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Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, heads the largest opposition party in Pakistan, the Pakistan People's Party. She spoke on Sept. 18 from an undisclosed location with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels.

NATHAN GARDELS: Can the West rely on the current Pakistani regime as an ally in the war against terror?

BENAZIR BHUTTO: It's right for Islamabad to support the battle against terrorism. Here's the problem: Islamabad currently has a military regime that lacks a popular base. It's focused on squeezing the moderate groups and allowing a free rein to the pro-Taliban elements. The question the Pakistani public is puzzled about is whether the regime has the will to do as it says. There's doubt being expressed. Islamabad needs to demonstrate that it has given up its policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. I hope it will.

GARDELS: What are the limits of Pakistan's support of an attack on Osama Bin Laden, and perhaps the Taliban, without causing a backlash among the public and throughout the Muslim world?

BHUTTO: If the goal is the capture and trial of Bin Laden, that is do-able -- given Islamabad's will. If the goal is a quick ground attack to replace the Taliban, it could get messy. If it is air strikes that the Taliban withstands in the mountainous terrain of the country, it could get lengthy. There's another solution for the same end: a mixture of political and military actions with support given by Islamabad's security apparatus.

But that apparatus is riddled with pro-Taliban supporters. They twice destabilized my governments. If my government had one policy, the state within the state adhered to another. When I complained to the military chief against an errant officer, he failed to remove him. When there was an insurgency in Karachi, my government received very little specific intelligence from the security apparatus. I had to pull the military out and take total civilian control to end the insurgency successfully.

The military regime lacks political intelligence. It relies totally on the security apparatus. Gen. (Pervez) Musharraf may say that he supports the international coalition against terrorism and will assist. The challenge for him is to demonstrate that he can translate state policy into state action.

The issue of repercussions in the Muslim world is an important one. There are four transnational debates right now. They include militancy, freedom, Palestine and economic emancipation. The militants will try to drag Palestine into the debate on terrorism. If a cease-fire holds in the Middle East, the repercussions in the Muslim world are containable.

GARDELS: Pakistan used to be a state looking forward. How did it come to be one so sympathetic to the backward-looking Taliban?

BHUTTO: The repercussions of the Afghan war against foreign occupation changed my country from a forward-looking one. The generals that fought the Afghan jihad with America believed they defeated one superpower and could defeat another. They destabilized democratic governments to control Pakistan. While overtly they talked of Afghanistan giving Islamabad "strategic depth,'' covertly Islamabad became Afghanistan's hinterland.

GARDELS: What makes both the moderate and more extremist Muslims so angry and resentful of America?

Extremist Muslims are angry with America for a variety of local problems. The biggest transnational issue is the Middle East conflict. That's the single most inflammatory factor. Ordinary Pakistanis oppose the Taliban as well as the religious parties. It's the Taliban influence and sympathy among the military, intelligence and military pensioners that are significant.

What, in your view, is the best way to stop the kind of terror committed against the United States?

Changing the focus to Pakistan and its democratization. Significantly, not a single terror attack took place during my two terms as prime minister. The extremists were too busy bringing me down -- to "capture'' Islamabad -- to concentrate overseas. It's when the PPP was dismissed by decree, and the civilian arm of the security apparatus supplanted through rigged elections, that terror attacks took place. These included not only the recent ones, but the earlier hijacking in the Philippines, attacks in Bombay and New Delhi as well as in Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen.

Let's face it. Islamabad is the jugular vein of Kabul, a landlocked country in conflict with all its neighbors. Clean up Islamabad, and the Afghan camp dominoes start falling.

For that, one needs true democracy rather than the window-dressing democracy that existed from 1988 to 1999. I shared power with the security apparatus through the president during that period. Yet the extremists were on the run. Osama did not dare to go to Kabul until the decision to overthrow me was taken in mid-1996. The Taliban were stuck in southern Afghanistan because of our foreign policy. It was only when my brother was killed in the third week of September 1996 to overthrow my government that the Taliban unilaterally went into Kabul.

After the murder of the Afghan resistance leader Masood earlier this month -- it is entirely likely that I'm the next target because I can rally the Pakistani people. My party received information on this and wrote the concerned authorities.

Osama first bankrolled the extremists against me way back in 1989. He gave $10 million for a no-confidence move against me. Some say he returned to Saudi Arabia after the Soviet withdrawal but was sucked back into South Asia by extremists in Islamabad. They wanted his financial investment in my overthrow. Incidentally, Ramzi Yousef (the convicted bomber of the World Trade Center in 1993) also tried to kill me twice to stop me from becoming prime minister.

I'm a believer. I put my trust in God. I want to see Pakistanis prosper with the rest of the world through economic opportunity and political freedom. That's why my people support me. I struggle to end the miseries of the Afghans. If they get a government they trust, they can return to their own country. They're living like sub-humans in refugee camps while fanatics play politics.

My government nearly succeeded in November 1996. We got all the factions to sign on to a commission to decide the broad-based government. Three days later I was overthrown by decree.

This change can still happen. We need the support of the international community in telling Gen. Musharraf that the time for true elections has come. The Election Commission of Pakistan needs assistance of the kind the South African Commission received to end apartheid. Otherwise, the wrong elements in the security apparatus will do what they did in the past: set up political parties, rig elections and hold my country hostage to the hatred and terror they spawn.

GARDELS: Can we be sure the Pakistan nuclear weapons are in secure hands in the event of civil strife in Pakistan?

The situation in Pakistan is extremely fluid at this time. The nuclear weapons are in the control of the military. As long as the demonstrations by the pro-Taliban forces remain small -- as they are at this time -- the army will stay in the barracks. But if the military is called upon to confront the pro-Taliban demonstrators, its discipline will be tested. Historically the discipline stayed in place. If it breaks down, it would be dangerous for the army and for the country, placing the security of the weapons of mass destruction at risk.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/18/01)