Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the 30-year-old chairman of one of Pakistan’s oldest and most popular political parties, is trying to make a mark on Pakistani politics.
Eleven years ago, on December 27, 2007, his mother Benazir Bhutto, a two-time premier, was assassinated in the city of Rawalpindi during an election rally. She was allegedly targeted by Islamists that are active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After Benazir’s death, Bilawal took over the reins of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), but from 2008 to 2013 his father Asia Ali Zardari played a more active part in leading the party, also becoming president after the 2008 general elections.
Bilawal is now a member of parliament and a vocal opponent of PM Imran Khan and his policies. An Oxford graduate, Bilawal often speaks for the rights of religious minorities and women. Many in Pakistan believe he could be the future prime minister of the South Asian country.
DW spoke with him at this year’s Munich Security Conference, where he was a guest. Bilawal Bhutto shared his views on a number of issues, including the Kashmir conflict and the ongoing Afghan peace talks.
DW: Mr. Bhutto, India and Pakistan are once again on a war-footing after the deadly Kashmir attack on February 14. What in your opinion should be done to calm the nerves?
Bilawal Bhutto: I’d like to start by condemning the attack. Our party does not believe in violence and we condemn violence in all forms. It is understandable that the people of India are very emotional right now. They are aggrieved, they are upset and angry. But it is very important for politicians and leaders not to be played by non-state actors and terrorists, who want to divide the people of India and Pakistan. They don’t want the people of India and Pakistan to have peaceful relations.
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At the same time, we believe that there should be a plebiscite in Kashmir, so that the people there have a democratic outlet. If that takes place, I am sure the terrorism will end there.
India and Pakistan should have more engagement. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in the past few years, particularly under PM Narendra Modi’s government. It means that it is all the more important for peace-loving Pakistanis and peace-loving Indians to emphasize peace and condemn terrorism in all forms.
But what is the biggest obstacle to peace between India and Pakistan? There have been so many attempts in the past few years but nothing seems to be working.
There are many issues, terrorism being one of them. There is also the Kashmir dispute. I feel that PM Modi has led India away from its secular roots towards a more nationalist government. There hasn’t been any genuine attempt to make peace with Pakistan. Perhaps it is more aimed at a domestic audience. There will be elections in India this year and perhaps that is the reason why PM Modi is pursing an aggressive policy.
But there isn’t a very liberal government in Pakistan at the moment…
That’s true. But India is known for its secularism, for its tolerance. India is a bigger and a richer country. It is a bigger democracy and should act like the bigger brother and extend a hand of friendship. Pakistan is willing to reach out.
What are your views on the ongoing talks between Washington and the Taliban? Islamabad is trying to broker a deal between the two parties, but it seems that the Afghan government is being sidelined. Do you think that the exclusion of Kabul from these talks could create a problem in the future?
Absolutely. It is vital that the solution to the Afghan conflict is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Without that it will be difficult to achieve positive and sustainable results. US President Donald Trump’s efforts for unilateral talks with the Taliban came as a surprise not only for the Afghan government and Pakistan but also for members of Mr. Trump’s own cabinet. But I think this is once again aimed at the domestic audience. Trump wants to be seen as a president who is trying to get out of Afghanistan.
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But that’s not how conflicts are resolved. Afghanistan needs a plan for reconciliation, but reconciliation should not be capitulation. You can’t just cut and run. Mr. Colin Powell, former secretary of state, put it very well: “You break it, you fix it.” Washington should look at it as an opportunity to enhance its economic cooperation in the region, and also looks for a plan for reconstruction in the region. The US should not leave the region in a mess – the one we saw in Iraq with the emergence of “Islamic State” (IS).
There’s lot of fatigue around the long Afghan conflict. It is there for the Afghan government, for the Taliban, for Pakistan, and also for the NATO and the US. We are looking at these developments with hope that here will be an exit strategy.
You are quite a liberal politician and perhaps you would be able to answer this question in a better way than others. There is a lack of trust in the West regarding Pakistan. The international community does not buy the narrative about extremism that Pakistan gives out. Why is there a lack of understanding about how to define terrorism?
We have bad PR, I believe, particularly post Osama bin Laden assassination in Abbottabad. It comes down to a trust deficit. We can’t get away from the accusations, of course. But my mother used to say that the time is running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Unfortunately, previous dictators damaged Pakistan’s reputation, and obviously now the world demands proof of what we claim.
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We have to walk the walk, not for the West but for the sake of Pakistan. We have to confront violent extremism if we want all Pakistanis to get along rather than fighting among ourselves. These are our own issues that we need to tackle for our own future. I believe that when we genuinely start tackling these issues and start seeing progress in Pakistan, the world will also see the difference. Then we can also see eye to eye to the international community.
But that requires vigorous engagement with the world. Unfortunately, under Former PM Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, we saw a dip in our engagement with the rest of the world. Mr. Khan has only been in government for six months but his approach to foreign policy is quite partisan as he has not taken parliament onboard. He did not visit the United Nations to put across Pakistan’s point of view to the world. He has only visited countries in a very transactional manner where he is looking for financial aid. That is not how foreign policy and relations are built.
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The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams at the Munich Security Conference 2019.