This interview by Stefania Maurizi was first published in Italian in La Repubblica:
Q: Let’s start with the tragedy of Bhutto assassination. Today, international media remind us she was the first woman to become the PM of an Islamic country, she was a democratic leader, etc. Nonetheless, she was the scion of a feudal family, which was primarily responsible for making Pakistan an atomic power and she was known for the authoritarian control of her party. Looking back, how do you judge Benazir Bhutto?
A: Having first known Benazir Bhutto from high school in Karachi, and then later in Cambridge (Massachussetts), I am deeply saddened by her assassination. But, although the international media paint her as someone who could have led Pakistan into the modern age, the truth is very different. Her two tenures as prime minister were a nightmare of autocratic government and mis-governance. Billions disappeared from foreign aid. A Swiss court found her guilty of money laundering in 2003. Ms. Bhutto owned mansions and palaces across the world. She even tried to steal land from my (public) university to feed the rapacious appetite of her party members.
Even during school days, Benazir thought she had been born to rule. More
importantly, she made not the slightest effort to change the feudal
character of Pakistani politics and society. The Bhuttos own vast tracts
of agricultural land in Sindh that is worked upon by serfs. Although she
promised to bring democracy to Pakistan, after returning to Pakistan, Ms.
Bhutto made clear that for a few table scraps she would be happy to team
up with General Musharraf under the hopelessly absurd US plan to give our
military government a civilian face. Her party, the Pakistan Peoples Party
was her fiefdom. She appointed herself as “chairperson for life”.
Reflecting the mindset of a feudal princess, she even named her successors
to be male members from her family: her 19-year son, who is a student at
Oxford and knows nothing about Pakistani culture, as well as her
phenomenally corrupt husband, initially known as Mr Ten Percent and later
as Mr. Thirty Percent.
Q: Was Ms. Bhutto a model for Pakistani women?
A: She was courageous and single-minded. And she showed that a woman could
be the head of a conservative Islamic state. Nevertheless, it is hard to
see what she wanted beyond personal power. Although she said that she was
fighting for grand causes, I’m still trying to figure out what they were.
She certainly did nothing for Pakistani women during her two stints in
power and left untouched the horrific Hudood laws, according to which a
rape victim needs to produce 4 witnesses to the act of penetration (else
she could be punished for fornication). Nor did she try to overturn the
Pakistani blasphemy law that prescribes death as the minimum penalty for
those convicted of insulting the prophet of Islam or his companions. As
for democracy: she had been desperate to do a deal with Musharraf who
dangled over her head the many corruption cases that she was charged with.
But he proved too clever for her and she was forced into the opposition.
In foreign policy, she played footsie with the army. It could do whatever
it liked, including making nuclear weapons, sending Islamic militants into
Kashmir, and organizing the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. In
2002 she regretted having signed the document authorizing funds for the
funding Taliban forces for seizing Kandahar. Ms. Bhutto makes an excellent
martyr. In her death she will doubtlessly play a more positive role than
Q: Al Qaeda was immediately blamed for Bhutto assassination. However, many
people hated her: Musharraf, the Army, and the infamous ISI, which in 1990
removed Bhutto from power after she had replaced General Hameed Gul, the
man who invented the Taliban. Do you believe that Al Qaeda was really
responsible for killing Benazir Bhutto? Who is going to gain from Bhutto’s
A: There are different possibilities and much confusion. But some facts
are certain. There definitely were gunshots, and this was followed by a
suicide blast. Now, I do not think that suicide bombers can be bought with
any number of rupees. Only a religious fanatic lured by heavenly rewards
would blow himself up. Therefore Al-Qaida, the Taliban, or other Islamic
jihadist groups are strong possibilities. They always hated Bhutto, but
even more after she announced in Washington that, if elected prime
minister, she would fight them even more vigorously than Musharraf. Of
course, rogue elements of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, who are also
strong Islamists, and who lie deeply hidden within the establishment,
could also have done it. They have a stock of suicide bombers available to
them, as evidenced by the success they have had in organizing suicide
attacks upon army commandos as well as their own colleagues.
