Not much happened in Islamabad in 1998. Not much happened in Pakistan, in fact—or at least not much that troubled editors, viewers, readers, or policy makers in Europe or the United States. The country had slid inexorably away from international attention since the end of the war fought by the mujahideen against Soviet troops in neighboring Afghanistan almost a decade before. Most media organizations covered Pakistan from India. It was not a big story. The rediscovery of Pakistan and Afghanistan would come, with breathless haste, on September 12, 2001.
Just behind my apartment in Islamabad that year was a plot of land covered in mimosa trees, wild cannabis, and scrub. It was a graveyard, and though no one tended it or came to grieve at the dozen or so mounds of earth that lay among the rubbish under the trees, no one built on it either—though the potential for profitable development of such a prime piece of urban real estate was high. To one side of the graveyard was the substantial embassy of North Korea, to whom, it was whispered, Pakistan sold blueprints for nuclear bombs. These rumors were later proved to be at least partially true. Watching the embassy were two plainclothes intelligence agents, who usually sat on the pavement in the shade below a eucalyptus tree and read popular local-language newspapers. I knew them quite well after a while, and they smiled sheepishly when we greeted each other.
On the other side of the graveyard was the home of Benazir Bhutto. Those watching the Koreans could thus watch the former head of state, too. Out of power since her second government had been dismissed by the president on the prompting of the military two years before, Bhutto was fighting a series of graft allegations in the courts, and the intelligence services naturally wanted to know whom she was meeting. A few weeks after my arrival in Islamabad I was one of those giving their name to the bored policemen outside Zardari House—her home was then named after her controversial husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who had been in prison on corruption charges for several years.
Bhutto—despite the prospect of arrest and incarceration within days—was keener to gossip about the world at large than to talk about her own predicament.
I had received an invitation from Bhutto to come and “take tea.” She was talking to her lawyers when I arrived, and for the first half-hour of our interview she went over what she claimed were the flaws in the case against her. She said she was a victim of a political conspiracy. This was at least partially true.
Since the death of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1988, Pakistan had had four democratically elected governments. Two had been Bhutto’s. Two had been those of her rival, Nawaz Sharif, scion of a Punjabi industrialist and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League. Sharif had been removed from power himself after a disastrous period from 1990 to 1993, but not before imprisoning Bhutto’s husband. Back in power in 1996, Sharif had relaunched his investigations against his archrival. The allegations against Bhutto were serious, involving tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks, ownership of mansions in Britain, jewelry bought and held in Swiss banks. Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, charismatic and cynical in equal measure, had founded his Pakistan People’s Party, which his daughter had inherited, on a mix of populist socialist and nationalist rhetoric and with the slogan roti, kapre, makan (food, clothes, and shelter). If the PML was the party of the Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest province, and of rich businessmen or shopkeepers, then the PPP was supposed to be the party of the poor, especially the rural poor. The allegations of looting her country’s exchequer, even if most were directed at her husband, hurt politically, if not personally.
Bhutto, forty-five years old, was wearing a blue shalwar kameez and her trademark white dupatta or scarf. Pearls the size of marbles dangled from gold clasps at her ears, and she wore a ring the size of a small matchbox on her finger on which I counted at least seventy-two individual diamonds in twelve rows. As she spoke she delicately nibbled cubes of burfi, sweetmeats popular throughout South Asia. Burfi is made from condensed milk cooked with sugar until it forms a solid cube of flaky paste. It is often mixed with rose water, cardamom, coconut, mango, pistachios, or cashew nuts, sometimes even cheese, all of which take the edge off the otherwise tongue-curling sweetness. Cut into mouthful-size blocks and saved for special occasions, burfi is decorated with flakes of silver foil and takes on a festive air.
