By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
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.