The widower of slain Pakistani political leader Benazir Bhutto sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that is a political hand grenade wrapped in flowery language.
Asif Ali Zadari, Bhutto’s husband and co-chairman of her political party, makes a series of far-reaching demands that, if adopted, would transform America’s relationship with Pakistan and possibly endanger the regime.
Pajamas Media received the letter on an exclusive basis from a source close to Bhutto’s family [see the letter below].
In it, Zadari writes that President Musharraf’s power to hold Pakistan together is “consistently eroding,” despite emergency rule, questioning the legitimacy of upcoming parliamentary elections.
“Without going into the substance of the allegations and suspicions widely expressed about the circumstances surrounding the murder of my wife, I ask you how effective a regime can be as an ally in the war against terrorism if, after an act of terrorist violence, people feel angrier about their government than they do about the terrorists?”
Zadari calls for freeing international election observers from senseless restrictions imposed by the Pakistani state: allowing them to visit polling places without advance notice and to conduct their own exit polls, among other changes.
Finally, Zadari demands the release of all political prisoners and replacing the federal and provincial governments with “neutral administrations.” The new agencies would have to have their staffs approved by all major political parties.
Though it is dated January 8, a Pakistan People’s spokesman told me that it probably was received by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s senior staff on January 18.
Pakistan, despite its cross-cutting allegiances, is arguably America’s most vital ally in the war on terror. More senior al-Qaeda operatives have been captured in
Pakistan than any other nation on Earth – including Afghanistan or Iraq. The operational planner of the 9-11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, as well as his deputy, Ramzi Bihalshib were among the some 700 al Qaeda operatives killed or captured there since 2001.
On the other hand, Pakistan is a critical staging area for attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan and safe haven for many al Qaeda leaders, likely including Osama bin Laden. While Pakistan may not be able to control terrorist movements, successive leaders have promoted an Islamist ideology in schools and military academies.
A U.S. senior military officer, who asked not to be identified who was recently involved maintaining military-to-military relations with Pakistan told me how Pakistan is gradually becoming harder to work with. He said the creeping Islamization, which began in the 1980s, has reached the senior office corps. At one time Pakistani generals had invited him to dinner with their wives and invariably offered a whiskey beforehand. It was all very British.
Today, many of the senior officers are bearded, wives are not seen and alcohol consumption unheard of. These are just the surface signs of a larger trend underway. Finally, Pakistan is a nuclear state, which developed its weapons to be used against India. Pakistan has long had strong ties with China and Saudi Arabia.
With that background in mind, the U.S. State department’s Pakistan desk officer received the letter from Bhutto’s widower – and faced a tricky diplomatic dilemma. Usually, when the officer receives a letter addressed to the Secretary of State, he writes a brief memo summarizing the contents to Rice’s inner circle on the department’s seventh floor and ships a copy to the country’s ambassador. What to do in this case?
This letter won’t be so easy to address. The assassination of Bhutto drew world-wide sympathy and the attention of Congress – much of what Zadari wants to take place, in a perfect world, would be completely reasonable as far as the U.S. government is concerned. But in the reality of Pakistan today, they are potentially explosive.
Welcome to the bizarre world of American diplomacy 2008. In order to maintain a critical, albeit imperfect ally, America’s diplomats believe they must oppose the (mostly) legitimate of the democratic opposition.
Yet, if America pressures Pakistan to grant the demands that Benazir Bhutto’s widow is making, the Islamists may well come to power.
Richard Miniter is Pajamas Media’s Washington correspondent.