Saudi Time Bomb?
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interview: benazir bhutto

Benazir Bhutto (left) meeting with the Pakistan People Party senior vice chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim shortly before her assassination in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on December 27, 2007 (photo © T. Mughal/epa/corbis)

What exactly has been brewing in Pakistan?

In the 1980s, the Soviets had occupied Afghanistan. The international community helped arm the most fanatic warriors to take on the Soviets. The Soviets left in 1989. This coincided with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The international community turned its attention to Europe. But back in Pakistan, the forces that had organized themselves against the Soviet occupation were still present.

They thought they had defeated one superpower. They thought they could defeat another superpower. And so I found that democracy in Pakistan was destabilized. Again and again, my party cautioned about the rise of what we call the jihad forces, or the force of extremism. There was a nexus between some of our military officers and training schools that had been set up to recruit soldiers for that jihad and between cells in different pro-American Muslim countries, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and friendships that had formed.

So these still had this passion of thinking they could defeat another superpower. So this was brewing in my region. We had the pro-Taliban forces; destabilized democracy; tried to crush the democratic forces, concoct cases, indulge in acts of terror. But the rest of the world had moved on, until the bomb attack in the World Trade Center took place.


Not long after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, FRONTLINE conducted this interview with the former Pakistan prime minister. She talks about why Islamist militants have grown so strong in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and in particular, the reasons extremism is spreading within her own society, including the long and tangled ties between Pakistan and the Taliban. [Note: Ms. Bhutto's interview was one of many conducted for FRONTLINE's 2001 report, "Saudi Time Bomb?" We have published it here, following her assassination on Dec. 27, 2007.]

Why do you think the Islamists in this region became so strong?

Well, there are many different layers to the Islamists. And they have somehow managed to pull together the different layers. The extremists subscribe to a very narrow theological school in Islam, which is different than the schools of interpretation that the vast majority of Muslims believe in.

But they have managed to pull in regional wars that are taking place in the Muslim world, whether it's Chechnya or Kashmir, and of course the Palestinian issue. So they try to exploit that.

And thirdly, they've tried to take advantage of the fact that, even if they believe in dictatorship, they believe in Muslim dictatorship, as they see themselves, whereas the rest are Western dictatorships. So they're touching on a whole lot of issues. They're touching on religion, on politics, on dictatorship -- on where the Muslims go in the future.

The one billion Muslims, they're standing at the crossroads. It's a world of enormous change. The Cold War is over. The identities that we had adopted or that had shaped us have given way. We need to find new identities. There's a loss about what this new identity is going to mean.

This confusion about globalization -- is globalization going to help the poor people, or is globalization ruthless and is it going to adversely impact on the lives of the poor and the ordinary? So somehow or the other, they have placed themselves at a position where they're touching on a lot of different nerves. It's important to try and isolate them to their core issue, which, to my view, is to take advantage of an international environment to impose dictatorship of the worst kind in the majority Muslim countries. This is aimed technically at the West. But it's aimed, in my view, against the larger Muslim world.

What's the ultimate goal, then?

If I talk to Osama bin Laden, I'm sure he would like to see himself as the ruler of Saudi Arabia. If you talk to his key lieutenant, I'm sure he'd like to see himself as the ruler of Egypt. So there are a lot of different countries which are involved, where certain groups of people exercised power during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and think that they can exercise power again.

Saudi Arabia is key, because it is a home to two of the most sacred places in Islam. That is the place of worship in Mecca and also the final resting place of the prophet of Islam -- Medina. These people have a view of spiritual leaderships. If they catch hold of Saudi Arabia, they think they can catch hold of the larger Muslim world.

Nowadays, the Muslim youth think that the only way to protest what they think is wrong is to pick up a gun.

Of course, for them right now, their control of Afghanistan and their indirect control over Pakistan is very important. If Afghanistan falls from the hands of the Taliban and if they can no longer rely on their cells or structures of friends in Pakistan, then I believe that the back of their strength will be broken. They might be able to do some things, but not to have the kind of enormity that shook the world on September 11.

How did that more extreme voice come about? What sort of propagated that extremism?

What happened was that the West relied on the military regime of General Zia. General Zia's military machine made all the decisions. They got all the money and they carried out the groundswell.

General Zia himself was part of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was very close to a man called Maulana Maududi, who in turn was very close to the Saudi clergy -- not the monarchy, not the government, not the state, but the Saudi clergy. And he started indoctrinating the army in the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood and Maulana Maududi.