It became very clear, very quickly, that Bhutto—despite the prospect of arrest and incarceration within days—was keener to gossip about the world at large than to talk about her own predicament. Conversation leaped from the almost surreally mundane to the enormously weighty with bewildering speed. One moment we were discussing the future of democracy in Pakistan or American policy in the Middle East, the next we were discussing new theories about the addictive properties of sugar or the latest trend in interior design or how her cat, Biscuit, had just had kittens. Bhutto wanted to know what I thought about the leopard skin that lay on the black tiles of her hall floor and the stuffed leopard that reared above it, and while we considered the golden stars painted on her ceiling she asked how long I thought Tony Blair was likely to remain in power in Britain.
She asked me if I would like to go down to Naudero, her country home 600 miles to the south and the seat of the Bhutto dynasty, for the commemoration of her father’s “martyrdom.”
We discussed books. Bhutto, whose taste for slushy romances was well known, said she had recently turned to “fun” biographies. Her favorite was a historical novel she had just finished about the life of Madame de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of Louis XV. And as tea stretched to dinner and we moved to the dining room, conversation broadened further. A servant brought out plates of barbecued chicken, kebabs, and stir-fried beef and bowls of dal (curried lentils), rice, and noodles. Bhutto picked at the heaped food in front of her, nervous, she admitted, of putting on weight.
She spoke about her time as a young woman at Oxford University, about the mass rallies that characterized her early political career in Pakistan as she campaigned for the restoration of democracy under the rule of Zia-ul-Haq, thereby fulfilling a promise made to her father in his prison cell hours before he had been hanged in 1979, the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. She spoke of the gifts she had been given during her two stints as prime minister. From Baroness Thatcher, whom she said she greatly admired and liked, she had received a blue-rimmed china soup bowl. Other world leaders had abandoned her after she had been forced out of power, but Thatcher had stayed in touch, she said. As far as Bhutto was concerned, the idea that Monica Lewinsky had seduced Bill Clinton was far-fetched. “He must have given her, you know, a look. . . . He’s a Leo, you know, and so is my husband. Men like that . . . well . . .” The sentence remained unfinished. She nibbled burfi, choosing carefully from a plate of the multicolored matchbox-size sweets, long fingers hesitating between those with almonds embedded in them and those with pistachios.
As I was leaving she asked me if I would like to go down to Naudero, her country home 600 miles to the south and the seat of the Bhutto dynasty, for the commemoration of her father’s “martyrdom.” She had just had a new guesthouse completed, her children would be there, and it would be “just wonderful” if I could make it. In the garden of her home, her staff were singing prayers, interwoven with chants in the Sufi Muslim tradition, a call for God’s help for the coming court appearances and for the trials and tribulations to come.
It was evening and my first sight of the interior of Sind. The province had been a desert until the British built a vast system of irrigation canals in the early part of the twentieth century. The surface of the land is now divided into small plots of crops—mainly rice, some wheat. There is a lot of fallow or waste ground—often a result of the irrigation raising the water table. As the water evaporates through the soil, it leaves mineral deposits behind. The soil becomes too salty to cultivate and reverts to dust and scrub. As a result the patchwork of fields is uneven, broken by long stretches of salt. As dusk came, the salt patches reflected what was left of the light. We passed a herd of camels trudging sedately along the side of the road. We drove on.
When Makhtoum spoke about “my villages” or “my people,” the use of the possessive pronoun was entirely appropriate.
Eventually we arrived at a small rural town, fluorescent lights swinging above the tea shops and cheap restaurants bright and green after the darkness of the desert around. This was Naudero, the Bhutto family seat.
Centuries of Western visitors have written of the fabulous hospitality of their Asiatic hosts. Two elements are often missing from their accounts. The first is that feeding followers and visitors was for centuries an essential element of the redistribution of resources on which the quasi-feudal system existing across much of South Asia or the Middle East depended. The second is that hospitality is also an excellent means of control. Guests eat and sleep where they are told. Equally, those they meet can be carefully selected, what they see is restricted. In the most delicate and delightful of fashions, the guest is placed under the authority of the host. To celebrate the anniversary of her father’s death, Bhutto had gathered her faithful retainers. Sitting at the head of the dining room table in Naudero like a sixteenth-century English monarch surrounded by her lords temporal and spiritual, she listened attentively as the senior barons of her party described the political situation in their domains. They sat in order of seniority.
