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The Plot to Bring Back Benazir

Ever since the twin towers crumpled, the Pentagon smouldered and Flight 93 ploughed into a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, one figure has become a mainstay in the war on terror: General Pervez Musharraf. With his convivial, British public school manner, western suits and blow-dried flick, the President of Pakistan, has since September 11, 2001 circumnavigated the world, glad-handing, while claiming to provide the West with a bridgehead into the often bewildering, chaotic and seemingly terrifying badlands of Islamic South Asia.

The general packaged himself as the first in a new era of Western-leaning Pakistani military leaders, launching into the virtual world with http://presidentofpakistan.gov.pk, his personal website, whose slideshow reveals the General as a commando (‘my uniform is my second skin’) and a statesman too. Are there any special foods that you enjoy, a Q and A asks of him? ‘Dahi Phulki, Kheer, and Daal.’ What are your views about your mother? ‘She is a strong-willed personality but extremely loving.’ Which book have you read recently and really enjoyed? ‘Leaders by Richard Nixon.’ Not a fancy pants this General, just an active, homely, leader (who is probably taping all of his phone calls).

At home in the White House or Whitehall, the West has been willing to overlook Musharraf’s shortcomings. His military record revealed him as a close ally of the Taliban. His early career showed he had acted as military mentor to Pakistan’s home-grown and vicious jihadi groups. He rose to power in a coup-d’état, deposing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in 1999, refusing ever since to enable democracy. Britain and the US barely bristled as terrorist plotters including Abu Zubaida, al-Qaeda’s lead planner (seized in Faisalabad in March 2002), Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind (arrested in Karachi in September 2002), were captured in Musharraf’s patch and on the General’s watch. No one got heavy over the thousands more who remain at large in the tribal areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, most likely Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader, and Osama bin Laden among them. ‘He’s one of my best friends,’ George W. Bush declared at a Washington do in 2006, having overseen a stunning 45,000 percent increase in aid to Pakistan’s military, taking assistance levels to more than $4 billion. The West’s blue-eyed general was doing as best he could, as well as turning a blind eye to territorial incursions by US Predator Drones or special-forces units hunting al-Qaeda cadres along Pakistan’s perilous border with Afghanistan.

All that has changed. A chill has descended over Mush and Bush – as the Pakistan press dubbed the US-Pakistan axis. Behind the back-slaps in the Oval Office and stately visits to Lancaster House, London, a quiet revolution has been plotted, its goal the revival of an old Pakistani dynasty to effect the swift removal of the current, martial one; regime change minus the shock-and-awe (and especially without the loss of thousands of lives). While Washington, and London continue to publicly characterize Musharraf as the West’s best hope of stopping Pakistan’s descent into a maelstrom of Islamic extremism, behind the scenes they have concluded that it is the General and his autocratic rule that is quickening the path of those allied to the apocalyptic goals of al-Qaeda. And he must be stopped.

Fully aware of his diminishing influence, Musharraf has in recent weeks attempted to woo his erstwhile backers. He even took an explosive and very public stand against his covert constituency of Islamists. On June 11, troops stormed the so-called Red Mosque, in the heart of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, a seminary Musharraf had let grow since 2002, despite its vociferous endorsement of suicide bombings and the Taliban. Now he shut it down, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, its cleric, killed alongside an unknown number of students and hostages, in an act that Musharraf’s government described as ‘victory’. Pakistani commentators, including the eminent nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, however, have been less kind, characterising it as an ultimately empty and quite desperate act of grandstanding by a desperate man.

Regardless, the Red Mosque drama failed to stop the international plan for regime change. The shuttle diplomacy continued to be frenzied, a cat’s cradle of discussions, with London at the heart, meetings that aimed to finesse a plan to restore democracy to Pakistan, by reinstalling the exiled scion of the country’s most famous ruling family. Benazir Bhutto was planning her journey home as the climax of hugely sensitive manoeuvring that kicked off over an unprepossessing dinner in Lancashire three years ago.

