Ashish Kumar Sen: Gen. Musharraf has shut down a committee that was looking into corruption charges against you. Was this action part of a deal you have struck to facilitate your return to Pakistan?
Benazir Bhutto: First, a clarification: the department established to pursue a political vendetta against me has not been shut down. It is called the National Accountability Bureau and is still pursuing fabricated criminal cases against me. An official was changed but that is neither here nor there, as officials were changed several times over the last decade.
I am the only political leader in Pakistan, with my Party supporters, who are being persecuted. The rest of the politicians who had cases against them have either been pardoned or had the cases dropped. The nuclear scientist who admitted to selling nuclear parts internationally admitted guilt has been pardoned. The cases against me are for the purposes of diverting attention from the institutionalized corruption of the military regime and for hobbling my leadership. The charges are fallacious and ten years of investigation has failed to provide a shred of evidence. It is important to note that having a committee by itself demonstrates the bizarre level of personal vendetta that this regime is willing to take to discredit the Pakistan Peoples Party and myself.
AKS: Has Gen. Musharraf sent out feelers or shown any indication that he would welcome you back to Pakistan? Have conditions been placed on your return? Would you return to Pakistan if it were conditional?
Benazir Bhutto: General Musharraf's regime has sent feelers to Opposition parties, including the Pakistan Peoples Party since it seized power. However, despite the passage of many years, the PPP and General Musharraf's team have failed to reach an understanding as yet on a transition to democracy. I plan to return to Pakistan this year irrespective of whether there is an understanding or not. I realize that in the failure of an understanding, I run the risk of being arrested on fallacious charges. I plan to take on the challenges knowing my life is dedicated to the restoration of democracy.
AKS: Would Gen. Musharraf improve his standing by allowing exiled leaders such as you back into Pakistan?
Benazir Bhutto: Elections in Pakistan would not be credible without the free participation of all personalities including myself. It would certainly damage General Musharraf's standing if the elections are manipulated to deny the people of Pakistan the right to determine their own destiny through free and fair, internationally-monitored general elections.
AKS: Do you believe Gen. Musharraf's decision to fire Supreme Court Chief Justice Chaudhary has weakened his standing in Pakistan?
Benazir Bhutto: The decision to remove Pakistan's top judge was wrong and has caused a lot of problems for General Musharraf's regime. It creates the perception that instead of building a democracy, the current regime has been dismantling liberal and secular institutions in a country that is already threatened by Islamic extremism.
AKS: Your family has been put through a lot over the past few years. Why do you want to return?
Benazir Bhutto: I am aware of the obstacles of injustice in participation in Pakistan today; but I believe it is my duty to take on the challenges the country faces, and work towards the promise of democracy.
AKS: Would you run for the office of prime minister, if given a chance?
Benazir Bhutto: It would be an honour for me to serve the people of Pakistan as Prime Minister, were they to elect me to the office. My Party and I have a popular base, we have the experience and the team. I believe we could tackle the problems of extremism, terrorism, poverty alleviation, lack of proper health and educational facilities through democracy. In my view, democracy and development go together.
AKS: Has President Bush's administration been supportive of your desire to return to Pakistan?
Benazir Bhutto: From his visit to Pakistan and other public statements, I believe President Bush understands and supports the call for genuinely free and fair elections, which means an election run under the auspices of an impartial caretaker government, controlled and supervised by a truly independent election commission, open to the participation of all political parties and political party leaders, and monitored by robust teams of international observers watching both the voting and counting of ballots. My Party has presented our list of demands to Pakistan's election commission for reforms necessary for the holding of transparent elections.
AKS: Recently some members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to Gen. Musharraf that, in part, sought to allow you to go back to Pakistan. What support are you getting from U.S. lawmakers?
Benazir Bhutto: U.S. actions are increasingly encouraging. We welcome the Congress' support and hope that the General will listen to these calls and follow through on his promise of "enlightened moderation." Democracy in Pakistan is not just important for Pakistanis, it is important for the entire world. The root of stability in Afghanistan really lies in the border and tribal areas of Pakistan.
AKS: The PPP has employed a top-notch lobbying firm in Washington. Is this part of a PR effort to build support for your return to Pakistan?
Benazir Bhutto: The support from a lobbying firm is part of the PPP's efforts to build support for the restoration of democracy, which includes my return to Pakistan.
AKS: Since September 11, 2001, attacks on America, Gen. Musharraf has been hailed as an indispensable American ally in the war on terror. What is your assessment of Gen. Musharraf's support in this effort – has he delivered as much as he could?
Benazir Bhutto: The PPP and I are worried that despite General Musharraf's declarations of support in the war against terrorism, the situation domestically in Pakistan is worse than it was following the events of 9/11. The religious parties have risen to power for the first time in the country's history, suicide bombings have occurred, again for the first time in Pakistan's history. Moreover, the then defeated and demoralized Taliban have now re-established themselves in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Further, it appears that they have established a safe haven from where they collect taxes, dispense their form of justice and run an irregular army.