Opposite her, at the far end of the table, was Shabbir Ahmed Khan Chandio, the second most senior man of a tribe numbering over a million people, almost all of whom would vote as he told them to. His family owned land the size of an average-size American state along the border with the vast neighboring province of Baluchistan. To his right was Makhtoum Shahabud-din Makhtoum, who had been finance minister in Bhutto’s second administration. His land was so extensive that he claimed genuinely to be unaware of its exact size. Like Bhutto, he was also to be worshipped by several hundred thousand people as a spiritual leader, a saint, a pir. When Makhtoum spoke about “my villages” or “my people,” the use of the possessive pronoun was entirely appropriate.
The dining room was the inner sanctum. Outside the house was a paved courtyard and a small zoo with antelope, deer, and a giant turkey. Beside the small, wonderfully carved, natural wood door to the main house was a large shaded area decorated with giant paintings of Bhutto and her father. This veranda was covered with plastic chairs and acted as Bhutto’s waiting room.
When she was in Naudero, Bhutto held audiences for her followers. They lasted entire afternoons. Outside her front door several hundred locals—mainly men but some women—milled around the courtyard hoping to be summoned to see her. The women wore burkas, the all-covering cloak with a mesh aperture to see through made famous by the Taliban in Afghanistan but worn across much of the region long before the hard-line Islamic movement came to power in Kabul in 1996. Every so often a dozen or so supplicants would be shown in to the front room of the house, and Bhutto would listen to their problems and promise solutions. To one side, a servant kept a tray with a plate of Quality Street British supermarket chocolates and a box of burfi on it. Every ten minutes or so, Bhutto would take one, hesitating as ever as she chose. As the afternoon wore on, the rate at which the tray was brought to the small dais on which Bhutto sat accelerated.
The weekend climaxed in the rally to commemorate the death of Bhutto’s father. For days local PPP organizers had been working to gather a big crowd. The buses and trucks had been trawling the surrounding villagers picking up Bhutto supporters and paying others and bringing all of them to the huge shrine that their leader was building as a dynastic tomb close to Larkana. It was unfinished—work having stopped when she was last ejected from government—but it was vast.
A podium had been set up a few hundred yards from the shrine and on it, in front of a crowd of ten or fifteen thousand, was gathered almost the entire political leadership of the PPP. In their starched white shalwars and designer shades it was difficult to imagine that they had anything in common with the masses sweltering in the sun in front of them.
Bhutto was, as is customary in South Asia, an hour or two late. Her speech was unexceptional, a lengthy shrill diatribe against the government and an effusive eulogy to her father. The crowd was large but not very large, and she failed to excite them very much. Her mind appeared to be on other things.
A few weeks later three judges, including the son of one of those who had sentenced her father to death, found her guilty of accepting bribes. Bhutto called on her supporters to fight the “fascist regime.” Only in Naudero was there any response. Elsewhere there were a few sit-down protests and the odd demonstration. But there were no mass gatherings, no outbreaks of mass violence, no nationwide campaigns of civil disobedience. Bhutto slipped quietly out of the country and into exile.
Bhutto’s exile was to last eight years. It is ironic in retrospect that she was thus to watch the return of her homeland to a major role on the international stage from the stalls. The attacks of 9/11 should have helped Bhutto in many ways. She was after all the archetype of a sort of moderate Muslim leader—Oxford-educated, a woman, adept at convincing and charming Western interlocutors (especially men). Yet in President Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who had taken power in 1999 in a bloodless and relatively popular coup, she came up against a new and favored American ally and apparent friend of President George Bush. Bhutto, despite a formidable, well-funded, and effective lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, found herself marginalized. She was unable either to return to Pakistan, where new laws banned her from prime ministerial office, or to establish an international role. She spent much of her time in Dubai, where her children were at school, and visited London regularly. Every time we spoke her frustration, though carefully concealed, was evident. Many politicians have returned from periods of internal or external exile stronger and more effective than when they left. Not Bhutto, however. Pakistan changed radically in the eight years that she was away, and not in ways that made any eventual return easier.
