One View Of The Taliban

Benazir Bhutto served as prime minister of Pakistan from 1988-90 and again in 1993-96. Her husband, Asif Zardari, has been in prison in Pakistan since 1996 on charges of corruption. Pakistan's military government is now led by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has promised to cooperate in the American effort to combat terrorism. NEWSWEEK's Donna Foote asked Bhutto, who now lives with her three children in exile, for her take on the Taliban and the current crisis.

NEWSWEEK: The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan while you were prime minister of Pakistan. Why did you support the Taliban?

Benazir Bhutto: The Taliban were actually students in university who decided to go back to Afghanistan after the Russians left. My reports were that the Taliban were being welcomed by the people and that they were building peace. Initially we thought the Taliban was a stabilizing force. My government was keen to establish ties with Central Asia, so we were quite pleased and we encouraged them initially.... We wanted to import wheat and export cotton to Central Asia and wanted a route that would give us access to Central Asia through Kandahar [where the Taliban is headquartered]. We were trying to bypass Kabul and establish an enclave in the south. The Taliban were supposed to give us safe passage.

What did the Taliban stand to gain?

Initially we gave them political and diplomatic support. We also gave them fuel, food, communications, transportation. The Taliban rose up and were embraced by us because we saw them as the ticket to our own economic interests regarding Central Asia.

What happened to the trade route?

We inaugurated the road and had one or two caravans go. But the fighting was continuous.

How much control did you have over the Taliban?

They listened to us. They did depend on our blessing so they didn't want to annoy us.

What do you think in hindsight?

In retrospect I do regret the support we gave them in the initial days.

Did you ever meet Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban?

I don't recall. He is now very famous. But we would meet many people back then. I did hear that he grew up in Pakistan and fought in Afghanistan. He was wounded there and he suffered. The people were weary in Afghanistan and the Taliban offered them hopes of peace and joy.

What about Osama bin Laden?

I never met him, but I did hear of him in 1989. There was a move of no confidence against my government, and I heard that $10 million came from Saudi Arabia in mango crates in a private plane [to support the effort]. I was very upset and sent one of my ministers to Saudi Arabia to meet with the king and to ask why was this money coming from Saudi Arabia. The king said his government was not sending money, that there were private citizens doing it on their own. My minister was told that bin Laden was very much into Islam and [he believed that] having a woman as a chief executive was un-Islamic.

Will the Taliban ever hand over bin Laden to U.S. authorities?

I don't believe the Taliban will do that. I would be very surprised. My party has called upon them to avert military action. We would like to see negotiations and a political end to this. One wonders if the Taliban understands the gravity of the situation.

How likely is military success for the United States in Afghanistan-a country that has rebuffed previous invasions?

There are two different views. One is that before a superior military force such as the United States, the Taliban will be routed. The other is that the Americans may secure Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, but in the rest of the country the Taliban will still be there. The United States can get bin Laden through good intelligence. As far as ground forces go, taking Afghanistan is possible, but holding it is a different story. Remember that both the United States and Pakistan supported the most extreme faction because they had the fiercest fighters. After the Russians left, they told us that they had defeated one superpower and now they would defeat the other. I just hope they are not trying to suck American forces into terrain unfamiliar to them.

The military government of General Musharraf has promised to cooperate with the United States. Do you support the decision?

I support Islamabad's intention to end terrorism. We had warned Islamabad in 1998 that unless they distanced themselves from the Taliban, Pakistan could be in big trouble. Now is the time. The Taliban is ruling by force, it subjugates its women and mistreats everyone from missionaries to diplomats. We've got refugees still on our land-Afghans are scattered all over the world. After the first World Trade Center bombing [in 1993], we extradited Ramzi Yousef, and he confessed to making two assassination attempts on me. They were meddling heavily in Pakistani politics, and they saw Pakistan as a political and economic hinterland which could give them access to the rest of the world. They were very keen to stop my government.

What kind of leverage does the United States have over Pakistan?

The United States has a large degree of leverage. Pakistan's biggest problem is debt. Islamabad is looking at debt retirement. That's the carrot. The stick Washington has is its voice on the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank. If Washington opposes continued lending, it will be very difficult for Islamabad to withstand public reaction. We have very little money to pay salaries or to buy essential items like wheat. Washington has both a carrot and a stick.

Are you concerned about instability in Pakistan? There is sympathy amongst the military-security apparatus for the Taliban because they all fought a jihad. But ordinary people are fed up with the militant clerics.

How would you characterize these difficult times?

This is an uncertain time. I don't know how this will work out. If it is resolved politically, or if there is a quick military solution, the Pakistan Army will hold its place, and we'll cross this difficulty. But if there are huge demonstrations and the military comes under strain, it could be a difficult time not only for Pakistan but for the Muslim world. Pakistan is the second-largest Muslim country and it has weapons of mass destruction, and what happens in Pakistan will have an impact on the entire Muslim world. Our aim should be to expedite an early political or military solution.