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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


October 9, 2007

LONDON – When I met with Pakistan’s former – and likely next - prime minister here in London, Benazir Bhutto looked remarkably relaxed considering she had just flown in from New York and was about to shortly launch a political revolution in Pakistan.

Since we have known one another for years, the mood was informal and congenial, but the subject matter of our lengthy, one-on-one talk fizzed with political electricity and high drama.

Miss Bhutto was cautiously optimistic about the coming months. However, her view of current events in Pakistan was grim. `The situation is ugly,’ she said. Days earlier, many of her Pakistan People’s Party supporters had been beaten with bricks by the police and seriously injured. Pakistan is facing growing violence between the military, Islamic militants, and tribal insurgents. Early this week, over 250 Pakistani soldiers and tribesmen were killed in heavy fighting in Waziristan.

Last month, Pakistan’s first female prime minister gave me a worldwide exclusive, revealing she would return to Pakistan on 18 October. 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. None have ever been proved.

Ms Bhutto reaffirmed she would depart London on the 17th 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 Gen.-President Pervez Musharraf tried to arrest her. But the next day, after weeks of what she termed `stalling’ by Musharraf’s US-backed military regime, the embattled military regime announced corruption charges against Bhutto had been lifted, opening the way for her legal return. Or so it appeared in the murky fog of Pakistani politics.

The fate of Pakistan’s other main political leader, Nawaz Sharif, who was kicked out when he tried to return recently, remains uncertain. Nawaz refused to deal with Musharraf and remains in exile.

Musharraf’s plummeting domestic support and intensified pressure from Washington are pushing the reluctant general into a deal with old foe Bhutto, whose dislike for Pakistan’s powerful military brass is exceeded only by her ardent desire to regain political power.

`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.

But late last week, Pakistan’s born-again Supreme Court further muddied the political waters by declaring last Saturday’s presidential election could proceed, but it would delay ruling – until the day before Benazir’s planned return - if Musharraf could serve as both president and military leader, a clear violation of Pakistan’s constitution.

Next, Pakistan’s national assembly and regional parliaments voted another presidential term for Gen. Musharraf. This was pure political charade as the vote was boycotted by opposition parties and the assemblies packed by the regime’s supporters, many of whom had been `elected’ by rigged votes.

Hanging over all of this was Musharraf’s threat to declare marshal law and lock up all his political opponents and media critics if he did not get his way. Pakistan’s Supreme Court was clearly put on notice.

`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.’

Would the army fight a national uprising against Musharraf, I asked? `No, the army is highly disciplined. The mainly Punjabi army won’t fire on its own people,’ she predicted, nor would it split.

President Musharraf also named 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. Musharraf will also retain another major level of power: dispensing the $1 billion or more a month of US aid – not including secret CIA stipends to senior officials and generals.

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 US 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.

Ironically, while Washington was loudly denouncing Burma’s military junta, it was moving heaven and earth to prop up Pakistan’s military regime, as well as military regimes in Egypt and Algeria, all of whom have killed or jailed far more of their citizens than Burma. It seems beating Buddhist monks is a no-no, but shooting Muslim mullahs and imams is perfectly acceptable.

Meanwhile, Bhutto is determined to get the army out of politics. So who will really be in charge? Will 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 the 18TH when Benzair crosses the Rubicon. One should not underestimate this very tough lady, but she has set some very daunting goals.

As I was leaving London, a determined 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.’

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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