Nayan Chanda: Politics is as far removed from poetry as possible so I cannot resist reading a little poem that you wrote some years ago: "One has might, the other right. One has the sword, the other the pen. Guns rust and fall apart. Ideas live forever." So do you think President Musharraf’s guns are rusting and that is why he is turning to you to do a deal?
Benazir Bhutto: Certainly there has been a degree of unease within Pakistan; General Musharraf had given a charter where he wanted to take the country, which was toward a true democracy and a moderate society. However in the last six years, we’ve seen that the extremists have spread throughout the country. We used to think it was just in the tribal areas, but indeed the Red Mosque incident in our capital city of Islamabad showed that the tentacles of extremism were spreading and that poses great challenges to Pakistan from within as well as complicates the external picture.
Chanda: So the reason why he’s now willing to sit down with you is because he’s feeling that he’s no longer in full control?
Bhutto: I see it differently. I think after 9/11, when the first general elections were held under General Musharraf, it was less then a year later, and he was seen very much as a strong ally of the west on which the international community could depend, to reform the madrassas and to constrain and restrain the terrorist elements within the country. But unfortunately since then, there has been the rise of suicide bombings. Innocent people in Pakistan like our women and children are being killed, and I think now the international community has started supporting the democratic process. Within Pakistan, we’ve had a pro-democracy movement which has gathered strength as poverty in the country increased and people’s needs were neglected.
So this confluence has made the elections of 2007 very important. All the independent polls show that the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP] and I would go on to win any fair election. So I think that this is what the need of drawing people together. In Pakistan, we have different fault lines. We have one on dictatorship versus democracy, and we have a second one on moderation versus fundamentalism or extremism. So I think that General Musharraf is trying to seek a way out by having these contacts with the Pakistan People’s Party.
Chanda: Nawaz Sharif has suggested that one should do everything to remove military from politics. And what you may be trying to do will be seen by people as prolonging the military rule rather than getting rid of military altogether.
Bhutto: I know that is what Mr. Nawaz Sharif is saying. But I don’t agree. And I find it very strange that Mr. Nawaz Sharif talked to General Musharraf and got out in the year 2000 which did prolong military rule in my country. I was also offered that if I quit politics for 10 years, all the charges against me would be dropped and my husband would be released. But I refused that offer because I felt that it would prolong the military rule in my country.
And now I am talking because this is about getting the uniform out of the office of the presidency. This is about facilitating the transfer to democracy. And as I said, we are talking, but we are not there yet. So I am really not in a position to tell you today that there really will be an agreement on the facilitative transfer to democracy. But I do know one thing, that a facilitative transfer to democracy is far more preferable than a situation of chaos on the streets that can be taken advantage of by extremist elements. So as a Pakistani leader, who wants to see the stability and unity of my country and see Pakistan go on the path of moderation, I think it is important for me to explore peaceful political options of a transfer to democracy. I will point out to you that no one believed when the Shah of Iran was facing street riots that it would end up in an ayatollah revolution. But that’s what happened. And when the Mensheviks took to the streets in Russia, no one expected the Bolsheviks. So when we have a situation where we have militants who are armed and we have political parties who are unarmed, I would do my best to have a peaceful transfer. But if that fails, maybe I won’t be able to stop the street agitation. And that would be dangerous.
So let’s hope that we can indeed get either through the negotiations we are having, or through the Supreme Court of Pakistan, some kind of a facilitative and peaceful revival of the constitution, restoration of democratic process, and a redress of people’s social and economic needs so that terrorism and militancy can be undermined.
Chanda: According to some press reports, the agreement that has been reached between you and President Musharraf is that he will be a civilian president who will be in charge of national security and foreign affairs and you will be chief executive. And the ban on you running for prime minister for the third time will be lifted and your family can finally return. Is there any truth in this?
Bhutto: These are certainly some of the issues that are being discussed. General Musharraf wants to get elected from the present assembly; he thinks that is legal. We in the PPP believe that it is not legal. So this matter is going to be decided really by the courts and perhaps by public pressure too. But ultimately it is a decision of a legal dispute. The elections are going to be held later this year. My concern is that those elections should be fair, free and impartial. I believe [along] with the International Crisis Group that military intervention in the country is creating a failed state which poses a danger to Pakistan’s own security as well as regional security. So I would like those elections to be fair. And I think any attempt by General Musharraf to manipulate those elections will lead to a far bigger internal crisis with far reaching repercussions. We have not reached an agreement yet because everything the regime says it would do is post- presidential, prime ministerial and parliamentary elections. And my party does not want to be led up the garden path. So we believe that the cooperation needs to be calibrated so that there are different phases of implementation.