Soon even eating out in the frontier city of Peshawar, where once I had shared mixed mutton curries cooked in iron pans over coals with local journalists in the main bazaar, was too risky.
Five main trends were working against Bhutto. The first was that, given a choice between apparent stability under Musharraf, who also projected a moderate, pro-Western image and was good at charming his interlocutors, and Bhutto, the choice for America was clear. Yes, she was moderate, relatively secular, and pro-Western. But she was also willful, unpredictable, and very unpopular with Pakistan’s security establishment. Until Musharraf began to be seen as more of a liability than an asset, from about 2007, no one was prepared to take the risk of backing Bhutto.
Second, there were genuine doubts over Bhutto’s ability to control the rising tide of militancy in Pakistan if she did make a return to power. Although the real deterioration came after 2006, within even a year of 9/11, violence was soaring. As a frequent visitor to Pakistan throughout this period, I watched the growing toll of the bombings and shootings with pain and concern. The ground I could safely cover within the country became more and more restricted. Everything that had made Pakistan not just passionately interesting intellectually but a genuinely enjoyable place to be disappeared. There were many people whom I could no longer visit. The fabulous, often savagely beautiful landscapes that I had driven, ridden, trekked, even skied through would now have to wait for a better, happier time. One gastronomic pleasure after another dropped away, too. One of the constant delights of Pakistan had been the food. Once I had sampled astonishing chicken cooked with oranges at a graduation ceremony at a madrassa (religious school) deep in tribal territory close to the Afghan border. Such a meal was soon unthinkable. By 2008 grilled trout fished from mountain streams in the Swat Valley, 150 miles from Islamabad, was off the menu too, with fishing in remote areas rash to say the least and Swat itself partially under the control of newly formed Pakistani Taliban groups. Soon even eating out in the frontier city of Peshawar, where once I had shared mixed mutton curries cooked in iron pans over coals with local journalists in the main bazaar, was too risky. So too were the platters of Kabul-style pilau rice with meat, raisins, and carrots in the vast smugglers market on the road to the famous Khyber Pass. The aftermath of 9/11 in the restive zones along the frontier had seen a globalized radical Islamic identity fuse with a local tribal and ethnic particularism to form a potent and combustible combination. Bhutto did not seem to be the best candidate to counter it.
A further factor militating against Bhutto was a new political consciousness among Pakistanis. As with the extremism described above it would be wrong to overstate this—a huge proportion of Pakistan’s 170 million inhabitants neither subscribed to a “jihadist” vision of Islam nor could be described as politically conscious in a Western sense either—but a significant change had nonetheless taken place. Partly because of the penetration of satellite television into every village and many homes in the country and the vociferous and lively (and often ill-informed and inaccurate) political debates that were their most popular programs, the old hierarchies were being questioned. Landowners who had once taken their authority for granted were finding that authority being questioned in an unprecedented way. If political process in Pakistan was moribund, political debate, albeit of an often depressingly low standard, was very much alive. New actors were emerging, such as the lawyers who were to play a key role in the eventual defeat of Musharraf, and new civil society groups. The political environment of Pakistan was evolving, changing, becoming more complex as every year passed.
