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Remembering Pakistan's Prodigal Daughter 

Peter Landesman on his friend Benazir Bhutto and the darkness to follow

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“Bhutto men die youngand the women live forever,” Benazir Bhutto told me. We were sitting together in the villa she shared with her three children on the outskirts of Dubai, where she lived in exile after her expulsion from Pakistan. It was late September 2001, a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks. I interviewed her on my way to Pakistan, and was to meet with her a number of times that fall and early winter, and then informally, as friends, over the next few years in Los Angeles. “I grew up reading stories about chivalry,” she said. “I read about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I have found that people can sacrifice for the sake of truth and justice.” She went on: “I don’t really want to go back to Pakistan, but I don’t know how to avoid it. I feel trapped by my own sense of duty and obligation. The people think of me as a saint.”

Funny. Benazir Bhutto was many things: astonishingly beautiful and magnetic in person, witty and overtly flirtatious. She was in full command of all her gifts, corporal and otherwise. But a saint? After she married Asif Ali Zardari, the couple’s debaucheries and financial corruptions became the stuff of legend. Kickbacks. Black-marketeering. They personally stole billions, this from a country shivering with dire poverty. Zardari was imprisoned. Bhutto was tossed out of her homeland in shame. “I don’t have to prove my innocence. I am born innocent,” she told me, insolently.

“Look, we haven’t done anything that hasn’t been done by others,” Zardari told The New York Times’ John Burns in 1997, somewhat more sheepishly.

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Later, Bhutto told me she knew that if she returned to Pakistan, she’d probably be killed. She was, on December 27, shot after a rally in Rawalpindi, the military garrison town abutting Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. No one who knew her — or understood what she was — was surprised.

Least of all Hamid Gul, the former director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s notorious intelligence service, famously aligned with Islamist extremists, and still known as the man at the ISI’s controls. Days after my first conversation with Bhutto, I met with Gul in his home in Rawalpindi, a few hundred yards from where Benazir was to die. First, Gul told me he knew for a fact that the Mossad was behind the 9/11 attacks, and that Monica Lewinsky was an Israeli agent sent by Tel Aviv to undo the Clinton presidency. Then he said, matter-of-factly, “Being prime minister again is a job Benazir will not do.” He paused and cocked his head. “But she can try it if she likes.”

Such is what Bhutto was up against. Hers was a country where politics means vengeance and little else. Her life was a drama full of enough betrayals and redemptions, heroes and antiheroes to rival any Greek tragedy. Her enemies had to take a number. Her first crime was to be a woman in a Muslim world; a Bhutto, the scion of an aristocratic landowner and rakish playboy who went on to become Pakistan’s first elected — and hugely popular — president in 1971. Loved by the masses, and so loathed by the military and Islamists. The truth is that Bhutto felt trapped because she was gripped by the idea that she was born to rule. The Bhutto family was less a political dynasty at the service of democracy than a feudal machine. As the family scion, Benazir seemed unburdened by any crisis of conscience over her past transgressions. Rather, she was consumed by her campaign to rehabilitate her reputation and family name and reclaim Pakistan’s helm. While telling her audiences, including the White House, what they wanted to hear — that the only way to fight terrorism was to protect democracy — she knew what her enemies knew: that democracy in Pakistan is code for Bhutto’s return to power. Bhutto’s quest transcended politics. It became a mission of messianic proportions. It was Pakistan’s — and her — fate.

And yet.

My lasting memory of her is from another time in Dubai, when I was returning from Pakistan. Twenty of her cousins and fellow Pakistani exiles gather in a seaside villa for luncheon. Bhutto sits with her two daughters and son, Bilawal, then a boy of 13 and now the heir to her unsettled legacy. She holds court like a great-aunt, not with politics but with love. She chides the youngsters gently. Jousting banter. She is safe, at home in this room. Great gusts of laughter. Her cousin holds my hand at Bhutto’s bidding. The cousin is a clairvoyant. She reads my life. There was a piece of news I’d been waiting for. I will have a baby boy. Bhutto smiles down upon us now like a queen, bestowing affection, passing it around the room like a dish, in total command of the love in the room. She is safe.

Her death was no surprise, but that does not minimize the shock. Later on the night of her death, I woke up with questions for her. It was 3 a.m. Pakistan was unraveling. It was the first day of what may turn out to be the most dangerous period in Pakistan’s short life, and in the life of our own country. Nuclear-armed, Pakistan now teeters on a knife’s edge, vulnerable to civil war. Our military is scrambling. India’s is scrambling. The Israelis must be scrambling.

I asked her the following, in death:

Benazir, the rally you addressed the day you died was in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of all who despised you: the Pakistani army, the ISI, the die-hard Islamists within, all forces that wanted you gone. Why, upon ending the rally in one piece, did you not consider yourself lucky to have lived another day, but instead chose to send your armored car straight into the throng, and then rise out of it for a last point-blank embrace of the crowd, a crowd you knew to be peppered with your mortal enemies? You of all people knew what wrath your murder would inspire. Hamid Gul, the former head of the ISI, told me himself. He and his brethren were not going to let you serve, meaning they were not going to let you live. But return you did. Your murder, then, was inevitable. You said so yourself. So what was in your mind, Benazir? Did you prefer chaos, fear and unfulfilled promise for a legacy, or did you think martyrdom would suffice as your last word? Or, if you couldn’t have Pakistan for yourself, did you want to leave Pakistan for no man, no other leader but a Bhutto? So, civil war, is it? Was this murder, Benazir, or was it really suicide? I can’t help but wonder if you set this up.

Were you not brave enough to have chosen life instead?

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