Leading article: A test of the rule of law in Pakistan

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The Independent Online

The verdict of the United Nations committee called in to investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 paints a damning picture of the deficiencies of the Pakistani state.

The committee concludes that the death of the leader of the Pakistan People's Party outside a rally in Rawalpindi could have been prevented if the government of the former president, Pervez Musharraf, had taken steps to provide sufficient security. It concludes, too, that the police and intelligence agencies grossly mishandled the investigation into Ms Bhutto's assassination.

Yet the report also argues that these failures go "beyond mere incompetence". It cites the fact that the crime scene was hosed down by the Rawalpindi police immediately after the attack, which, it says, could not have happened without the knowledge of higher authorities. It also argues that "the failures of the police and other officials to react effectively to Ms Bhutto's assassination were, in most cases, deliberate" and that the police were motivated in part by "fear of the involvement of the intelligence agencies" in the attack. This has profound implications given that, before her death, Ms Bhutto had accused a group of senior politicians and intelligence officials of plotting to kill her.

Of course, a great deal has changed in Pakistan since Ms Bhutto's assasination. Pervez Musharraf has left office and gone into exile. The UN report itself was commissioned last July by the new government in Islamabad, which is led by Ms Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari. But it remains unclear how much has truly changed in Pakistan, not least over whether the country's intelligence services continue, in the words of the report, "to undermine democratic governance".

The links between the Pakistan intelligence services and the Taliban (long seen as useful proxies by Islamabad in the struggle against India) certainly seem to have weakened. The Pakistan army's military operation against militants in its western provinces, which began last year, marked a clear turning point. The fact that public opinion in Pakistan shifted decisively against the Taliban after the militants invaded the Swat Valley and imposed brutal religious punishments on the population was an important factor. Pakistani troops have fought hard against their old allies in the Taliban – arguably too hard. As Patrick Cockburn reported from the region this week, the operation to pacify the border region has created 70,000 refugees and the civilian death toll continues to rise.

Yet the army is not going after those Pashtun militants which are using Pakistan as a base to mount attacks on Nato troops across the border in Afghanistan. And Islamabad has shown little appetite for a crackdown on jihadists in Kashmir, who are suspected of being responsible for the terror attack on Mumbai.

The UN report urges a credible probe into Ms Bhutto's death. And Mr Zardari's government has promised a "proper police investigation and possible penal proceedings". But any investigation would surely need to interrogate powerful members of the military and intelligence establishment. There is public scepticism in Pakistan about whether such a reckoning is likely. What happens next should give us an indication of whether Pakistan is any closer to becoming a state governed by the rule of law.