Benazir Bhutto, twice the prime minister of Pakistan, heads the Pakistan People's Party, the most popular opposition party to Gen. Pervez Musharraf's military rule. Bhutto and Musharraf have been engaging in negotiations that would allow her to return from exile and lead her party in elections in October. Bhutto says she may return to Pakistan as soon as September.
By returning to Pakistan and leading her party in October's elections, the pro-American Bhutto will fundamentally alter the way the "war on terror" is being waged in this frontline state. She offered me this analysis in London on Wednesday:
LONDON -- There are moments in history that prove decisive and mark a turning point for the future. The American Civil War was such a moment in the United States. The fall of the Berlin Wall was such a moment for Germany and the European Union. Today is Pakistan's moment of truth. Decisions made now will determine whether extremism and terrorism can be contained in Pakistan to save it from internal collapse. The stability of not just Pakistan but the civilized world is at stake.
In a democratic Pakistan, extremist movements have been minimal. In all democratic elections in my country, extremist religious parties have never garnered more than 11 percent of the vote. Extremism under democracy has been marginalized by the people of Pakistan. But under dictatorship -- most notably under military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s but unfortunately also under Gen. Pervez Musharraf during this decade -- religious extremism has gained a foothold in my homeland.
Whether leaders like Gen. Zia manipulated and exploited religion for their own political ends, or whether dictatorship inherently induces deprivation, desperation and hopelessness, the fact remains that extremism has emerged as a threat to my nation, to the region and to the world. These extremists are the petri dish of international terrorism. It need not be so. It must be reversed. And it can be done.
In both of my tenures as prime minister, my government imposed the rule of law on all areas of Pakistan -- our four provinces and also the federally administered tribal areas, including Waziristan. With the support of the people of those tribal areas, we managed to uproot an international drug cartel that had operated with impunity under dictatorship.
Today, however, the international drug barons have morphed into religious extremists and terrorists. The current government of Pakistan has ceded large areas of our nation to the pro-Taliban and al-Qaida forces claiming that these areas are ungovernable. I believe they are governable and that a democratic government can prove better in restoring the authority of the state.
We must be realistic about the history and political reality of Pakistan. In a perfect world, perhaps the military would not play a role in politics. Pakistan is less than perfect in this regard. The security forces have fundamentally served as a political institution in Pakistan, ruling either directly through generals or indirectly by manipulating and ultimately sacking democratic governments.
I know that some people have been surprised that I have been negotiating a transition to democracy and talking about the future of Pakistan with Gen. Musharraf. We confront two great polarities in Pakistan today -- the battle between democracy and dictatorship, and the fight for the hearts and souls of the people manifest in the battle between moderation and extremism.
On dictatorship, there can be no compromise. The parliament must be supreme. I have signaled to Gen. Musharraf that the Pakistan Peoples Party supports the constitution of Pakistan, which prevents a military president, and requires that a civilian president be legitimately selected by the parliament and provincial assemblies of the country.
The military ban on twice-elected prime ministers holding office again was not part of Pakistan's constitution nor that of other parliamentary democracies and must be abolished. There must be immunity granted to all members of parliament and public officials elected before the military coup of 1999 who have not been convicted of any offense from politically inspired charges. All parties and all party leaders must be allowed to freely contest elections. A neutral caretaker government, pursuant to our constitution, must be empowered to oversee the nation before the elections, and a neutral and independent election commission, with the participation of all political parties, must be constituted.
Election rolls must be free from political manipulation. Balloting must be transparent, counting must be free from political intervention, and the entire process must be monitored by international observers to insure its sanctity and validity.
But free and fair elections alone are not enough to solve the problems of Pakistan. We must have free, fair and effective governing. And that requires that all responsible, moderate forces in the country are mobilized, working for the same plan, reading from the same page.
Gen. Musharraf continues to enjoy the support of the international community and the armed forces of Pakistan. But such support is no substitute for the will of the people who are disempowered and disenchanted. Growing poverty and unemployment make it clear that in the absence of democracy, the people's needs cannot be met. I believe that unless the people of Pakistan are empowered through the ballot, extremists will continue to exploit the discontent to their advantage.
The political madrassas are able to offer monthly stipends, food and clothing to families of the underprivileged. Unless government can move in to fill the vacuum, extremists will continue to exploit the situation, expanding their influence through the country.
I believe that moderation cannot be compromised and that democracy and moderation go together. Like many Pakistanis, I am pained that part of our land in the tribal areas has been ceded to terrorists.
Some argue that through ceasefires and peace treaties, one can get the extremists into the mainstream and moderate them. But the experience in Pakistan proves otherwise. Every ceasefire and peace treaty has emboldened the militants and terrorists. Nowhere was this more profoundly demonstrated than during the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad this summer.
Militants holed up in the political madrassa mutinied and tried to impose their own laws over and above the laws of my country and of my constitution. They kidnapped women and police officials. They intimidated and shut down entertainment shops. Their vigilante squads terrorized the women who drove cars in the capital city. Six long months of negotiations failed and a bloody result ensued when the army tried to overcome the mutiny. There were over 100 casualties including, painfully, women.
The Red Mosque incident demonstrated that no deals can be struck with religious fanatics. They will attempt to run our country like they run the political madrassas. That is unacceptable. The militants must know that the constitution and laws of Pakistan do not permit for private militias enforcing private laws in violation of the constitution of the country. There must be a coalescence of moderation to confront the extremist. Such a coalition can come from the expression of the free will of the people whose forefathers created the independent state of Pakistan through a political struggle in the name of democracy in 1947. That is the government and the kind of national movement that I believe we can lead.
Pakistan is at the crossroads. Our success can be a signal to 1 billion Muslims all over the world that Islam, which emphasizes the importance of consultation, is compatible with democracy, modernity and moderation. I go back to Pakistan this autumn knowing that there will be difficult days ahead. But I put my faith in the people and my fate in the hands of God. I am not afraid. Yes, we are at a turning point, but I know that time, justice and the forces of history are on our side.