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June 20 2004, the eve of the longest day, and Benazir Bhutto, 51, was enjoying a low-profile reception in Blackburn with old political friends. Many of its 7,000-strong Pakistani population were historically Bhutto supporters and this was a home away from home for the former leader. But over starters, the mood was glum, Bhutto told Weekend. Pakistan had recently been readmitted to the Commonwealth after being suspended when Musharraf seized control. Four days earlier President Bush had named the Islamic Republic a major non-NATO ally, making Bhutto’s hopes of returning slimmer than ever.

She had inherited the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after he had been overthrown as Prime Minister of Pakistan in a military coup and hanged in 1979. Having served twice as Prime Minister herself (1988-1990 and 1993-1996), she had left Pakistan in April 1999 for a speaking tour of the United States, taking only two weeks of clothes in her suitcase while her maids kept the cut flowers fresh at Bilawal House, her Californian-style villa in Karachi. ‘As soon as I left,’ Bhutto recalled. ‘Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had me convicted of corruption and jailed my husband, Asif Zadari.’

When General Musharraf deposed Sharif shortly after, in October 1999, he vowed never to let Bhutto back, fearful that her physical presence – a striking resemblance to her father whose term in office was viewed by some as Pakistan’s age of democracy – would cause an uprising. Then, post 9/11, Musharraf had hitched his epaulets to the West that promptly also forgot about Bhutto. During a three-day trip to London in June 2003, the red carpet had been rolled out for the General, dinners hosted by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, and even Prince Charles. Musharraf had revelled in the high-class reception, noticing how those around him overlooked the rigged elections in Pakistan of the previous October. Then he had disqualified his political opponents and when the PPP still had gone on to win the highest number of votes, had forced many of Bhutto’s MPs to defect to level the score.

For the next five years Bhutto would direct her party’s affairs, alone and down a crackling phone line. Her life in exile mostly revolved around Dubai, where home was a pink villa fringed by palm trees in the Emirates Hills, shared with her son Bilawal, then 15, daughters Bakhtwar, 13, and Aseefa, 10, and her aged mother Nusrat, the widow of the hanged Zulfikar. The gated estate with its lakes, rose-gardens and pristine lawns, was a verdant fantasy island outside of which billowed clouds of Emirati desert sand. She had plenty of time to reflect. ‘As the world changed around us, I lived in my own little parallel society, islands of friends, colleagues and Pakistani communities all over the world,’ she said.

In Blackburn, Bhutto’s host, Councillor Salas Kiani, a British Pakistani who had until recently served as the town’s mayor, had news for her. He passed Bhutto a mobile phone. ‘It’s Jack for you,’ he said mischievously, leaving Bhutto at a disadvantage. Only after a minute did she twig. Blackburn was Jack Straw’s constituency and Kiani, as mayor, had got to know the British Foreign Secretary well. ‘Benazir was amazed,’ recalled one guest. ‘Here was Straw saying, “Hi, come to the Foreign Office.”‘ The phone conversation marked the first official communication the PPP had had with a British government minister in more than a decade.

Old Labour had cosied up to Benazir Bhutto. After General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military leader, had imprisoned her in 1981, the beautiful and progressive graduate of Oxford and Harvard languished in a cell, becoming a cause for the British Left. Robin Cook and George Galloway among others ran the Free Benazir Committee from London. Shadow foreign secretary Gerald Kaufman refused to visit Pakistan while Zia was still in power. After Zia died in 1988, and Bhutto had been elected Prime Minister for the first time, many in the Labour Party hierarchy – including Peter Mandelson, Clare Short and Derek Fatchett – feted the 36-year-old as the first democratically elected female prime minister in an Islamic country.

For a while New Labour had championed Bhutto too. Tony Blair had attended a private dinner thrown by her and her husband Asif Zadari in their suite at the Savoy Hotel in October 1995, during her second term as Prime Minister, when Blair had been elected Labour Party leader. However, relations with Blair visibly cooled after she was overthrown and her husband jailed, both of them accused of amassing an ill-gotten fortune, including a £2 million Surrey country estate, whose stud farm, helipad and indoor swimming pool, contrasted with life in Pakistan, where 37 million people lived below the UN poverty line. Jack Straw, then serving as Home Secretary, also had refused to meet her. The only channel of communication that had remained open for the vilified Bhutto was through Lindsey Richard, the head of the Foreign Office Pakistan desk. However, now, in 2004, Straw was on the phone and Richard was asked to facilitate a discreet meeting.

