Benazir Bhutto visiting Ajmer Sharif in India
This is a transcription of an interview given by Benazir Bhutto to Vir Sanghvi on a trip to India in 2001. We are publishing this interview because of the remarkably candid statements made by Benazir Bhutto regarding the military’s destabilizing role in Afghanistan and in Kargil. Of special note is her admission that Musharraf presented the Kargil plan as a “war plan” to her during her tenure; her admission that her father worked hard to rehabilitate the army’s image after 1971, her using the word “genocide” to describe the army action in East Pakistan; her admission that organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad undermined the indigenous movement in Kashmir and her very prescient statement that Musharraf’s overtures of peace with India would ultimately be “torn up” by the military establishment itself. She also critically assesses her own second term as being “a winter” in Indo-Pak relations. After reading the interview, it would also be instructive to read some of the reactions within Pakistan to her bold statements on the Lashkar-e-Taiba (as published in Jang). At the time, the response to her statements was overwhelmingly negative. (“Not only has she betrayed hundreds of thousands of martyrs of held Kashmir but she has also sold her soul to the devil to achieve her ambition.”, “As a Pakistani citizen, I felt no difference in the opinion of Mr. Vajpayee and Benazir Bhutto. She is not right in any way.”, etc). History has proven her correct on her bold stand on militancy – which ultimately cost her her life
Vir Sanghvi: The traditional way to introduce my guest would be to describe her as a former Prime Minister of Pakistan. But with Benazir Bhutto you never think of her as being a former anything you never think of the past. So what I will say is that she’s been Prime Minister of Pakistan twice already and she is just 47. Do you think you’ll be Prime Minister again?
Benazir Bhutto: I hope that I can be Prime Minister again if there are fresh elections again which are fair so Pakistan is at a turning point in its own history. But we’re very concerned that General Musharraf may manipulate the next elections.
VS: he was in Agra for this summit when he had a breakfast with all of us. Indian editors and media personalities which he thoughtfully video taped for a larger audience and in which he said that democracy in Pakistan has been a sham and “I am reassembling democracy” and “I am the most popular person in Pakistan, come and see for yourself”. When a man believes that, do you think he is really serious about allowing any of you to come back to Pakistan?
BB: Well he’s told my party people that he doesn’t want me to come back
VS: He’s said that in so many words?
BB: He has said it in so many words. He’s said it publicly that I will not permit her to return. He’s said it to my party in person that I will not permit her to return but the rest of you can all have power. Now for us democracy means that the people decide not the general. So we are insisting that the people should be given the chance to decide who should lead them and if General Musharraf thinks he is very popular then maybe he should take off his uniform and contest the elections. But Pakistan’s future lies in what its founder promised, not what General Musharraf promised. Muhammad Ali Jinnah said that Pakistan would be a democracy and I am loyal to Jinnah’s dream.
VS: People in India – who you must remember we are talking about people who only see Pakistan from outside – we are given the impression that the Pakistani public was very disillusioned with the political structure they felt politicians were very corrupt and that though we would find the idea of a military dictator appalling, people in Pakistan said never mind, whatever else he is he’s better than these corrupt politicians. Is there any truth to this?
BB: Certainly there is a perception amongst a certain group of people that politicians are corrupt and that generals are better than politicians. But that’s only amongst a small section of the people. In fact the generals consider the politicians corrupt and we the politicians consider the generals corrupt. Now every few years the generals investigate us, but we’ve never had the opportunity to investigate the generals. So what we’re saying is that …
VS: I must stop you there because what you’ve said is very important. How corrupt according to you are the generals?
BB: Well we’ve heard stories of how during the Afghan Jihad, suitcases of money would be flown in C130s and handed over and the children of the generals all became multimillionaires. From where did they get their money? I am being investigated for my ministers who awarded contracts after an open and transparent bid. But the general is giving lucrative contracts to people without the bid. So something is very wrong. So we generals and politicians are going to sit down and say “OK corruption is bad and everyone is going to be accountable” and we’re going to say goodbye to the days when generals used corruption as a pretext to persecute politicians because they wanted to rule the country themselves.
VS: While being above any kind of scrutiny themselves.
BB: While being above any scrutiny. And talking of scrutiny – I love my country and it pains me deeply when Pakistan suffers setback after setback. I will give you an example. In 1971, our country broke into two pieces. The Bengalis were Pakistanis. But no general has got up and said “I am sorry, we committed genocide” and we the Pakistani people have been denied even the right to the enquiry report which investigated the fall of Dhaka and this was done to protect the generals. Now in Kargil, so many of our young men lost their lives. There are stories that even their dead bodies were not taken back by us. I think there should be an investigation of the Kargil incident; how it happened; was it right; who was responsible for it? Just last month a party worker of mine was picked up by two colonels and he was tortured to death. No action has been taken.