Two other key processes were under way of which Bhutto appeared, in our many conversations in this period, largely unaware. The first was the enrichment of a substantial segment of Pakistani society in the miniboom sparked by Musharraf’s economically liberal policies, easy credit, the lifting of sanctions post-9/11, the influx of remittance money as Pakistanis began to feel less secure in the West or the Middle East, and the new aid that began arriving. At the same time, Pakistan’s cities and towns continued to suck in millions of people from rural areas. The result of these two processes was the creation of a new urban lower middle class. You only needed to stand on the corner of a Karachi street for a minute to see this. The families who had owned only a motorbike now owned the tiny 800cc Suzuki Mehran car. Those who had had a Mehran now had a Corolla. Equally important were the values of this growing swath of the population. The late 1990s and the post-9/11 era had seen a hardening of Islamic identities at the expense of more pro-Western identities across the Muslim world. Pakistan was no exception. The new lower middle classes, millions strong, saw links to the West as suspicious, a marker of foreign dominance. The aspirational example had become the Persian Gulf. The dream holiday was no longer Europe or the United States, for which visas were difficult and the atmosphere for visiting Muslims unpleasant, but the United Arab Emirates or Malaysia. Raised on a diet of news and discussion heavily informed by the prejudices once restricted to hard-line Islamists, for such people the world was run by imperialist Americans and their Jewish allies who hated Muslims, the Taliban were righteous mujahideen, and the Indian secret services, or Mossad or the CIA, were behind most of the ills of their country. They were culturally, socially, and religiously conservative nationalists. They were increasingly numerous, increasingly dominant in public conversation, increasingly dominant in the security establishment. They were not, it is fair to say, natural voters for Bhutto, but nonetheless Bhutto gave no sign of having recognized this new tendency. When she spoke of Pakistan she spoke of “my nation,” “my homeland,” even “my people.” But the Pakistan she wanted to come back to—to reclaim—was not the Pakistan she had left.
Pakistan was “her homeland,” and to reclaim it she needed to feel that no place was forbidden to her.
Zardari House had become Bilawal House, named after Bhutto’s young son rather than her controversial husband. The lane that led to it was clogged with the concrete blast walls that, after a decade of covering the various theaters of conflict in the War on Terror, were wearily familiar to me. I negotiated three checkpoints and was shown into a small lounge. On the table were a flask of rose water and a small plastic tray of burfi.
It was December 2007 and Bhutto had been back in Pakistan for less than three months. Her return was largely the result of President Musharraf’s internal and external weakness. Inside Pakistan, the former general’s erstwhile popularity was long gone and his authority had been undermined by angry lawyers, an increasingly confident opposition, an economic downturn, and the security situation. Musharraf’s primary justification for holding on to power was that he brought stability. But a series of bloody suicide bombings had made very clear the extent to which his rule had seen local militant groups establish themselves as a genuine threat to Pakistan as well as to the region. The growing evidence of the Pakistani security establishment’s continued support for elements within the Afghan Taliban, whose senior leadership remained based in Pakistan, and their apparent reluctance to move seriously against the panoply of extremist groups operating on Pakistani soil, had sapped support for Musharraf overseas too, particularly given the vast military aid that had been supplied to the Pakistani army. The ideal, it was decided in Western governments, would be for Musharraf to remain president and for Bhutto to become prime minister.
Partly through the work of British diplomats, a deal was worked out in the summer of 2007 and Musharraf agreed to Bhutto’s return, as well as that of Nawaz Sharif, her political archrival. Before she left Dubai, she told me that her slogan in the campaign for the parliamentary elections due in January would be roti, kapre, makan—that of her father in the 1970s. The corruption allegations were long forgotten. Bhutto landed in Karachi in October, to be greeted by a massive bomb that killed 130 in the procession leading her from the airport to the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam, the great leader and founder of Pakistan.
By early December she was in full campaign mode. Every day she left Islamabad, driving long distances to rallies in the Punjab, Pakistan’s easternmost province. This was not where Bhutto was most popular, and it was far from the family’s hereditary heartland of Naudero and northern Sind. She also headed west, toward the Afghan border, into the North-West Frontier Province. Politically this made some sense. In this area, ruled for several years by a coalition of religious parties, popular opinion was running against the radicals, who had notably failed to improve roads, schools, health care, or any of the bread-and-butter issues that so often determine voting. Personally, however, Bhutto was taking a very significant risk. She had already survived one assassination attempt and had publicly stated that many wanted her dead—although those she named were probably not those responsible for the bombing in Karachi. Nor was winning votes in gritty towns like Charsadda or Nowshera vitally important to any electoral strategy. But Pakistan was “her homeland,” and to reclaim it she needed to feel that no place was forbidden to her.