When the West came to him with bundles of cash to fight the Russians, he gave the money to establish schools that had the thinking of Maulana Maududi, or the thinking of the same as the clergy of Saudi Arabia or of the Muslim Brotherhood -- whatever one wants to call it. So the control of the religious schools, which was to teach the Koran, became also platforms for propagating the view of a particular theological sect. … The mosques and schools in Pakistan are varied. But they began being dominated by those who had a narrow interpretation of Islam.

You were talking about some of the madrassas in Pakistan. How did you manage to control them? And was there a control on what was taught and on the curriculum?

First of all, these madrassas were set up by the intelligence service of General Zia, so they were secret and they were underground. Very few people knew about them. But we learned about them in, I think, 1994, when my government arrested Ramzi Yousef, who had made the first attack on the World Trade Center.

We found out that he had tried to kill me twice. So my law enforcement were very keen to prevent any further attempts. They began investigating the matter, which took them to these religious schools…. They didn't want us discovering most of these schools were in the Punjab [region].

But there were a few schools in other states of Pakistan, like the frontier. … So my government shut one of the universities in Peshawar. And we also talked to the Afghan leaders to shut their training camps in Khost -- these were the schools and training camps.

And as soon as we did that, the rest of the madrassas started inviting the provincial state governments and telling them, "Look, we will do what you want. We will teach science, we will teach mathematics. You please come." And they did away with the training and the recruiting.

We closed down Peshawar and we showed we would act. So if we closed down more schools, the teachers would have lost their jobs. They wouldn't have been able to continue with their program. So I think that they began to retrench.

I also talked with a chief minister several times. The army I convinced, and the intelligence. I said they've got their main schools in places like Moritka which was like in the Punjab, and which was like an armed fortress, huge armed fortress. And I found out there were students from lots of different Muslim countries coming to study in these schools, and then going off to Khost in training camps in pockets of Afghanistan. So they stopped doing that while I was prime minister of Pakistan.

As a leader, did you not find it difficult… You're stuck in a situation where you have extreme elements within your own society. And you must, in a way, sort of appease the fact that there is a certain part of the population that really believes in these radical sort of views. How did you walk that fine line?

Well, they're elements of our own society. They can't be all killed. They can't be all exterminated. One has to work with people, factionalize them. And when we were in government, we tried that they should not unite. For example, there were some of them who used to be in parliament. And even though they did not join the government, we did not object to them getting elected in certain committees. So they were occupied then with certain jobs. After the overthrow of the government, the parliaments became like dummy parliaments. And that's when the jihad movement became strong.

… But these people are now all surfaced, and while the democrats have been paralyzed with the court system, the pro-Taliban forces have been given an open field. So now they boldly come out and they hold press conferences. It was unimaginable that they should come out and hold press conferences with a gun by their side.

… Whatever you talk about, the bombing on the [U.S.S.] Cole in Yemen, or we talk about the bombings of the embassies in Africa or the first World Trade Center bombing (in 1993), or the second World Trade Center bombing-- these require time. They require a lot of logistical support. It's simply not possible for the terrorists to do all this when there are governments against them. But after our overthrow, I found that the security apparatus had basically taken over the show.

They put inside that retired officials who had been with General Zia. And the retired officials were given the task to paralyze the democratic opposition. Then they created another cell, called the election cell, which, now they're going to try and tamper with the elections to that cell. They created a third cell where they vet every single civilian appointee.

So they act very much like drug barons do in certain other countries by trying to take over the apparatus of the state. … And most of them have links to General Zia, who fought the Afghan jihad, or they have links [to] the security apparatus that fought the Afghan jihad for General Zia. And they're still all over the place.

So people like me are confused. We were taught that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. So we thought the enemy of the Taliban should be the friend of the Free World. But what we have witnessed instead is that a very military regime, which had allowed a free hand to the jihad forces, or the extremist forces -- that military regime has been adopted as the blue-eyed boy of the West. And although they say that they support the campaign against terror, the entire apparatus remains in the hands of the pro-Taliban forces.

President Musharraf is then stuck in a sort of funny situation, where he must befriend the Taliban but yet … be a friend of the U.S. And that's a funny line to be walking. How do you think he's handling it, and can he sustain this for long?

I'd like to be able to assess General Musharraf, but I'm unable to, because I don't have any access to him. …he's been unable to break with the Taliban, and he's defended that by saying that we need some communication with the Taliban. He must be having good reasons for doing what he is. But I would have liked him to do things differently.

… The person whom he has as the home secretary of the Punjab -- which has to really regulate the bulk of the madrassas, because this is where they are -- he too, is a man from the security apparatus. In his Cabinet, the minister of communication is from the security apparatus.

I'm not saying that these people are necessarily acting for the Taliban. But I am saying that they are pro-Taliban. And it seems to me that the control, domestic and in key foreign countries, is still with elements who are pro-Taliban. I would have liked to see Musharraf do things separately.

