When News Of Bhutto’s Death Almost Killed Me In Waziristan

When News Of Bhutto’s Death Almost Killed Me In Waziristan
There was a direct linear connection between Bhutto’s death and my near fatal accident. I will illustrate the principle of cause and effect in politics through the case study below. Within what seemed minutes of Bhutto’s hanging, and even before I learned of the matter at the Scouts’ Mess in Wana, my driver had heard of the atrocity, and it had caused him extreme agitation.

An incident of national importance which happened in one part of the country was making an impact in another part. In this case, Bhutto was killed in Central Jail Rawalpindi in the Punjab province and its impact was evident in the South Waziristan Agency in the remote Tribal Areas of Pakistan.


Waziristan adventure

Considering the scope of the crisis and its potential to disrupt law and order, I decided to hurry back to my headquarters in Tank. It was a journey that normally took several hours traveling through difficult Mahsud territory. As we hurried back to Tank escorted by a traditional convoy, it made my driver uncharacteristically defy my exhortations not to speed. He was in a dark mood and kept ignoring my instructions. We were deep in Mahsud territory in the hills of Waziristan, and it was never advisable to tarry so I waited to move out of that patch of road before ordering him to stop the vehicle and change drivers. We could all feel his seething anger in his body language and his constant shifting in his seat. His expression which I saw in the mirror was angry and dangerous. He would say he was like my son and my family, and I treated him as such. I trusted him with my life. He carried a Kalashnikov for my protection, but in that mood, I wasn’t sure where he would aim it. Bhutto’s death had unleashed emotions bigger than personal loyalties. There was something elemental afoot in Pakistan.

Before lunch at the Wana Mess, we were shown the famous letter displayed there. The celebrated “Lawrence of Arabia,” traveling anonymously as T.E. Shaw, visited the South Waziristan Scouts and presented his book Revolt in the Desert (1927) to the unit. He signed it as T.E. Shaw. The book is preserved in a glass case in the Wana Mess. Lawrence inscribed a note to the South Waziristan Scouts. (Details of the letter and other episodes from my time in the Agency are covered in my book, Resistance and Control in Pakistan, 1991).

At lunch that day at the Wana Mess, the Commandant of the South Waziristan Scouts came up to me and taking me aside said he had just heard Bhutto had been hanged. His orders were to be alert for the potential breakdown of law and order. He looked sombre. I was neither a member of Bhutto's party nor ever considered joining him, yet the news upset me. I realised the devastating impact it would have on the stability and psyche of Pakistan. I retreated to the Political Agent's house and into the bedroom. There I lay down on the large bed which had been specially ordered for Bhutto's last visit to the Agency. It had not been a happy occasion and there was firing on the camp all night by the tribesmen. Afghan agents, our intelligence said.
Lying on my back in Waziristan, my mind was crystal clear, but I knew that a tidal wave of awful pain would soon hit me. I estimated I had half an hour or so of consciousness

Those minutes by myself allowed me to collect my thoughts of the transitory nature of power, indeed of life itself. Just yesterday, Bhutto was the most popular man in Pakistan, with millions cheering him at his speeches, and now he had been treated like a common criminal.

Just before his visit to Wana, Bhutto had visited the Orakzai agency where I was the Political Agent. Anticipating trouble, I had worked assiduously to get the several tribes to sign a tribal truce which the collective would ensure. This tradition is called Teega or stone. The agreement is like a stone that is visible and solid. As a result of the Teega, the helicopters arrived peacefully, the tribesmen sat patiently through the speeches and then there was an uneasy moment when they refused to depart. When I made inquiries, I was told they were waiting to see the helicopters fly off again. This had been the most unusual event in the history of the Orakzai Agency.

Although the trip went off without a hitch, especially considering what happened in the other agencies, Bhutto said “thank you” in a desultory off-hand way. Hosting Bhutto and observing him at close quarters, I found him distracted and remote. At lunch, he talked of the American elections rather than the Orakzai Agency. The Democrats were set to win, and Bhutto made the point that Republicans invariably favoured Pakistan. I suspect he was also worried about some of the plots being hatched against him. Truly the head that wears a crown is uneasy.

