Lucy Komisar writes: Twenty years ago, on a campaign trip in rural Pakistan in October 1987, Benazir Bhutto told me of her concern about the long-term effect of Afghan refugees who had set up safe houses, stored munitions and created networks in her country.
Bhutto was attempting to follow the footsteps of her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been the country’s first democratically elected leader, but then had been hanged in 1979 by Pakistani dictator General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. Everything about the campaign was problematic and arduous. Zia’s government refused to register her Pakistan People’s Party. She also spoke of an attempt on her life while she was campaigning.
We talked for an hour in an interview I videotaped. It was the day after I traveled with her on a political procession in Sailkot, in the Punjab, northern Pakistan, where she was mobbed by supporters. From the tops of minivans, we could see crowds along the way and even on rooftops shouting, chanting, some holding photos of her, young men dancing to loud piped music in front of the crawling vehicles, banners waving.
It took hours instead of 20 minutes to get to a stadium where she addressed a mass rally. There the cheering and clapping continued as she spoke powerfully, her voice hoarse from the effort, and gestured forcefully with her arms. I noticed that though she spoke in Urdu, the notes she had scrawled on a spiral pad were in English.
Our conversation took place the next day, at the home of a supporter where she was staying. She was prescient about the impact of the Islamic Afghanis who had arrived in Pakistan during the war with the Soviet-supported government. The Islamists were being financed by the U.S. and the Saudis, with funds moving through the Pakistani military.
She said, “Today we have, some say, 3 million refugees, others say 5 million refugees. The presence of these refugees is a strain on the socio-economic fabric of Pakistan. But more than that, the threat of the refugees permitted by Zia could pose a long-term problem. We keep hearing that the KGB or other agents have infiltrated with them.
They have got safe houses, ammunition dumps, networks. We had two insurgencies before the present Afghan situation. My concern is that Pakistan in the future should be stable enough to absorb the shock should these networks become operative even after a solution.
She said “a long-term domestic fallout” would be that “even if Afghanistan today is solved and guaranteed by both superpowers, what about the future? Because the network has been created.”
She was fatalistic about the dangers she faced as a public figure with many enemies. She said, “I read your book [Corazon Aquino: the Story of a Revolution”] and I saw a passage which referred to that she was a fatalist. I wonder if whether it was women who seemed to be more fatalistic or whether it was living in constant danger which made you accept the fact that when the time comes, it comes. I don’t think though that I just am reckless because of this. I’m careful. I’m very careful.”
“I want to tell you that once a man with a very special knife that can kill with one blow had come right up to the car and I was giving a speech. I saw the security grapple. He overthrew three of them and was still advancing, and I saw more pounce on him, and I saw the flash of the knife.
“I just turned my face away and continued to look at the crowd. The crowd at the left was aware to some degree. Nobody at the side or the front was. Then they managed to overpower him. I think it’s very important at a moment of crisis to keep a cool mind.”
But why in the face of the danger did she continue to go to mass rallies? She said it was “important to be on the ground. Why do I tour so much? Because I can’t reach the people without personally addressing them.”
There had been gunfire at one of the rallies. She said, “They have tried to silence me and I do have security measures which obviously can’t be perfect, because we are amateurs, we are not professionals. When I hear such a sound [of gunfire] I don’t know what it is. But I don’t think of myself, I think of the crowd. They are looking at me, and if I show any signs of anxiety that anxiety will catch on like fire with the crowds. There could be a stampede. More people could die. It’s very essential at such moments to maintain cool and calm.”
The U.S. at the time supported the Zia government, but though she acknowledged the importance of American power, it did not phase her.
Bhutto said, “I am a young person, right. So, for being elected I don’t need to think of the near future. I can think of the far future too. America is not always going to have the Iran situation or the Iran Gulf situation. You had the flash points in Europe at the German border once; the flashpoints in the Middle East; at another time, the flash point was in Vietnam. The flash point has come to Afghanistan. The flash point keeps shifting.
“So, I’m not so naïve to believe I can never come into power. Maybe if the Americans oppose me today, they can make things difficult for me, but they won’t always have the interests as they do today.”
Bhutto’s death is ironic on two counts. First, that she had returned from exile to Pakistan and was campaigning, because the U.S. had pressed Pakistan President Musharraf to accept her in a power-sharing agreement. Second that, as she might have predicted, her reputed killer is one of the Islamist radicals spawned by the war in Afghanistan.
Conclusively, Benazir Bhutto saw what the others could not way back in 1987. She anticipated the grave threat of regional terrorism in the dying hours of the Cold War. Afghanistan and Pakistan have since been held hostage by the non-state actors with a foreign agenda to destabilize the region. Pakistan military’s strategic depth has ripped the hopes of a peaceful South Asia.
Though the interests of the two countries coincide dramatically, but that should not be taken as a signal to interfere in the territorial and political domains of Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan need to devise a collective strategy to curb the cancer of terrorism from spreading out of their borders. The terrorist groups operating inside both countries are in a hope to hold the foreign policy of the two Nations hostage. As a sovereign and independent nuclear armed state, Pakistan has a greater responsibility for regional peace and stability.