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Benazir Bhutto: A Victim Of
American Meddling

By Ahmed Quraishi

29 December 2007

In 1988, the United States actively helped Benazir Bhutto’s rise to power in Pakistan. Nineteen years later, Washington has seriously botched a second attempt. Mrs. Bhutto is killed in the process.

In 1988, the American preference was firmly conveyed to Islamabad but remained confined to diplomatic channels, never made public. This time, however, the unconcealed and very blatant support by the United States for Mrs. Bhutto did not go unnoticed and might have marked her for assassination.

Rightly or wrongly, people inside and outside Pakistan got the impression she was ‘America’s choice’ at a time when anti-Americanism is at a peak in Pakistan and worldwide. Mrs. Bhutto became the latest and the highest-profile target for many people on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who believe it is payback time for the Pakistani government and, most importantly, for the United States.

Mrs. Bhutto’s transformation in Washington – in less than a year and a half – from a failed politician into a democratic icon, is mind boggling. It also raises questions as to why Washington was so eager to install her in Islamabad despite her record and despite the legal ban on third-time premiership.

For an entire decade, Mrs. Bhutto was ignored by the American media and political elite. The U.S. media had documented colorful stories about the ineptitude of Mrs. Bhutto’s two administrations during the 1990s.

By mid 2006, there was a sudden change of heart in Washington. It coincided with a gradual increase in American criticism for Pakistan, a concerted U.S. media campaign portraying Pakistan as a country ripe for American military intervention, and unwarranted focus on the Pakistani nuclear and strategic arsenal. There was open talk about Washington contemplating regime-change in Islamabad after what appeared to be Pakistani leadership’s refusal to play ball on China, Iran, and Afghanistan.

The last one, Afghanistan, has recently become a staging ground for cross-border, state-sponsored terrorism inside neighboring Pakistan, further fueling Pakistani suspicions about Washington’s relationship with Islamabad.

This change of heart in Washington surprised even American political observers. One of them, Mr. Arthur Herman, who is writing a book on Gandhi and Churchill, was so stunned at how the U.S. media was creating a new image for Mrs. Bhutto that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, published on 16 June 2006, reminding the American audience that, “As prime minister of Pakistan, Ms. Bhutto proved to be one of the most incompetent leaders in the history of South Asia.”

In October, Benazir Bhutto landed in Pakistan guns blazing. Her supporters will argue she returned to Pakistan because of her commitment to democracy. If this is true, she certainly did a good job of hiding it during her decade of self-imposed exile. She quite happily spent those years away from politics, fighting off a plethora of corruption cases in Spanish and Swiss courts. She returned to Pakistan because her friends in Washington suddenly found a job for her in Islamabad.

Was there a threat to her life when she returned to Pakistan on 19 October?

Certainly there was. There was a threat to Musharraf’s life, too, and to the lives of a whole list of Pakistani politicians, both in and out of government. But she returned because U.S. officials assured her they were forcing Musharraf to bring her to power in Pakistan. The now-infamous U.S.-brokered ‘deal’ included forcing the Pakistani president to drop her corruption cases and releasing frozen bank accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

That’s the kind of security assurance that probably convinced Mrs. Bhutto to return to the same country she voluntarily left a decade ago to escape prosecution.

It is not difficult to imagine how this naked U.S. sponsorship of Mrs. Bhutto’s future career in Pakistan was enough to provoke extremists who already view with suspicion the U.S. role in the region.

Around two weeks ago, Al Qaeda-linked terrorist, Baitullah Mehsud, hiding somewhere on the Afghan-Pakistani border, had warned the Pakistani government that he was declaring a ‘defensive jihad.’ Those who study religious movements noticed this unusual play with words. In Islam, only a legitimate ruler, not individuals, can wage Jihad. However, individuals are allowed in certain cases to wage a ‘defensive jihad’ without formal State sanction if they are under attack. Mehsud was basically twisting religion to justify his rebellion against the Pakistani federal government.

It should be mentioned here that a segment of the Pakistani national security community suspects that Mr. Mehsud’s rebellion is actively supported from the Afghan soil under the control of Karzai administration. Mr. Mehsud’s fighters are well trained and well equipped with all types of mortars, rockets, rocket launchers, machine guns, ammunition, and communication equipment that cannot be easily available to them in Pakistan.