On a morning in July 2004, Benazir Bhutto was brought to a side entrance of the Foreign Office’s King Charles Street headquarters, her trademark white dupatta pulled over her face. The meeting lasted more than an hour, during which Straw listened. ‘The British seemed oblivious to Musharraf’s military record,’ a Bhutto aide recalled. ‘He was seen as trustworthy but his primary allegiance had been with the jihadi groups that the Pakistan media described as the Musharraf’s “ethnic storm-troopers”.’

During her second term as Prime Minister when Musharraf had been her director general of military operations, he had requested permission to ‘unleash the forces of fundamentalism’, Sunni irregulars sponsored by the army and intelligence community, to infiltrate the Indian-controlled sector of the divided state of Kashmir. Musharraf had nurtured many of these organisations, in particular Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), formed in 1990 with a goal of bringing Islamic rule to the whole of South Asia, Russia and even China. In 1996, when the Taliban had grown as force in Afghanistan, it was Musharraf too who had ensured the movement was armed and fed. Straw squirmed, according to one of those in the room. He reassured Bhutto that London was for democracy in Pakistan but that Musharraf too was important. Straw brought the meeting to an end. Bhutto thought it hopeless. But within weeks Mark Lyall Grant, the British High Commissioner in Islamabad, flew to Dubai to convey a message to Bhutto from Musharraf. The General was willing to make a gesture: her husband was to be released from jail. She now should consider working with him.

Bhutto remained suspicious. She had had first-hand experience of the brutality of Pakistan’s military. Fuelled by a potent mixture of patronage, tribalism, backstabbing, side dealing, blackmail and straightforward medieval feudalism, politics Pakistan-style made Washington and London look like a pyjama party, she thought. With her father hanged, her youngest brother, Shahnawaz was next. Bhutto said: ‘My aunt had a house in Cannes so we would all go there for the summer holidays. We loved it, walking along by the sea on La Croisette. In 1985, soon after I was released from jail, Shahnawaz rented a place there too.’ On July 17, she flew in to see him. ‘That night he had arranged a BBQ at the beach. He was dressed in white, suntanned and charming. Everyone was so happy. He was the centre of attention. Girls used to come and leave their name and numbers on napkins and matchboxes. It was the first time I’d been exposed to such things. The next day I got up waiting for him, but he just never came.’ Shahnawaz was found collapsed, a broken vial of poison beside him in a murder scene that Bhutto’s supporters claimed revealed the hand of the Pakistan intelligence services, the Inter Services Agency (ISI). In 1996, Murtaza, her eldest brother died too, shot dead in an encounter with the police in Karachi for which her husband would officially be blamed. ‘Their deaths were very difficult,’ Bhutto reflected, resisting the memories. ‘I can’t redo the past so there is little point in trying to think back. But it’s so strange how life replicates itself. So many have tried to kill me too.’

General Zia was first, sending a doctor to see her in her cell in 1982, a man who tried to burst her eardrum, in a bizarre attempt at causing a potentially fatal infection. In the spring of 1989, a Pakistan general hired Osama bin Laden, then a little-known sponsor of the jihadis fighting in Afghanistan, to carry out a hit on Bhutto. The plot was exposed. In 1993, two more attempts were made on her life, one by Ramzi Yousef, after he had carried out the World Trade Centre bombing, in New York, killing six and injuring 1,000, a second commissioned by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who paid for a gunman to take a shot at her at a rally in Nishtar Park, Karachi. In 1995, a phalanx of senior army officers and clerics was found to be plotting a coup in which Bhutto was to have been eliminated. ‘The time of life is written and the time of death is written and nobody can die before their time is up,’ Bhutto told Weekend, prosaically. ‘The politics of Pakistan is ingrained in the family’s blood, in my blood. It is my life, a duty and a compulsion – I have to return. There is nothing else to it.’

Politics has dictated everything in her life, even the time of her giving birth. When the military tried to make political capital out of news that she was pregnant with her second child Bakhtwar in 1990, attempting to force through legislation prohibiting a Prime Minister from taking maternity leave, she elected to have the baby early by Caesarean section so she could stay in power.