VS: I want to take you back to two of the things you have said. One of them is East Pakistan – later Bangladesh – situation where you said the word genocide was used. It was certainly a humiliating defeat. How come after that the Pakistani army rather than being a pariah in the eyes of Pakistanis now claims that it’s actually the only force there. Isn’t there a shame in that?
BB: Well, certainly my own father did so much to rehabilitate the image of the Pakistani army.
VS: Well your father got the POWs back.
BB: 90,000 prisoners of war he got back and I remember Sheikh Mujib was threatening to try the army officers and sentence them and my father saved them from war trials. And you know how the generals paid us back? They arrested each one of my father’s family. From the father, to the mother, to the son, to the daughter and tried each one of us. So I am —
VS: and ultimately of course they murdered your father
BB: They murdered my father. And till this date there hasn’t been an investigation of how a conspiracy was concocted to murder Pakistan’s elected Prime Minister which is why my party is now saying that we need a truth and reconciliation commission so that all of us who are the victims, we can at least go before the commission and talk about the state-sponsored attempt to pervert the course of justice and subvert the will of the people of Pakistan. Our people deserve to know more.
VS: The other thing you mentioned was Kargil which was of interest to us as Indians. There is a story – and you can confirm this – that the plan was not new that the generals had hatched something along those lines even when you were Prime Minister and that you had said no. Is that accurate?
BB: Well, there were war games and as part of the war games, different scenarios would be built and there was a such a war game scenario.
VS: There was such a — it was presented to you
BB: Well I will put it in this way, there was – I want to be careful about what I say here –
VS: I understand
BB: There was a war game scenario and I put my foot down. I said no, this is wrong. If anything like this happens it will be a big setback for Pakistan and we will be forced to withdraw. I want my countrymen to hold their head up high. I don’t want them to feel the shame and humiliation. So I put my foot down. But later on when it materialized so many of our men died and we were humiliated. We were ordered to unilaterally withdraw from the world community.
VS: I want to ask you one more question about Kargil. This war game and all that you’re talking about, did this predate General Musharraf?
BB: No. General Musharraf was the person who presented the war plan to me.
VS: So he was planning that even then.
BB: I don’t think he was planning it.
VS: I know you’re going to be careful but what are you going to say?
BB: I’m going to tell you that ever since we lost Siachen under General Zia’s rule – and every time we have a general we lose something or the other – ever since we lost parts of the Siachen area under General Zia’s era I think there was an attempt to do something that could retrieve for us what had been lost and it wasn’t the first time that I was given such a war game scenario, I was given it in my first term too and I said this was wrong, it’s not workable I want to see a Pakistan which is at peace with its neighbours, a Pakistan that does not involve itself with conflicts.
VS: And of course they didn’t like that.
BB: Well of course you must ask them (laughing). I don’t think they did.
VS: I’m going to ask you more about your relations with the army and with the ISI.
VS: We ended the last segment talking about the army and you. It is in fact no secret isn’t it that every time you’ve been in power, the army has been resentful. Is that a fair assessment?
BB: Yes I think it’s a fair assessment but I would say that I had very good relations with all my army generals. The ones that I had a very difficult relationship with are those who ran the intelligence.
VS: ISI and MI?
BB: Yes, both. I think that the ones who ran the intelligence, they were very much wedded to the Afghan Jihad – they had fought against the Soviet occuption – and they were very much wedded to orthodox thought. So on the whole I found my difficulties were more with the intelligence side than with the army chiefs. I got on rather well with my army chiefs. But now they’ve got a new intelligence chief and according to General Musharraf there’s going to be some reform. But I’m a little bit skeptical because I’ve come to India and I expected that I would get a pat on my back for having paved the way for General Musharraf’s mission to improve relations with your country. But instead I believe that there’s a lot of – sort of – foaming at the mouth.
VS: But why are they so upset? Everything you’ve done which has been sort of saying things like we should improve relations between our two countries which surely was General Musharraf’s theme song when he was here. Why is he objecting to you saying the same sort of thing?