In October, shortly after Mrs. Bhutto’s arrival in Karachi, one of Mehsud’s aides, Mullah Faqeer, was quoted by several news agencies active in the Pakistan’s tribal heartland as saying his followers will give her a “taste” of the terrorist backlash against U.S. and its allies.

Mrs. Bhutto’s overt American ties and her very pro-U.S. statements, often at odds with the stated positions of Islamabad, were clearly used as a tool to recruit angry potential suicide attackers who would be motivated enough to assassinate her.

However, Mrs. Bhutto did little to check the swelling ranks of her potential enemies.


Political rivals aside, the ranks of Mrs. Bhutto’s enemies swelled manifold just in the past six months or so, thanks to her highly controversial statements regarding Pakistani interests and the U.S. role in the region.

After her return, she had demanded that one of Pakistan’s professional intelligence agencies, the ISI, be ‘restructured’, mirroring arguments found within parts of the American think-tank circuit. And in a press conference during her house arrest in Lahore in November she went as far as asking Pakistan army officers to revolt against the army chief, a damning attempt at destroying a professional military from within. She has also said she would consider handing over Dr. A. Q. Khan, a hero to most Pakistanis, to international investigators, and allow U.S. forces to operate inside Pakistan.

Shireen Mazari, a security analyst writing for The News, advised Mrs. Bhutto, in a column published only a day before the tragic assassination, to be more “sensitive to Pakistani concerns” instead of playing to a foreign audience, especially when Mrs. Bhutto’s sizeable support base in the country should have ended her need for such naked foreign support.

Hours before her assassination, observers noticed how Mr. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who has been highly critical of Pakistan and who is not trusted by most Pakistanis, singled out Mrs. Bhutto – and not Mr. Nawaz Sharif or any other Pakistani politician – for a meeting after ending his official engagements in Islamabad. This was interpreted by many as a clear signal from Mr. Karzai to all Pakistanis, and especially to his rival President Musharraf, that he was endorsing Washington’s pick for a future chief executive in Pakistan. It would be foolish to think that this move by Mr. Karzai went unnoticed by Al Qaeda.

When the New York Times came out with a report on 24 December quoting unnamed U.S. officials accusing Pakistan of misusing $ 5 billion in reimbursements, one of Mrs. Bhutto’s spokespersons, Sherry Rehman, came out within hours to confirm the report.

“The latest reports,” she said, “cast doubt on the [Pakistani] military regime’s commitment to fight the war on terror.” It was a sad statement, coming from a possible future chief executive of the country, reposing undue trust in U.S. allegations, which incidentally, happened to be ridiculous. This was not U. S. aid but reimbursement for war expenses incurred by Pakistan and required not U.S. oversight on how it was spent.

It was classic political point scoring on the part of Mrs. Bhutto’s spokesperson. But imagine the extent of damage it might have done to her credentials in the eyes of important segments of the Pakistani people. I am one of those Pakistanis who were certainly disappointed.

As for Pakistan’s national security community, its fears about Mrs. Bhutto’s style of foreign policy were reconfirmed on 22 December, when she revealed too much while trying to prove her credentials to an Indian audience during an interview that she requested with India’s Outlook magazine.

Mrs. Bhutto sought this opportunity to rebut earlier remarks by India’s national security adviser, Mr. M. K. Narayanan. The Indian official had implied that India could not trust Mrs. Bhutto back in power because of what he said were her “unfulfilled promises to New Delhi in 1988.”

This is how Mrs. Bhutto responded, as published by the Indian magazine:

“Does anyone remember those times or is public memory so short that no one recalls the extremely difficult conditions India faced during the Sikh insurgency 20 years ago? India was in a complete mess. Does anyone remember that it was I who kept my promise to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi when we met and he appealed to me for help in tackling the Sikhs? Has India forgotten December 1988? Have they forgotten the results of that meeting and how I helped curb the Sikh militancy? When I was prime minister you did not have the Mumbai bomb blasts, you did not have the attack on Parliament. There was no Kargil.”

In short, Mrs. Bhutto pinned the entire blame for a whole range of complex issues on her own country, Pakistan, essentially strengthening the arguments of many of her detractors who insisted for years that she was a ‘security risk’ for her own country, prone to defending everyone’s case in the world except her own homeland’s: Pakistan.

