A Former Pakistani Prime Minister Weighs In

Analysis of breaking news events.
Sept. 21 2001 5:27 PM

A Former Pakistani Prime Minister Weighs In

Little in life springs from whole cloth. That is especially true of Sept. 11, 2001, a date stained into the calendar of civilization. This was a calamity two decades in the making. At the end of 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, hoping to strengthen their position in Central Asia and develop proximity to the resources and warm ports of the Gulf. Almost immediately an indigenous insurrection developed to challenge the Soviet occupation. The freedom fighters were called the "Mujahadeen" and were composed of seven different factions. 

In its early days, the Reagan administration made a decision that would shape the course of history. It backed the one faction most likely to successfully challenge the Soviets on the battlefield. Working with their counterparts in the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the CIA armed, trained, and empowered the most extreme, anti-modernity, anti-Western zealots within the Mujahadeen. This propelled the extremists to a leadership position in the war of resistance and in the politics that followed. 

The war in Afghanistan caused one of the great refugee migrations in modern history. Nearly three million Afghans crossed into Pakistan to escape the fighting. Almost immediately scores of special Islamic schools, called Madrassas, sprang up. The boys that were sent there by their parents to be nourished and educated were taught extremism, intolerance, subjugation of women, and violence. All of these elements are antithetical to the Holy Book and to the teachings of the Prophet.

When the children were not being brainwashed, they were trained in hand-to-hand combat, the use of weapons, and terrorist strategy. These schools became the recruitment centers for the fanatic administration that ultimately took control of Afghanistan after the Soviet exit. The new political movement was named after the schools themselves. The word "Talib" means student! 

I became prime minister of Pakistan in 1988 during the waning days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The last Soviet troops were airlifted out of Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989. The international community quickly turned its attention to events in Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was left concerned at the lack of a post-Soviet plan for the reconstruction and governing of Afghanistan. I was also concerned at the go-at-it-alone attitude of the extremist factions that wanted the government, and ultimately they prevailed. I suspected that having defeated one superpower, the zealots felt invincible and divinely empowered to take aim at another.

As a moderate, progressive, democratically elected woman prime minister of Pakistan, I was a threat to the fundamentalist zealots on multiple levels and targeted by them in both my governments. They had the support of sympathetic elements within Pakistan's security apparatus and the financial support of people like Osama Bin Laden. I had closed their training university in Peshawar and was targeted for that. I had tracked down and extradited the Ramzi Yousef, the perpetrator of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and was targeted for that. My government was destabilized. Money was pilfered and laundered from state banks to fund the campaigns of opposition parties. We learned from Ramzi Yousef before he was extradited to the United States that I was the object of two separate assassination attempts in 1993. Osama Bin Laden personally spent over $10 million in late 1989 in support of a motion of no confidence to topple my government. And ultimately, with the active support of elements of the Pakistani military, my two democratically elected governments were sacked and elections rigged to ensure that my party would not return to power. Beware the power of zealots who are well-funded, well-armed, and supported by elements of your own government! 

That brings us to the present. A complex and well-funded terrorist network executed the most inhuman terrorist attack in history. The target was America, but it was also the values of freedom everywhere. It seemed Osama and his cohorts read Professor Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and wished to provoke its thesis into reality. Their goal is for the Muslim world to see U.S. retaliation as an act of aggression against Islam. Sept. 11 was the bait.

Sadly, this is not over. The United States responded quickly in declaring a fight against international terrorism and cautioned it will be a long process. Asked to assist the U.S. effort against terrorism, Islamabad responded positively. It did this despite elements within the military intelligence complex that have sympathy for the Taliban.

Pakistan is saddled with $38 billion in international debt, with $4 billion owed to America. With Egypt and Jordan, the United States has repaid political support with debt retirement in the past. Islamabad expects the same treatment. It also expects the repeal of the discriminatory Pressler amendment denying military and economic aid to Pakistan because of its nuclear program.

There is one price that Islamabad could demand that is too great and too dangerous to grant. The United States and the Commonwealth support the holding of free, fair, party-based elections to restore democracy to my nation in 2002. Islamabad may be tempted to ask the United States to abandon its support for Pakistani democracy in exchange for support in the war against international terrorism. The previous military dictator General Zia did this successfully in the '80s. But pressure for a return to democracy should continue. In fact, in light of the horrible lessons of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the United States should be exquisitely sensitive to the fact that democracies don't start wars; democracies don't engage in international terrorism. Allowing dictatorship to strengthen its stranglehold over the democratic institutions of Pakistan can, in the long run, create an even greater Frankenstein than the U.S. miscalculation with the Mujahadeen in the 1980s. Osama commandeers jets. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The United States must demand a democratic Pakistan to stave off a true catastrophe in the future.

Benazir Bhutto is the former prime minister of the IslamicRepublicofPakistan. Click here to read the Slate "Diary" she filed in 1997 while serving as opposition leader.

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