Military history

CHAPTER 16

STRAY CAT STRUT

With Bhutto gone, I needed to meet the lion of Punjab, or maybe the tiger. No one seemed to know which feline Nawaz Sharif was nicknamed after. Some fans rode around with stuffed toy lions strapped to their cars. Others talked about the tiger of Punjab. By default, Sharif, a former prime minister like Bhutto, had become the most popular opposition leader in the country. He was already the most powerful politician in Punjab, which was the most powerful of Pakistan’s four provinces, home to most of the army leaders and past rulers. Some people described Sharif as the Homer Simpson of Pakistan. Others considered him a right-wing wing nut. Still others figured he could save the country.

Sharif was once considered an invention of the establishment, a protégé of the former military dictator in Pakistan, General Zia, but like all politicians here, he had become a creature of himself. During his second term, Sharif built my favorite road in Pakistan, a hundred and seventy miles of paved, multilaned bliss connecting Lahore to Islamabad; named Musharraf as chief of the army; and successfully tested the country’s first nuclear weapon. He also cozied up to the Taliban in Afghanistan and briefly considered declaring himself the “commander of the faithful,” an often-claimed Islamic title waved around by such luminaries as Taliban founder Mullah Omar. In other words, his record was mixed. Sharif’s fundamentalist phase occurred just before he bloomed into full megalomania, believing that a civilian leader of Pakistan could actually sack his army chief. He fired Musharraf in 1999 while the general was in Sri Lanka; Musharraf immediately hopped on a plane home, and Sharif followed up his original folly by refusing to allow Musharraf’s plane to land in Pakistan. Meanwhile, top generals in Pakistan, used to such shenanigans, seized power and allowed the plane to land ten minutes before it ran out of fuel. In gratitude, Musharraf jailed Sharif, accused him of attempted murder, and eventually banished him to Saudi Arabia. That would teach a civilian leader to take on the army.

While in exile, Sharif joined forces with his former nemesis, Bhutto, and reformed his fundamentalist image, going so far as to get hair plugs. Many people counted Sharif out—even Western diplomats, who typically laughed when asked if his party had a chance to regain power in the upcoming parliamentary elections. But Sharif’s party—not Bhutto’s—had become the major backer of the lawyer protests, and Sharif had gone on at length, even eloquently, about the need for justice in Pakistan. (The irony of this was lost on no one. While Sharif was in office, in 1997, his backers had actually stormed the supreme court and forced it to suspend contempt proceedings against him.)

So Sharif was now the darling of the more moderate forces in Pakistan, even if they remained slightly suspicious. One of Sharif’s friends tried to explain him to me: “He might be tilting a little to the right, but he’s not an extremist. Extremists don’t go do hair implants. He also loves singing.”

I had attempted to see Sharif when he first tried to return to Pakistan a few months earlier, in September. But commandos had stormed his plane shortly after it landed. Within five hours, he had been shipped back to Saudi Arabia, looking bewildered.

Sharif had finally flown home in late November, weeks after Musharraf declared an emergency. Samad had driven me to the airport in the eastern city of Lahore, Sharif’s home territory and the capital of Punjab Province. Tens of thousands of supporters waited behind fences across from the airport entrance. Some shouted for the lion of Punjab—others waved stuffed toy tigers or tiny cardboard Sharif cutouts. It was a classic botched media event. Reporters were herded into a tiny area in front of the airport, surrounded by barriers covered in barbed wire. Thousands of supporters eventually broke through the fences, screaming and running toward us. More and more people pushed into the journalists’ pen, squeezing everyone and driving us toward certain impalement on the barbed wire. Samad guarded a shorter friend of mine. My translator tried to protect my back. I stood in a basketball stance, an immovable force. But not for long. A Pakistani journalist from Aaj TV pushed past me, elbowed me in the ribs, and shoved me to the side. I pushed back.

“You don’t see me standing here?” I said.

He shrugged. “Women should not be here anyway. This is a man’s job.”

The crowd swayed back and forth, and I tried to keep my balance. A man grabbed my butt, a message to my fist, and before my brain knew it, I managed to punch him in the face. Not professional, not at all, but still somewhat gratifying.

