Today's date:




Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, now heads that country's leading opposition People's Party. On Aug. 22 she will file election papers at the Pakistan Embassy in London and plans to return under threat of arrest to Islamabad in the coming days. She spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels in London.

NATHAN GARDELS: It has been (almost) a year since the Al Qaeda attack on America and the emergence of Pakistan as a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. Has Gen. (Pervez) Musharraf's crackdown on radical Islamists in Pakistan linked to the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Kashmiri militants, especially those sponsored by the Pakistan security services, been effective?

BENAZIR BHUTTO: It has been ineffective. The militants in Pakistan have decided to lay low for now because the FBI is in town and electronic eavesdropping is taking place. So, there is a lull in which they are conserving their strength, after which they will strike at a better time. This is my assessment from many years of dealing with these groups.

In Afghanistan, the militants' strategy is to try to inflict casualties on the American forces and their allies. They are sending a message to the people of Afghanistan that ''one day the Americans will be gone and you will have to deal with us.'' Those unwilling to play all sides of the game are, like Abdul Haq, being killed.

Are there networks strong enough to still hide Osama bin Laden? Our information initially was that Bin Laden left Afghanistan for Pakistan before Kabul fell. But nine months later, there has been such a total blanket of silence from any credible sources that I cannot deny the probability that he is dead. The fact that there have not even been reports of burial ceremonies or traditional Muslim mourning prayers for the departed could well mean that not only he, but all those close to him, were also killed.

In Kashmir, I fear the militant Islamists will be active as the elections approach (in September). It is a real tinderbox, the clash point. Kashmir is where some Pakistani generals think they can win a war....

GARDELS: You're saying that Pakistani generals behind the Kashmiri militants want to use them to provoke a war during the elections?

BHUTTO: It is very difficult for me as a Pakistani to come out and say the army is still behind them. What I can say is that, as far as Kashmir is concerned, the establishment of the ruling generals has decided Kashmir is the area they should focus on. During the time of elections, we can therefore expect some trouble and the pattern of the last three years will be repeated -- a period of quiet followed with a flare.

These generals feel this is an ideal time to show how helpless India is over Kashmir because they will not dare attack Pakistan while U.S. troops are on our soil. They think they can take things to the boiling point and international pressure will make India back down.

So far, (Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari) Vajpayee has succumbed to international pressure and backed down. This is a very dangerous game because who is to say Vajpayee will not call their bluff? Then where will we all be?

GARDELS: You have said that ''the international community made a critical error when it concluded that a military dictator could stem the tidal wave of extremism engulfing the region'' and defuse tension between India and Pakistan. But maybe Gen. Musharraf is just what Pakistan needs. Perhaps a strong, secularizing modernizer like Ataturk is better for Pakistan than another weak democratic government?

BHUTTO: A strongman is unable to persuade and convince the people. He does not build consensus but gives orders. That inevitably creates a backlash, especially when he is seen as held in office not by the people but by foreign powers.

This plays to the advantage of not only the Islamists but also nationalist militants. A new political theme that has emerged in Pakistan over the last nine months is how the country has lost its sovereignty.

Conversely, while a democratically elected civilian government may appear weak, it is actually stronger because it has to persuade enough of the country in their hearts and minds to bring it to power. It can thus co-opt the public. It can empower them and win them over.

I led the weakest of governments, but we never had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Indian troops on our borders. Even though considered weak, I was able to veto a Kargil-type adventure by the military such as the one concocted by Gen. Musharraf. In the last days of my government, I was
able to persuade the intelligence community and the military that we should prevent the Taliban from taking over Kabul.

So, a weak, but elected, government has inherent strengths -- it can mold public opinion because it has the legitimacy to persuade people to act or not act in a certain way if they want stability. A strongman is cut off from the public. His currency is repression, not persuasion.

Finally, this is not the time of Ataturk in the early 20th century. This is the 21st century. People want to feel empowered. So they get angry. And they get angry not only at the dictators, but at the Western countries that back them, seeing it as yet another double standard which says, ''democracy for us, but dictatorship for you.''

GARDELS: This anger and frustration, then, form the breeding ground of anti-Western militancy and perhaps even terror networks?

BHUTTO: Yes. Worse, under a dictatorship, the Islamists can still work through the mosques where they can gather and preach their message while the moderates can't organize or get out their message. They are sidelined.

Pakistan and India are still not far from the brink of war. What can be done to ease the tensions?

BHUTTO: The most important easing will take place when the troops withdraw from the borders. The overall issue, however, is one of trust. As prime minister, I always found that when there was an ability to communicate, to trust each other's words, matters could dealt with more quickly without confrontation.

Gen. Musharraf may well mean every word that he says, but because he is perceived as the author of the Kargil assault, he is unable to inspire the trust in India's leaders that can move matters toward a resolution. Nawaz Sharif -- the former prime minister and political rival of mine -- was a civilian leader. So, when he went to India, they trusted him.

In Pakistan and India's history, every war has occurred as a result of military dictatorship. And Pakistani military dictatorships have always taken weapons from the West during the Cold War in order to fight India.

Now, of course, the Indians are not angels. They do terrible things to the people of Kashmir, who have a right to self-determination. But we are living now in the post-Sept. 11 era. Given what has happened in America, there is a lack of differentiation between terrorists and freedom fighters. Whether we Pakistanis like it or not, it is a reality.

One has to take that into account. For this reason, a militant insurgency could be counterproductive to the overall aims of the Kashmiri people.

GARDELS: What would you do if you come back into power?

BHUTTO: First of all, there is the trust accorded a civilian leader that is a plus from the get go. Second, there is my track record. As prime minister in my first term, then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and I were able to reach substantive agreements, including the agreement of ''non-attack'' on each other's nuclear facilities. This is the first, and only, nuclear confidence-building treaty between our two countries. Third, I traveled to New Delhi last November and had discussions with the government and opposition leaders about the idea of safe and open borders around Kashmir. I had this same discussion with Kashmiri leaders on both sides. I found there is a great possibility of building a consensus for safe and open borders there if India and Pakistan held negotiations to that end.

GARDELS: When do you intend to go back to Pakistan?

BHUTTO: Within the next month. I want to go back to contest elections. As a Pakistani citizen, I'm entitled to contest the elections. Under the constitution, only someone convicted of corruption can be debarred from running. I have not been convicted of corruption, so I am eligible.

GARDELS: But Musharraf has promised to jail you if you return.

BHUTTO: Yes, but that is not a substantive obstacle because I can win the election from jail. Every two to three weeks he puts up new obstacles to stop my participation in the elections, whether it is a law allowing my trial in absentia, a law barring former prime ministers from seeking office or a law changing the registration rules for my party so we cannot use our election symbol, a critical issue in a country with so many illiterate in the electorate.

If these don't work in keeping me out of the elections, he has let my party people know that the elections will be rigged. For this reason, I support the American intention to send fair elections observers.

GARDELS: So, if you are in jail and the party you lead wins elections, then what?

BHUTTO: Well, that is the interesting part. Musharraf has said he wants free elections. The international community wants free elections. So, my plea to him is, ''Be sensible.'' When my party wins the majority in the new parliament, what is he going to do? Do away with the parliament? That will be a crisis for everybody in the region and for the war against terrorism.

The story could be different. Since Sept. 11, many people in the Muslim world feel they need an image of moderation. Because I am a woman and a moderate with a long record of fighting extremists, I can help present a better image to the world not only of Pakistan but of Muslims as a whole.

A military dictatorship on the frontlines in today's key conflict is not a positive image for Islam.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 8/19/02)