So did Islamists of one or the other flavour do it? Maybe, but the waters
have been muddied by the government. First, publicly available photographs
and videos show a modern-looking gunman accompanying the suicide bomber.
He fired three shots, heard by all present, at least one of which hit
Bhutto. Some say that there was a second sharpshooter in a building too.
On the other hand, the government initially insisted she died from
concussion and not a bullet wound – an obvious lie immediately refuted by
those in the same car as Bhutto. Second, in just an hour after the
assassination, the police washed away all the bloody evidence with water
hoses. So, it is quite possible that non-Islamists in the government have
somehow used brainwashed suicide bombers, trained in mosques and
madrassas, to do their dirty job. But, as in the JFK murder, the truth
will never be known.
As for the gainers and losers: Islamist groups saw Bhutto as a tool of
America that would be used against them, and a leader who could secularize
Pakistan. Plus, she was a woman and popular. But Musharraf and his
political party, the PML(Q), have also gained because a political rival
has been eliminated. The losers are those Pakistanis who wish for a
secular, modern Pakistan and not one that is run by mullahs. Although she
never delivered on her promises, her followers never lost faith.
Q: There is a lot of concern about the future of Pakistan. How real is the
threat of an Islamic takeover, in your opinion?
A: It has already been taken over! Twenty five years ago the Pakistani
state began pushing Islam on to its people as a matter of policy.
Prayers in government departments were deemed compulsory, punishments were
meted out to those who did not fast in Ramadan, selection for academic
posts required that the candidate demonstrate knowledge of Islamic
teachings, and jihad was propagated through schoolbooks. Today government
intervention is no longer needed because of a spontaneous groundswell of
Islamic zeal. But now the state is realizing that it shot itself in the
foot. The fanatical jihadists it created have turned against it. It is
supreme irony that the Pakistan Army – whose men were recruited under the
banner of jihad and which saw itself as the fighting arm of Islam – is now
frequently targeted by suicide bombers who are fighting a jihad to bring
even stricter Islam. It has lost a thousand or more men fighting Al-Qaida
and the Taliban.
The pace of radicalization has quickened. There are almost daily suicide
attacks. This phenomenon was almost unknown in Pakistan before the US
invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now it is common in major cities as well as
tribal areas. The targets have been the Pakistan army, police, incumbent
and retired government leaders, and rival Islamic sects. But this is just
the tip of the iceberg; we’ll see much more in years ahead.
Q: Ideally, what do you want to see happen in the next few weeks?
A: I want Musharraf to go – resign or somehow be removed, preferably
without bloodshed. I want the independent judiciary restored, a new
neutral caretaker government installed for overseeing free and fair
elections, and then elections that would decide upon the new parliament
and prime minister. This will not immediately solve Pakistan’s fundamental
problems – army dominance, maldistribution of wealth, religious fanaticism
– but it would get Pakistan on the track to democracy instead of the
self-destruction it is racing towards.
Q: People in Washington are increasingly frustrated with Musharraf’s
counterterrorism efforts, however they think there are no alternatives to
Musharraf. What do you think about this?
A: The Americans have tunnel vision. They want lackeys like Musharraf who
do their bidding, although here too there is deception at work. They know,
but choose to forget, that Pakistani military leaders, Musharraf included,
are the makers of the jihadist monster. In 1999, after Musharraf launched
the secret Kargil operation in Kashmir, the United Jihad Council
celebrated him as a true fighter for Islam. After 911 such praises
disappeared, but under his leadership the army still covertly supported
jihadist groups and the Taliban in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Musharraf is extremely unpopular now and the Americans will have to dump
him at some point. It is hard to find a pro-Musharraf person anywhere in
the country except in the top business circles and the top army
leadership. Until recently he ran both the army and the government
himself, with the connivance of a rubber-stamp Parliament put in place
through rigged elections. When the courts were about to rule that he could
not legally be president, Musharraf chose to suspend the constitution and
impose emergency rule. He dismissed the Supreme Court and arrested the
judges, replacing them with judges who obey his every command. He blocked
all independent television channels, and punished the news media for
disparaging him or the army. His police arrested thousands of lawyers and
pro-democracy activists. He ordered that civilians be tried in closed
military courts. This was necessary, he said, to save Pakistan from a
rapidly growing Islamist insurgency. But he released 25 Islamic extremists
on the day that the judges were arrested. In spite of all this, George W.