In the meantime, back in Waziristan, the news of Bhutto’s death was spreading like wildfire and creating consternation among ordinary people. Revolutions begin exactly at such moments and their target is the government and its symbols; in this case, as head of the administration, that meant me. To men like my driver, Bhutto was greater than the sum of his parts. He symbolised hope and the promise of a better future. He was a leader who cared for the ordinary man.

We were driving dangerously fast considering the poor condition of the road, the curves, and blind turns. We were in a Japanese-made van and its body was thin and high. It was quite unstable and had a history of accidents. On top of this, we were living in the era before seatbelts. We were in mountainous terrain with steep inclines on one side of the road and deep ravines below on the other.

Taking a corner at speed, we saw a cluster of donkeys we almost hit as they slipped and stumbled down from the hill on the left of the road. The driver tried to avoid smashing into the animals and swerved and braked. The van going at great speed now rolled over three or four times while we were flung about inside like clothes in a washing machine. Intense chest pain grew in me: the bar in front of my seat and the roof of the vehicle had hit me as we somersaulted. Everyone in the van had cuts and bruises except, of course, the driver who appeared unscathed.

We were in the vicinity of the dreaded Shahur Tangi. Here an entire British brigade – yes, a brigade – was wiped out by the Mahsud in a classic ambush. The Mahsud rolled down large stones and blocked egress out of and ingress into the gorge and then, sitting out of reach on the mountain tops, picked off the soldiers one by one. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. There were more troops in Waziristan alone than on the rest of the entire British Indian subcontinent.

Every time we drove through the Tangi, and even though my guard had as routine practice, taken the heights as a precaution, I would get a shiver of excitement running down my spine.

Now here we were: the Political Agent sprawled on his back, the Assistant Political Agent injured and out of commission, and the Khassadar guard scurrying around, taking up defensive positions in case we were attacked in an ambush. On top of this, we had an English celebrity with us.
We were in the vicinity of the dreaded Shahur Tangi. Here an entire British brigade – yes, a brigade – was wiped out by the Mahsud in a classic ambush

An Englishman in Waziristan

There was an adventure taking place within the adventure. Accompanying us was Dr. Andre Singer, a prominent British anthropologist. He had worked at Oxford for his PhD with the legendary Evans-Pritchard and eventually produced and directed dozens of brilliant documentaries. He was also elected president of the most prestigious anthropological association, the Royal Anthropological Institute. In recognition of his contributions to the subject, the Queen honored him with the OBE.

Andre had got official permission to travel to the Agency with me from the Home Secretary, Jahanzeb Khan, a very fine Frontier officer and a good friend. Andre thus accompanied me to film the Jirga on the Afghan border and was in the van with me when it met the accident.

Andre made and released the documentary Khyber (1979) using some of the material from his trip to Waziristan, which is still available online. Leo McKern, who was in Help! with the Beatles, provided the excellent commentary. In the documentary, as the film footage will show, the Afghan refugees escaping into the Agency demanded weapons. I insisted we could only help them with milk and food. We were already being accused of organising a revolt against the Soviets and had to be careful in this regard. The Soviets were pouring into Afghanistan and soon the occupation of the country would be a reality. It would be another decade before the Afghans would defeat and expel the Soviets from their land. But then the Americans would arrive and take their place. Foreign forces have always ignored the basic lessons of history in Afghanistan.

I had also narrated how five British Political Agents had lost their lives in the Agency. One had been killed for sleeping with his feet pointing towards Makkah. Another had committed suicide because he had been kidnapped by tribesmen and believed he had let down the Empire. Andre also produced The Pathans – Disappearing World (1979), accompanied by a glorious coffee table book. and Afghan Exodus (1980).

