U.S. Brokered Bhutto’s Return to Pakistan

2007-12-29

Richard Moore

Original source URL:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/27/AR2007122701481.html

U.S. Brokered Bhutto's Return to Pakistan

White House Would Back Her as Prime Minister While Musharraf Held Presidency

By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 28, 2007; A01

For Benazir Bhutto, the decision to return to Pakistan was sealed during a 
telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just a week before 
Bhutto flew home in October. The call culminated more than a year of secret 
diplomacy -- and came only when it became clear that the heir to Pakistan's most
powerful political dynasty was the only one who could bail out Washington's key 
ally in the battle against terrorism.

It was a stunning turnaround for Bhutto, a former prime minister who was forced 
from power in 1996 amid corruption charges. She was suddenly visiting with top 
State Department officials, dining with U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and 
conferring with members of the National Security Council. As President Pervez 
Musharraf's political future began to unravel this year, Bhutto became the only 
politician who might help keep him in power.

"The U.S. came to understand that Bhutto was not a threat to stability, but was 
instead the only possible way that we could guarantee stability and keep the 
presidency of Musharraf intact," said Mark Siegel, who lobbied for Bhutto in 
Washington and witnessed much of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

But the diplomacy that ended abruptly with Bhutto's assassination yesterday was 
always an enormous gamble, according to current and former U.S. policymakers, 
intelligence officials and outside analysts. By entering into the legendary 
"Great Game" of South Asia, the United States also made its goals and allies 
more vulnerable -- in a country in which more than 70 percent of the population 
already looked unfavorably upon Washington.

Bhutto's assassination leaves Pakistan's future -- and Musharraf's -- in doubt, 
some experts said. "U.S. policy is in tatters. The administration was relying on
Benazir Bhutto's participation in elections to legitimate Musharraf's continued 
power as president," said Barnett R. Rubin of New York University. "Now 
Musharraf is finished."

Bhutto's assassination also demonstrates the growing power and reach of militant
anti-government forces in Pakistan, which pose an existential threat to the 
country, said J. Alexander Thier, a former U.N. official now at the U.S. 
Institute for Peace. "The dangerous cocktail of forces of instability exist in 
Pakistan -- Talibanism, sectarianism, ethnic nationalism -- could react in 
dangerous and unexpected ways if things unravel further," he said.

But others insist the U.S.-orchestrated deal fundamentally altered Pakistani 
politics in ways that will be difficult to undo, even though Bhutto is gone. 
"Her return has helped crack open this political situation. It's now very fluid,
which makes it uncomfortable and dangerous," said Isobel Coleman of the Council 
on Foreign Relations. "But the status quo before she returned was also dangerous
from a U.S. perspective. Forcing some movement in the long run was in the U.S. 
interests."

Bhutto's assassination during a campaign stop in Rawalpindi might even work in 
favor of her Pakistan People's Party, with parliamentary elections due in less 
than two weeks, Coleman said. "From the U.S. perspective, the PPP is the best 
ally the U.S. has in terms of an institution in Pakistan."

Bhutto's political comeback was a long time in the works -- and uncertain for 
much of the past 18 months. In mid-2006, Bhutto and Musharraf started 
communicating through intermediaries about how they might cooperate. Assistant 
Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher was often an intermediary, traveling to 
Islamabad to speak with Musharraf and to Bhutto's homes in London and Dubai to 
meet with her.

Under U.S. urging, Bhutto and Musharraf met face to face in January and July in 
Dubai, according to U.S. officials. It was not a warm exchange, with Musharraf 
resisting a deal to drop corruption charges so she could return to Pakistan. He 
made no secret of his feelings.

In his 2006 autobiography "In the Line of Fire," Musharraf wrote that Bhutto had
"twice been tried, been tested and failed, [and] had to be denied a third 
chance." She had not allowed her own party to become democratic, he alleged. 
"Benazir became her party's 'chairperson for life,' in the tradition of the old 
African dictators!"

A turning point was Bhutto's three-week U.S. visit in August, when she talked 
again to Boucher and to Khalilzad, an old friend. A former U.S. ambassador in 
neighboring Afghanistan, Khalilzad had long been skeptical about Musharraf, and 
while in Kabul he had disagreed with then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell 
over whether the Pakistani leader was being helpful in the fight against the 
Taliban. He also warned that Pakistani intelligence was allowing the Taliban to 
regroup in the border areas, U.S. officials said.

When Bhutto returned to the United States in September, Khalilzad asked for a 
lift on her plane from New York to Aspen, Colo., where both were giving 
speeches. They spent much of the five-hour plane ride strategizing, said sources
familiar with the diplomacy.

Friends say Bhutto asked for U.S. help. "She pitched the idea to the Bush 
administration," said Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador and friend of
Bhutto from their days at Harvard. "She had been prime minister twice, and had 
not been able to accomplish very much because she did not have power over the 
most important institutions in Pakistan -- the ISI [intelligence agency], the 
military and the nuclear establishment," he said.

"Without controlling those, she couldn't pursue peace with India, go after 
extremists or transfer funds from the military to social programs," Galbraith 
said. "Cohabitation with Musharraf made sense because he had control over the 
three institutions that she never did. This was the one way to accomplish 
something and create a moderate center."

The turning point to get Musharraf on board was a September trip by Deputy 
Secretary of State John D. Negroponte to Islamabad. "He basically delivered a 
message to Musharraf that we would stand by him, but he needed a democratic 
facade on the government, and we thought Benazir was the right choice for that 
face," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and National Security Council 
staff member now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East 
Policy.

"Musharraf still detested her, and he came around reluctantly as he began to 
recognize this fall that his position was untenable," Riedel said. The Pakistani
leader had two choices: Bhutto or former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom 
Musharraf had overthrown in a 1999 military coup. "Musharraf took what he 
thought was the lesser of two evils," Riedel said.

Many career foreign policy officials were skeptical of the U.S. plan. "There 
were many inside the administration, at the State and Defense Departments and in
intelligence, who thought this was a bad idea from the beginning because the 
prospects that the two could work together to run the country effectively were 
nil," said Riedel.

As part of the deal, Bhutto's party agreed not to protest against Musharraf's 
reelection in September to his third term. In return, Musharraf agreed to lift 
the corruption charges against Bhutto. But Bhutto sought one particular 
guarantee -- that Washington would ensure Musharraf followed through on free and
fair elections producing a civilian government.

Rice, who became engaged in the final stages of brokering a deal, called Bhutto 
in Dubai and pledged that Washington would see the process through, according to
Siegel. A week later, on Oct. 18, Bhutto returned.

Ten weeks later, she was dead.

Xenia Dormandy, former National Security Council expert on South Asia now at 
Harvard University's Belfer Center, said U.S. meddling is not to blame for 
Bhutto's death. "It is very clear the United States encouraged" an agreement, 
she said, "but U.S. policy is in no way responsible for what happened. I don't 
think we could have played it differently."

U.S. policy -- and the commitment to Musharraf -- remains unchanged. In a 
statement yesterday, Rice appealed to Pakistanis to remain calm and to continue 
seeking to build a "moderate" democracy.

"I don't think it would do any justice to her memory to have an election 
postponed or canceled simply as a result of this tragic incident," State 
Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. "The only people that win through
such a course of action are the people who perpetrated this attack."

Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this
report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company
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