BB: Well this is what we really need – well this is what I’d like to ask them. They say they are anti-Taliban so when I go and speak against the Taliban they should be happy. But instead I have a feeling that even though they eventually do what I say, they do tend to view me as the alternative power and because of that I find that it’s almost like an election campaign where they’re trying to undermine my position amongst the Pakistani people even though I am abroad and I don’t have access to state television and the state radio.
VS: I’m going to stop you on that because you yourself have said that you’ve been described as the mother to the Taliban. There has been this constant campaign to say that the Taliban took office – took over – while you were in office. Now this is clear, you’ve explained this, you said that initially there was trouble with the mujahideen that the Taliban seemed to be more idealistic, we needed to open up the trade routes. At some stage it went beyond this. At some stage, Pakistan got much more involved, the Taliban got much more barbaric and the ISI got much more involved with them. When did that happen?
BB: I think it happened after 4th November 1996 when my government was overthrown. Because just two days earlier, on 2nd of November, the Taliban had signed an agreement with the Northern Alliance many elements of which are now once again being discussed – about setting up a commission, and that the commission is supposed to set up a broad based government and so on. So I think it was after our overthrow that the Taliban were basically hijacked by the orthodox elements within Islamabad as well as the orthodox elements within Al Qaeda.
VS: What links do you think Islamabad had with Al Qaeda? Because you’re on record as saying that Ramzi Yousuf had tried to get you killed, that Al Qaeda and elements of the Osama network were against you. Were they therefore in league with some of your enemies in Islamabad?
BB: Yes I think they were in league with some of my political opponents. I believe these political opponents were the retired generals who had destabilized my first government who had formed the IJI to overthrow me. I remember hearing that in 1989 when the Soviets left Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden went back to Saudi Arabia to pick up the pieces of his life, but he was called back to Pakistan and asked to funnel money into a no-confidence move to overthrow my government. So these elements have been battling me, the orthodox elements, who want theocracy, theocracy in Afghanistan, theocracy in Pakistan.
VS: There have been reports about the fall of Kunduz that there were Pakistani soldiers, two brigadiers had to be flown out just as the Northern Alliance forces were advancing. How deeply involved was the Pakistan Army with what was going on in Afghanistan?
BB: Well it’s very dangerous because if it was actually Pakistani retired military – or even serving – serving even far worse because it raises issues about discipline. I remember in 1989 there was a plan where the Afghan interim government was going to ask for a confederation with Pakistan and then they were going to ask for the help of Pakistan and we were to send in our armed forces to aid and assist the Afghan interim government in overthrowing President Najib’s government and I vetoed that. I said that the Soviets had gone into Afghanistan and they had been very badly viewed and therefore there was no question of us trying to promote a confederation in which our own armed forces would get involved in Pakistan. I see the role of our armed forces as defending Pakistan’s borders. I have a role for them which is in conformity with other countries in the world.
VS: But that’s not their view of themselves is it?
BB: I’m not sure, because these reports are not to my view confirmed. I have seen the press reports. But it’s not been confirmed by say – nobody’s been produced in front of a television camera and shown as a Pakistani brigadier, so I don’t know, but what I’m saying is —
VS: Should there be an inquiry?
VS: We’ve talked a lot about Pakistan, we’ve talked about Afghanistan, we haven’t talked that much about India. I hear you were in Ajmer and I hear there were crowds on the street and a roaring reception
BB: I’m a bit of a Sufi.
VS: Are you? I didn’t know that
BB: I come from Sindh which is the land of Sufis and of saints and so I like to go for protection and pray at important Mazars and Ajmer Sharif is a very important one.
VS: And god knows you probably need the protection these days given what’s going on.
BB: Yes I do. I think I’ve made Lashkar-e-Taiba very angry.
VS: I was going to ask you about that. You’ve said as far as I understand it that yes there was trouble in Kashmir when you were Prime Minister. But at that stage the trouble was – from our point of view trouble, not from your point of view perhaps – indigenous to Kashmir.
BB: And the level of violence was much lower because it was indigenous.
VS: That’s right. Since then you’ve suggested that the people like the Lashkar – who are of course not Kashmiris – you didn’t mention them – of course the Jaish e Muhammad would be the other example – have been introduced into the valley. This surely is undesirable so why has it upset people in Pakistan so much?
BB: It’s upset a certain class of people in Pakistan. But I don’t think it’s upset ordinary people because Lashkar-e-Taiba and some of these extreme groups are suspected to be behind these sectarian killings in which a large number of Pakistanis have lost their lives. But somehow or the other there is a group of people who fought the Afghan Jihad, who are committed to orthodoxy, who’ve created private militias and they’ve tried to dress these private militias up in the national flag and claimed that they are good for us. I don’t they’re good for us.
