Benazir Bhutto was a friend of mine. I met her in the 1980s, when I was serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the once and future prime minister of Pakistan was visiting Washington to develop contacts who might share her vision of a Pakistan that valued democracy and human rights, particularly for women. We stayed in touch over the next 25 years, exchanging holiday cards, notes and, later, e-mails about current events. When she made one of her periodic trips to Washington, we would often have lunch or dinner to catch up and kibitz about politics, American and Pakistani as well as international.
My last meeting with Benazir was a lunch at the Mayflower Hotel with her and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, now the president of Pakistan. She informed me that she planned soon to return to Pakistan from exile, and she asked if I would like to accompany her. I declined, partly because of schedule conflicts but also because I thought her plan was highly dangerous. I advised her that there was a possibility, maybe a probability, that further attempts would be made to assassinate her. She recognized this, she said, but thought adequate arrangements could be made for her security. Anyway, she said, she felt a need to be back in Pakistan working for reform and perhaps seeking office again through the Pakistan People’s Party, by far the country’s most popular political faction.
On numerous occasions, Benazir spoke of the influence of the Pakistani intelligence services. She made clear that when she was the elected prime minister, ostensibly the leader of the nation, she had had little control over intelligence organizations or the military. A fervent believer in the need to combat Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, she bemoaned the close relationships among the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s intelligence community. She felt they were “in cahoots” in Afghanistan, working against American and Western interests, and she recognized that her own life might be threatened because of her efforts to address this problem.
Tragically, the world knows how right she was. About two months after her triumphant return to her country in October 2007, she was killed after a political rally and speech to a large throng of supporters. Many of her friends, myself included, believe that the military government that ran Pakistan at the time failed to provide her with the necessary security. Whether this failure was on purpose or from neglect, the result was the loss of the one Pakistani who offered the best hope for secular, progressive leadership in a nation and region that desperately need it.
Perhaps Benazir was right about something else, as well. On more than one occasion she told me she was virtually certain that Osama bin Laden was not living in a cave in the mountainous region of Afghanistan or Pakistan. “He’s living comfortably somewhere in Pakistan,” she would say. “He’s being supported and protected by Pakistani intelligence. You can bet on it.”
If investigations conclude that Benazir was correct, this will be a challenge for the Pakistanis to sort out within their political institutions. But it will make even more delicate the difficult relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Many Pakistanis hate America and would be pleased to see its ties with their government severed. Many Americans believe Pakistan is corrupt and untrustworthy as an ally; this turn of events would confirm their instinct that we should walk away and forget about the place.
And yet, Benazir Bhutto would be the first to argue that life isn’t that simple. She went back home fully understanding the risks and burdens. She also knew that her nation, with its nuclear weapons and strategic position in a key region, was important not only for its own citizens (to her mind, women and young girls especially) but for all of us.
The writer, a Democrat who represented Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House from 1979 to 1987, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington.