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Fall 2007

Pakistan at a Crossroads

Benazir Bhutto, twice the prime minister of Pakistan, heads the Pakistan People’s Party, the most popular opposition party to Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military rule. She returned to Pakistan on Oct. 18 to lead her party in elections. Her article is followed by an interview.

London — There are moments in history that prove decisive and mark a turning point for the future. The American Civil War was such a moment in the United States. The fall of the Berlin Wall was such a moment for Germany and the European Union. Today is Pakistan’s moment of truth. Decisions made now will determine whether extremism and terrorism can be contained in Pakistan to save it from internal collapse. The stability of not just Pakistan but the civilized world is at stake.

In a democratic Pakistan, extremist movements have been minimal. In all democratic elections in my country, extremist religious parties have never garnered more than 11 percent of the vote. Extremism under democracy has been marginalized by the people of Pakistan. But under dictatorship—most notably under military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s but unfortunately also under Gen. Pervez Musharraf during this decade—religious extremism has gained a foothold in my homeland.

Whether leaders like Gen. Zia manipulated and exploited religion for their own political ends, or whether dictatorship inherently induces deprivation, desperation and hopelessness, the fact remains that extremism has emerged as a threat to my nation, to the region and to the world. These extremists are the Petri dish of international terrorism. It need not be so. It must be reversed. And it can be done.

In both of my tenures as prime minister, my government imposed the rule of law on all areas of Pakistan—our four provinces and also the federally administered tribal areas, including Waziristan. With the support of the people of those tribal areas, we managed to uproot an international drug cartel that had operated with impunity under dictatorship.

Today, however, the international drug barons have morphed into religious extremists and terrorists. The current government of Pakistan has ceded large areas of our nation to the pro-Taliban and al-Qaida forces, claiming that these areas are ungovernable. I believe they are governable and that a democratic government can prove better in restoring the authority of the state.

We must be realistic about the history and political reality of Pakistan. In a perfect world, perhaps the military would not play a role in politics. Pakistan is less than perfect in this regard. The security forces have fundamentally served as a political institution in Pakistan, ruling either directly through generals or indirectly by manipulating and ultimately sacking democratic governments.

I know that some people have been surprised that I tried to negotiate with Gen. Musharraf. We confront two great polarities in Pakistan today—the battle between democracy and dictatorship, and the fight for the hearts and souls of the people manifest in the battle between moderation and extremism.

On dictatorship, there can be no compromise. The parliament must be supreme. I have signaled to Gen. Musharraf that the Pakistan Peoples Party supports the constitution of Pakistan, which prevents a military president, and requires that a civilian president be legitimately selected by the parliament and provincial assemblies of the country.

The military ban on twice-elected prime ministers holding office again was not part of Pakistan’s constitution nor that of other parliamentary democracies and must be abolished. There must be immunity granted to all members of parliament and public officials elected before the military coup of 1999 who have not been convicted of any offense from politically inspired charges. All parties and all party leaders must be allowed to freely contest elections. A neutral caretaker government, pursuant to our constitution, must be empowered to oversee the nation before the elections, and a neutral and independent election commission, with the participation of all political parties, must be constituted.

Election rolls must be free from political manipulation. Balloting must be transparent, counting must be free from political intervention, and the entire process must be monitored by international observers to insure its sanctity and validity.

But free and fair elections alone are not enough to solve the problems of Pakistan. We must have free, fair and effective governing. And that requires that all responsible, moderate forces in the country are mobilized, working for the same plan, reading from the same page.

Gen. Musharraf continues to enjoy the support of the international community and the armed forces of Pakistan. But such support is no substitute for the will of the people who are disempowered and disenchanted. Growing poverty and unemployment make it clear that in the absence of democracy, the people’s needs cannot be met. I believe that unless the people of Pakistan are empowered through the ballot, extremists will continue to exploit the discontent to their advantage.

The political madrassas are able to offer monthly stipends, food and clothing to families of the underprivileged. Unless government can move in to fill the vacuum, extremists will continue to exploit the situation, expanding their influence through the country.

I believe that moderation cannot be compromised and that democracy and moderation go together. Like many Pakistanis, I am pained that part of our land in the tribal areas has been ceded to terrorists.

Some argue that through cease-fires and peace treaties, one can get the extremists into the mainstream and moderate them. But the experience in Pakistan proves otherwise. Every cease-fire and peace treaty has emboldened the militants and terrorists. Nowhere was this more profoundly demonstrated than during the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad this summer.

Militants holed up in the political madrassa mutinied and tried to impose their own laws over and above the laws of my country and of my constitution. They kidnapped women and police officials. They intimidated and shut down entertainment shops. Their vigilante squads terrorized the women who drove cars in the capital city. Six long months of negotiations failed and a bloody result ensued when the army tried to overcome the mutiny. There were more than 100 casualties, including, painfully, women.

The Red Mosque incident demonstrated that no deals can be struck with religious fanatics. They will attempt to run our country like they run the political madrassas. That is unacceptable. The militants must know that the constitution and laws of Pakistan do not permit private militias enforcing private laws in violation of the constitution of the country. There must be a coalescence of moderation to confront the extremists. Such a coalition can come from the expression of the free will of the people whose forefathers created the independent state of Pakistan through a political struggle in the name of democracy in 1947. That is the government and the kind of national movement that I believe we can lead.