So when Asif Zadari emerged, blinking, from prison in December 2004, Bhutto did not rush towards Musharraf. Instead, they flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a place where they were well connected. Still mistrustful of Musharraf’s intent, she formed an alliance with another Pakistani exile, Nawaz Sharif, the man who had convicted her and Zadari in 1999. Having been overthrown by Musharraf soon after, Sharif was looking for a way to reinvigorate his political career too and both outcasts signed a Charter of Democracy that called for elections in Pakistan.

London was watching. One month later, on March 14, 2005 Bhutto was invited back to the Foreign Office. ‘The talk was of a post-Musharraf world,’ recalled one of Bhutto’s inner-circle. It was not only Musharraf’s inability or reluctance to deal with the terrorist threat that concerned the Foreign Office. His life too was in jeopardy, Pakistan’s President having narrowly escaped two assassination attempts the previous December. A Foreign Office source told Weekend: ‘What London feared was chaos. What everyone wanted was a smooth transition, from Musharraf to something sustainable, preferably democratic. Bhutto had a chance of winning an election if that day came.’

But the US was still backing the gentleman dictator. ‘We told the British that Bhutto had no contact with the Americans now,’ recalled a Bhutto aide. Straw advised her that the US too was beginning to think about change. Condoleezza Rice, having come into office as US secretary of state in January 2005, was at that very moment in Islamabad with Musharraf pressurising him to allow free elections.

A series of bloody suicide bombings on London’s transport network four months later brought a new urgency to the Straw-Bhutto talks. If anyone needed a salient reminder of Pakistan’s proximity to the war on terror, it came on the morning of July 7, 2005 when 52 people were killed and 700 injured by four young British suicide bombers, three of whom had links to a radical madrasa run by the LeT, in Muridke, a grit-choked city on the old Grand Trunk Road, 20 miles outside Lahore.

Straw called Bhutto back to London three weeks later, on July 29. According to a Bhutto aide the Foreign Secretary said the British government was seriously questioning the integrity and direction being taken by Musharraf. Despite pledging in 2001 to outlaw jihadi groups and monitor the teaching methods and sources of funding, Musharraf had allowed the LeT to expand its Muridke school that was now one of 13,000 madrasas – none of which had been regulated as the President had pledged to do. ‘The most dangerous game in the world is being played out by Musharraf in Pakistan,’ Bhutto said. There had to be free elections. Musharraf had to shed his uniform. Bhutto also warned the Foreign Secretary that the PPP would have little chance, unless the Bush administration signalled that it, too, was willing to look beyond Musharraf. The Foreign Secretary insisted he had talked to Rice and Washington was reconsidering its position too.

A few weeks later Bhutto received a lunch invitation. It was from the US Embassy in London that requested she come to the home of David Johnson, the deputy US ambassador, in Kensington. Johnson had a detailed knowledge about the extremists based along the Pakistan-Afghan border, having been posted to Kabul when the US launched its assault on the Taliban in November 2001. Bhutto found him a willing listener. ‘She predicted the Taliban would become resurgent under Musharraf,’ said a member of Bhutto’s inner circle. A short while after, Bhutto was called back, this time to meet Christina Rocca, the US assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. Rocca had initially wooed Musharraf into the war on terror. But now, according to an official present at the meeting, she recognised that ‘things in Pakistan had to change’.

A devastating earthquake in October 2005 that left 75,000 dead and more than three million people homeless in the Pakistan-administered sector of Kashmir, underscored Rocca’s concern. Under the cover of aiding the victims, 17 Sunni extremist groups previously banned by Musharraf (under pressure from the US State Department) re-emerged with new names. Distributing food, tents and blankets, they opened tent villages beneath banners like one that proclaimed: ‘Custodian of the blood of 10,000 mujahideen.’

