Showdown in Pakistan

Posted: Aug 20, 2007 12:01 AM
Showdown in Pakistan

NEW YORK -- Benazir Bhutto arrived in New York three weeks ago, shortly after meeting secretly in Abu Dhabi with Gen. Pervez Musharraf. She leaves this week, without having heard again from Pakistan's military ruler. More than merely deciding who rules Pakistan, global conflict against radical Islam may be at risk.

The Bush administration is the silent matchmaker for an unlikely political marriage of bitter opponents: President Musharraf and former Prime Minister Bhutto. The unstated U.S. goal is a democratic Pakistan, with the unpopular Musharraf retaining his presidency and the popular Bhutto returned to the prime minister's office, from which she twice was ousted by the military. Washington now views this as the means of making Pakistan a reliable, invaluable ally against worldwide terror.

Musharraf and Bhutto ended their tense encounter in the United Arab Emirates with key issues unresolved. Thus, subsequent silence by the Pakistani strongman is ominous. If Musharraf is backing away from power sharing and is intent on being elected president without Bhutto as a partner, they are on a collision course. Bhutto intends to return to Pakistan for the first time in eight years, heavily favored in elections this autumn as leader of the Pakistan People's Party. But Musharraf wants his election as president while Bhutto is still in exile. Time is running out, with agreement needed in early September.

Benazir Bhutto is nearing a climax in her remarkable life. A Harvard and Oxford graduate, beautiful, charismatic and determined, she became prime minister in 1988 at age 35 (nine years after her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was driven from the presidency and later executed by a military regime). She was ousted by the Army halfway through each of her two separate terms as prime minister, under charges of corruption.

I last saw Bhutto in the autumn of 2005 at the Washington home of her longtime supporter, prominent Democrat Mark Siegel. She pulled me aside to contend Musharraf was not a dependable ally in fighting terrorism. I listened politely but put it down as typical exile talk. However, she proved prophetic when Musharraf in 2006 cut a deal with Pakistani tribal groups, creating a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

When I met Bhutto for coffee at Manhattan's Pierre Hotel last week, she was much softer in criticism of Musharraf now that she is negotiating with him. She is pledged to secrecy about even admitting that they met. But sources close to Bhutto say that on July 29 they met in Abu Dhabi -- her principal residence in exile. They were alone, one-on-one, for three-and-a-half hours until each summoned aides to brief them. "Gen. Musharraf has promised confidence-building measures that have not yet been undertaken," she told me. "I await him to fulfill his promises."

Thus, questions remain unanswered. Shall Pakistan's voter rolls be cleansed to guarantee a fair election? Shall Musharraf be named president by the existing electoral college prior to national elections? Shall corruption charges against Bhutto be pursued? Shall the two-term limitation for prime minister be lifted for her? Shall Bhutto return before the election, which Musharraf opposes?

After meeting Musharraf, Bhutto and her three children joined her husband, Asif Ali Zardari (under medical attention in New York for a heart condition resulting from his imprisonment under Musharraf), for a vacation. Bhutto also met in Manhattan with Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the UN, to discuss the complicated situation. This is not the time for her to criticize the Americans, but she is known to be impatient about the U.S. forbearance toward and persistent support of Musharraf.

Bhutto was kept busy in New York by the American news media that ignored her for years but now craved interviews. It is not internal Pakistani power struggles that interest Americans. "The war on terror must be won in Pakistan," she told me. She wants to make Pakistan a democratic ally in that war, confronting extremists in the madrassas "that brainwash our children into intolerance."

She leaves this week for her flat in London, hoping for word from Musharraf fulfilling his promises made in Abu Dhabi. Whether he does or not, she is determined to return to Pakistan to promote democracy and fight extremism.

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