For Pakistanis, the relevance of Andre Singer was that two decades later, I approached him to make the Jinnah documentary. He was busy and reluctant at first, but he finally agreed. He and I were the executive producers on the Jinnah documentary, which I was making alongside the feature film with Christopher Lee. For the documentary, we interviewed some of the leading men and women who had met Mr. Jinnah or were his contemporaries. The documentary had an extraordinary interview with the reclusive Dina, Mr. Jinnah's only child. It took me several trips to New York to persuade her and she finally agreed. It was worth it as she gave us an excellent interview.

The documentary is called Mr Jinnah - The Making of Pakistan. In it, prominent Pakistanis like General Yakub Khan and Justice Javed Iqbal shared their stories of the Quaid. So did prominent Indians like Khushwant Singh. We interviewed British officials who served in British India, including Christopher Beaumont, who was part of the Radcliffe commission set up to demarcate the boundary lines between India and Pakistan. I had invited him for lunch, and he had described how they were ordered by Mountbatten, the Viceroy, to change the boundary at several places in favor of India. He then agreed to say the same thing on camera for us. Andre completed the film project within budget and on schedule. Having overseen its broadcast on British television, he honored his contract. He behaved with impeccable integrity.

But that was all still in the future.
Perhaps one of Bhutto’s greatest achievements which went more or less unnoticed in the rest of Pakistan, was a vigorous program of developmental projects in the Tribal Areas

Lying on my back in Waziristan, my mind was crystal clear, but I knew that a tidal wave of awful pain would soon hit me. I estimated I had half an hour or so of consciousness. So, I gave orders in that time. My concern was law and order, so I instructed my staff to put Dr. Singer in another vehicle, provide him a heavy escort, and drive him — carefully but swiftly — to the airport in Peshawar so he could return to the UK safely. I then gave detailed instructions to my headquarters in Tank. I minimised the accident so as not to create panic and conveyed normalcy. The pain that soon hit my chest was excruciating, and I could not even sit up for the next few days. But to the outside world, the Agency functioned in routine.


Bhutto – a Greek tragedy

As I meditated in my bedroom in Wana about the fate of Mr. Bhutto, my mind went back to the Greeks. The drama of Bhutto’s life, I thought, may be described as a Greek tragedy. Aristotle discussed this type of tragedy in which the protagonist is an outstanding individual who, through his own character flaws and circumstances beyond his control, meets an unhappy ending.

Aristotle defined the elements which make a tragedy: hamartia, anagnorisis, and peripeteia. For our purposes, Bhutto’s fatal flaw was hubris. A clever, even brilliant man, he was incapable of mastering his ego and, as a result, saw his career and life fall into an abyss—this was classic Greek tragedy material.

Z. A. Bhutto reading the author’s book on the Tribal Areas

I recalled the first time I met Mr. Bhutto. It was thanks to Tahir Ayub Khan, my friend from Burn Hall school, who was presently at Cambridge University with me. We came down to London and arrived at the Dorchester Hotel, where the skeptical bobbies on duty questioned us because of our casual attire. It took some inquiry on their part to confirm Tahir was indeed the son of Field Marshal Ayub Khan who we had an appointment to meet for lunch. As we were ushered into President Ayub’s suite, we saw Bhutto there too. I noted he sat at the edge of the sofa with his head bowed respectfully, murmuring, “sir, sir, sir.” “He is like a son to my father,” Tahir had told me. But once we left the room, Bhutto’s entire aspect changed. He was loud and rude to the embassy staff, who seemed terrified of him. I noted the change in Bhutto’s demeanour from obeisance to arrogance, and I felt uneasy. He was like two different people.

Just a few short years later, Bhutto would lead an effective movement against the man he declared was like his father. I was then Assistant Commissioner in Okara and my boss, the Deputy Commissioner, asked me to accompany him to Sahiwal jail to inspect the condition of Bhutto who had been imprisoned there. I noted he had a white beard and looked gaunt. He had a well-washed little unit with two prisoners on deputation to act as his cook and valet. He complained about the late arrival of the papers, and looking at both of us officials, muttered something about people having to pay for his incarceration.