The outlawed LeT was there, running a field hospital in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, headed by Dr Amir Aziz Khan, who had been arrested in October 2002 for his links to al-Qaeda. Now Musharraf praised Khan’s organisation for its swift response to the earthquake as well as the Al-Rasheed Trust, a charity linked to al-Qaeda and proscribed by the United Nations. In the following weeks, the extremists turned the earthquake zone into a recruiting ground, according to the advocacy organisation, the International Crisis Group. Thousands of orphaned children were taken and put in religious schools, one of the groups announcing that it had filled 180 madrasas in the Punjab.

In early 2006, Mark Lyall Grant, the British High Commissioner, returned to Dubai with another message from Musharraf. The General was serious now. He wanted Bhutto to write down her demands. She jotted: free elections; political prisoners released; an independent election commission formed; Pakistan’s constitution [of 1973] restored. But a message came back almost immediately. Musharraf was not ready for this kind of deal.

Meanwhile, Bhutto had competition in London. On January 30, 2006 Nawaz Sharif and his family arrived, having finally secured a British visa. Officially, they had been given permission to bring their son for treatment in London for a rare blood disorder. Soon after his arrival, Bhutto flew in too, to be photographed with Sharif re-launching their Charter for Democracy. But Sharif was getting all of the attention. Ensconced in his family’s mansion block apartment, off Park Lane, in Mayfair, a steady stream of visitors came and went, Nawaz holding court on a leopard-print sofa, or around his glass dining table, piled high with hot bread, kebabs and lamb stew, while his younger brother Shahbaz, a perceptive political wheeler-dealer, intently listened from a seat beside the potted palms. ‘We were mobilising,’ Nawaz Sharif told Weekend. ‘There could be no deals with Musharraf. No deals. Full stop. It was central to our Charter for Democracy. We hoped Bhutto was acting sincerely when she signed it.’

However, soon Mark Lyall Grant was back in Dubai, reassuring the PPP leader that Straw remained a supporter of her cause and that the US, too, now fully understood the need for rapid change. The British Foreign Secretary discussed the Pakistan question face-to-face with his US counterpart, when in April 2006 Rice travelled to his Blackburn constituency where she was introduced to several of Bhutto’s British-Pakistani backers. The Americans were on track. However, the news from Islamabad was mixed. Musharraf had at last conceded to holding a poll, the message came back. It was to be staged after November 2007 when the National Assembly’s term ran out. But Bhutto and Sharif were not to be allowed to return until afterwards. Prospective PPP parliamentary candidates now found envelopes containing bullets left in their cars or on their desks. And then in June 2006, Straw was replaced at the Foreign Office with Margaret Beckett, whose priorities lay in defending the mire of Iraq. From now on, Bhutto’s main London contact would be the newly knighted Sir Mark Lyall Grant, who returned from Islamabad to become the political director of the Foreign Office.

Then finally, in July 2006, the pace quickened. The US appointed Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, as an emissary. He arrived in Dubai with a message. According to a PPP official who was present, Boucher said: ‘Things are about to change.’ He urged her not to encourage PPP supporters to take to the streets, as they had done before. The PPP agreed.

The Boucher meeting would be the first of more than a dozen rendezvous. Boucher, however, had made one thing clear. While Bhutto had joined forces with Sharif, the US would not do business with him. ‘They just didn’t trust him,’ said a Bhutto aide. The US believed it had been betrayed over the Kargil war of 1999, when Sharif claimed not to have known that his military (led by army chief General Musharraf) had seized Indian positions in the heights of the Siachen glacier, pitching two nuclear nations into a potentially apocalyptic war. Sharif told Weekend: ‘But by 2006, we didn’t need the US. It was time they realised that in backing Musharraf in Pakistan they were going to get their finger’s burned, just like they did in Iran. Then, they had kept saying the Shah was safe until one day he was overthrown and the Ayatollahs took over the country. That could be Pakistan’s future too. Musharraf overthrown and the fundamentalists take over. We are a better option, believe me.’

