By Eric Margolis
Sun, October 7, 2007
LONDON — Considering she had just flown in from New York and was about to launch a political revolution in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto looked remarkably relaxed when we met. Since we have known one another for years, the mood was informal and congenial.
Pakistan’s twice former prime minister — and likely next one — was cautiously optimistic.
“The situation in Pakistan is ugly,” said Bhutto. Days earlier, many of her Pakistan Peoples Party supporters had been beaten with bricks by the police and seriously injured. Pakistan is facing growing violence by Islamic militants and tribal insurgents.
Last month, Pakistan’s first female prime minister revealed to this column she would return to Pakistan on Oct. 18. At the time, she still faced serious criminal charges in Pakistan over corruption cases that have dragged on for years. Bhutto denies any guilt and insists the cases were political vendettas.
Last week, Bhutto reaffirmed she would depart London on Oct. 17 and land the next morning in Karachi, the bastion of her political support.
Bhutto vowed she would go ahead even if forces of the military regime headed by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf tried to arrest her. But the next day, after weeks of what she termed “stalling” by Musharraf’s U.S.-backed military regime, the corruption charges may have been lifted, opening the way for her legal return. The fate of Pakistan’s other main political leader, Nawaz Sharif, who was kicked out when he tried to return recently, remains uncertain.
Musharraf’s plummeting domestic support and intensified pressure from Washington are pushing the reluctant general into a deal with old foe Bhutto.
“No, not a deal,” insists Bhutto, “a constitutional arrangement.”
Whatever you call it, barring potential last-minute snags, it seems the long-anticipated, American-brokered power sharing agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto is close.
“The army would like to distance itself from the perception it is running the country,” says Bhutto. “The longer military dictatorship continues, the more we will face violence from extremist groups.”
I asked if the army will fight a national uprising against Musharraf.
“No, the army is highly disciplined. The mainly Punjabi army won’t fire on its own people,” she predicted, nor would it split.
This week, Musharraf named a loyal ally, military intelligence chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, as new armed forces commander, and appointed other loyalists to senior positions. My sources say all were vetted and approved in advance by Washington.
Musharraf may resign as armed forces commander, but he and Washington will still pull the military’s strings. Since the military is the only national institution that really works and holds respect, nameplates will change, but the power will remain in the same hands as now.
Benazir Bhutto, outwardly confident and determined, believes she can take charge of turbulent Pakistan in time to ward off an internal explosion or even civil war that would shake South Asia and deprive the U.S. of a key ally.
But during her previous two terms, she was never fully able to grasp the reins of power and constantly thwarted by her generals.
This time around, her position is likely to be even weaker and her powers ill-defined and contested. Musharraf and the Bush administration hope she will provide democratic window-dressing while the military runs the show and fights Islamists and tribesmen.
ARMY AND POLITICS
But Bhutto is determined to get the army out of politics. So who will really be in charge?
And will the Pakistanis accept a new government, hand-crafted by Washington?
“The military is the problem, not solution,” she says. “If there is a fair vote early next year, our party (PPP) and its allies will win.”
High drama awaits Pakistan on Oct. 18 when Benzair crosses the Rubicon. Don’t underestimate her.
As I was leaving London, Benazir Bhutto sent me a message worthy of Rudyard Kipling: “Our next meeting, if not at the foothills of the Khyber Pass, then at the shores of the Arabian Sea.”
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