Chanda: Is it possible that if he gets reelected by the parliament one more time, but he makes you the interim prime minister so that there can again be a free and fair election in December, would you accept that?
Bhutto: No, no, no. I am not looking at this for myself. I am looking at this for the empowerment of my people. And I am looking at this for saving my country from a militant takeover, [and] God forbid, disintegration. I think this is the worst crisis that we faced since 1971. What we are looking for is a cooperation, once the uniform is off. The PPP cannot cooperate with a uniform presidency which blurs the distinction between civil and military rule. Because the PPP has been fighting every single military dictatorship that there has been in the country and we symbolize the aspirations of the people for a democratic Pakistan. The PPP is also looking for holding fair elections. We won’t like a situation where the elections are manipulated. And then we are offered a handful of ministries in return for legitimizing fraudulent elections.
Chanda: So what would be necessary for you to consider the elections will be fair and free, what would be the conditions?
Bhutto: Very good question. The All Parties Conference [of opposition parties] held in July earlier this year, which was called for by Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, came up with the points that need to be implemented by the election commission of Pakistan for the holding of fair elections. And earlier, the very widely respected international group known as the NDI, National Democratic Institute, held a roundtable of all political parties in Pakistan and the roundtable also came up with proposals. And we have handed these proposals over to General Musharraf’s side. And they have been promising us for some months that they will actually implement various proposals that have come during the time for fair elections. They keep reassuring us that the elections will be fair.
But unfortunately, except for transparent ballot boxes, none of those reforms have been implemented, which is really leading to some unease in PPP circles and indeed the opposition circles that now the elections are round the corner, when is this all going to happen? When are these reforms going to be lifted? And then there is also the issue of balance between the presidency and the parliament. I see little point in getting a parliament elected where the prime minister is thrown out two months later. We had this in the ‘90s when the presidential power to dismiss the parliament was used ruthlessly, not only against Mr. Nawaz Sharif and myself twice, but even against Mr. [Muhammad Khan] Junejo. We feel that there is little point in taking our country backward to the instability of the ‘90s. We have to move forward towards a better political system where we know what the role and responsibility of the parliament is and what the role and the responsibility of the president is.
Chanda: How does one reach that era without constitutional reforms?
Bhutto: General Musharraf assures us that he wants the parliament to have all the powers. And he says he does not want any powers himself. But there is dichotomy because the constitution actually gives all the key powers to the presidency. So this is an issue on which the discussions are still on-going. Because while General Musharraf says he wants all the powers to be with the parliament, he seems unwilling to give up the presidential power to dismiss the parliament. So we are still having on-going discussions on that particular issue. But we agree, both sides agree, that the reforms should be implemented for fair elections, both sides agree that the ban on the twice-elected prime minister should go, both sides agree that the moderate forces should come together, both sides agree that there should be a level playing field and an end to motivated litigation.
So there is a lot of agreement, apparent agreement on a lot of issues while one or two still are outstanding. But right now the issue is, When is the implementation going to take place and in which phase is this implementation going to take place. To complicate the issue, the ruling party has been saying that nothing will change and that they are not really negotiating with the PPP. They are just giving PPP a "dheel," which in our local language means long rope. They keep talking about how they are going to impose emergency. So some people have cynically remarked that the Red Mosque incident in Islamabad was actually cooked up by elements of the cabinet to provide a pretext for emergency, but their plan failed when the presidency decided to take action against the militants. So you know we are talking here about a country from which many key Al Qaeda suspects and terrorists have been arrested like Abu Zubeida, and Khalid Sheikh from Pindi [Rawalpindi], Ramzi bin al Shihab from Karachi. So we must remember that this not just a war for Pakistan’s heart and soul; this is something that will have far-reaching ramifications on militant struggles across our borders. We in the PPP are very determined to build peace. In fact, we say that the message of Islam is peace. And we want peace for our citizens inside our country, we want an end to the attacks on NATO and Afghan troops in the nearby Afghanistan. And we want an end to the militants who tried to hijack our foreign policy by conducting attacks on the Indian parliament and on other sites in India. So our world vision collides rather dramatically with the world vision of the extremists. Musharraf has said he is for moderation, so we hope that he can do something upfront that can facilitate moderate forces coming together.