The Sharifs worked to rebuild their shattered party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in Pakistan, while Boucher took two months to get Musharraf to the negotiating table with Bhutto. Finally, in September 2006, the General sent Tariq Aziz, his national security adviser, and General Pervez Kiani, the director general of the ISI, to Dubai. It was a high-risk strategy for Musharraf and Bhutto, as the supporters of both would have balked at the discussions. One of those who attended recalled: ‘They talked for hours with nothing written down. Musharraf’s men said they were there to listen, but Bhutto suspected they were time wasting.’ However, General Kiani had once been Bhutto’s deputy military secretary and he advised her that the major sticking point was Musharraf’s pride. He had never forgiven her for embarrassing him during their discussions on fomenting war in Kashmir in 1993, the same meeting that Bhutto had described to Jack Straw. Then Musharraf had also asked her to change the rules of war to allow the Pakistan army to launch a full-scale invasion on its own initiative. ‘This country is run by a civilian government,’ Bhutto recalled snapping. ‘I am still the Prime Minister.’

The pressure on Musharraf would only increase. In November 2006, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director of Britain’s MI5, warned that ‘resilient networks’ of terrorists in Europe was being ‘directed by al-Qaeda’ from Pakistan. In early 2007, President Bush made his first public criticism of Musharraf too, warning that he had to be more aggressive in hunting down terrorists. While publicly Musharraf denied he would negotiate with any exiled leaders, Aziz and spy chief General Kiani flew to and from Dubai carrying messages. Musharraf was considering some kind of deal, they told Bhutto, and was willing to hold elections if he could stay on as president ‘There is resentment against our posture of… cooing up to the General with what is now being called a DEAL,’ Bhutto was warned in a confidential memo. The talks stalled. Then Aziz and General Kiani returned in March with an even stranger proposal. If Bhutto stayed away from Pakistan during the election, Musharraf would ‘adjust the vote’. A Bhutto aide said: ‘We could not believe it. He was offering to rig the election.’

The pressure on Musharraf grew relentlessly too. A few days after the last round of secret talks, he suspended Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, accusing the judge, weakly, of corruption. Chaudhry would have overseen an election when it had been called and his treatment at the hands of the military proved a trigger for the building frustrations in the country. Thousands took to the streets, Bhutto and Sharif marshalling their supporters at mass demonstrations. The focus would be a speech Chaudhry was due to make in Karachi on May 12, 2007. When the entire city adhered to a general strike that morning, Musharraf snapped. A phalanx of 16,000 paramilitary troops trapped protestors, before hundreds of masked gunmen stormed the streets killing more than 40 people, many of them PPP supporters. In the days that followed, 300 more PPP activists were rounded up.

Musharraf was more unstable than ever. Aziz and General Kiani flew back to Dubai as fires burned in Pakistani cities. ‘They said no more time wasting, Musharraf was ready to deal,’ said a senior PPP official. But Bhutto was firm. ‘We wanted a free vote and I told them I was going back home, to campaign for one.’ Aziz and General Kiani asked Bhutto to write down all of her demands. She penned 36 requirements including safeguards for her own return, the freeing of all political workers, and a transparent election. Then she made a remarkable concession. If she fought and won the election and became Pakistan’s prime minister, Musharraf could stay on as a civilian president for the next five years. In another seismic shift, Bhutto proposed the military retain responsibility for foreign affairs and national security over this five-year period, while her government would concentrate on the domestic agenda. One aide recalled: ‘We were giving the military a soft way out. It was not a deal.’

Within hours, Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state, was on a plane to Dubai. He was scheduled to make an official trip to Islamabad in four days. Boucher insisted that Musharraf had accepted the fact that ‘he needed Bhutto’. An aide recalled Boucher as saying: ‘Democracy was needed to fight terror and extremism and the military could not do this alone.’ Publicly all sides denied the talks. Boucher wasn’t mediating a deal, a State Department spokesman said. Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Tasnim Aslam, described Boucher’s trip as a ‘normal periodic visit’. But for the next 48 hours Boucher frantically passed messages between the two camps. By the time US State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, briefed the media on June 11 about Boucher’s impending arrival in Pakistan, he was positively bullish. ‘There are going to be some important elections coming up in the fall,’ he said. Musharraf had pledged that if he ‘continues in political life’ he will ‘put aside the uniform’.

As soon as he stepped off the plane in Islamabad the following day, Boucher was talking up the elections. ‘They should be free, fair and transparent,’ he said, as he was driven to see Pakistan’s election commissioner and to inspect ballot boxes and the electoral roll, paid for with $60 million (£3 million) funding. Boucher would be joined by US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte to emphasise the importance of the trip.