That was the chaos just before Nawaz Sharif and his brother walked out of the airport, with me worried about my rear, my position, the barbed wire, a mob, and a potential bomb. Supporters lifted the Sharifs onto their shoulders and spun them around in circles because they had no room to walk. Nawaz Sharif looked shell-shocked. He somehow clambered onto a rickety wooden table next to a taxi stand. The contrast with Bhutto was obvious—she was smooth, a master performer, charisma personified, always in control. Sharif seemed more like a baffled everyman, nondescript and beige.

The crush of men waved their arms in the air and shouted that they loved Sharif. He spoke into a microphone, but it was broken and no one could hear anything he said. Speech over, Sharif climbed down from the counter and slipped into a bulletproof black Mercedes, courtesy of his good friend, King Abdullah, who had also shipped Sharif back to Pakistan in a Saudi royal plane.

Now, six weeks later, it was January 2008. Bhutto was dead and Sharif was the only living senior politician in Pakistan. He had been banned from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections—likely because Musharraf still hated him so much—but he would be a major factor in those elections. Sharif was trying to appear like a figure of reconciliation, above all the politics. He publicly cried after Bhutto’s death, and talked about how she had called him for his fifty-eighth birthday, two days before she was killed. I called everyone I knew to try to get an interview.

“You only get fifteen minutes with Mian Sahib,” Sharif’s press aide finally told me, referring to Sharif by his honorary title. “Maybe twenty at the most.”

I flew into Lahore on a Friday morning, and we drove for an hour toward the town of Raiwind and Sharif’s palatial home and palatial grounds. The closer we got, the more Sharif. The place may as well have been called Nawaz Land, given the amusement-park feel and the fact that his name and picture were on everything, from the hospital to giant billboards. Everywhere I looked, Sharif—amiable, slightly pudgy, topped with hair plugs—stared at me like the Cheshire cat. Guards checked me at the gate, searching my bag meticulously. The grounds of Raiwind resembled a cross between a golf course and a zoo, with several football fields of manicured grass and wild animals in cages, leading up to a miniature palace that looked slightly like a wedding cake, with different layers and trim that resembled frosting. The driveway was big enough for a limousine to execute a U-turn. I walked inside and was told to wait. The inside of the house appeared to have been designed by Saudi Arabia—a hodge-podge of crystal chandeliers, silk curtains, gold accents, marble. A verse of the Holy Quran and a carpet with the ninety-nine names of God hung on the walls of Sharif’s receiving room, along with photographs of Sharif with King Abdullah and slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Finally I was summoned.

“Kim,” Sharif’s media handler said, gesturing toward the ground. “Come.”

I hopped up and walked toward the living room, past two raggedy stuffed lions with rose petals near their feet. So maybe Sharif was the lion of Punjab. Inside the room, Sharif stood up, wearing a finely pressed salwar kameez, a navy vest, and a natty scarf. He shook my hand and offered me a seat in an ornate chair. The sitting room was a study in pink, rose, and gold, with golden curlicues on various lighting fixtures and couches, and crystal vases everywhere. Many of the knickknacks were gifts from world leaders. His press aide tapped his watch, looked at me, and raised his eyebrows. I got the message and proceeded with my questions, as fast as I could. But it soon became clear that this would be unlike any interview I had ever done.

“You’re the only senior opposition leader left in Pakistan. How are you going to stay safe while campaigning?”

In Pakistan, campaigns were not run through TV, and pressing the flesh was a job requirement. Candidates won over voters by holding rallies of tens and hundreds of thousands of people. Even though Sharif was not personally running, his appearance would help win votes for anyone in his party.

Sharif looked at me, sighed, and shook his head.

“I don’t know. It’s a good question. What do you think, Kim?”

“I don’t know. I’m not the former prime minister of Pakistan. So what will you do?”

“Really, I don’t know. What do you think?”

This put me in an awkward position—giving security advice to Nawaz Sharif.

“Well, it’s got to be really difficult. You have these elections coming up. You can’t just sit here at home.”

“What should I do?” he asked. “I can’t run a campaign sitting in my house, on the television.”

I had to find a way to turn this back on him.

“It’s interesting,” I said. “You keep asking me questions about what I think. And it seems like you do that a lot—ask other people questions. It seems like you’re also willing to change your mind, if circumstances change.”

“I do take people’s advice,” he said. “I believe in consultation.”

After twenty minutes, Sharif’s aide started twitching. I fired off my questions about Musharraf, the man Sharif had named army chief, only to be overthrown by him.

“I do not actually want to say much about Musharraf. He must step down and allow democracy. He is so impulsive, so erratic.”

