Wednesday July 06, 2022

An old guard asks: Will you survive?

February 10, 2016

Bilawal in Washington

Former AP correspondent in Pakistan

WASHINGTON: I have lived long enough at the age at 84 to now have met three generations of the Bhutto family of Pakistan.

I completed a Bhutto cycle the other day at the US Institute of Peace in Washington DC, where Bilawal Bhutto Zardari appeared at what was advertised as a private, off-the record round table.

Bilawal, whose Bhutto Zardari surnames so far are unconnected by a hyphen, is at age 27 the chairman of the PPP. He is the son of Asif Ali Zardari, who spent five years, until 2013, as president of Pakistan after spending eight years (1996-2004) there in jail, and of Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated in December 2007.

He is also the grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father, who became president of Pakistan at the end of 1971, then its prime minister until he was ousted in 1977 in a military coup. Bhutto was hanged in 1979 on a spurious charge of murder under the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq. A friend, the late G Mueenuddin, one of Pakistan's classic civil servants and a bitter Bhutto enemy, told me at that time that General Zia was given the ultimatum to get rid of Bhutto or he would have to go. As for the murder charge, that is often a tactic in Pakistani politics. I once asked Bhutto why so many of his political opponents faced murder charges. He answered, "That is our wild west."

I had met and interviewed Benazir on several occasions, including in 1989 in Karachi in Bilawal House, where husband Asif, wearing jodhpurs, marched right through our conversation as if demonstrating who really was boss in that household. As AP correspondent and for a long spell the only American journalist in Pakistan, I had a relationship with Bhutto that verged occasionally on intimacy, as the time he invited me into his guest bedroom in the Peshawar home of the chief minister of the northwest frontier province, the Muslim religious leader, Mufti Mahmud.

The Bhutto family has had bad luck with unnatural death, for example, in the case of Bilawal's uncles, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, sons of ZA Bhutto. Shahnawaz died at 26 in July 1985, in Nice, France; his family claimed he was poisoned. In the midst of hostility between him and Asif Ali Zardari, Murtaza, 42, was killed in a police shooting in Karachi in September 1996.

For the good reason of security, young Bhutto Zardari (I'll pretend the hyphen is there) has spent much of his life outside the dangerous confines of Pakistan. After he spoke the other day, I took him aside outside the meeting room and presumably away from being off-the-record and asked, "Do you think you can survive in Pakistan?"

"I certainly hope so," he responded, noting that he was careful about his security, a remark that was backed up by a stern, poker-faced Pakistani who stood protectively directly behind him and would have been spotted as a gunman in any circumstance.

The moderator of the meeting at the USIP, Moeed Yusuf, director of South Asia programmes for the institute and of Pakistani origin, explained before the session started that so many people responded to the invitation to the private affair that the roundtable for a few was abandoned in favour of a large room for about 100 people who showed up. He said that Bhutto Zardari's talk was on the record but responses to questions afterwards would not be for attribution.

After his talk, I asked him as long as the army called the shots in Pakistan, how could any civilian government achieve reform, especially since his mother never overcame the obstacle and his grandfather was destroyed by the military?

To abide by the non-attribution rule, I can only say that Bhutto Zardari believes that Pakistan needs a strong army and that the military and a civilian government can work together to reform the society. As for the military destroying his grandfather, it was really only General Zia and not the army.

In connection with Zia, by the way, after his talk, I saw Zardari Bhutto in earnest conversation with Robin Raphael, a former assistant secretary of state and an American ambassador with links to Pakistan. Both their lives had been touched by Zia, in Bhutto Zardari's case the death of his grandfather. In Robin's case, the death of her ex-husband, Arnold Raphael who died with Zia in a 1988 plane explosion that some have linked to Bhutto sympathisers. 

Young Bhutto Zardari is smooth, well nourished and amiable. If he represents the future in Pakistan, that future is likely to resemble the military-dominated past and the present.