But Musharraf was still uneasy with the Bhutto alliance being forced on him by Washington. A self-confessed street fighter in his youth, he needed to be in control and could not afford for his image as Pakistan’s strongman to be tarnished. A month-long siege, with hundreds of men, women and children as well as foreign hostages, barricaded inside the compound of Islamabad’s Red Mosque provided the perfect backdrop, and on July 11 Musharraf came out fighting, ordering Pakistani commandos to storm the religious institution with maximum force. Hundreds died in the battle that followed, including Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the radical cleric who ran the mosque, leading to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda second in command, to issue a statement in which he described Musharraf’s soldiers as ‘the Crusaders’ hunting dogs’ and implored Pakistani Islamists to ‘die honourably in the field of jihad.’

Shaukat Aziz, Musharraf’s prime minister, described the siege-breaking as a ‘victory,’ but for Benazir Bhutto the fact it had been allowed to develop into a crisis in the first place was evidence of how close Pakistan’s ruling military regime had come to the extremists. ‘Pakistan is experiencing its darkest hour,’ she said.

‘Through the Red Mosque debacle, General Musharraf has been forced to show his true face,’ said Bhutto. ‘Hundreds have died unnecessarily. General Musharraf stood by while a revered religious institution was transformed into 7,000-strong army of jihadis in the heart of the capital. In 2002, he allowed two madrasas to be built by extremist supporters of the Taliban beside the mosque on government land and did nothing. But now it suits him to intervene, he has.’

Bhutto claimed recent events at the Red Mosque were ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ as the Islamic fundamentalists’ grip on Pakistan is now countrywide, thanks to Musharraf’s support. ‘It’s not as General Musharraf portrays, that he is battling militants who are trying to get a toe-hold,’ she says. ‘They have been trying to get a toehold ever since the Soviets left Afghanistan. Of course now they have far more than a toehold. In the border regions there are thousands of new madrasas. And they are not just madrasas, they are mini-cantonments, ruling the tribal areas through terror.’ She claimed to have just received information that MPs from Musharraf’s ruling PML(Q) party have recently received government funding to build a new madrasa in every constituency. ‘Free and fair elections are the last chance to halt the expansion of al-Qaeda and the neo-Taliban,’ she concluded.

Earlier this month, Musharraf reiterated that he was still committed to holding an election, but the pressing question now being asked was whether Bhutto, who informal polls showed was likely to win, was capable of bringing Pakistan back from the brink?

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When the military was last forced into free elections it was in 1988, after a decade of Zia’s increasingly unpopular military dictatorship. Then it ensured the odds were in its favour by dumping leaflets from the air that bore humiliating, doctored photos of Bhutto and her mother in bikinis, beneath the slogan ‘gangsters in bangles’. When Bhutto overcame the military to win, the feared ISI stepped up its covert campaign. According to Husain Haqqani, then a Bhutto advisor, the military commenced a black operation that was the origin of the Salman Rushdie affair. In 1989, only months into Bhutto’s first term, ISI agents came across a copy of The Satanic Verses, well before it had reached Asia. ‘They highlighted ambiguous paragraphs that with the right spin could be deemed incendiary and sent a marked-up copy to a cleric Maulana Kauser Niazi, who was down on his luck,’ Haqqani said. Niazi began to write in Urdu against Rushdie, and within days there were violent protests, drawing the attention of Tehran, where Ayatollah Khomenei issued his infamous fatwa. ‘That only left the ISI to make one last, damning connection, revealing that The Satanic Verses’ US publisher was the same as for Bhutto’s memoir, Daughter of Destiny,’ Haqqani said.

Bhutto was made to look like a woman of poor judgement. Weakened, she was forced out of office in 1990 and when she attempted to stand again in the election of that year, the ISI and military, according to documents lodged in the Pakistan Supreme Court, deployed a £1.5 million slush fund with which they bribed religious candidates to slander Bhutto. She had taken on as her advisor Mark Siegel, a former Carter Administration official turned lobbyist, whose clients included Israel, a man who was now ridiculed as ‘Benazir’s Jew’. The election was lost.