“Come on. You named this man army chief, then tried to fire him, then he overthrew you and sent you into exile, and now you’re back. What do you think about him?”

Sharif nodded, then tried to duck the question.

“Appointing Mr. Musharraf as chief of army staff—that’s my biggest mistake.”

I stood up. Sharif’s aide was already standing.

“I should probably be going,” I said. “Thanks very much for your time.”

“Yes, Mian Sahib’s schedule is very busy,” Sharif’s handler agreed.

“It’s all right,” Sharif said. “She can ask a few more questions.”

I sat down. I had whipped through most of my important questions, so I recycled them. I asked him whether he was a fundamentalist. Sharif dismissed the idea, largely by pointing to his friendship with the Clintons. I tried to leave again, fearing I was overstaying my welcome. But Sharif said I could ask more questions.

“One more,” I said, wary of Sharif’s aide. Then I asked the question that was really on my mind.

“Which are you—the lion or the tiger?”

Sharif didn’t even blink.

“I am the tiger,” he said.

“But why do some people call you the lion?”

“I do not know. I am the tiger.”

“But why do you have two stuffed lions?”

“They were a gift. I like them.”

Curiosity satisfied, I decided to get out of Pakistan and the madness there while possible. A colleague flew in from India so I could take a week’s vacation. Dave, just back from Afghanistan, and I left for a much-deserved holiday, a beach in Thailand. Before moving to Asia, I had never liked beach vacations. I had wanted to visit historic sites, move hotels every day, run all the time. But after the past six months, all I wanted to do was sit catatonic in front of an ocean and read bad thrillers. I didn’t want to move from my reclining chair. Even ordering a drink with an umbrella or dipping my toes in the ocean seemed too demanding. I also really didn’t want to argue with Dave, even though he was upset that I only had a few days off. We had fought after the emergency was declared—I wasn’t being supportive enough. We had fought after he returned from his first trip to Afghanistan, and again after I went to visit Sharif in Lahore, both times because I was not paying enough attention to our relationship. He was probably right.

I hoped that this vacation could fix us—because all we had been doing since meeting was working harder than I could ever remember and fighting more than I ever had. Maybe having time off would stop the arguments, which I still believed were a sign of intensity, of passion. By the time we flew back to Pakistan—after hardly a week of vacation—I was still burned out, unable to think rationally, unable to comprehend that for the first time since moving overseas, I was no longer happy. My joy was gone, my soul was sapped, but I would only realize this much later. At least I had weaned myself off the sleeping pills and my nightmares had stopped. At least the fighting had calmed down. I dug into my reserves. Looked forward to when I could go back to Afghanistan, where things may have been bad but never this bad.

Once home from Thailand, I picked up my Pakistan cell phone from my colleague, who had borrowed it.

“So, you got a few phone calls,” she said. “One interesting one.”

“Who?”

“Nawaz Sharif,” she said.

I had almost forgotten about the story—I had mentioned his hair plugs, twice, and said Sharif’s genial personality made him seem more like a house cat than a tiger or lion. Ouch.

“Oh. Him. What did he say?” I asked.

“He wanted to talk to you. I said you were on vacation, and he told me to tell you that you wrote a very nice story, and he liked it.”

“Really?”

Well, that was good news, and meant Sharif was remarkably down to earth. Clearly he had a sense of humor. Bhutto had certainly never called after any story I wrote. I soon called Sharif, to see if I could campaign with him.

“You’re the most dangerous man in Pakistan, the top living opposition leader,” I told him. “I want to see what it’s like to be around you.”

“Welcome anytime, Kim,” he said.

In mid-February, I met Sharif at the government’s Frontier House, just outside the judges’ enclave, where the country’s former top justices were still under house arrest. Eventually, after slipping through the mob, I climbed into Sharif’s bulletproof black SUV, surrounded by similar SUVs, and we took off, heading for two speeches outside the capital. We left Islamabad. One of Sharif’s security officers somehow sent us down narrow, bumpy dirt roads, where we ended up in traffic jams. Not encouraging.

“That was bad planning,” Sharif muttered. He sat in the front passenger seat. I sat behind the driver, next to Sharif’s aide.

