benazir’s assassination on a request by the Pakistan People’s Party government, was expected to abide by the international organisation’s low appetite for political risk.

Its mandate seemed designed to ensure a non-controversial report. As the head of the commission, Heraldo Munoz, declared at a press conference in Islamabad in July 2009, its terms of reference were to “look into the facts and circumstances of the assassination of former prime minister and the mandate does not include a criminal investigation”.

The commission, which had a former attorney-general from Indonesia and a retired police official from Ireland working alongside Mr. Munoz, the Chilean permanent representative to the UN, was not expected to fix criminal responsibility for the assassination or come out with any new revelations. The widespread belief was that it would accept the Musharraf regime’s conclusion that Benazir was ordered killed by the Pakistani Taliban leader Beithullah Mehsud.

True to these expectations, there is no earth-shattering revelation in the 70-page report. In the main it is a painstaking reconstruction of events, put together by the Commission after conducting 250 interviews. One part of the reconstruction deals with the political situation in Pakistan in 2007 — General Pervez Musharraf’s attempt to sack the chief justice; the movement by the lawyers for his restoration; the secret Benazir-Musharraf negotiations leading up to her return from Dubai; the November 3 emergency; the sacking of the judiciary; the calling of the elections; the campaign by Benazir; and, her assassination. It details the inadequacy of her security, especially in the light of the bombing of her convoy on the day she landed in Karachi after ending her exile. The second part reconstructs the government response to the assassination, also inadequate. Much of this, covered at the time by the media, is well known.

Even so, the report is significant for several reasons. For one, in the absence of a proper criminal investigation, it is the only authoritative, independent and cohesive reconstruction of the killing. The importance of this for a proper criminal investigation cannot be emphasized enough. It provides a wealth of detail about the lapses in the security arrangements of the former PM, and has helped to focus attention on some of the principal actors, their decisions and their acts of omission and commission. It names government and police officials, and at least one serving and one retired military official, holding them responsible for a chain of egregious acts, concluding that many of these acts were deliberate.

In Pakistan, there is all around satisfaction that the report has blamed the Musharraf regime in unequivocal terms for failing “profoundly” in its duty to protect Benazir, and after she was killed, to investigate her assassination. The retired general remains a pet hate of a majority of the political class and the media. Once again, there are demands that Pakistan’s former military ruler, now a gentleman of leisure who divides his time between the US, London and Dubai, be brought back to Pakistan to face trial.

The report has also given detractors and political opponents of Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Law Minister Babar Awan an edge against which to sharpen their knives. There is a scathing mention in the report of how these two men sped away from the scene of attack in the car that was the back-up vehicle in Benazir’s convoy, just for such an emergency. The report finds this all the more surprising as Mr. Malik was at that time responsible for co-ordinating Benazir’s security.

Detractors of President Zardari and the PPP have also gleefully pounced on the Commission’s surprise and incomprehension that even though the party had been in power since four months after the assassination, it made absolutely no effort to get a proper criminal investigation going.

But most media commentary and political reaction in Pakistan has studiously ignored a remarkable portion of the report, one that does provide at least a part answer to why President Zardari and his government did not pursue a serious investigation into the killing. This is the part about the “pervasive” role of the “establishment”, including a call for a reform of the intelligence agencies to make them more accountable in order to strengthen democratic functioning.

It is now part of the record of the world’s highest international forum, of which almost all sovereign states are members, that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies “severely hampered” the investigation into Benazir’s assassination and thus “impeded an unfettered search for the truth”.

The Commission found out that that the ISI conducted what it calls parallel investigations into both the attack on Benazir’s welcoming rally at Karachi that October and her killing three months later, gathering evidence and detaining suspects. But it shared the findings only selectively with the police. The report questions the integrity of such investigations “given the historical and possibly continuing relationships between intelligence agencies and some radical Islamist groups that engage in extremist violence”.

It also puts down that some failures of the police and government officials in the Benazir assassination were “driven by uncertainty in the minds of many officials as to the extent of the involvement of intelligence agencies”. It says that officials, “in part fearing involvement by the intelligence agencies, were unsure of how vigorously they ought to pursue actions that they knew, as professionals, they should have taken”.

This is perhaps the first time, bar the Commonwealth’s expulsion of Pakistan right after the Musharraf coup, that the country’s civilian-military relations have been raked up so  commented in an official and public international document. Mincing no words, the UN wades right to the heart of the controversial and evergreen debate on the balance of power between the elected government and the military.

“[The] autonomy, pervasive reach and clandestine role of intelligence agencies in Pakistani life underlie many of the problems, omissions and commissions set out in this report. The actions of politicized intelligence agencies undermine democratic governance. Beyond the recent steps that have reportedly been taken to curb the involvement of intelligence agencies in political matters, the democratic rule of law in Pakistan could be greatly strengthened with a thorough review of intelligence agencies based on international best practices in this area,” the report states.

Perhaps it was Mr. Munoz’s personal experience of military rule, which he has chronicled in a book called The Dictator’s Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet (2008), that prompted this open indictment of the military’s role in Pakistan in the report. But whatever the reason or motives for the Commission’s extensive comments on the “establishment”, it is music to PPP’s ears.

When the PPP government asked the UN to set up this commission, it came in for criticism from sections of officialdom and the media that national sovereignty would be violated by opening the door to an international commission for an investigation of this sort. The Foreign Ministry was particularly unhappy as it felt that it amounted to a government declaration of “no confidence” in its own investigating agencies and would lay open “sensitive” departments to international scrutiny. The Foreign Secretary at the time, Riaz Muhammad Khan, quit some months before he was due to retire after a spat on this issue.

For the PPP, which unsuccessfully attempted a “reform” of the intelligence agencies back in the summer of 2008, the report is a vindication, a ringing endorsement of all that the party has maintained through most of the four-decades of its existence — that the “establishment” is the real villain in Pakistan. But does the report change anything on the ground? After all those jousts with the military in which he steadily lost political ground through 2008 and 2009 and the Pakistan Army progressively regained its political stature under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, this report finally gives Mr. Zardari a victory over the military. But at this stage, when the PPP government has pretty much ceded the war and accepted the supremacy of the Pakistan Army, the victory has at best only notional value.

by  Nirupama Subramanian