Elsewhere in Pakistan, more militias hiding under the name of Madrassa have been established since 9/11. The Jamia Hafsa Madrassa in Islamabad is one example. It was constructed on illegally occupied government land. It's frightening to think how many such hidden sleeper cells have been created since 9/11 housing armed persons who can take on the state at any time. The Islamabad Madrassa, allied with a government appointed cleric, is now threatening barbers, beauticians and the entertainment industry while the regime says it is helpless to act.
The general elections of 2007 could turn out to be a last chance to save a moderate Pakistan from the creeping talibinsation that is taking place. If anything the years since 9/11 has demonstrated that a military regime is unsuccessful in undermining the forces of terrorism, extremism and militancy. In fact the PPP believes that it is democracy, alone which can undermine the forces of terrorism and extremism. In 1993 Pakistan was about to be declared a terrorist state following the first attack on the World Trade Towers. However, I was elected soon thereafter and with the help of the people of Pakistan and the international community, my Government stopped the spread of terrorism. After my overthrow, the terrorists regained the upper hand and planned the second attack on the World Trade Towers.
AKS: In his memoir, Gen. Musharraf suggested Pakistan was bullied into supporting America in the war on terror. If you were elected prime minister, would you reconsider Pakistan's role as an ally in this war – given its unpopularity in Pakistan? Would it be easier for a democratically elected leader to sell the war on terror to the Pakistani people?
Benazir Bhutto: There is absolutely no doubt amongst ordinary Pakistanis that we need to get rid of the extremists from our lands. There is no difference of policy objectives with the West. With the resurgence of the Taliban along the border of Afghanistan, and the recent spread of extremists into more settled areas like Tank and Islamabad, it is necessary that Pakistan do as much as it can to rid the country of hate-mongers. We have a common purpose in undermining the forces of terrorism.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, as well as the parties of the ARD have committed themselves to fighting terrorism and building peace in the Charter for Democracy signed in the summer of 2006. It would be easier for a democratically elected government led by the PPP to involve the people in building peace and fighting terror.
The reason for America's unpopularity in Pakistan is that democratic development in Pakistan has rarely been a priority for the U.S. Ordinary Pakistanis feel alienated and therefore we see rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. The U.S. government must support democracy and give democracy time to flourish.
AKS: How much control does the leader of Pakistan – either elected, or one in uniform – have over the tribes in the North West Frontier Province?
Benazir Bhutto: A leader elected or unelected, controls the tribal areas through the Governor, political agents, paramilitary forces and the tribal elders. An elected government has the advantage of controlling the tribal areas through popular support and acceptance. Basically ordinary people need protection from warlords, be they drug warlords or pro Taliban warlords. If the state can give protection to the people, the people come forward to save themselves. After all, peace brings the benefits of prosperity to the largely poverty stricken people of the tribal areas. During both of my terms as Prime Minister, my government sent law enforcement under civilian control to these same "ungovernable" areas, to rid them of then-rampant drug problems and militants. These drug lords and militants were no less brutal than today's reemerging Taliban/al Qaeda.
The issue in my view is not the ability – but rather the willingness of the Federal government to keep the tribal areas free from anti state elements.
AKS: Do you believe a democratically elected leader can be a more useful ally of the United States in this war on terror?
Benazir Bhutto: Absolutely. Dictatorships such as the military regime currently in power in Pakistan suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Governance is neglected and the political madrassas exploit this by promising three meals a day, food, clothing, shelter and education to the economically disadvantaged groups. They then brainwash them into extremism.
I believe that restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be the breeding-ground for international terrorism. That is the only long-term solution.
AKS: There has been a resurgence of the Taliban over the past year. Do you believe the ISI still maintains links with the group? Or have these weakened since 2001? To what extent has the ISI been responsible for the resurgence of the Taliban?
Benazir Bhutto: In January 2007, The New York Times reported that Pakistani intelligence agencies – and in particular the Inter-Services Intelligence – are promoting the Islamic insurgency. Reporters who worked on this story were harassed, beaten and imprisoned and Pakistanis who acted as sources have, in the fashion of intelligence, "disappeared." I am unable to say whether the ISI is directly involved presently. There are a plethora of military intelligence groups in Pakistan which spring from the Intelligence corp. established after the overthrow of my first government in 1990. My experience was that when I reined in the ISI in 1989, the military hardliners turned to the MI--military intelligence--to overthrow my government. Nowadays it is said that most of the operations are being carried out by the Intelligence Bureau headed by a retired army officer who was involved in the Afghan Jihad of the eighties. Irrespective of which particular branch of intelligence is being used, the Taliban could not have re-organized, rearmed and re-asserted themselves without covert state support following their defeat in 2001.
