Benazir Bhutto: the final interview

Her assassination shocked the world and threatens to destabilise an entire region. Rageh Omaar, who last month spent two days with the former leader of Pakistan in her home town, assesses what her death means for the future of her country, and the war on terror

Of all the ironies in Benazir Bhutto’s turbulent and controversial political life, the fact that she met a violent death in Rawalpindi is one of the most bitter.

This small garrison city, barely a half hour’s drive from Islamabad, has none of the capital’s grandeur – the gleaming, purpose-built ministries, diplomatic enclaves or official buildings. Yet Rawalpindi, not Islamabad, is the place from which this nuclear-armed state is effectively governed and controlled.

It is the headquarters of the Pakistani army, which dominates every aspect of national life – and it was her opposition to that army that was the defining theme of Benazir Bhutto’s career.

The battle between Bhutto and the military’s leaders spanned more than three decades. It started with General Zia al-Haq, who overthrew and executed her father and mentor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country’s democratically elected and populist leader, in 1979.

Her father’s hanging at the hands of the military regime was the key moment of her politicisation, the point at which Bhutto not only inherited the leadership of one of South Asia’s premier political dynasties but also found her political mission – to avenge her father’s death.

Nearly two decades later, it would be the next military leader of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, with whom she would be locked in conflict.

So, coming to Rawalpindi must have felt like entering the belly of the beast. Bhutto had never forgiven the military not only for murdering her father but also for constantly undermining her own two spells as prime minister.

Yet what she failed to realise on her return to the country in October, after more than a decade in exile, were the profound changes that had taken place inside Pakistan as a result of the “war on terror”.

These changes had made this Islamic state an indispensable ally for the West – and had, whether Bhutto liked it or not, put her, Musharraf and all other moderate, secular politicians on the same side; against the increasing and emboldened ranks of the Islamist militants.

Indeed, the other bitter irony of her death is that it took place just a few hundred yards from where her enemy, Musharraf, twice narrowly escaped a similar death at the hands of suicide bombers.

As the army’s headquarters, Rawalpindi is now targeted by more suicide bombers than any other city in Pakistan.

The success of this latest attempt leaves the country in disarray. Bhutto was perhaps the only credible individual around whom enough political forces in this divided country could unite, if only temporarily.

As controversial and hated as she was in some quarters, she was a national figure. The army, the only other institution that could play a similar role, has become discredited in the eyes of many Pakistanis – it is seen as being part of Pakistan’s problems, rather than a cure for them.

Last month, I spent two days with Benazir Bhutto.

It was probably the last interview she gave to a British reporter in her family’s home, deep in the rural interior of the province of Sindh.

It is one of the most feudal regions of Pakistan, where a relatively small number of landed families dominate, controlling the economic lives of hundreds of villages and their inhabitants.

These feudal families are known in Pakistan as “waderas”, a reference to the Mughal system of tax collection from peasants that was retained by the British Raj. Although it was abolished by India and Bangladesh, it still exists in Pakistan.

The Bhutto family home, where she is now buried, is in the district of Larkana, a flat and densely farmed area of crushing poverty, the extent of which is shocking even within the context of rural Pakistan.

This is where I followed Benazir Bhutto to as she returned, at the height of the recent state of emergency, in order to submit the legal papers to the district court that would allow her to run for election. Her court appearance turned into a chaotic and intensely passionate rally, as thousands of supporters, onlookers and party activists besieged the streets surrounding the courthouse.

Despite the rising disenchantment with the deal she had struck with Musharraf that allowed her to return from exile in October, here in her home area Benazir Bhutto was viewed with awe – and received complete support. At least 150 policemen were powerless to stop the crowds surging forward to shower her with thousands of crimson flower petals.

Wherever she went she was followed by dozens of journalists. She left the judge shell-shocked after he saw his court invaded by hundreds of her supporters, journalists and policemen, then she sped away, followed by a long convoy of cars.

She was utterly tireless; amid all the upheavals and passions around her, she remained unnaturally calm and self-contained. Like Hillary Clinton, she was someone who struck you as completely in control.

Yet she was indebted to others: indeed, Bhutto owed her return to Pakistan to pressure that had been brought to bear on Musharraf by America.

The reason for this was not a newfound respect for her standing, but Washington’s determination to shore up Musharraf and his military government’s waning legitimacy and popularity.

Despite the allegations of corruption that were levelled at her regime – in particular, against her husband, Asif Zardari, who is known universally in Pakistan as “Mr 10 Per Cent” – an American diplomat had, according to legend, told Bhutto shortly after she went into exile: “We can whitewash you within 24 hours if needs be.”

Allowing Bhutto to return and run for election as prime minister would have given a much-needed semblance of democratic, civilian government to the military leadership, who would have continued to exercise real power, overseeing the country’s nuclear arsenal and the war against Islamic militants.

The terms of the deal were discussed in a secret meeting between Musharraf and Bhutto in Abu Dhabi in July. Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was, in essence, a personal vehicle for her.

It was shaped around her as its leader, and she dispensed the positions and patronage within it. Most senior members of the PPP were unaware of the meeting in Abu Dhabi, and there was consternation and hostility to Bhutto’s willingness to enter into a deal with Musharraf that had been brokered by Washington.

Its terms were simple: she got lifetime immunity from prosecution from corruption in return for going back to Pakistan to participate in the elections called by Musharraf’s government.

