The Washington Post reports:
For Benazir Bhutto, the decision to return to Pakistan was sealed during a telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just a week before Bhutto flew home in October. The call was the culmination of more than a year of secret diplomacy - and came only when it became clear that the heir to Pakistan's most powerful political dynasty was the only one who could bail out Washington's key ally in the battle against terrorism.
But the diplomacy that ended abruptly with Bhutto's assassination Thursday at a political rally always was an enormous gamble, according to current and former U.S. policy-makers, intelligence officials and outside analysts.
It was a stunning turnaround for Bhutto, a former prime minister who was forced from power in 1996 amid corruption charges. She was suddenly visiting with top State Department officials, dining with U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and conferring with members of the National Security Council. As President Pervez Musharraf's political future began to unravel this year, Bhutto became the only politician who might help keep him in power.
"The U.S. came to understand that Bhutto was not a threat to stability but was instead the only possible way that we could guarantee stability and keep the presidency of Musharraf intact," said Mark Siegel, who lobbied for Bhutto in Washington and witnessed much of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
How was the U.S. so certain that Musharraf would prevail in elections against Bhutto?
Bhutto's assassination leaves Pakistan's future - and Musharraf's - in doubt, some experts said. "U.S. policy is in tatters. The administration was relying on Benazir Bhutto's participation in elections to legitimate Musharraf's continued power as president," said Barnett Rubin of New York University. "Now, Musharraf is finished."You would think we would have learned by now not to meddle in the affairs of other nations.
Bhutto's death also demonstrates the growing power and reach of militant anti-government forces in Pakistan, which pose an existential threat to the country, said J. Alexander Thier, a former U.N. official now at the U.S. Institute for Peace. "The dangerous cocktail of forces of instability (that) exist in Pakistan - Talibanism, sectarianism, ethnic nationalism - could react in dangerous and unexpected ways if things unravel further," he said.
But others insist the U.S.-orchestrated deal fundamentally altered Pakistani politics in ways that will be difficult to undo, even though Bhutto is gone. "Her return has helped crack open this political situation. It's now very fluid, which makes it uncomfortable and dangerous," said Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the status quo before she returned was also dangerous from a U.S. perspective. Forcing some movement in the long run was in the U.S. interests."
Bhutto's assassination during a campaign stop in Rawalpindi might even work in favor of her Pakistan Peoples Party, with parliamentary elections due in less than two weeks, Coleman said. "From the U.S. perspective, the PPP is the best ally the U.S. has in terms of an institution in Pakistan."
Bhutto's political comeback was a long time in the works - and uncertain for much of the past 18 months. In mid-2006, Bhutto and Musharraf started communicating through intermediaries about how they might cooperate. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher was often an intermediary, traveling to Islamabad to speak with Musharraf and to Bhutto's homes in London and Dubai to meet with her.
Under U.S. urging, Bhutto and Musharraf met face-to-face in January and July in Dubai, according to U.S. officials. It was not a warm exchange, with Musharraf resisting a deal to drop corruption charges so she could return to Pakistan. He made no secret of his feelings.
In his 2006 autobiography, "In the Line of Fire," Musharraf wrote that Bhutto had "twice been tried, been tested and failed, (and) had to be denied a third chance." She had not allowed her own party to become democratic, he contended. "Benazir became her party's 'chairperson for life,' in the tradition of the old African dictators!"
The turning point to get Musharraf on board was a September trip by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to Islamabad. "He basically delivered a message to Musharraf that we would stand by him, but he needed a democratic facade on the government, and we thought Benazir was the right choice for that face," said Bruce Riedel, former CIA and national security council staffer now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
As part of the deal, Bhutto's party agreed not to protest against Musharraf's re-election in September to his third term. In return, Musharraf agreed to lift the corruption charges against Bhutto. But Bhutto sought one particular guarantee - that Washington would ensure Musharraf followed through on free and fair elections producing a civilian government.
Rice, who became engaged in the final stages of brokering a deal, called Bhutto in Dubai and pledged that Washington would see the process through, according to Siegel. A week later, on Oct. 18, Bhutto returned.
Ten weeks later, she was dead.
Xenia Dormandy, former National Security Council expert on South Asia now at Harvard University's Belfer Center, said U.S. meddling is not to blame for Bhutto's death. "It is very clear the United States encouraged" an agreement, she said, "but U.S. policy is in no way responsible for what happened. I don't think we could have played it differently."
If the Bush administration was behind the deal and wanted Bhutto to remain alive, why wasn't her security improved? Particularly after the assassination attempt on October 18, 2007, upon her arrival back in Pakistan from exile?
Is it possible that the expected meltdown inside of Pakistan (with or without scheduled elections) is just the excuse that Bush and Cheney have been looking for, under the cover of chaos, to back Musharraf's continued dictatorship? With Bhutto's violent and grisly murder, Bush and Cheney get to beat the war drums by resurrecting the fear card, until they're able to expand the war into Iran (or Syria, or ?), insuring a 'long war' no matter who gets into the White House in the 2008 election.