Before boarding her flight from Dubai to Karachi that would take her back to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, 54, knew an attempt would be made on her life.
She e-mailed this reporter, eight hours before flight time, "I have been informed that Baitul Masood, an Afghan, Hamza bin Laden, an Arab, and a Red Mosque militant have been sent to kill me. I wrote [President Pervez] Musharraf telling him that if something happened, then I wanted these three held responsible — the people who I think are behind them. I have also left a copy of the letter in case something happens [to me], but I expect all to go smoothly."
Well, it didn't. Greeted by hundreds of thousands of supporters in Karachi, Pakistan's port city of 15 million, she was quickly bundled into a special bulletproof, truck-like vehicle with two decks and a dome-like turret from which she could wave to the 20-deep crowds on either side of her route home. Some 30,000 security forces were quickly overwhelmed and the motorcade could only inch forward, a near-perfect situation for a suicide bomber.
The orange fireball killed 138 and wounded almost 200, shattered the windows of Mrs. Bhutto's truck and blew off one of its doors.
Mrs. Bhutto had just walked down to the lower deck of her vehicle to write as her first stop was to be the tomb of Ali Jenna, founder of the Pakistani Republic. The 15 who had stayed topside were splattered with blood as body parts flew through a hot sultry evening. The twice prime minister Mrs. Bhutto was eased out of the truck into a car that sped off amid the dead and wounded.
President Musharraf called the attack a "conspiracy against democracy." Conspiracy seems to be Pakistan's middle initial. For more than half its 60-year life as an independent nation, Pakistan has been ruled by the military. And ever since Sept. 11, 2001, when Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, decided to turn his back on Taliban and join the U.S. war on terror, the military have been in charge. The real power is in the hands of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency that permeates every facet of national life.
Mrs. Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who spent six years in prison on graft and corruption charges, was quick to blame the intelligence agencies for the attack as they feared Mrs. Bhutto would win January's elections — and become prime minister a third time.
More likely suspects were the pro-Taliban and pro-al-Qaida terrorist groups that have never been successfully stamped out. Two of Pakistan's four provinces are governed by MMA, a coalition of six politico-religious parties that are pro-Taliban and admire Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist leader.
Over the last few months, Musharraf and Bhutto secretly negotiated a power-sharing deal. Musharraf was to get himself re-elected president for five years by the four provincial assemblies, the federal assembly and the Senate, and then take off his uniform. The nation's Supreme Court has yet to validate this vote as all opposition parties boycotted Musharraf's election, which gave him a near-unanimous nod from parliamentarians about to lose their seats.
For her part, Bhutto agreed to recognize Musharraf as a civilian president while she took her chances in next January's general election. And if her Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the country's most popular, won a majority, Musharraf would then ask her to form a new government.
That's a lot of hurdles before Bhutto becomes prime minister again. And even if she does reclaim her national leadership role, obtaining the loyalty of ISI and the respect of the military is a formidable challenge.
A week before her departure from London to Dubai for the Emirates flight home, she e-mailed this reporter to say, "While I very much want you near me and will have you seated next to me for the final leg to Karachi, and have [you] on my priority list, I fear there will be a situation that would endanger your safety. I also think it would be wiser for you to join me later after I have settled down. But if you still want to come, I will understand." We opted not to go.
One of Mrs. Bhutto's trusted intelligence contacts in Pakistan, a retired ISI field grade officer, sent her a grim report before her departure about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), seven tribal agencies that form most of the 1,400-mile frontier of craggy mountains with Afghanistan. The report's main points: FATA is ungovernable and out of control. The army still faces high casualties. The toll is now well more than 1,000 killed and 3,000 wounded. Of the 245 Pakistani soldiers captured by Taliban fighters after they were ambushed in a narrow pass and surrendered without a fight, 100 were released. But an unknown number have been Talibanized and joined the insurgency. The army feels strongly this has been a U.S.-ordered military campaign imposed on Musharraf. Foreign Secretary Khurshid Kasuri has said as much in conversations with several foreign ambassadors. There are several thousand Uzbek, Tajik and Arab fighters in FATA who have married local women and are more loyal to al-Qaida than Taliban. The local FATA population refuses to assist the army. The only political party that has been allowed to operate in FATA is MMA. It is important to open FATA to Pakistan's principal political parties. This would promote growth of "moderate" Talibans, weaning them away from the hard-lining core. Madrassa reform has still gotten nowhere after several years of U.S. aid to promote change in these Koranic schools that have turned out several million youngsters since September 11, who have learned Arabic and the Koran by rote, as well as the conviction that America and Israel are crusading powers whose only objective is the destruction of Islam. A former ISI general heads the Education Ministry and U.S. aid has not altered the bleak outlook for some 12,000 madrassas. The Valley of Swat, once a princely state under the British Raj, is a previously moderate region slowly being Talibanized through private FM radio stations that sing the praises of Taliban jihadis.
All this would be bad enough for a Muslim state of 160 million. But Pakistan is one of the world's eight nuclear powers.
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