VS: And export them to Kashmir, as you say…
BB: I have certainly seem them get involved in Kashmir and hold press conferences and talk about Kashmir and it saddens me to see the All Parties Hurriyat Conference which was the Kashmiri group being sidelined while the non-Kashmiris like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkatul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Muhammad seeking centre stage.
VS: From the Indian point of view – and now I’m giving you an Indian perspective – we have a slight problem because when we go to talk to General Musharraf and when we ask him as one of us did at that breakfast, well if you’re so keen on democracy how about an election in Pakistan he sort of withdraws. So we have this problem as Indians – do you negotiate with an unelected dictator, how much does he represent the people of Pakistan, how far can he go and to what extent is he speaking for his people?
BB: I’m also very much troubled by how I should deal with the issue of General Musharraf. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s good to have a dialogue. Because by having the dialogue it shows that he’s really overtly if not covertly following in the footsteps of the political leadership of the country. But I do have trouble in accepting that there could be a substantive Indo-Pak agreement with the unelected and unrepresentative military dictator and my fear is that if even there was an agreement it would be an agreement that would very soon be torn up and it would be elements of the military regime or the military administration itself which would say that well that agreement didn’t have any legitimacy. So I’m very concerned to see new ways to tackle the situation. In the past we’ve tried many times but we’ve been stuck with tension and my proposal is to now start talking about a South Asian trading bloc, about safe and open borders without prejudice to our dispute in Kashmir. We have different perspectives but let’s try and manage the dispute. Let’s work on those areas where there’s a convergence of interests. I think on the World Trade Organization there’s a convergence of interests. I think even in Kabul we both have a convergence on a broad-based government although we might —
VS: India and Pakistan although not India and the ISI — there’s a difference (laughs)
BB: Well, you know, I’ll tell you something. Originally it was the ISI that was the problem – and I’m going back to 1988 – but I think a lot of this activity has been taken out of the ISI
VS: Who does it now?
BB: I think it’s the retired generals. First in 1988 all these Madrasas, while Zia was alive were controlled by the ISI
BB: Yes, because they were set up by the ISI. The ISI received funds during General Zia’s rule, from the world community to establish madrasas to raise and recruit fighters to fight the Soviets. But after I got elected they didn’t want to tell me about the madrasas so they kept it very secret. So subsequently the madrasas were taken out of the ISI and now are under the influence of the retired generals and there’s been an Islamic defence council that has been formed which brings together the different madrasas and also brings together some of the key players. They then use their friends within the military to try and make appointees in the ISI. So there’s a dichotomy because first there was, the ISI was the state within the state.
VS: But now there is a Supreme Council outside of the …
BB: Yes, outside both
VS: Let’s talk a little about yourself. We’re nearing the end of our time. You’ve had quite an up and down life haven’t you? What keeps you going?
BB: Well it’s the love of the people of Pakistan and my own faith that my leadership can make a difference and I continue to work hard to try and restore democracy although at times it’s very difficult. I have three small children and a husband who’s behind bars and a mother who is suffering from a form of Alzheimers. So I try to block out the painful thoughts and try and do the best I can.
VS: You’ve never thought of giving it all up? I mean the Bhuttos have always been rich, you have three children, you don’t really need to do all this. Why do you keep going?
BB: Well I do at times feel self-pitying but then I stop it. For myself personally I’ve been Prime Minister twice and I don’t have a burning desire to be Prime Minister a third time. But I do have a burning desire to see things change and if being Prime Minister is the way I can help things change then that’s what I must do.
VS: At whatever cost to your own happiness?
BB: Well, I went to Ajmer Sharif to pray that I could have my happiness and I could have my political beliefs.
VS: I have to ask that last cynical question. Everybody who’s seen this program in India would say, my god she’s so reasonable, she seems so wonderful but you know when she was Prime Minister she was so different. Maybe she’s just saying this because she’s in opposition. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?
BB: I say that I have two yesterdays. I have the yesterday of my first time which was a spring in Indo-Pak relations and then I have —
VS: That’s the time when you and Rajiv were both there —
BB: That’s right. And then I have another yesterday which was a winter. And I’m saying that I can understand that you have your reservations because of the disappointment that many felt in my second term and I know that even people in Pakistan who are liberals felt that disappointment. And I’m determined next time around that there shall be a spring.
VS: Benazir Bhutto I wish you luck and I hope you’ll give me an interview when you’re prime minister.
BB: God willing