“It is a battle for the heart and soul of Pakistan": Benazir Bhutto
Former Leader Talks of Return to Pakistan, and Maybe Power
By CARLOTTA GALL
New York Times, June 4, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 3 — Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is stirring up Pakistani politics by quietly talking through intermediaries about a power-sharing deal with the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and suggesting in an interview that she could return to Pakistan before the end of the year.
Two battle lines are being drawn in Pakistan, she said, military dictatorship versus democracy, and moderate Islam versus extremism. While General Musharraf is her most obvious foe, she says the elections may also be Pakistan’s last chance to choose a moderate path. “My fear is if we don’t act in these elections, by the next elections it might be too late,” Ms. Bhutto said.
“Anyone who has lived in Pakistan knows very well that there is a group of people who believe in a war against the West,” she added, referring to religious extremists both in the government’s intelligence agencies and in jihadi groups. “And it is not just that, it is the hatred that they preach.”
A negotiated transition to democracy remains her preferred option, she said, because violent confrontation could quickly be usurped by extremists. “If the streets hold sway, then it is anyone’s guess who actually captures the movement,” she said. “After all, when there was a revolution in Iran, nobody expected the religious parties to triumph.”
But Ms. Bhutto warned that while General Musharraf may speak in favor of moderate Islam, the advisers and the military and intelligence extremists around him, who hold the strings of power, were working against it. “The country is actually run by military hard-liners,” she said. “It remains my concern that these hard-liners want to destabilize democracy in Pakistan because their agenda is to bring about a soft Islamic revolution,” she added. “They are building secretly on their militant cells across the country.”
She pointed out that despite the general’s declared policy of leading Pakistan toward “enlightened moderation,” Al Qaeda and the Taliban had used northern Pakistan to regroup, and the Taliban influence was seeping into other parts of the country. She said she was appalled that the government had made deals that allow foreign militants sway in parts of the country. She pointed out that the building of madrasas, religious schools that have been used to recruit militants, had increased.
Critics have long charged that the situation was not wholly different even under her government, when Pakistan backed the Taliban and used Islamic extremist groups as levers against its neighbor, India, in their dispute over the border territory of Kashmir. But Ms. Bhutto defended her government’s performance in fighting terrorism, saying that even though she supported the Taliban in their early days, during her time in office there were no Qaeda terrorist training camps in Pakistan, and no terrorist acts anywhere in the world connected to Pakistan.
She said she had collaborated with the F.B.I. in the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and had cracked down on extremist groups. At least six terrorist plots, including the London transit bombings, have been traced to Pakistan since General Musharraf took power.
“Look at what there was in 2002, and see how much worse the situation has got by 2007,” she said. Despite her alarm, Ms. Bhutto said she believed that the religious extremists in both the intelligence circle and jihadi groups were running out of options. And open and fair elections would show just how little support the religious parties and extremists actually had in the country, she said. “Elections are important because at the end of the day when we empower the people, the minority extremists will get totally marginalized and sidelined; their strength is being disproportionately blown up,” she said.
“It is a battle for the heart and soul of Pakistan,” she said. “It is also a battle for the rest of the Muslim world and the world at large. It is not just Pakistan. What we are doing in Pakistan has much larger implications not only on Afghanistan and India, but in my view for the larger world.”