If there is anyone out there who thinks Mrs. Bhutto did not increase the number of her enemies because of things she has been saying recently, and which also happened to match many of Washington’s interests in this region, please read this unedited comment that I received by e-mail from a Pakistani blogger who commented on this last interview by Mrs. Bhutto to an Indian magazine. Please note the hostility in his tone and then note the anger directed at Mr. Musharraf for entering into a ‘deal’ with her:

“Benazir always deferred to India’s interests when she was the Prime Minister. That much is well known. But that she is proud of it and wants to be rewarded for it with appointment yet again as the PM, is amazing. By whom? By the other servant of India – Musharraf.”


All of this should make it clear that, in addition to the terrorists who committed this naked act of terrorism against a Pakistani politician, certain policy circles in Washington D.C. bear equal moral responsibility for this tragedy.

They are responsible for the way they pushed Pakistan into a political mess, first by forcibly parachuting Mrs. Bhutto into Pakistan at a time when American support for any politician is a kiss of death. And then by encouraging her on to a path of confrontation with the political elite in Islamabad [The famous list accusing three prominent Pakistani personalities of wanting to kill her, which was prepared even before her return to Pakistan. And now we learn, courtesy CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, there was a fourth name in the list: Mr. Musharraf himself.]

Washington’s manipulation of Mrs. Bhutto’s political moves in the past year, and the joint U.S.-U.K. pressures to redesign domestic Pakistani politics, coupled with intense, mostly U.S. media blitz against Islamabad, all of this has led to creating an unprecedented environment of domestic instability in Pakistan. Political pundits in Washington would be wise to question whether it was wise to do this when the Pakistanis were facing off with their own demons on the border with Afghanistan.

I am just one of many Pakistani observers who warned their government to be careful about how some U.S. media reports were openly talking about the ‘risks’ facing Mrs. Bhutto on her return to Pakistan. It wasn’t hard to figure out that, if anything happened to Mrs. Bhutto, it would be used to increase the media ‘siege’ around Pakistan and ensure a government in Islamabad that compromised on issues like the Pakistani strategic arsenal and Islamabad’s interests in the region and in Afghanistan.

In an earlier column of mine [The Plan To Topple Pakistan Military, 19 Nov.], I wrote:

“Some Pakistani security analysts privately say that American ‘chatter’ about Musharraf or Bhutto getting killed is a serious matter that can’t be easily dismissed. Getting Bhutto killed can generate the kind of pressure that could result in permanently putting the Pakistani military on a back foot, giving Washington enough room to push for installing a new pliant leadership in Islamabad fully backed by the West.”

Already, we have seen a special U.N. Security Council session to discuss the security situation in Pakistan. This adds to very deliberate attempts in the U.S. media over the past few months to demonize Pakistan and prepare the world opinion for a possible military intervention in Pakistan on the lines of Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is why the Pakistani delegation at the U.N. wanted to take out some lines from the draft Security Council resolution passed yesterday after Mrs. Bhutto’s assassination that appeared to be interfering too much in a domestic Pakistani security concern. After all, we didn’t see the Security Council using similar wording when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Israel in 1995. Needless to say, the Pakistani concern was not heeded.

Pakistani officials will have to be careful about undue interference in Pakistani internal matters under the pretext of this recent tragedy, especially insinuations that Pakistani investigators somehow may not be capable to deal with this crime.

Not that Islamabad is taking any of this interference lightly. Pakistan has refused to allow election observers from the Commonwealth into the country due to this British organization’s arrogant bullying and interference in domestic Pakistani affairs.

At the same time, Pakistan’s security and stability must come above anything else for all Pakistanis. This column might sound harsh to some, considering the occasion. But this ‘background blunt talk’ is necessary because of the enormity of this tragedy. Pakistan has not only lost a leading and charismatic politician, we have also received a severe blow to our stability.

As for the terrorists behind this cowardly assassination, we have a battle with Al Qaeda to fight, and a battle with whomever is exploiting the situation in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan. Differences of political opinion among Pakistanis should not turn violent. As a vibrant nation, we thrive on our diversity.

Like millions of Pakistanis today, I join the family of the slain former Prime Minister of my country in their, and Pakistan’s, hour of grief.

Mr. Quraishi is a Pakistani political commentator. He hosts a talk show on PTV Network. He can be reached at [email protected]

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