I next saw him on the PIA flight we had both taken from Dhaka in March 1971. As a young CSP officer posted in East Pakistan, I was bubbling with anger and anguish and blamed politicians like him for what I knew was the end of Pakistan. He disembarked in Karachi, I was right behind him, and holding up his hands in benediction, he had said that God had “saved” Pakistan.

Again, the wheel of fortune turned, and Bhutto found himself in the post of President of Pakistan in 1971. The nation had lost its eastern wing and there was uncertainty and gloom in the land. Bhutto rose to the occasion. This was his finest hour, and he gave a dispirited nation hope and confidence.

His ego once again would be his undoing. In an incident widely shared on the gossip networks, Bhutto devised a test for his leading generals. He dropped his silken handkerchief and put his foot on it. It is reported that General Zia-ul-Haq bent down and attempted to tug at the hanky in order to retrieve it. Bhutto continued to press his foot on the hanky, thus embarrassing the kneeling general. That, Bhutto decided, would be his next commander-in-chief. Clearly, Zia did not forget this humiliation when he toppled Bhutto from power.

In spite of national and international appeals, Zia refused to show clemency in Bhutto's case and the former Prime Minister was hanged in Rawalpindi Central Jail on 4 April 1979. He had been outrageously mistreated and tortured in his prison cell. Bhutto in captivity and in death shocked the nation and the event has left a stain on the Pakistan psyche.
. I noted the change in Bhutto’s demeanour from obeisance to arrogance, and I felt uneasy. He was like two different people

Perhaps one of Bhutto’s greatest achievements which went more or less unnoticed in the rest of Pakistan, was a vigorous program of developmental projects in the Tribal Areas. Roads, development schemes and schools were built sometimes for the first time in the tribal agencies. Bhutto's aim was to integrate these areas into Pakistan. The people in these areas responded by giving him more support than any other Pakistani political leader. He was aware that these vigorous excursions would be noted by both India and Afghanistan with alarm, who would attempt to sabotage or slow the pace of development.

After traveling the length and breadth of the Tribal Areas, I wrote a small book with the title Social and Economic Change in the Tribal Areas (Oxford University Press, 1977) and presented it to Mr. Bhutto at the Governor's house in Peshawar. He had followed the “Forward Policy” setting aside “Masterly Inactivity.” General Naseerullah Khan Babar, the Governor, had asked me to dedicate the book to Bhutto as he had genuinely worked to open the Tribal Areas. I had refused, as I believed such actions compromised the integrity of scholarship. Some tension had developed with the Governor, but he was a big man and did not hold it against me. Indeed, he had arranged a one-to-one presentation of my book to the Prime Minister. There I was subjected to the full charm, intelligence, and warmth of Mr. Bhutto.

He opened the pages of my book, reading from it and making comments. And then he rang the bell by his side and told the Secretary to the Prime Minister to grant me access anytime I wanted to meet him. There is a memorable photograph of that occasion printed by The Friday Times with my article on Benazir Bhutto.

General Babar, a favorite of Mr. Bhutto, was known to be an outspoken champion of the Pakhtuns and the Frontier Province. He was constantly on the move promoting development schemes and encouraging people. Yet I saw him deposed overnight and then put under house arrest. On hearing of his downfall, I filled my vehicle with crates of the best apples I could find and drove to his house in Peshawar. I wished to express my appreciation of his outstanding contribution to the people and our province. The house was surrounded by soldiers, most of them from the Tribal Areas. Their orders were that no one was to see the former Governor. My bodyguard told them who I was, and they reluctantly made an exception in my case. True to form, Babar thanked me warmly, but said I shouldn’t have taken the risk as the new Governor was vindictive and would therefore not forgive me. Of course, it was reported to the Governor, who pulled me up.

Bhutto was the embodiment of charisma. At his peak and on his good days, he was formidable. A true champion of Pakistan, whether at the United Nations tearing his speech and striding out of the hall or declaring on national TV that Pakistanis would eat grass but would make the nuclear bomb now that India had got one. He could perform the impossible: he brought back almost 100,000 soldiers from Indian captivity and was returned several thousand square miles of Pakistan territory.

