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U.S. Brokered Bhutto's Return to Pakistan

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.


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