A moment of truth in Pakistan


There are moments in history that prove decisive and mark a turning point for the future. The 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 to save Pakistan 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, extremist religious parties never have garnered more than 11% of the vote. But under dictators -- most notably Gen. Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, but unfortunately also Gen. Pervez Musharraf during this decade -- religious extremism has gained a foothold in my homeland.

Whether leaders like Zia exploited religion for their own political ends, or dictatorships inherently induce deprivation and desperation, 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 Qaeda forces, claiming that these areas are ungovernable. I believe that they are governable and that a democratic government can better restore the authority of the state.

We must be realistic about the history and politics of Pakistan. In a perfect world, perhaps the military would not play a role in politics. But Pakistan is less than perfect in this regard. The security forces fundamentally have 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 Musharraf. On dictatorship, there can be no compromise. The parliament must be supreme. That’s why I have made it clear to Musharraf that my party, the Pakistan People’s Party, supports the constitution, which requires that the president be a civilian who is legitimately selected by the parliament and provincial assemblies. After much negotiating, I announced on Wednesday that Musharraf had decided to resign as army chief.

But that is not the only issue. The ban on twice-elected prime ministers, like myself, holding office again was not part of Pakistan’s constitution and must be abolished.

All members of parliament and public officials elected before the military coup of 1999 who have not been convicted of any offense must also be granted immunity 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 upcoming elections, and an 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 ensure 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 be mobilized, working for the same plan, reading from the same page.

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 now 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 this discontent to their advantage.

I believe 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 cease-fires and peace treaties, one can get the extremists into the mainstream and moderate them. But the experience in Pakistan proves otherwise. Every cease-fire 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.

The militants who holed up in the mosque had tried to impose their own laws over and above the laws of Pakistan. 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 with them failed, and a bloody result ensued when the army tried to overcome the mutiny. More than 100 people were killed.


The Red Mosque incident demonstrated that no deals can be struck with religious fanatics.

Pakistan is at the crossroads. Our success can be a signal to 1 billion Muslims all over the world that Islam 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.

Benazir Bhutto was twice prime minister of Pakistan.