Two Months in Pakistan

THE WASHINGTON POST, 17/12/07:

When Benazir Bhutto returned from exile in October, she was disturbed by the growing strength of the Taliban and Islamic extremists inside Pakistan. Last week she sat down with Newsweek-The Post’s Lally Weymouth in Islamabad. Excerpts:

Q: How do see your prospects in the upcoming election?

A: We all worried that the elections are going to be rigged in favor of the ruling party — the military’s party, the Muslim League. . . . There are 148 seats in the Punjab, the government has been told to give 108 seats [to] them. That means we’ll only be fighting over 40 seats.

So [President Pervez] Musharraf’s party will win the Punjab?

They won’t win it. Hopefully we will make him lose it.

Do you think that’s possible?

Well, observers are coming from the European Union [among others]. So I think if we can get observers to ensure that the ballots don’t get siphoned off, it’ll be a huge setback to their rigging plans. . . . They’ve [also] got ghost voting stations.

What does that mean?

They don’t exist, or if they exist, nobody knows where they’re placed. . . . We want the observers to go to the improvised polling stations and force the election commission to identify them.

The election commission is another issue, isn’t it?

The chief election commissioner — it’s very difficult to get him to move. Mostly he justifies what happens . . . . For example, our candidate in Baluchistan was kidnapped and not allowed to file his nomination papers.

Who kidnapped him?

We assume a secret agency. So he missed [the] filing [deadline]. He appeared again and said ‘Let me file — they kidnapped me to stop me filing.’ They did not allow him to file. We want this rectified.

Is [former prime minister] Nawaz Sharif playing a role?

Yes, he’s playing a very positive role by participating. When he came here, his alliance wanted him to boycott. I said to him the point is to try to work together, but if we boycott, there is no need for them to rig the elections because they’ll win an overwhelming majority, and they’ll get to do whatever they want in the parliament. But if we fight, we’ll force them to rig, and if both of us fight, they’ll have to rig really big. . . . Unfortunately, he’s not been allowed to [run for office], and his brother’s not been allowed to participate, but if there’s a political process he’ll benefit.

When last I spoke to you, in New York a few months ago, you were skeptical of whether Musharraf would go through with the deal he had made with you.

I was more than right. Because all of a sudden he suspended the constitution. We thought we had a road map to democracy, and we found ourselves on a train journey to dictatorship. Thank God the lawyers, the media, the civil society, political parties, everyone in Pakistan went up in arms. . . . There was international support and internal pressure.

I think [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John] Negroponte’s visit to Pakistan was an important one. Musharraf gave a date for elections before he came. After he left, Musharraf gave a date to retire as the army chief, which to me was like a miracle.

Will he restore the judiciary?

I doubt it.

How can the government claim to hold a democratic election if the chief justice is suspended?

It doesn’t look good.

Do you think that a civilian democratic government like one you would lead would be able to get control of the military and also of the area now dominated by terrorists?

The military comes under the president at the moment so . . . that would depend on the level of cooperation the president was willing to extend in this regard. As for co-opting the people . . . the tribal areas are living in the medieval age: There’s no police system, there’s no court system, no appeal. They’re at the mercy of the tribal chiefs who are the heads of the clans. . . . We’d like to give a council to those who respect our constitution — with a budget to decide for themselves how to spend the money. We want to give them a stake in the area. We think there should be reform of the madrassas. . . . If we bring the modern age into this backward area, we can co-opt the local people in confronting the forces of terrorism.

What happened to your talks with Musharraf?

Talking to him was easy, [but] . . . the crux was fair elections.

He was supposed to lift the ban and allow you to become prime minister for a third time? Didn’t he assure the Americans he would do that?

That the Americans can answer.

When you came back did you fear assassination?

They [warned] me, but I thought they were trying to frighten me off. The militants had tried to kill me in the past, but I couldn’t believe they would try it in front of all the cameras. Even now, think how bad it was.

There were two bomb blasts, 45 seconds apart. One of them we suspect was using a human baby. A man was right in front of my truck, trying to pass a baby to me. When I told the people to make way for him, he passed the baby to someone else. . . . 179 total dead.

What happens if the election is rigged?

It all depends on how much they can manipulate the numbers. If the judicial and police staff refuse to rig the elections for them or if the observers can mitigate against the rigging, the ruling party is going to lose badly. . . .

I can’t speak for Musharraf, but my assessment is that they would like to have the ruling party win but take a prime minister from the [Pakistan People’s Party, which Bhutto leads]. The PPP will not buy into it. They would like to say we had an election, and now we’ve got a legitimate government and we have got the country’s most popular party on board.

Do you think he’ll [lift the ban on you serving a third term as prime minister]?

It depends on the numbers and also the pressure. . . . Whether he stays or goes, he is going to need indemnity against the suspension of the constitution. He needs a new parliament to grant him indemnity.

Why has he allowed the terrorists to grow so strong in this country?

He’s got to answer this because as far as I’m concerned some of the people around him have sympathy for the militants. . . . Let’s not forget, when the Taliban came down from Tora Bora they were on the run — they were absolutely broken. But they have reorganized. They could not do that unless there is some support from the government or intelligence.

So there is an entire system of support for the extremists?

Yes, I am shocked to see how embedded it is. I knew it was bad from afar. People are scared to talk. They say I am polarizing when I say militancy is a problem. A town calls for reinforcements but they are not sent in time. So the town falls.

The terrorists invade and start cutting people’s heads off, and it terrorizes the populations into submission. After the town falls . . . they send the army in to clear out the militants. But the army can’t be kept there, and so they withdraw and the citizens have lost the will to resist. Why can’t the government send reinforcements? . . .

The army is being targeted and losing men and is getting demoralized because the public is not with them. They say, ‘You are fighting America’s war.’ But we are not fighting for American territory but for Pakistani territory.