However, 17 years on, the Pakistan military, on the verge of conceding another election, will this time be far more vicious, having evolved into the most powerful economic entity in the country. Musharraf and his generals have by stealth gone into business, dishonestly accruing a fortune estimated at £6 billion, far exceeding this year’s record profit accrued by the HSBC, Europe’s biggest bank. Whether it is cornflakes, missiles or Kashmiri shawls, all of it is now owned by the generals, making it difficult for Bhutto to wrest control of the country upon her return. Ayesha Siddiqa, a former research director for the Pakistan Navy who last month published Military Inc, a book exposing the new-found wealth of Pakistan’s armed forces, told Weekend: ‘Pakistan is a racketeer state run by soldiers.’

Analysing the military’s empire is almost impossible. Only a handful of their estimated 100 companies are listed on the stock exchange, while the majority are controlled by subsidiaries and have no duty to report any financial data. However, after many years of probing, Siddiqa has managed to chart how the military’s fortunes have grown, by the auctioning of Pakistan’s state assets to its own welfare organisations. Foundations established to look after servicemen and their families now run Pakistan’s cement and fertilizer industries, as well as pharmaceuticals and telecommunications, banking, aggregates, aviation, transport and insurance. Everything from the tarmac people drive on, to the petrol they put in their tanks, to the motorway tollbooths they can barely afford, to the road hauliers they hire, is owned by the military.

Since Musharraf came to power, notably choosing the title of Pakistan’s Chief Executive when he first emerged as leader, he has transformed Pakistan’s market economy into a military one, giving preferential supplies to his armed services and setting the prices far higher for everyone else. Siddiqa said: ‘There is no competition. The military has privileged access to it all: electricity, fuel and transport.’ In a country plagued by power cuts and petrol shortages, these advantages have transformed two of the military’s welfare wings, the Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust, into the largest conglomerates in Pakistan.

Fauji, which means soldier in Urdu, was established in 1954 with a grant of £150,000. However, under Musharraf, it is now worth £85 million. Employing 7,000 staff, predominately from the army, it controls 25 projects, 23 of which have never published financial data. In 2004, the Fauji Foundation obtained control of Pakistan State Oil, gifting it 70 per cent of the domestic market. The Army Welfare Trust that was created in the Seventies with a grant of only £6,000, now has assets of more than £200 million. Not to be outdone the Pakistan Air Force has also moved into business with its Shaheen Foundation, founded in 1977 with £43,000, now thought to be worth £17 million, and running among other things a private airline to ferry generals to and from private rendezvous. According to the IMF, between them these foundations control more than one quarter of Pakistan’s economy, and today the most obvious sign of where these profits are spent is the mushrooming estates of lavish villas for serving and retired army officers in the hills around Islamabad and Rawalpindi, at a time when 6.3 million are homeless and 20 per cent of the population still live in open-sewer slums.

But perhaps the most shocking change of all is the military’s real estate empire. The services now controls the equivalent to 12 per cent of the total landmass of Pakistan, of which only 70,000 acres are set aside for military facilities: bases, security buffers, ranges or fortifications. They have turned the other 12 million acres into private farmland and individual estates for Musharraf’s key generals, whose personal wealth is estimated at £3.5 million a head.

Musharraf, who officially lives for free in Army House in Rawalpindi on a combined salary of £700 a month for his jobs as President and army chief, has somehow acquired a real estate portfolio worth £5 million including plots in Karachi, Rawalpindi, two in Peshawar, one in Bahawalpur, Punjab, another in Baluchistan and a farmhouse in Islamabad.

Musharraf declined an interview with Weekend. Instead, Pakistan blacklisted reporters from The Guardian, prohibiting them from getting visas. However, he has publicly commented on the military’s business world, recently claiming: ‘We’ve got fertilizers, we’re involved in banking, we are involved even in pharmaceuticals. So what is the problem? Why is anyone jealous? We do things well.’

If political power and economic power equals political capital, then the Pakistan military have themselves become a new political class that ultimately might not care who wins the elections. Regardless of whether Bhutto triumphs at the polls, it is they who will remain in power.

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