Bush called Musharraf “a democrat at heart”.
The Americans have shot themselves in the foot by supporting the army
consistently for decades. They have lost credibility and respect among
Pakistanis. Everybody laughs when they hear that America wants democracy
for Pakistan. In this situation, even if Musharraf goes and Gen. Kayani
(the new army chief) takes over, the best that American can hope for is
for the status quo. This is sad, because America is a great country with
many virtues. If only they could get over their hangup of wanting to run
the world! It’s an impossible task anyway.
Q: In Pakistan what is the man on the street thinking?
A: Almost everyone holds the government responsible for the assassination.
Tragically, suicide bombings are not condemned with any particular vigor.
There is no strong reaction against the mullahs, madrassas, and jihadis.
Perhaps people are afraid to criticize them because this might be seen as
a criticism of Islam. Interestingly, in all the street demonstrations I
have gone to after the Bhutto assassinations, there was no call for
cracking down on extremists. Yesterday I met the lone taxidriver who
thought the Islamists did it.
Q: What could be an effective way to fight Al Qaeda and the Taleban in
A: To fight and win this war, Pakistan will need to mobilize both its
people and the state. The notion of a power-sharing agreement between the
state and Taliban is a non-starter; the spectacular failures of earlier
agreements should be a lesson. Instead the government should help create
public consensus through open forum discussions, proceed faster on
infrastructure development in the tribal areas, and make judicious use of
military force – troops only, no air power. This should become every
Pakistani’s war, not just the army’s, and it will have to be fought even
if America packs up and goes away. But, as long as Musharraf is president,
it will be impossible to get popular support for the war. If presented
with a choice between Musharraf and the Taliban, the overwhelming majority
of Pakistanis would want the latter – although I am sure they would regret
Q: Let’s talk about Pakistan’s nukes. There a lot of concern about the
possibility that nuclear weapons could end up into the hands of Islamic
fundamentalists. Early in December the Washington Post revealed that a
small group of U.S. military experts and intelligence analysts convened in
Washington for exploring strategies to secure Pakistani nukes if the
Pakistani regime falls apart. Their conclusions were very scaring, as,
– there are no palatable ways to forcibly ensure the security of
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. What do you think about this?
A: The government says there is absolutely no danger of loose nukes.
Pakistan has been sending serving officers of the Strategic Plans
Division, which is the agency responsible for handling nuclear weapons, to
the United States for training in safety measures (PAL’s locking devices,
storing procedures, etc). But there’s no way of telling if this will be
effective. Extremists have already penetrated deep into the army and the
intelligence agencies. We now see repeated evidence: for example, last
month an unmarked bus carrying employees of the Inter Services
Intelligence [Pakistan’s secret intelligence], was collecting employees
early in the morning. It was boarded by a suicide bomber who blew himself
up killing 25. It was an inside job.
And now there are many other such examples, such as that of an army man
killing 16 Special Services Group commandos in a suicide attack at Ghazi
Barotha. A part of the establishment is clearly at war with another part.
There are also scientists, as well as military people, who are radical
Islamists. Many questions come to mind: can there be collusion between
different field-level commanders, resulting in the hijacking of a nuclear
weapon? Could outsider groups develop links with insiders? Given the
absence of accurate records of fissile material production, can one be
certain that small quantities of highly enriched uranium or weapons grade
plutonoium have already not been diverted? I do not know the answers.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics, and
chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in