Could the U.S. Have Prevented Benazir Bhutto's Death?

The former prime minister of Pakistan may not have been killed in 2007 had U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson granted her requested security protection


Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

In October 2007, four days after a bomb killed more than 140 people in Karachi, Pakistan, at a parade celebrating Benazir Bhutto's return after eight years of exile, Bhutto, a former Pakistani prime minister who was, at the time, challenging General Pervez Musharraf for the presidency, asked for additional protection from foreign contractors. She noted that Hamid Karzai had such a protective force, and former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had enjoyed one as well.

But U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson, whom Barack Obama has recently appointed as the State Department's special coordinator for Egypt, advised against such assistance, according to a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks. The ambassador worried that such an evaluation of the current security measures would "inevitably expose performance gaps" and "strongly recommended against" providing an assessment or enhanced security. The cable was published in the Indian paper the Hindu Times.

Bhutto was not given better security, and, two months later, she was killed by a bomber in December 2007 while campaigning in Rawalpindi, the garrisoned home of the Pakistani military.

The British Telegraph was the only major paper to report that Bhutto had sought foreign security assistance at the time. A few days after her death, a story suggested that her staff had discussed deals with the American security firm Blackwater and the British firm Armor Group.

The piece speculated Pervez Musharraf had "collapsed" all plans for foreign protection.

When I interviewed the general in his London flat in June 2009, I asked him whether he, or the U.S. State Department, had been responsible for denying Bhutto the protections. The general grew irate when I raised the subject:

In regard to the Benazir Bhutto assassination, a number of press reports said that she was looking for foreign protection from Blackwater or perhaps British contractors--and that it was denied to her. Was that denied by the U.S. State Department or by your government in Pakistan?

Nobody asked us for that. But the second thing, if anyone would have asked me, I would have certainly refused. It's an insult and a humiliation for Pakistan, its police, its army. Nobody takes this humiliation that we have to get Blackwater and all--what the hell? Nobody enters--we look after her. It's an insult, I think. We are not a Banana Republic, a Rwanda, or Burundi, and these places.

This is Pakistan, which has 170 million people. It has got 600,000 military. It has second-line forces, the rangers. There is no question, why should anyone from outside come in?

The U.N.'s investigation into the murder was released in April 2010. It concluded that "Ms. Bhutto's assassination could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken." And it noted that Musharraf's government failed to provide comparable measures for Bhutto as it had for two other former prime ministers.

The great humiliation lies with the fact that Pakistan failed to protect Bhutto, and perhaps never really tried, and with the fact that the proud Pakistani military remains too wedded to an impossible war with India to recognize how terrifically it has failed. It's a war it can never fight, as both are now nuclear powers, as Musharraf has stated, and that Pakistan can certainly never win.

And there is no doubt the country will continue to be bested by its nemesis if it continues to spend 17 percent of its budget on its military and less than 1.5 percent of its GDP on its failed education system. India will soon spend close to 10 percent of its far larger GDP on education and health.