Shortly before 8 a.m. Dec. 27, while driving from Washington to Norfolk, my cell phone rang. It was a very senior Pakistani official and trusted friend. “Something has happened to Benazir. We are not sure what.” The “what” quickly became tragedy.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated. Unwittingly, she had written her own, incomplete epitaph years before. The second sentence of the new edition of her autobiography “Daughter of the East” reads: “Born in Pakistan, my life mirrors its turbulence, its tragedies and its triumphs.” Sadly, she would not live to achieve many of those triumphs. And her life and character reflected the complexities and contradictions of Pakistan.
Born into privilege, she remained a servant of the people. A child of the East, she was educated in the West first at Radcliffe, where I recall we met, and then at Oxford, where she became president of the prestigious Oxford Student Union. The surviving member of a political dynasty, she expressly advised her three teenage children to steer clear of politics. Then she bequeathed the chairmanship of her party to her 19-year-old son, Bilawal, a student at Oxford, as an insurance policy if the worst were to happen.
She possessed a brilliant intellect and was one of the most charismatic and articulate people I have ever met. Yet, her enthusiasm was irrepressible and she had a puckish sense of humor and wit. And, while charming, gracious and always deferential to others, her will was of steel. Called prime minister, to her friends she was “BiBi,” a play on her initials that in Urdu means respect and deference for an admired elder sister.
Conceivably, she could have been an Asian Winston Churchill, who failed as First Lord of the British Admiralty in World War I, launching the disastrous Gallipoli operation, and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer before World War II propelled him to greatness. Benazir’s two terms as prime minister were marked by failure and corruption. She, like many Pakistani politicians, had been ruthless in weeding out potential rivals from her position of permanent chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), weakening her party. But, like Churchill, she learned from those experiences during her years in the wilderness of self-imposed exile.
She has been called courageous, something she discounted in serving country and people. Fully aware of the danger, it was inevitable she would return to Pakistan. In conversations about her security, she was serene and fatalistic. “Muslims do not kill women,” she said frequently.
Once her mind was made up, attempts to change it were futile. Indeed, she could be charmingly and maddeningly stubborn. After the first assassination attempt at her homecoming on Oct. 18, she chided me in an e-mail not to worry, that she would be safe because, like a cat, she had nine lives and always landed on her feet.
We last spoke on Dec. 23 in two separate, lengthy conversations. Her voice was hoarse from nonstop campaigning. A Pakistani colleague who had access to the highest reaches of the Islamabad government asked me to propose to Benazir that she tone down her attacks on President Pervez Musharraf prior to the January parliamentary election. The idea was that this gesture might lead to a final reconciliation between the two. In fact, in the fall, Benazir confided to me that she and Mr. Musharraf might meet privately over the Christmas holidays to finalize the agreement made in Abu Dhabi in the summer about their respective roles following the elections.
Apart from the Pakistani people and Benazir’s family, the biggest loser from her death will be Mr. Musharraf. As a general, he had the army at his beck and call. But, as a non-politician, he lacked a political base. Benazir and her party could have provided that base should the PPP have won the election. It would have been an unholy alliance and still the best or only solution for bringing peace and stability to Pakistan.
Now, many Pakistanis will, wrongly but understandably, blame Mr. Musharraf for her death as either having a hand in the plot or failing to provide her with adequate security. Not only does Mr. Musharraf face a time of extraordinary turbulence and violence, but two-thirds of his public want him to leave office.
Watching the video of her last moments was revealing. Insensitive to threat, no security would have been good enough to protect Benazir. Rallying her supporters, she was standing upright, fully exposed and unprotected in her car when assassins struck.
The consequences of her death will be profound, falling somewhere between the impact of the assassinations of President John Kennedy in 1963 and Austro-Hungary’s Arch Duke Ferdinand in the summer of 1914. The task ahead will be to contain the explosive reactions to her demise from precipitating a regional and even global crisis. Meanwhile, we mourn the loss of a very great lady.
Harlan Ullman writes for The Washington Times. He was a good friend and adviser to Benazir Bhutto. Two of his 2007 columns featured exclusive interviews with Benazir Bhutto: washingtontimes.com/article/20070808/EDITORIAL09/108080011/1013/editorial and washingtontimes.com/article/20071017/EDITORIAL09/110170007/1013/EDITORIAL.