After various detours, we ended up at the dirt field where Sharif would speak. Thousands of people waited. He was mobbed when he tried to step out of his vehicle, and his bodyguards bounced around like pinballs, trying to get in between well-wishers and their charge. I stood near the dusty stage, but I didn’t want to walk out. Despite Bhutto’s killing, the security at this event resembled that of a high-school pep rally. The podium didn’t even have a bulletproof glass screen, which was supposed to be there. “I don’t know where it is,” Sharif told me, shrugging. “Sometimes the police give it to me, sometimes they give it to someone else.”

Onstage he didn’t seem to care about potential attacks, thundering against dictatorship to the crowd. But I did. This country made me feel insecure, much more than Afghanistan.

We drove to the next rally. I looked at my BlackBerry and spotted one very interesting e-mail—a Human Rights Watch report, quoting a taped conversation from November between the country’s pro-Musharraf attorney general and an unnamed man. The attorney general had apparently been talking to a reporter, and while on that call, took another call, where he talked about vote rigging. The reporter had recorded the entire conversation. I scanned through the e-mail.

“Nawaz,” I said. I had somehow slipped into calling the former prime minister by his first name. “You have to hear this.”

I then performed a dramatic reading of the message in full, culminating in the explosive direct quote from the attorney general, recorded the month before Bhutto was killed and just before Sharif flew home:

“Leave Nawaz Sharif … I think Nawaz Sharif will not take part in the election … If he does take part, he will be in trouble. If Benazir takes part she too will be in trouble … They will massively rig to get their own people to win. If you can get a ticket from these guys, take it … If Nawaz Sharif does not return himself, then Nawaz Sharif has some advantage. If he comes himself, even if after the elections rather than before … Yes …”

It was unclear what the other man was saying, but Human Rights Watch said the attorney general appeared to be advising him to leave Sharif’s party and get a ticket from “these guys,” the pro-Musharraf party, the massive vote riggers.

Sharif’s aide stared at me openmouthed. “Is that true? I can’t believe that.”

“It’s from Human Rights Watch,” I said. “There’s apparently a tape recording. Pretty amazing.”

Sharif just looked at me. “How can you get a text message that long on your telephone?”

“It’s an e-mail,” I said, slightly shocked that Sharif was unconcerned about what I had just said. “This is a BlackBerry phone. You can get e-mail on it.”

“Ah, e-mail,” he said. “I must look into this BlackBerry.”

Sharif soon whipped out a comb, pulled the rearview mirror toward him, and combed his hair. I watched, fascinated. His hair plugs were in some ways genius—not enough to actually cover his bald spot but enough to make him seem less bald. He had the perfect hair transplant for a Pakistani politician who wanted to look younger while still appearing like a man of the people. But with every pull of the comb, I counted the potential cost—$1,000, $2,000. At the next speech, Sharif spoke in front of a metal podium with a bulletproof glass screen that ended three inches below the top of his head. I wondered if Musharraf was trying to kill him.

The election was three days away. And as much as Sharif seemed to be slightly simple, he was also increasingly popular, largely because of his support of the deposed judges. While Bhutto’s widower campaigned on the memory of his dead wife, Sharif campaigned against Musharraf and for justice. Bhutto’s party would win the most votes. But I thought Sharif would perform better than anyone suspected.

The day of the election, two journalist friends and I drove to polling stations in Islamabad and neighboring Rawalpindi. Everywhere we heard the same name: Nawaz Sharif. It was rather spooky. At one point, we found a man who had spent the entire night cutting up white blankets, gluing them to his new car, and then painting them with tiger stripes. He finished the project off with black-feather trim.

“What are you going to do if it rains?” I asked the man.

“God willing, it won’t,” he said.

I snapped a photograph with my BlackBerry. By the end of the day, the results were clear—Musharraf’s party had received barely any votes. Secular parties had triumphed over religious ones. Bhutto’s party had won the most seats, as predicted. But Sharif’s party had won the second-highest amount of votes, a surprise to many Western observers. Through the election, Sharif had exacted revenge on Musharraf. And Bhutto’s party needed Sharif to have enough seats to run the country.

After more than eight years of political irrelevance, Sharif was back. I sent him a text message and asked him to call. A few hours later, he did, thrilled with his victory.

“I saw a car today, where a man had glued blankets to it and painted it like a tiger,” I told him at one point.

“Really?” he asked.

“Yeah. It was a tiger car.”

He paused. “What did you think of the tiger car, Kim? Did you like the tiger car?”

Weird question. I gave an appropriate answer.

“Who doesn’t like a tiger car?”

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