Q&A: Benazir Bhutto on Pakistan

Age has scarcely mellowed Benazir Bhutto. At 53, Pakistan’s two-time former prime minister has lost none of the fighting spirit that made her the first woman to be elected leader of a modern Muslim nation nearly two decades ago, when she was only 35. Recently she publicly joined forces with her former political nemesis (and now fellow exile) Nawaz Sharif, renouncing their past feuds and demanding restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Their pact was yet another headache for the country’s military leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who already faces a full share of problems in both embattled Kashmir and on the Afghan border, where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding. Bhutto recently traveled to New York to lecture at the Oxonian Society and announce her hope of running for prime minister in 2007.  She spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Karen Fragala Smith about her views on the Taliban, women’s rights and the corruption allegations that plagued her political career. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why hasn’t Osama Bin Laden been found?

Benazir Bhutto: I believe that elements of the [Pakistani] military security apparatus have a lot of sympathy for bin Laden. General Musharraf is relying on the [military] to find bin Laden, and it’s simply not going to happen. What we really need is a change, and I believe that change has to come by going to the civilian option.

How would you rate General Musharraf’s performance as a partner to the United States in the Bush administration’s fight against terror?

I think General Musharraf took the right decision following the events of 9/11 to stand with the international community to fight terrorism. But I question how effective he has been in eliminating terrorism. There is a lack of implementation of his decisions in many parts of the country, and we have seen in [recent] years how the Taliban have reorganized themselves, and their goal is to take over Afghanistan once again. The religious parties have gained strength within Pakistan and today control of two of our most important provinces that border Afghanistan. Militant groups that were [once] banned—who were attacking New Delhi, Bombay—are re-emerging and hold peace between India and Pakistan hostage. When I look at the rise of the religious parties, the reorganization of the Taliban and the persistence of the militant groups, I worry for Pakistan’s future.

Is it true that you initially supported the Taliban when they first formed in Afghanistan?

When the Taliban first emerged, the United States, Pakistan and many other countries saw them as a force for peace, but soon we became disillusioned. There’s a difference between Taliban with Al Qaeda and Taliban without Al Qaeda. When the first Taliban emerged, there was no Al Qaeda. They were there as Afghans trying to be a political force within Afghanistan. After the overthrow of my government in 1996, they allowed Al Qaeda to set up training camps. At that time, I was leader of the opposition in the Pakistani Parliament, and I called upon the government to issue an ultimatum to the Taliban that unless they evicted Al Qaeda, Pakistan would break relations with them. Unfortunately, my calls fell on deaf ears.

Describe your new alliance with former political rival Nawaz Sharif. What are your intentions going forward?

I traveled to Saudi Arabia last year to meet with Mr. Sharif. I told him that [people] inside and outside Pakistan are concerned that both of us spend so much time fighting each other [and] that if democracy was restored, we might have another round of senseless political battles. We needed to send a signal that we’ve learned our lessons and that next time it will be different. We came up with a “Charter of Democracy” [which is] aimed at creating a political system of checks and balances. In Pakistan, politics is a zero-sum game, but we believe that there should be a place within the system for divergent political views. A democratic society will also create tolerance among the young people in Pakistan who are confused by conflicting messages. On the one hand, they hear about the beauty of an accountable, transparent governance system that empowers ordinary people. But their reality is that power flows from the gun. We need to reverse the culture of violence and replace it with a culture of law and tolerance.

Pakistan currently has term limits that would keep you from returning to office as prime minister. Would you consider running in some other capacity?

In the immediate future, my party and the alliance with Mr. Sharif are both looking to put an end to the term limits. We feel that it should be left to the people of Pakistan. It’s not like America, where a president is elected and he completes [one or] two terms. Our terms are interrupted, so they don’t really qualify in the American sense of two terms. I am planning to go back to Pakistan to help my party in the next general elections. If that limitation is lifted, I’ll run for prime minister.

Your administration was plagued by corruption charges.

The allegations have been made to destroy my reputation. Despite the rules being stacked against me, none of the courts were able to convict me. I have always proclaimed my innocence, my husband has proclaimed his, and neither of us have been convicted, nor has any other member of my family. These corruption charges have been made to tarnish my image and deny Pakistan a democratic alternative. Since 1950, corruption charges have been made against every civilian prime minister—I believe it’s to divert attention from the institutionalized corruption of the military.

What it your view on India-Pakistan relations?

Irrespective of the differences on Kashmir, India and Pakistan have to move forward. One of the key ways that we can move forward is by copying Europe’s example. Europe was torn apart by war until it decided to build a common market. I’ve spoken to Indian leaders on this, and within Pakistan and India there’s an emerging consensus that while we have differences, these differences should not stop us from economic development and cooperation in terms of trade and travel. But obviously we need safe borders. While militants hold guns in their hands and disturb the peace, it’s very difficult to get safe and open borders. Attacking militancy is very important, not only vis-à-vis Afghanistan, but also vis-à-vis India.

What do you think of the current state of women’s rights in Pakistan?

There’s a very big debate on the role of women in the Muslim world. Some claim that women must be kept behind closed doors, but I argue that Islam came to emancipate women, not to repress them. The time has come when we within the Muslim world need to realize that each of us has a right to interpret religion as we wish, and we do not need clerics or the state to tell us how to worship.

There are certain religious leaders who say it’s against Islam for a woman to rule. What is your perspective?

When I was first elected prime minister of Pakistan, a leading Saudi cleric said that it was un-Islamic. At the same time, the religious leaders from Yemen, Cairo and Syria all came out in support of a woman leading an Islamic nation. [There is] tremendous debate and discussion between those who would take us to the past, and those who look to the future.