Pakistan is at the crossroads. Our success can be a signal to 1 billion Muslims all over the world that Islam, which emphasizes the importance of consultation, is compatible with democracy, modernity and moderation. I go back to Pakistan this autumn knowing that there will be difficult days ahead. But I put my faith in the people and my fate in the hands of God. I am not afraid. Yes, we are at a turning point, but I know that time, justice and the forces of history are on our side.


Benazir Bhutto granted a long interview to Yale Global’s Nayan Chanda, which we excerpt here.

NPQ | President Musharraf has been criticized severely in the US for not doing enough to capture the al-Qaida suspects hiding in Pakistan. Do you think he is doing enough?

Benazir Bhutto | As a Pakistani, it certainly hurts me very much when I see that inevitably the trail of terrorists leads back to my country. If it is an issue of the London tube bomber, we find that he had visited Pakistan, or if it is an issue of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, we find that he had made a telephone call to Pakistan. If it is capturing the CEO of al-Qaida, Khalid Sheikh (Mohammed), we find that he was captured in Pakistan’s garrison city of Rawalpindi. We don’t want to make our country hospitable to such elements.

My party, the Peoples Party (PPP), severely criticized the peace agreement that was signed in 2006 with the Taliban elements in the tribal regions of Pakistan. We feel that our tribal areas have been ceded to the foreign elements, to Afghan Taliban and Arab and Chechen militant fighters. And now those groups actually administer parts of our territory, holding our people hostage. They dispense their own form of justice. They teach little 12-year-old boys to behead those they accuse of being spies.

NPQ | So why is it that they can still continue in the Pakistan territory?

Bhutto | While (the Musharraf government has) certainly verbally expressed the sentiment for the right cause of eliminating terrorism and extremism in the country, unfortunately it has not been able to assert the rule of law in the country. A government under my control would move swiftly to assert law and order in the tribal areas of Pakistan; to hunt down the al-Qaida leaders who are trying to take advantage of the lack of law and order there; to stop the drug trade, which is actually funding and fueling terrorism; and to reform the political madrassas, (which) use the name madrassas but are actually militant headquarters using women and children as human shields.

I am a woman, I am a mother. I do not want to see the innocent women and children of my country held up as human shields and killed as they were during the Red Mosque incident. And I think it is the duty of government to provide the protection of the life and liberty of its citizens.

NPQ | Given what you say, can you blame the Americans for asserting that they will intervene in those areas if necessary without Pakistan’s permission?

Bhutto | Well, I can understand why they say that, because they feel that Islamabad has failed to stop the terrorists and that is why they would like to move in. But I will really urge against that. I believe that the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty through unauthorized military action will have very adverse consequences.

When under attack, all Pakistanis will forget their differences and they will all unite. So any unauthorized action would pit NATO against all the people of Pakistan, and I do not think that is advisable. But I think what is advisable is to have a close working relationship. Certainly, when the PPP is elected to power, we intend to restore law and order to our tribal areas and prevent the militants from attacking NATO.

So we intend to take away the causes that today can threaten to bring American air strikes against Pakistan. We also intend to work very closely with NATO and with the United States and other countries to eliminate terrorism; to help us also in our tribal areas through intelligence sharing and other means of cooperation.

NPQ | Pakistan has always sought “strategic depth,” or a security buffer, in Afghanistan as part of its policy. Do you think that policy has led to the alliance between the Pakistani secret services and Taliban? Will you change that?

Bhutto | I certainly hope that I can change it. I believe that the policy of strategic depth has backfired. As far back as 1998, I stood up in the parliament of Pakistan, and I said that the policy of strategic depth is turning into one of strategic threat for Pakistan. And the passage of years has shown to me that indeed such a policy has led to militancy, suicide bombers and the drug trade spilling over into Pakistan, (as well as) increasing poverty and unemployment.

The Taliban gained a great deal of support in Pakistan in the mid-1990s because we needed some peace and stability along our 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan and not continual fighting and millions of refugees.

After I was undemocratically ousted from office by President Farooq Leghari, who was backed by the army intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI), the ISI turned its attention to supporting the Taliban government, believing it gave us “strategic depth.” Elements of the ISI reportedly continue that alliance with both the Taliban and al-Qaida to this very day on the same premise—even if it means supporting fanatics. It is not a premise I or my party share. We believe it is essential for Pakistan to support democracy in Afghanistan. We want an end to that policy of strategic depth.

Afghanistan has traditionally been viewed either as a buffer state or as a forward policy state where there is strategic depth. And throughout history, different empires, even the British Empire and the Greeks, when they came to the area, have looked at Afghanistan as a buffer state.

I think for us it is much better to have an Afghanistan that is peaceful, that allows us to trade with it, that has good relations with all its neighbors. It is very promising that Afghanistan has joined the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. And I think for India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries of SAARC, this is where we should concentrate.

We should try to create the kind of economic interdependencies that allowed Europe to emerge from the ravages of two world wars and build a common market that has given unprecedented growth and an increase in the standard of living of ordinary Europeans. That is what we need in our region, not more war and terrorism.