Pakistan yesterday raised tensions with its neighbor India by test-firing a short-range missile, a move that makes it unlikely President Clinton will decide to stop off there during a visit to India in late March.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in an interview with The Washington Times, and military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf have urged Mr. Clinton to include Pakistan on his itinerary. Washington wants Gen. Musharraf to restore democracy and clamp down on terrorism.
Pakistan already fields a 900-mile-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead on the Indian capital, New Delhi.
But yesterday’s test-launch of a 60-mile-range missile could affect the strategic balance along the Indo-Pakistani border and in divided Kashmir where shellings and guerrilla attacks occur daily.
“There are elements in the Pakistan government that want to present a hawkish face to India who think that the only thing India respects is power,” said Stephen Cohen, a former White House Asia analyst now with the Brookings Institution.
“The missile test is a serious mistake likely to further isolate Pakistan,” Mr. Cohen said. “This is exactly the wrong time to send this kind of message, partly because the United States is considering a presidential visit and partly because India is so angry” over attacks in Kashmir and the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in December.
Mrs. Bhutto, on a visit to Washington last week, said she regretted having been “too hawkish” while in power and having failed to move toward peace with India before she was ousted in 1996.
“I made mistakes by not working for peace in the region,” said Mrs. Bhutto in a frank discussion of her two terms as leader of Pakistan’s 140 million people. “I missed the opportunity, and I regret that.”
She said that in her first term, when her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) “showed the will to make peace, we got booted out.
“But in my second term, I did not move towards peace… . I missed the chance.”
Following meetings with President Clinton and senior U.S. officials last week, she said in an interview that she had urged the president not to snub Pakistan during an upcoming visit to India and Bangladesh.
But she also urged the United States to press Gen. Musharraf to stop jailing politicians accused of corruption and to allow her to return from self-exile and run for a third term as prime minister.
Mrs. Bhutto was tried in absentia by a court set up by her successor and rival Nawaz Sharif, after being ousted from her second term. She was convicted of corruption but insists the court was biased and she is innocent.
She has remained abroad to avoid imprisonment on what she says are trumped-up charges.
Mrs. Bhutto was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim nation and followed in the footsteps of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also a prime minister, who was hanged in 1979 on murder charges by the military government of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, has been in prison since 1996.
Mr. Sharif’s ouster in October by Gen. Musharraf was at first supported by Mrs. Bhutto from abroad and by her PPP supporters inside Pakistan.
But with tension rising between India and Pakistan, and with Gen. Musharraf refusing to schedule a return to civilian rule or to rein in terrorist groups responsible for hijacking an Indian Airlines passenger jet in December, Mrs. Bhutto has turned critical of the latest military government.
“We welcomed the overthrow of Nawaz [Sharif] but have been disappointed,” she said. “The euphoria has disappeared in the last three months. The regime is denying human rights and wants to destroy my party. I have been through a nightmare.”
She denied she ever saw any corruption among her Cabinet ministers and said Gen. Musharraf’s campaign to find and punish senior political leaders on corruption charges will destroy the nation’s civilian leaders.
“His accountability decree is selective it only prosecutes leaders of the political class not the sons of generals who made money off the Afghan war,” she said.
The military has proved that it cannot govern, she added, recalling that military regimes allowed Pakistan to be split in half in 1971, committed genocide in Bangladesh, lost Siachen to India and allowed a humiliating invasion and then withdrawal from the Kargil region of Indian-held Kashmir last spring and summer. The military also hanged her father.
“I don’t think they’re going to hang Nawaz, but it’s a sad reflection on Pakistan that no prime minister has ever left office with any dignity,” she said.
Because she fears arrest if she returns, “I consider myself a nomad,” she said. She lives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, her children live in London and she travels frequently to the United States to lobby for her cause.
She said her daughter had been crying in London Thursday because it was her seventh birthday and her mother was in Washington.
Although opposed to the military, she said she told Mr. Clinton in a meeting Thursday that he should visit Pakistan because “the guns are thundering on the border.”
“The president should talk to the military about an exit strategy,” she said.
Mrs. Bhutto said she would not support another PPP candidate for prime minister while she remains abroad. Loyalty remains with the party leader in Pakistan.
She said the wife of Mr. Sharif would likely run for prime minister if he is barred from running, remains in jail or is hanged.
Mr. Sharif is accused of attempted murder for ordering the Karachi airport to turn away a plane carrying Gen. Musharraf and 200 other passengers and crew even though the fuel was running short.