AKS: Gen. Musharraf has struck "peace deals" with the tribes in the NWFP. Do you believe these deals stand a chance of success? If you were prime minister, would this be a route you would pursue?
Benazir Bhutto: I don't believe in signing "peace deals" with terrorists. I believe that such deals only embolden terrorists and allow them a breathing space to rest, rearm and re-engage. The PPP and I have made a commitment to the people of the tribal areas to provide them peace and security so that development can come to them and their children can get jobs. We have announced a tribal areas policy to bring political reforms to the area as well as called for a lifting of the ban on political parties from participating as parties in the tribal areas.
AKS: What is your assessment of the current state of Pakistan's relationship with India? When you and Rajiv Gandhi led the two countries there was much hope of a new era of peace, ushered in by two young and promising leaders. Do you feel you missed that opportunity to improve ties with India?
Benazir Bhutto: I believe that Pakistan and India have definitely missed opportunities to establish a strong relationship. We believe that in order to ensure permanent peace and friendship with India, it is essential first, for Pakistan to root out of terrorism and militancy, and restore democracy.
AKS: In your book you reveal Gen. Musharraf's offer to conquer Kashmir. Could you tell me a bit about the offer he made to you? Gen. Musharraf is widely believed to be the architect of the Kargil crisis. Given your revelation that the general had approached you with a plan to invade Kashmir, do you believe Nawaz Sharif's contention that this situation escalated without his knowledge?
Benazir Bhutto: I have written in my autobiography of how I stopped two incidents during my tenure, which could have led to a Kargil-like situation. I understand that both Prime Minister Sharif and General Musharraf have different contentions with regard to who knew what and when.
AKS: In his memoir, Gen. Musharraf says you were "chairperson for life" of the PPP, much in the "tradition of old African dictators" and calls your time as prime minister "sham democracy." In your opinion, has Gen. Musharraf, in his years leading Pakistan, fostered the growth of democratic institutions?
Benazir Bhutto: Old African dictators relied on repression to stay in power. I have always relied on the love and affection of the people of my country. That love and affection is more important to me than political power. I have spent many years in the political wilderness knowing that my principled stand for democracy enhanced the love and respect I enjoy in the eyes of the people of Pakistan. The PPP would not have won the majority votes in 2002 despite it being an openly rigged election if our democracy was a "sham democracy". We win elections because we represent what a common Pakistani wants, which is jobs and education. Talks of Islamization/radicalism/ military might can only get you that far in Pakistan.
AKS: What has life in exile been like for you? Has this taken a toll on you and your family?
Benazir Bhutto: Since November 4, 1996 I have spent difficult years being persecuted by the regime. My husband spent eight years in prison. He was tortured and nearly died under torture. I raised small children on my own. My opponents subsidized their political vendetta against me with state funds. My reputation was slandered. It has been and continues to be a time of uncertainty and worry. For example, I never knew whether my passport would be renewed or whether I would be able to travel.
I was upset when I was hauled up before a Magistrate's court in Geneva and missed the prayers for my murdered brother's death anniversary for the first time as the dates coincided. As I walked on the Rue du Rhone, I remembered how once my family had lived together in exile in Geneva in 1984. Instead of being happy at being together, we moaned, "when will we all be together in Pakistan so that we can be happy". Well, we never were together in Pakistan. One brother was killed in 1985. We should have lived in the present and valued what we had.
I learnt to value living in the present. I read Dale Carnegie's book on how to avoid anxiety and focused on the present. I appreciated the opportunity to raise my children, look after my mother who suffers from a form of Alzheimer's and the opportunity to speak up for moderate Muslims following the terror attacks on the World Trade Centers as well as on women's rights. I focused on leading my Party through email and promoting my views through articles. In these difficult years, I made new friends and value their support.
AKS: There have been reports that exile has affected your marriage. Is this true?
Benazir Bhutto: Those reports are absolutely false. I don't see male leaders in Pakistan being asked such questions. For me the gossip about my family has to do with gender discrimination.
AKS: Have you been in touch with Nawaz Sharif?
Benazir Bhutto: Nawaz Sharif's party and the PPP share a common agenda - demand for free and fair elections, and have formed an Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD). We have created a charter that details reforms we intend to enact when elected to office.
AKS: If the opportunity arose would you consider a political coalition with Mr. Sharif?
Benazir Bhutto: Yes.
AKS: Has the PPP suffered in your absence?
Benazir Bhutto: Yes, the PPP has suffered in my absence. There is a new generation that has come up in the last decade. My inability to freely tour the country and contact the masses has been a great disadvantage. So too has been the Damocles sword of politically motivated litigation which creates uncertainty in the minds of the people.
However, despite these disadvantages, the PPP won majority votes in the general elections of 2002, despite it being a rigged one.