… And I think for the democrats in Pakistan, I'd like Musharraf to answer that question: Are you with us or not with us? Because God forbid, if this is a policy of paying lip service to the international coalition and saying wink wink, nudge nudge to the Taliban, the consequences can be terrible for my own country, Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia -- what's it up to? It feels like it's trying to export their version of Wahhabism through all this financing of madrassas. Did you see that impact in Pakistan?

I would put it differently. In Saudi Arabia, the country is divided in its governing structure between the monarchy and the religious clergy. And the religious clergy have a very important role of their own -- they get money.

That religious clergy has been distributing money along with other countries to what they say are charities to NGOs. These are charities and NGOs that are supposed technically to be helping the poor and the needy. But instead, they're going to the poor and needy that are being looked after by a particular political spectrum that shares the same religious school of thought as the Saudi clergy.

So what we have seen is, if there is a Muslim who is donating for a mosque, he doesn't know that this is actually going to end up in something which is a mosque. But along with being a mosque, it has also got a man who is in a mountain who is politically linked to this theological movement that is taking place within the Muslim countries.

An extreme movement.

Extreme. … So really, there is a lot of money going. And a lot of these madrassas, they're endowed, in Pakistan-- [they] don't need Pakistan government. They have money of their own. They have tons of money coming in. And I think it's important for us, my government had started doing this. We started telling them, "Tell us where your money is coming from."

And I think that maybe we, the Muslim countries, need to share notes with each other and we need to come together, to guide our youth as to what we want in the twenty-first century; if they have grievances, how they are supposed to articulate their grievances. Nowadays, the Muslim youth think that the only way to protest what they think is wrong is to pick up a gun.

As prime minister, did you feel responsible in some way for propping up the Taliban and making them more powerful?

Yes, in a sense I did, but they were very different Taliban. You see, at the time, I was prime minister, they were confined to Kandahar. They had signed an agreement with the Northern Alliance for a commission to set up a broad-based government. And at that time, the Taliban certainly were not executing women in public stadiums, or being as ruthless with them as they are now. They hadn't blown up the Bamiyan statues, or decided to go it alone, or allowed Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda to come. They were very different.

But after my overthrow, the pro-extremist elements hijacked the whole direction of Pakistan and hijacked the direction of Afghanistan. I feel that my brother was killed by rogue elements in the security apparatus, who wanted to overthrow my government because it was an obstacle on the part of their attempts to have an international campaign to impose a dictatorship sanctified in the name of religion.

And since my overthrow, the Taliban decided that they would kill the Uzbeks and kill the Panshiris and the Shi'as. They don't have any agreement with them; they've gone it alone. And they have gone and given recruitment.

So we saw this coming. And in 1998, my party said that the Taliban have crossed all limits of law and respectability and canons of governments, and Pakistan should break relations with them. But the government regime did not break relations, because there are too many sympathizers in our regime.

But in hindsight, do you think that position was naive? To support the Taliban, or…?

If we had known in hindsight, that this is what they were going to do, of course it was wrong. I feel the only reason that this has happened is because the popular democratic government in Pakistan was overthrown and that Taliban forces were given a free hand.

… And my party has been speaking on this for five years -- that the pro-jihad elements who defeated one superpower and think they can defeat another are going to lead the country into a deep crisis. And we are in a crisis. The Americans are bombing. But the bombing is not delivering anything. Instead, there's a converse message getting through: that there is bombing, but it's not hitting the Taliban, it's actually hitting the civilians. "So sorry."

What mistakes has the U.S. been making in the region?

I think it would be wrong for me to second-guess what they should be doing.

But I do feel that Pakistan is a key player, and that one of the weaknesses of the whole alliance is Islamabad. … At the time these bombings took place, Pakistan was run by a military regime with sympathies for the Taliban.

Now the military regime says we've converted. But how far has that conversion gone down the rank and file?

So I feel really what the U.S. focus should be a little bit more medium-term. And it should … keep the pressure on the Taliban, sure. But it should be for the return of democracy, because, ultimately, it's the Pakistani people that are going to have to play a pivotal role in explaining to their own people, to the Afghans, and to the Muslim community why the Taliban are bad and need to be replaced, and why Osama bin Laden is not the hero of the Muslim world, but somebody who has damaged its name.

And how to convince them if there are so many people in Peshawar that are flooding to help the [Taliban] fight?

You see, again, as I say, that question should be put to General Musharraf. He's the man in charge. He should come and answer why people are fleeing. … And I think the situation is getting out of hand. These protests were small, initially. Some of them are growing. Some of them are becoming violent, and it worries me.

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posted dec. 31, 2007

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