LAHORE: In a desperate bid to obstruct Asif Ali Zardari’s election as the President of Pakistan, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had gone to the extent of agreeing to join hands with the Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) to field a joint presidential candidate. However, the plan could not get through despite several meetings between the leadership of the two Leagues, mainly due to Nawaz Sharif’s indecisiveness, says Khalid Khawaja, a former Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) officer who had been close to Osama bin Laden and who himself claims to be a part of the “stop Zardari plan”.
Khalid Khawaja, a retired squadron leader of the Pakistan Air Force, who currently runs a non-government organisation with the name of Defence for Human Rights, has claimed in a recent interview that Nawaz Sharif had been seeing Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks and that he had arranged these meetings on the former prime minister’s request, who wanted to dislodge Benazir Bhutto from the power corridors with bin Laden’s financial backing. After he wrote a critical letter to President General Zia ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1977 till 1988, in which he labeled Zia as hypocrite, he was removed from the ISI and forced to retire from the Pakistan Air Force. Khawaja then went straight to Afghanistan in 1987 and fought against the Soviets occupation forces along side with Osama Bin Laden, thus developing a relationship of firm friendship and trust.
In an exclusive interview, Khawaja said that Nawaz Sharif had authorised him on the heels of the 2008 presidential election (during a meeting at the Punjab House in Islamabad) to hold talks with the president of the Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and his first cousin Chaudhry Pervez Elahi and to see if the two Muslim Leagues could reunite to field a joint presidential candidate of the opposition parties who could defeat Asif Zardari. According to Khawaja, he subsequently held lengthy parleys with Shujaat Hussain. “Although he was quite willing to reunite the two Leagues, his “reunion formula” was the withdrawal of the PML-N’s presidential candidate Justice (retd) Saeeduzamman Siddiqi in favour of the PML-Q’s candidate Syed Mushahid Hussain to pave the way for the grand merger. Shujaat was of the view that Mushahid is a veteran Leaguer and a former close associate of Nawaz Sharif and Mian Sahib should not have a problem in backing a Leaguer in the presidential election instead of a former judge, “especially if he was actually sincere in reuniting the Leagues for a greater cause”, Khawaja said.
Khalid Khawaja said that by the time he met with Shujaat Hussain, Nawaz Sharif had already tasked some senior party leaders, including Syed Ghaus Ali Shah, Zafar Iqbal Jhagra and Ishaq Dar to hold “reunion talks” with Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. “However, their meeting with Shujaat Hussain not only failed but proved simply disastrous and left him extremely annoyed. Shujaat was of the view that the PML-N leaders were stubborn and not sincere in reuniting the Muslim Leagues. They were also over confident and mistaken to believe that they will be able to clinch the support of Maulana Fazalur Rehman and Altaf Hussain, who were already hobnobbing with Asif Zardari. I subsequently held another meeting with Nawaz Sharif and sought his permission to see Shujaat once again. During my second meeting with him, Shujaat again expressed his willingness to join hands with Sharif. However, he kept insisting that the reunion formula should be a decent and honourable one as they were not dying to join hands with the PML-N. Eventually, Shujaat authorized myself and Ejazul Haq to take whatever decision we deemed was appropriate to pave the way for a swift merger of the two Leagues. Shujaat had actually agreed to withdraw his presidential candidate in PML-N’s favour, provided Mian Sahib agreed to visit his place to extend the reunion proposal. I immediately traveled to the Punjab House to finalise the merger deal with Nawaz Sharif. But he acted strangely and told me that he was about to leave for Lahore. As I insisted that it was time to take a decision on the merger issue, his party workers somehow came to know of the issue and started shouting slogans: ‘Mian Sahib won’t go, Mian Sahib won’t go’, thus fizzling out the PML reunion plan”, Khawaja said.
Asked about the PML-N leadership’s allegations that his attempts to link the former prime minister with Osama bin Laden were part of a grand conspiracy aimed at Nawaz Sharif’s character assassination, Khalid Khawaja regretted that it was actually the PML-N which has launched a vicious character assassination campaign to malign him by describing him a liar. “I warn Mian Nawaz Sharif tender an unconditional apology for having ordered my character assassination campaign despite knowing fully well that whatever I had stated about him and Osama bin Laden was truth and nothing but the truth. Otherwise, I have every right to approach the court of law against the PML-N leader and file a defamation suit against him for trying to damage my credibility. Many other Pakistani politicians like Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Maulana Samiul Haq, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed and Hameed Gul too had seen Osama in the past, but never refuted their meetings unlike Sharif. Even if Nawaz Sharif’s party refused to admit a contact between Osama and Nawaz, it will not change the facts which were witnessed by many people including Khayyam Qaisar (Nawaz Sharif’s personal staff officer) and myself”, Khawaja said.
He added: “Mian Sahib met Osama on at least five occasions and was desperately seeking his financial assistance to topple the government of Benazir Bhutto. Osama provided me with funds, which I handed over to Nawaz Sharif, then the chief minister of Punjab. Nawaz insisted that I arrange a direct meeting with the “Sheikh”, which I did in Saudi Arabia. The most historic was the meeting in the Green Palace Hotel in Medina between Nawaz Sharif, Osama and myself, where Osama had asked Nawaz to devote himself to jehad in Kashmir. Nawaz immediately said, “I love jehad.” Osama smiled, and then stood up from his chair and went to a nearby pillar and said. “Yes, you may love jehad, but your love for jehad is this much.” He then pointed to a small portion of the pillar. “Your love for children is this much,” he said, pointing to a larger portion of the pillar. “And your love for your parents is this much,” he continued, pointing towards the largest portion. “I agree that you love jehad, but this love is the smallest in proportion to your other affections in life. But these sorts of arguments were beyond Nawaz’ comprehension who kept asking me. “Manya key nai manya?” [Agreed or not?] He was looking for a grant of 500 million rupee. Though Osama gave a comparatively smaller amount, the landmark thing he secured for Nawaz was a meeting with the Saudi royal family, which gave him a lot of political support, and it remained till he was dislodged by General Musharraf. Now with these immortal accounts secured in my memory I see the denials in newspapers that Nawaz had nothing to do with Osama, and I think “how can people forget their mentors”, Khalid Khawaja concluded.
However, approached for comments, the PML-N spokesman Siddiqul Farooq said that Khalid Khawaja’s so-called revelations about Nawaz Sharif’s anti-Zardari efforts prior to the 2008 presidential elections as well as his meetings with Osama bin Laden were a mere pack of lies and motivated. “I would like to ask whether Khalid Khawaja is worth being tasked by a twice-elected prime minister to make efforts for the PML reunification. Even otherwise, a reunion with the PML-Q was totally out of question because Nawaz Sharif’s principled stance is known to even a lay man in the street – he would never join hands with those who had sided with a dictator like Musharraf. Therefore, any such move on Nawaz Sharif’s part was simply out of question.”