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A country at the crossroads

By: MIKE JOHNSON

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WHY SHOULD you want to return to the country of your birth, where your father and two brothers were murdered? Where you had been jailed twice, thrown out of office as prime minister and then exiled? Where your husband spent eight years in jail, leaving you to bring up three children abroad on your own?

If you were anyone else, people would say you were mad, but Benazir Bhutto says she’s doing it because it’s her duty.

To understand her reasoning, it’s necessary to look at what’s been happening in Pakistan in recent years. The country became a military dictatorship in 1978 when the army, led by General Zia ul-Haq, seized power.

During his 10 years in office, he was responsible for two programmes which turned Pakistan into a nuclear power and a home of religious fundamentalism. As a result of both of these initiatives, Pakistan has become one of today’s greatest nuclear threats to the world.

Nawaz Sharif was prime minister during General Zia’s presidency and the two worked closely together, ending when Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988. In the same year, following a landslide election victory, Sharif launched a series of nuclear tests in response to similar action by neighbouring India.

One year later, however, he was ousted from power following a coup by General Pervez Musharraf and convicted of corruption. This sentence was commuted in return for his agreement to be exiled to Saudi Arabia.

Nuclear nation

Meanwhile, Benazir Bhutto had become leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and prime minister on two occasions, between 1988 and 1990 and again from 1993-96. She, in turn, faced a number of corruption charges and fled the country in 1999, which left President Musharraf in total control, both militarily and politically.

Against this background, the United States and Britain allowed Pakistan to acquire highly restricted nuclear technology on the basis of “better the devil you know” for three decades.

It was US President Ronald Reagan who authorised officials to finance the regime in Islamabad, disguised as aid for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, while ignoring its growing nuclear programme. Indeed, after British intelligence uncovered a plot whereby Pakistan nuclear chiefs were ordering ‘power-enhancing materials’ from Britain, Reagan gave orders to ‘brush this under the carpet’, rather than face embarrassment for the US.

By the time George W Bush came to office, more than a decade later, Pakistan had formed potentially dangerous liaisons with Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya. His father, George Bush Sr, had cut Pakistan adrift after the fall of the Soviet Union and President Clinton’s administrations had largely ignored the situation. George W Bush re-instated heavy financial aid for Pakistan when President Musharraf swung behind the US-led ‘war on terror’ following the Twin Towers attacks on September 11, 2001.

Since then, Musharraf has negotiated a series of internal political reforms, which would allow him to continue the presidency if he was re-elected in 2007 on the understanding that he give up his army post. It was on this understanding that both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto decided to attempt a return to Pakistan to fight parliamentary elections due to be held in January 2008.

Democracy

Mr Sharif tried to end seven years in exile by flying home to Pakistan on September 10 but, on arrival, he was charged with corruption and money laundering, and promptly deported back to Saudi Arabia.

Benazir Bhutto, on the other hand, was more successful, mainly as her return had been brokered by both the US and Britain, as President Musharraf faced more internal unrest.

Pro-Taleban militants had been spreading their wings, taking on the army in tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, and there had been a number of suicide bomb attacks elsewhere in the country, including the capital, Islamabad.

At the same time, President Musharraf angered militants and hard-line Islamic parties by ordering security forces to capture the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad in July, with the resulting loss of more than 100 lives.

Benazir Bhutto admits these are dangerous times for Pakistan but admits that the deal, under which Musharraf would remain president while she becomes prime minister, was the only way for the country to return to democracy without bloodshed.

“The last dictatorship (that of General Zia ul-Haq) ended in a plane crash”, she said in a recent interview, “One should not wait for planes to fall out of the sky for dictators to fall. So if there can be a peaceful negotiated transfer, I think that’s much better for Pakistan”.

It has been agreed that the corruption charges against her will be dropped and that “free and fair” elections will take place. Both the US and Britain have become increasingly worried about the instability in Pakistan as well as the continued use of the country as a haven by both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

It is their interests, and those of all peace-loving people, that she succeeds.