What Bhutto Was Worried About

By Robert D. Novak (THE WASHINGTON POST, 31/12/07):

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto followed two months of urgent pleas to the State Department by her representatives for better protection. The U.S. reaction was that she was worried over nothing, expressing assurance that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf would not let anything happen to her.

That attitude led a Bhutto agent to inform a high-ranking State Department official that her camp no longer viewed the backstage U.S. effort to broker a power-sharing agreement between Musharraf and the former prime minister as a good-faith effort toward democracy. It was, according to the written complaint, an attempt to preserve the politically endangered Musharraf as George W. Bush’s man in Islamabad.

President Bush confirmed that judgment with his statement Thursday, within hours of learning that Bhutto was dead, when he urged that the elections scheduled for Jan. 8 be held in furtherance of Pakistani «democracy.» That may be Musharraf’s position, but it definitely is not the position of his critics. They believed the election would be a sham with Bhutto dead and with Saudi-backed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif boycotting the balloting, though Sharif’s party reversed course yesterday.

The Bush administration decided months ago to broker a power-sharing arrangement, with the deeply unpopular Musharraf retiring from the army but remaining as president and the popular Bhutto taking a third try as prime minister (after twice being ousted by the military). That decision was based on Pakistan’s strategic importance as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Bush was in a quandary. Bhutto was much tougher than Musharraf on Islamist extremists, but Bush had invested heavily in the general.

When I last saw Bhutto, over coffee in August at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel, she was deeply concerned about U.S. ambivalence but asked me not to write about it. She had not heard from Musharraf for three weeks after their secret July meeting in Abu Dhabi. She feared the Pakistani military strongman was not being prodded from Washington.

Next came Musharraf’s state of emergency and purge of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to guarantee legality of his questionable election as president. According to Bhutto’s advisers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Bhutto in a telephone conversation to go along with that process in return for concessions from Musharraf. Bhutto agreed, but she got nothing in return.

The unsuccessful Oct. 18 attempt on Bhutto’s life followed the regime’s rejection of her requested security protection when she returned from eight years in exile. The Pakistani government vetoed FBI assistance in investigating the attack. On Oct. 26, Bhutto sent an e-mail to Mark Siegel, her friend and Washington spokesman, to be made public only in the event of her death.

«I would hold Musharraf responsible,» Bhutto said in the message. «I have been made to feel insecure by his minions.» She listed obstruction to her «taking private cars or using tinted windows,» using jammers against roadside bombs and being surrounded with police cars. «Without him [Musharraf],» she said, those requests could not have been blocked.

In early December, a former Pakistani government official supporting Bhutto visited a senior U.S. government official to renew Bhutto’s security requests. He got a brushoff, a mind-set reflected Dec. 6 at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, was asked to respond to fears by nonpartisan American observers of a rigged election. His reply: «I do think they can have a good election. They can have a credible election. They can have a transparent and a fair election. It’s not going to be a perfect election.» Boucher’s words echoed through corridors of power in Islamabad. The Americans’ not demanding perfection signaled that they would settle for less. Without Benazir Bhutto around, it is apt to be a lot less.

A more sinister fallout of a free hand from Washington for Pakistan might be Bhutto’s murder. Neither her shooting on Thursday nor the attempt on her life Oct. 18 bore the trademarks of al-Qaeda. After the carnage, government trucks used streams of water to clean up the blood and, in the process, destroyed forensic evidence. If not too late, would an offer and acceptance of investigation by the FBI be in order.