This position was in stark contrast to how Bhutto was portrayed in the Western media, which saw her in an overwhelmingly positive, and at times, unquestioning light – almost like Joan of Arc, returning valiantly and selflessly to take on the far more powerful President Musharraf.

Inside Pakistan, she was seen very differently – the deal with Musharraf had definitely damaged her stock.

But the drama that ensued on her return put such politicking in perspective: on the day that she landed back in Pakistan, a bomb exploded next to the bus she was travelling in, killing about 150 of her supporters.

On the day that she submitted her court papers, she spent several hours talking to me during the night at her family home, safe behind the high, fenced walls.

Although she came off as a politician to her fingertips, with little scope for hesitation or doubt when she spoke of how she “came back for the restoration of democracy” in Pakistan, it was obvious that the bombing had left a powerful impression.

She recounted the attempt, remembering each moment leading up to it in minute detail, becoming animated as the spoke. It had been a dark night and the lights had been switched off, the scattered dead bodies lying in the streets, “crumpled and lifeless”.

And, while blame for her death is being placed by many – including the Pakistani government – on Islamic militants and al-Qa’eda, she was not so instinctively certain when I asked her who she thought wanted her dead.

She didn’t point the finger solely at the militants, who she says could never be so co-ordinated and meticulous as to carry out such an operation, but mentioned groups and individuals who had undermined her government in the mid-1990s and were, she said, trying to derail democracy.

She wouldn’t speak in specifics, but instead said that she believed the assassination attempt on her was the product of an alliance between individuals in Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI, who had trained and groomed militant factions, and the Islamists themselves.

She also rejected the idea that she was back in her home largely because of American influence.

“These same critics who are now criticising me never spoke up when America was standing by Musharraf through thick and thin,” she said.

“And America is not backing me as an individual – they’re supporting democracy, which is the right thing to do.”

She acknowledged that she had held talks with Musharraf, but denied any deal.

She was also coy about whether there could have been any circumstances in which she would have served as prime minister while Musharraf was president, describing it as “highly speculative” and talking of taking “things step by step”.

However, she became annoyed when challenged on the charges of corruption against her and her husband.

“I’m fed up of hearing this word – faced charges – what do you think I’ve done for eleven and a half years but face so-called charges along with my husband? And we’ve been acquitted in seven.

There are still five because they won’t bring the prosecution witnesses because they’re scared we’ll get acquitted in them too… I’m not asking for immunity. After all, I’ve been prosecuted for eleven and a half years.”

It was hard to interview Benazir Bhutto without being struck, even annoyed, by the aura of leadership that emanated from her. An air that she was born to her role – and entitled to it – hung around her, as did the sense of her total determination.

But sitting with her after the interview, when she was tired, and perhaps more off-guard in the surroundings of the home where she grew up, I saw the passion that drew so many supporters.

She began speaking not as a politician, but as a mother and daughter: she was delighted and obviously proud that her eldest son, Bilal, had begun life as a student at Oxford, at the same college that her father had attended, Christ Church.

She also talked extensively about a book she was close to completing, a book about how “true Islam”, as she put it, protected and enabled the lives of women.

Her death leaves a huge and irreplaceable hole at the heart of the Pakistan People’s Party. As charismatic and talismanic a leader as she was, she made the mistake that so many who dominate their parties do, smothering and stifling any potential equals or heirs.

Under Bhutto, no one emerged from within its ranks who could be a future leader. The PPP was a Bhutto family creation, founded by Benazir’s father and inherited by her.

Her husband is not a Bhutto, and has no legitimacy, while her children are too young. Her death leaves the party ripe for implosion under factional competition, as, for the first time in its history, it tries to select someone other than a Bhutto to lead it.

Even more diminished by Benazir Bhutto’s murder is President Pervez Musharraf. He, more than anyone, is now the embodiment of the deepest grievances Pakistanis have about their political system.

He represents the army’s continued domination of government and politics, he represents Pakistan’s role in the “war on terror”, and he also represents the suspension and abuse of the rule of law and the democratic civilian process.

Worse than that, as the hostile chants and demonstrations throughout the country have shown, he is now being seen as the man who could have prevented Bhutto’s death had his government reacted quickly to the PPP’s demands for beefed-up security for their leader, for example by providing equipment such as scanners to jam detonating devices in the vicinity.

Two spectres now haunt Pakistanis. One is Iran, where the United States continued to support the Shah and his army in the face of clear opposition from the majority of the people.

The second – both more recent and more bloody – is Algeria, where the military government, backed by the West, fought a vicious and hidden war against its own people that not only led to tens of thousands of deaths, but produced a generation of jihadist fighters, a number of whom are now part of networks affiliated to al-Qa’eda.

This is because Pakistan is facing a twin crisis.

The first is the fact that Pakistanis are fighting Pakistanis, due to the country’s integral involvement in the “war on terror”; a campaign whose military successes are, many feel, far outweighed by its social and political failures towards people in the region.

The second is that Pakistan has still not found an alternative to military governments.

There is only a small pool of politicians from which civilian regimes have been drawn, and they have mostly been either co-opted, dismissed or dominated by the military at one time or another.

Pakistan has now lost the one politician who – despite her many faults and failures – could have helped begin a process of changing this.

In life, Benazir Bhutto was controversial and compelling.

But only in death does the world realise that she was perhaps the only figure who could have brought together enough people from this divided, nuclear-armed country to find an alternative to the military-dominated governments that have ruled Pakistan for more than half its life.