Islamabad March 2002

A Modest Proposal From the Brigadier

What one prominent Pakistani thinks his country should do with its atomic weapons

In the center of the biggest traffic circle of every major city in Pakistan sits a craggy, Gibraltarish replica of a nameless peak in the Chagai range. This mountain is the home of Pakistan's nuclear test site. The development, in 1998, of the "Islamic Bomb," intended as a counter to India's nuclear capability, is Pakistan's only celebrated achievement since its formation, in 1947. The mountain replicas, about three stories tall, are surrounded by flower beds that are lovingly weeded, watered, and manicured. At dusk, when the streetlights come on, so do the mountains, glowing a weird molten yellow.

Islamabad's monument to the atomic bomb occupies a rotary between the airport and the city center. Nearby stand models of Pakistan's two classes of missile: Shaheen and Ghauri. The Islamabad nuclear shrine stands at a place where the city is dissolving into an incoherent edge town of shabby strip malls and empty boulevards and rows of desolate government buildings. A little farther in one comes to the gridded blocks of gated homes. The neighborhoods are called sectors. The streets are numbered, not named.

Late last year, after nearly two months in Pakistan, I paid the last of many visits to house No. 8 on street 19, sector F-8/2, a modern white mansion known as Zardari House. The house has been used by Asif Ali Zardari, the imprisoned husband of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's exiled former Prime Minister. Neither Zardari nor Bhutto has been there for a long time. Zardari has been confined for five years, most recently in Attock Fort, a medieval fortress perched over the Indus River between Islamabad and Peshawar. He is charged with a slew of crimes: large-scale corruption; conspiracy in the murder of Bhutto's brother Mir Murtaza; conspiracy to smuggle narcotics. Bhutto, who also faces corruption charges in Pakistan, lives in Dubai with their three children. Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, has promised to have her arrested and tried if she ever returns to Pakistan. Outside the gate to the empty Zardari House sits a man with his back to the wall, a sawed-off shotgun across his knees.

I had been going there to consult with Brigadier Amanullah, known to his friends as Aman. Aman, in his early fifties and now retired, is lithe and gentle-natured and seemed to me slightly depressed. He works in a small office behind Zardari House, where, as the secretary to Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad, he coordinates Bhutto's efforts to return to Pakistan and regain its prime ministership. He also keeps in close touch with old colleagues, who include many powerful people in Pakistan. Aman was once the chief of Pakistan's military intelligence in Sind Province, which borders India. Pakistan's biggest city and a cultural center, Karachi, is in Sind. That put Aman squarely in the middle of things, his finger near many sorts of buttons. Today Aman is believed to act as Bhutto's liaison with the armed forces, and he maintains contacts with serving army officers, including senior generals. When I wanted to speak to someone in the Pakistani government, I asked Aman. When I wanted to speak to someone in the Taliban, or in military intelligence, or in the political opposition, I asked Aman. His replies were mumbled and monosyllabic. He never offered opinions. He would simply hear me out and, most times, tip his head and say, "Why not?" Within an hour after Aman and I parted, I would receive a phone call from his secretary. References would be made to "that man" or "that matter," and I would be given a phone number and a time to call. Having spoken with Aman, I was always expected.

On the day of my final visit Aman seemed more sullen than usual. He ushered me into a room adjoining the office. The room was long and spare. There was an oil painting on the far wall. The other walls were empty and lined with cushioned chairs. Aman sat across from me. We had tea and spoke about the latest events.

As we were wrapping up our conversation, I looked at the oil painting. It was a strange picture, a horizontal landscape about four feet across, with overtones of socialist realism. In the foreground a youthful Benazir Bhutto stood in heroic pose on an escarpment overlooking the featureless grid of Islamabad. Beside her stood her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a Prime Minister who in 1977 was ousted in a coup and two years later hanged. On the other side of Bhutto was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the long-dead founding father of Pakistan. Their postures were exalted, their expressions a combination of pride and awe. Jinnah's arm pointed to the vast plain beyond the city, where a rocket was lifting out of billowing clouds of vapor and fire into the sky.

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