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“Little did we imagine this would be her last encounter with international officials.” Edward P. Joseph, a 1981 SAIS graduate, Foreign Policy Institute visiting scholar, SAIS professorial lecturer and prominent foreign policy expert, interviewed Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto less than 24 hours before she was assassinated on December 27. Joseph was in Pakistan serving as an election observer with the International Republican Institute.

On a clear and unseasonably warm day in  Peshawar, in the Taliban-infested North-West Frontier Province, the dusty streets were bustling with activity.

My International Republican Institute (IRI) colleague Samir Sarteep, a Kurd from Iraqi Kurdistan, and I were clad in the cape-like chador and round hat, chitrali topi, favored by the Pashtun, including the Taliban. Knowledgeable local figures had urged us to wear this traditional clothing instead of our conspicuous Western garb.

As chanting supporters of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto held aloft banners festooned with the trademark tricolor arrow of her Pakistan Peoples Party, police watched warily. Security was tight, and we had to pass through several layers of pat-down checks before entering the cricket stadium for the campaign rally. A recent suicide bombing in a mosque had claimed more than 50 lives, a security crackdown to the north was facing stiff resistance and Sunni-Shiite killings had broken out to the south as the Taliban and al Qaeda continued recruiting efforts. And Bhutto, of course, faced threats to her own security.

Bhutto spoke last, delivering her fiery speech from well back on the dais, surrounded by press and senior supporters and aides. The crowd came to life as she emphasized her themes of social justice, democracy and development.

Invited by a local supporter to meet Bhutto after the rally, we arrived at his walled estate on the outskirts of town, ahead of the candidate. Aides and local officials filled the house. The atmosphere was electric, as Bhutto returned in her bulletproof sport-utility vehicle surrounded by a police cordon.

Bhutto sat regally, alone on a sofa, while her mostly male senior staff watched obediently from across the room. At one point she asked them, almost rhetorically, if she was right in her assessment of a political nuance. In unison, they answered, “Yes, Madam.”

Her voice was a bit raspy and she coughed periodically, but she spoke enthusiastically during our 90  minute interview, captivating us with her intensity and determination. She recited a litany of allegations about vote-rigging, offered her views on the security provided her and described what she perceived as the vital role of the United States in holding President Pervez Musharraf accountable for the integrity of the electoral process. With enough pressure on Musharraf from Washington—and the presence of impartial election observers—Bhutto felt there was a chance the upcoming elections would be “not free nor fair, but acceptable.”

Bhutto placed a great deal of importance on election observation. She was encouraged that IRI was considering sending a high level delegation to be headed by IRI President Lorne Craner. She said she believed that elections, not the public, lawyer-led protests, offered the best chance to bring democratic change to Pakistan.

Bhutto’s expressive dark eyes betrayed no fear. On the eve of her death, her mind was on her mission: a campaign to challenge the military-backed structure through the ballot box, defeat terrorism and return Pakistan to democratic rule. She said she knew the threat that democracy and her candidacy posed to the extremists but added that dictatorship was not the answer for her country. “The choice is not between dictatorship and democracy. It is between extremism and moderation.”

Samir and I dashed back to our hotel to prepare our report.

The next day we received the news that Bhutto had died from wounds suffered at her next rally in Rawalpindi. We were devastated. As furious Pakistanis began rioting, we sat in our rooms in silence, occasionally speaking to our colleagues at our Islamabad headquarters and passing messages to our families to let them know we were all right.

When the initial word came that al Qaeda was thought responsible, I was reminded of the challenge of bringing stability to this difficult corner of Pakistan—rife with suspicion, conspiracy theories, burgeoning Sunni-Shiite tensions, Pashtun nationalism and anti-American feeling. The words of one of our interlocutors, echoed by other Pakistanis, rang in my ears. “This Taliban and al Qaeda threat: You and we helped build them up in the 1980s in Afghanistan. Then they were good. Now they are bad. Do you think it is so easy for people or even their sympathizers in the security services to change their minds?”

Our sadness at Bhutto’s assassination and consideration of its meaning were quickly overtaken by concerns about our own security. Peshawar contacts urged us not to leave the hotel. A few days later when the  situation calmed, we returned to Islamabad and recounted our experience to colleagues. We watched and wondered whether and when the election we came to observe would take place—and who would or could replace Benazir Bhutto.