We left about ten o’clock, driving very fast on the new motorway that links Islamabad to Peshawar and cuts the journey time from four to two and a half hours—or less if you are traveling in a motorcade of a dozen vehicles with armed escorts. By noon we had reached Nowshera, a large town and army garrison thirty miles short of Peshawar and fifty-five miles from the Afghan border and one of the places frequently targeted by the militants. Once Afghan refugee camps had lined the roads around the city. They had gone, but the madrassas had not. They are not the suicide bomber factories they are often said to be, but are part of a broad transnational network linked to the rigorous and literalist Deobandi local southwestern strand of Islamic observance increasingly dominant in western Pakistan, particularly among the Pashtun tribes. Bhutto, a Shia steeped in Sufi traditions—Westernized, moderate, secular—was everything they detested.
Bhutto lunched with local activists and members of Parliament, and the rally began. The local candidate in the forthcoming elections made a sycophantic speech. The crowd, sitting in long lines on the ground and carefully segregated, cheered and Bhutto took the stage. There are people who want to rob Pakistan of its future, but we will not let it happen, she told them. “There are those who abuse Islam for their own political ends and turn Muslim brother against Muslim brother.” They cheered. “My government will bring you what you need: roads, water, electricity. Roti, kapre, makan.” More cheers.
Working her way back to the vehicles, she brandished a bag of oranges like a lantern before her.
And then it was over and she was gone and calling me over. Still breathless after forcing our way through the crowds, we climbed together into her heavily armored four-wheel drive and, amid sirens and horns, pushed out onto the main road that led to the motorway. We had gone only one hundred yards before she called for the hatch in the roof to be opened and stood up, waving to the traffic and to those along the roadside, receiving bemused acknowledgment in return from people who only after she had passed recognized who had just bestowed a regal wave upon them.
Stopping the convoy beside the market, Bhutto got out of her vehicle and, flipping her white dupatta over her hair, headed off among the stalls, asking the price of fruit. In her wake, overweight policemen tried to control the crowd, with little success. We were in Pabbi, a scruffy road-stop town that had been the site of one of the biggest militant training camps in the early 1990s. Working her way back to the vehicles, she brandished a bag of oranges like a lantern before her. “I wanted to know the price, Mr. Burke,” she said, exhilarated by her own daring in making the unscheduled stop. “I need to get back in touch with Pakistan. The price of oranges is important. . . . And you stay safe by being unpredictable.” I interviewed her formally for an hour in the car as we drove back down to Islamabad on the road she proudly, and without foundation, claimed the credit for building.
I reminded her that a decade before at Naudero I had told her, to the shock and concern of her courtiers, that I thought she would be out of power for at least a decade. Bhutto laughed and asked me what my next prediction would be. She told me she had never expected to be out of power so long. “Are you on the brink of power now?” I asked.
“I think the people are with us and we have the momentum,” she said. “And the international community is supporting a return to democracy.”
Her biggest concerns were security and vote rigging at the polls in January. She was convinced the elections would be manipulated, the only question was how badly. “It’s all in the numbers,” she said. She also spoke of how she did not want Pakistan to be a base for international militancy—partly because the West was suffering from international terrorism but more because it was her own nation that was hurting most. She would be making more impulsive visits to markets, she said, because she needed to “meet the people.”
Then, once I put my notebook away, she relaxed, slipping off her flat shoes, calling to her personal secretary in the front seat for sweets and sandwiches. Two Tupperware containers were passed back, one full of neat cubes of burfi. She spoke about those she said were trying to kill her—a cabal of retired senior military officers and intelligence agents in league with radical Islamic militants “embedded in the country” who formed a secret parallel state of immense power, she said. She spoke, too, about the long summer negotiations with Musharraf.
“What do you call him when you speak on the phone?” I asked.
“General Sahib,” she said, smiling.
And what does he call you?
“Bibi,” she said.
It was long dark by the time the motorcade halted outside Bilawal House. We said good-bye. She invited me once more to tea and to Naudero. “It will be just like old times,” she said. Ten days later she was killed at a rally in the city of Rawalpindi about ten miles away.
Reprinted from Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents, edited by Matt McAllester, published by the University of California Press. © 2011 by Jason Burke and the Regents of the University of California.