Chanda: President Chaudhry Shujaat Hussaain of the Pakistan Muslim League has said that maybe there will be imposition of emergency and the assembly’s term will be extended for one year. If that happens, then what will be the position of your party?
Bhutto: I believe my party will join with all the other political parties to protest any attempt to defer the elections. What we have been telling all the other political parties, we had an All Parties Conference in London, and we all agreed on certain points for the holding of fair, free and impartial elections. Whereas the other political parties wanted to start a movement straight away, we said, no, we have to wait. We have to wait and see whether either the elections are postponed or we have to wait and see whether the elections are rigged. But to start an agitation at this point might tempt the rulers into imposing emergency. But I do think that if the doors of the election are shut on us and the emergency is imposed or the elections are rigged, then certainly the PPP with the other political parties, civil groups and NGOs in Pakistan will put pressure like in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution for the empowerment of our people.
Chanda: You can see a street protest of the type that we saw recently involving the chief justice, perhaps even bigger with the participation of political parties?
Bhutto: That’s right. I very much can see that happening. I would like to see it happening, but I don’t think Pakistan needs anarchy or civil strife or bloodshed. But both sides have responsibility to prevent that. And the elections now give General Musharraf and the presidency an opportunity as well as the military establishment an opportunity to take Pakistan safely from one phase of governance to another phase of governance. The spoilers are there. After all why would those who have politically benefited from firing the shots from the shoulders of the military want to have fair elections which will see them give up power and go into opposition.
So I understand that there will be elements like the ruling PML(Q) [Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam)] which will do everything to scuttle a process of reconciliation and resolution, moving Pakistan to a moderate course. But I think it is important for General Musharraf and the military establishment to stay the course, not to defer the elections, not to impose the emergency and to make sure that those elections are credible and satisfy the public. The public are the important people. We need international observers. Otherwise there would just be name calling. So we need a third party that can certify whether the elections are going to be fair or not.
Chanda: President Musharraf has been criticized recently severely in the US for not doing enough to capture the Al Qaeda suspects hiding in Pakistan. What do you think of that? Do you think he is doing enough?
Bhutto: Well I know 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 tube bomber, we find that he had visited the 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 Qaeda Khalid Sheikh, we find that he was captured in Pakistan’s garrison city of Rawalpindi. It bothers us Pakistanis that our great nation should be associated with such elements. We don’t want to make our country hospitable to such elements. My party severely criticized the peace agreement that was signed in 2006 with the Taliban elements in the tribal regions of Pakistan. And we feel that our tribal areas receded to the foreign elements, to Afghan Taliban and the Arab and the Chechen militant fighters. And now those groups actually administer parts of our territory. And hold 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. I mean little children should have pens in their hands. Little children should have schools to go to. Little children should have dreams.
Chanda: So why is it that it can still continue in the Pakistan territory?
Bhutto: This is a question that General Musharraf and his regime must answer. While they have certainly verbally expressed the sentiment for the right cause of eliminating terrorism and extremism in the country, unfortunately they have not been able to assert the rule of law in the country. My government would move swiftly to assert law and order in the tribal areas of Pakistan, to hunt down the Al Qaeda 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 fuelling terrorism and to reform the political madrassas who 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.
Chanda: Given the fact that, despite President Musharraf’s verbal assurances that he’s doing everything, it is still continuing and in fact increasing, can you blame the Americans for saying that they will actually intervene without the Pakistani 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 the 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 air strikes against Pakistan. We also intend to work very closely with the NATO and with the United States and other countries to eliminate terrorism; to help us also in our tribal areas, to eliminate, through intelligence sharing and other means of cooperation.
Chanda: Pakistan has always sought its strategic depth in Afghanistan as part of its security policy. Do you think that policy has led to the alliance between the Pakistani ISI and Taliban? Will you change that?
Bhutto: Well I certainly hope that I can change it. I believe that the policy of strategic depth has backfired and in fact it was in 1998 that 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.