Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto wants to return to Pakistan to seek election this year. In an interview from Dubai, where she has been living in exile, Mrs. Bhutto told The Washington Times that failure to reach an understanding with President Pervez Musharraf could mean false charges leading to her arrest, but it is a risk she is willing to take.
Question: There have been reports that Gen. Musharraf dismissed a committee looking into corruption charges against you. Was this part of an agreement to facilitate your return to Pakistan?
Answer: First, a clarification: The department established to pursue a political vendetta against me has not been shut down. It is called the National Accountability Bureau and is still pursuing fabricated criminal cases against me. An official was changed but that is neither here nor there, as officials were changed several times over the last decade.
I am the only political leader in Pakistan, with my party supporters, who are being persecuted. The rest of the politicians who had cases against them have either been pardoned or had the cases dropped. The nuclear scientist [Abdul Qadeer Khan] who admitted to selling nuclear parts internationally, admitted guilt and has been pardoned. The cases against me are for the purposes of diverting attention from the institutionalized corruption of the military regime and to hobble my leadership. The charges are fallacious, and 10 years of investigation have failed to provide a shred of evidence. It is important to note that having a committee by itself demonstrates the bizarre level of personal vendetta that this regime is willing to take to discredit the Pakistan People’s Party and myself.
Q: Has Gen. Musharraf shown any indication that he would welcome you back to Pakistan?
A: Gen. Musharraf’s regime has sent feelers to opposition parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party, since it seized power. However, despite the passage of many years, the PPP and Gen. Musharraf’s team have failed to reach an understanding as yet on a transition to democracy.
I plan to return to Pakistan this year irrespective of whether there is an understanding or not. I realize that absent an understanding, I run the risk of being arrested on fallacious charges. I plan to take on the challenges, knowing my life is dedicated to the restoration of democracy.
Q: Would Gen. Musharraf improve his standing by allowing exiled leaders like you back into Pakistan?
A: Elections in Pakistan would not be credible without the free participation of all personalities, including myself. It would certainly damage Gen. Musharraf’s standing if the elections are manipulated to deny the people of Pakistan the right to determine their own destiny through free and fair, internationally monitored general elections.
Q: Your family has been put through a lot over the past few years. Why do you want to return?
A: I am aware of the obstacles of injustice in participation in Pakistan today, but I believe it is my duty to take on the challenges the country faces and work toward the promise of democracy.
Q: Would you run for the office of prime minister, if given a chance?
A: It would be an honor for me to serve the people of Pakistan as prime minister, were they to elect me to the office. My party and I have a popular base, we have the experience and the team. I believe we could tackle the problems of extremism, terrorism, poverty alleviation, lack of proper health and educational facilities through democracy. In my view, democracy and development go together.
Q: Has President Bush’s administration been supportive of your desire to return to Pakistan?
A: From his visit to Pakistan and other public statements, I believe President Bush understands and supports the call for genuinely free and fair elections, which means an election run under the auspices of an impartial caretaker government, controlled and supervised by a truly independent election commission, open to the participation of all political parties and political party leaders, and monitored by robust teams of international observers watching both the voting and counting of ballots.
My party has presented our list of demands to Pakistan’s election commission for reforms necessary for the holding of transparent elections.
Q: Recently, four U.S. senators wrote a letter to Gen. Musharraf that, in part, sought your return to Pakistan. What support are you getting from U.S. lawmakers?
A: U.S. actions are increasingly encouraging. We welcome the Congress’ support and hope that the general will listen to these calls and follow through on his promise of “enlightened moderation.” Democracy in Pakistan is not just important for Pakistanis, it is important for the entire world.
The root of stability in Afghanistan really lies in the border and tribal areas of Pakistan.
Q: Since September 11, 2001, Gen. Musharraf has been hailed as an indispensable American ally in the war on terrorism. What is your assessment of Gen. Musharraf’s support in this effort — has he delivered as much as he could?
A: The PPP and I are worried that despite Gen. Musharraf’s declarations of support in the war against terrorism, the situation domestically in Pakistan is worse than it was following the events of 9/11. The religious parties have risen to power for the first time in the country’s history, suicide bombings have occurred, again for the first time in Pakistan’s history. Moreover, the then-defeated and demoralized Taliban have now re-established themselves in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Further, it appears that they have established a safe haven from where they collect taxes, dispense their form of justice and run an irregular army.
Elsewhere in Pakistan, more militias hiding under the name of madrassa have been established since 9/11. The Jamia Hafsa Madrassa in Islamabad is one example. It was constructed on illegally occupied government land. It’s frightening to think how many such hidden sleeper cells have been created since 9/11 housing armed persons who can take on the state at any time. The Islamabad Madrassa, allied with a government-appointed cleric, is now threatening barbers, beauticians and the entertainment industry while the regime says it is helpless to act.
The general elections of 2007 could turn out to be a last chance to save a moderate Pakistan from the creeping Talibinzation that is taking place. If anything the years since 9/11 have demonstrated that a military regime is unsuccessful in undermining the forces of terrorism, extremism and militancy. In fact the PPP believes that it is democracy, alone which can undermine the forces of terrorism and extremism. In 1993 Pakistan was about to be declared a terrorist state following the first attack on the World Trade Towers. However, I was elected soon thereafter and with the help of the people of Pakistan and the international community, my government stopped the spread of terrorism. After my overthrow, the terrorists regained the upper hand and planned the second attack on the World Trade Towers.
Q: In his memoir, Gen. Musharraf suggested Pakistan was bullied into supporting the United States in the war on terrorism. If you were elected prime minister, would you reconsider Pakistan’s role as an ally in this war, given its unpopularity in Pakistan? Would it be easier for a democratically elected leader to sell the war on terror to the Pakistani people?
A: There is absolutely no doubt amongst ordinary Pakistanis that we need to get rid of the extremists from our lands. There is no difference of policy objectives with the West. With the resurgence of the Taliban along the border of Afghanistan, and the recent spread of extremists into more settled areas like Tank [in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province] and Islamabad, it is necessary that Pakistan do as much as it can to rid the country of hate-mongers. We have a common purpose in undermining the forces of terrorism.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, as well as the parties of the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy, have committed themselves to fighting terrorism and building peace in the Charter for Democracy signed in the summer of 2006. It would be easier for a democratically elected government led by the PPP to involve the people in building peace and fighting terror.
The reason for America’s unpopularity in Pakistan is that democratic development in Pakistan has rarely been a priority for the United States. Ordinary Pakistanis feel alienated, and therefore we see rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. The U.S. government must support democracy and give democracy time to flourish.
Q: Do you believe a democratically elected leader can be a more useful ally of the United States in this war on terror?
A: Dictatorships such as the military regime currently in power in Pakistan suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Governance is neglected and the political madrassas exploit this by promising three meals a day, food, clothing, shelter and education to the economically disadvantaged groups. They then brainwash them into extremism.
I believe that restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be the breeding ground for international terrorism. That is the only long-term solution.
Q: Gen. Musharraf has struck peace accords with the tribes in the North-West Frontier Province. Do you believe these agreements stand a chance of success? If you were prime minister, would this be a route you would pursue?
A: I don’t believe in signing “peace deals” with terrorists. I believe they only embolden terrorists and allow them a breathing space to rest, rearm and re-engage. The PPP and I have made a commitment to the people of the tribal areas to provide them peace and security so that development can come to them and their children can get jobs. We have announced a tribal areas policy to bring political reforms to the area, as well as called for a lifting of the ban on political parties participating as parties in the tribal areas.