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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


20 August 2007

`I will return to Pakistan between September and December,’ Benazir Bhutto told me in an exclusive interview last week.

Pakistan’s former prime minister vowed to leave her exile in Dubai and go home `with or without an agreement’ with Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military government.

Pakistan is in deep crisis and may even be teetering on the brink of an abyss as threats of civil war steadily increase. At least two of every three Pakistanis want the general to resign. Many Pakistanis accuse Musharraf of waging war on his own people at Washington’s behest.

Always controversial and fascinating, Miss Bhutto, is getting ready to cross the Rubicon. On returning to Pakistan, she risks being treated as a rebel and criminal by the Musharraf regime and thrown into prison. Numerous arrests warrants are outstanding for both Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who is also threatening to return from exile.

Or, will the increasingly isolated Musharraf, a key US ally, bow to his people’s demands and cooperate in restoring civilian-led democracy? When I interviewed him in 1999, shortly after he seized power, the general told me he intended to remain in office `only until democracy is restored and we clean up corruption.’

Ms Bhutto confirmed she has indeed, as widely rumored, held rounds of intensive talks with Musharraf’s government, which she describes as `confidence-building measures.’ She also has held talks with old political rival, Nawaz Sharif, and with senior US State Department officials.

Washington has become increasingly disillusioned with Musharraf and is increasingly worried he may be replaced by a coup or driven from office by an explosion of popular fury. The US has apparently given up looking for a Musharraf replacement from among the army’s senior generals and has now concluded that Benazir Bhutto offers the most viable alternative. But Washington still wants Musharraf to control the army, the center of political and economic power in Pakistan.

But Ms Bhutto denied my suggestion Washington is trying to engineer a deal to keep the unpopular Musharraf in power by having Benazir and her Pakistan’s Peoples Party join his government as junior coalition partners.

`There is no agreement yet. The next two weeks will be crucial,’ she told me.

Clearly, the game’s afoot. It is hard to imagine a more exciting political drama, or higher political stakes. Benazir, long scorned by Pakistan’s powerful army generals, has thrown down the gauntlet to Gen. Musharraf. By announcing her imminent return in our interview, she has delivered an ultimatum to Musharraf: deal or face a whirlwind.

Will throngs of avid Bhutto supporters seize Karachi Airport to open the way for her return? Or will Musharraf’s soldiers deny her incoming plane landing rights, just as Nawaz did to Musharraf’s aircraft in 1999?

Will the army arrest Bhutto – and Nawaz Sharif – on their return? Will there be mass riots, or will the army split, with some younger officers supporting Ms Bhutto. Reports come to me of growing unrest in the armed forces over the $1 billion monthly Washington pays the Musharraf government to `rent’ 80,000 of his soldiers to fight rebellious, pro-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen in Pakistan’s supposedly `autonomous’ tribal territories.

More questions abound. Will Musharraf drop criminal charges against Benazir, and annul recently reinstated charges against Nawaz? Newly assertive Pakistani courts may no longer serve as tools of government repression. Will the courts indict Musharraf for high crimes?

This writer has known Ms Bhutto for a long time and was often critical when she was prime minister. But you really only get to know people when they face adversity. I have watched Benazir face down crises with coolness and consummate political skill, and not give in to self-pity, even at the darkest times, a few of which I shared with her.

Benazir has grown in character and strength in exile and remains Pakistan’s most popular and capable democratic political leader. She has also learned a great deal about politics and human nature in the years since she was last a young prime minister surrounded by glowering older men and overtly hostile generals.

One of her most important tasks will be to shake off the negative image she holds in Pakistan of being `Washington’s woman.’ In the past time of crisis, Bhutto has too often sought Washington’s overt support, alienating many Pakistanis, particularly among Islamist parties, who accuse her of being a cat’s paw of the Americans.

But wouldn’t a deal with Musharraf dismay her followers and tarnish her own reputation? `We must deal with reality,’ she politically answers. Power sharing with Musharraf, I asked? `We can get along with some generals,’ comes her cautiously reply. She used to accuse me of being too chummy with `your beloved Pakistani generals.’ Now, she is playing a dangerous game with them.

`Musharraf needs to resign to clear the way to promotion for younger, capable generals,’ says Bhutto,` otherwise the army will loose some of its best men.’ A lot of mid-ranking officers will be listening to her.

Bhutto says she is ready to work with Musharraf and a reinvigorated parliament to rebuild democracy in Pakistan, a process she calls `internal reconciliation.’

With an eye on her American audience and the White House, Bhutto adds, `only democracy can undermine terrorism.’ She is quite right, of course. Much of what the west terms `Islamic terrorism’ is really violence and protest directed against the Muslim World’s western-backed dictatorial regimes.

But who would be the real boss in a `power-sharing’ deal? Benazir seems far too smart to be used as a token prime minister to legitimize Musharraf’s floundering regime.

The general may be too accustomed to absolute power and yes men to accept constraint by a powerful prime minister and parliament.

It seems a recipe for paralysis or, worse. Political co-habitation, such as France practiced during the 1980’s, when the president and prime minister came from opposing parties, barely worked then and would be unlikely to even function in fractious, turbulent Pakistan.

Musharraf would do his nation a favor by resigning as military chief and running in an honest election against Benazir and Nawaz. Democracy is Pakistan’s only fire exit from the increasingly dangerous tensions and risk of civil war it now faces.

How do you feel right now, I asked her? `Excited, tense,’ Benazir replied. That also sums up Pakistan’s mood as it waits for this remarkable lady to return home.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2007.

Published at since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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