In one episode, it was recounted, he took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves and challenged a heckler in the audience to fisticuffs. He promised roti, kapra aur makan, bread, cloth, and a home, for everyone in Pakistan, picking up the slogan from a popular Bollywood movie. His statement in a public meeting reflected his populist politics: “They accuse me of drinking alcohol. Yes, I drink but I do not drink the blood of people.”

As Prime Minister on one occasion he had ordered every possible outlet to broadcast his public speech in Lahore to a massive crowd. I heard it as part of a captive audience relayed on an internal PIA flight. He deliberately used abusive language and then pretended it had slipped out. The crowd cheered in approval.

Bhutto’s command of English was superb, and his dress sense was fashionable. He boasted he spoke better English than the CSPs and, in a fit of pique, proceeded to abolish the CSP cadre. The steel frame went with a whimper into the dustbin of history.

His contradictions were forever tearing him apart. While, for example, loudly identifying with a socialist and secular position in politics, Bhutto nonetheless condemned the   Ahmadi community to the status of non-Muslims. It hurled the Ahmadis into a living hell as they were denied employment and their properties were seized. Any Ahmadi still claiming to be a Muslim was subject to prosecution. Abdus Salam, then Pakistan’s only Nobel prize winner, was buried in a community cemetery but his headstone was destroyed because it said he was the first Muslim scientist to win the prize. As a result of such prejudicial policies and actions, millions of Ahmadis migrated abroad; from lovers of Pakistan, they became the inveterate living example of its intolerance. In another example, Bhutto vigorously put together a democratic constitution for Pakistan that was unanimously passed in 1973 in the National Assembly. And yet he could not check his authoritarian tendencies and dismissed opposition governments in the smaller provinces.

One of Bhutto’s triumphs was his success in hosting a great gathering of Muslim heads of state in Lahore. And then, true to form, he overreached in the elections, was accused of irregularities, toppled, tried for murder and sent to the gallows. Those who hanged him imagined they had gotten rid of Bhutto, but his death propelled him into the hearts of ordinary Pakistanis, especially Sindhis. Henceforth he would have a special pride of place in Sindh folklore.



Pakistan has produced charismatic leaders, but charisma carries the seeds of its own destruction. While it generates loyal exhilaration among its followers, it also creates envy and anger in its critics. At the height of the powers of the charismatic leader, these two emotions, always in conflict, are balanced. But as the leader's powers wane or he suffers defeat, the voices of the critics become louder. Knives are brought out. The clock has struck for the charismatic leader.

Pakistanis are champion killers of their own national leaders. It began with the father of the nation. Mr. Jinnah was shifted, gravely ill though he was, from Ziarat to Karachi. But then his ambulance mysteriously came to a standstill on its way from the airport. So many questions arise from that ugly episode. But we can say that it hastened the death of the founder of Pakistan (This may well be a South Asian trait as the founders of India and Bangladesh were   assassinated). The first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was shot as he stood up to deliver a public speech in Rawalpindi. Fatima Jinnah died mysteriously and there are rumors till this day about red marks on her throat and body. Hayat Sherpao was blown up on campus. Nawab Kasuri was gunned down and Bhutto was tried and hanged for the crime. After hanging Bhutto, his nemesis Zia-ul-Haq would be blown up in mid-air, and Bhutto’s son Murtaza and daughter Benazir Bhutto would be assassinated. Nawab Bugti was killed with his family by Pervez Musharraf who himself escaped assassination several times. Imran Khan was shot and injured on the Long March. There are serious fears that those who are after his blood will try again.

In conclusion, politicians planning drastic action must understand that events in one part of the country have an impact elsewhere; unintended consequences, as I have illustrated in this case study, follow.

Pakistan must learn to nurture, not destroy its leaders. It must prevent further Greek tragedies. Leaders must attempt to live up to the high expectations of the public and promote compassion, ensure justice, and stand for integrity and wisdom. This may seem a tall order but it is an ideal worth aspiring to;  the alternative for the long-suffering Pakistani who has not lost faith  is too terrible to contemplate.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland