ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The United States pressured Pakistan to allow former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to return from exile, promoting her as a moderate influence in a country facing a growing threat from Islamic extremists, a Pakistani government spokesman said.
“She says what America wants to hear,” Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said in a weekend interview with USA TODAY. He said the U.S. government forced a reluctant Pakistan to allow her to return after eight years of self-imposed exile: “You twisted our arm.”
After months of negotiations with the military government of President Pervez Musharraf, Bhutto returned to Pakistan on Oct. 18 to lead her Pakistan Peoples Party in parliamentary elections, due in January. Her triumphant homecoming was shattered when bomb blasts killed 145 people in a crowd of tens of thousands gathered to welcome her back in Karachi.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the Bush administration is encouraging Musharraf to work with moderates and hold the elections, but other U.S. officials have denied meddling.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Oct. 11 that he “would certainly take exception to the idea that the United States is somehow stage-managing, guiding or otherwise telling Pakistanis how to run their own internal affairs.”
For months, though, Pakistan’s news media and political commentators have contended that the Bush administration is pressuring bitter enemies Musharraf and Bhutto to agree to a shotgun political marriage. Such a deal would leave Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal under the control of a trusted ally, Musharraf, and would unite two voices that have consistently opposed Islamic militants.
It also would boost Musharraf’s democratic credentials after eight years in which he marginalized political opponents and ruled largely as a military strongman.
Khan said the decision to let Bhutto return from eight years of self-imposed exile was foisted on Pakistan. “America has this notion they are the best judge,” he said. “They might as well hold the election in Washington.”
Khan said Washington was enticed by Bhutto’s assurances that she would let U.S. troops hunt al-Qaeda and other extremists in Pakistan and allow United Nations inspectors to question rogue scientist A.Q. Khan, who developed Pakistan’s atomic bomb but gave nuclear secrets to Iran and North Korea.
He said Bhutto’s willingness to cooperate with the United States in ways that Musharraf has not would hurt her with a Pakistani electorate. A.Q. Khan, who has been under house arrest for years, is considered a national hero, and many Pakistanis are deeply skeptical about the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Musharraf, the army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup, has been reeling from a series of pro-democracy demonstrations and terrorist attacks by Islamic militants. Bringing back Bhutto was supposed to stabilize his regime.
He dropped corruption charges against Bhutto and let her return. In return, she and her supporters agreed not to fight his Oct. 6 re-election to another five-year term as president by a panel of national and provincial lawmakers.
The deal set the stage for a power-sharing arrangement — Musharraf as president, Bhutto as prime minister if her party does well in the upcoming elections.
Former Bhutto adviser Husain Haqqani, now director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, said the two share a secular outlook and opposition to the religious extremists who have seized power along the lawless northwestern frontier. Even so, the alliance looks rocky, because:
- Bhutto has traded insults with leaders of Musharraf’s ruling party over the bomb blasts. Bhutto says ruling party figures conspired to kill her; the party blames her for coming home despite security threats.
- Popular former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, overthrown by Musharraf eight years ago, vows to return from exile for the elections and could play the spoiler.
Sharif, who is close to Pakistan’s hard-line Islamist parties, tried to return Sept. 10 but was deported within hours. “Sharif’s popularity is growing day-by-day,” says Mirza Rian Baig Raj, a columnist for the Urdu-language newspaper Nawa-i-waqt. “The anti-Benazir vote has no place else to go.”
Having allowed Bhutto’s return, Musharraf probably will have to let Sharif return home, too, Khan said.
- Bhutto’s dealings with Pakistan’s military government have dented her popularity. Her approval ratings plunged to 36% last month from 54% in June, according to a poll conducted in late August and early September by the International Republican Institute, the democracy-promoting arm of the U.S. Republican Party.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which is reviewing Musharraf’s re-election and the amnesty deal he offered Bhutto, could create chaos by nullifying them.
Meantime, terrorist attacks — especially the Karachi bombings — have put the country on edge, as has intensified fighting in border areas between Pakistani troops and Islamic militants.
All of it could be too much for Musharraf. Naseer Ullah Babar, a retired major general and former Bhutto interior minister, predicts that Musharraf will “find some pretext” to postpone elections.
“Never underestimate the difficulties and cruelties of Pakistani politics,” says Mathew Schmalz, a South Asia specialist at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “Musharraf could declare martial law. If so, all bets are off.”
Contributing: Zafar M. Sheikh and wire reports.
Corrections & Clarifications
October 31, 2007, page 2A
The International Republican Institute, a non-partisan organization that is based in Washington and promotes democracy worldwide, is not affiliated with the Republican Party. It was misidentified in stories on Pakistan that ran Monday and on Oct. 23 and Oct. 17.