U.S. Brokered Bhutto's Return to Pakistan
Friday, December 28, 2007
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.