Bhutto, a two-time government leader, was greeted by hundreds of thousands of supporters in the southern port city of Karachi today, after a deal with President Pervez Musharraf that cleared the way for her homecoming.
During a stopover in Dubai on October 17, Bhutto vowed her return would be a breakthrough for democracy, saying it would help close a sad chapter that began when she was sacked as prime minister in 1996. But how will her return affect the counterterrorism effort in Pakistan, which is regarded by officials in neighboring Afghanistan and Washington as a central front against the Tailban and international terrorism?
Bhutto's liberal-leaning Pakistan People's Party, which opposes religious extremism, is considered a bulwark against Islamist forces threatening the government, which is battling Taliban militants who control large swaths of Pakistan’s lawless western borderlands with Afghanistan.
That’s where Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader, is thought to be hiding out. And Bhutto has recently hinted at willingness -- if she were voted into power in January's national elections -- to allow the United States to track down the Saudi-born terrorist.
''If, in a short-sighted way, people think that this is not Pakistan's war, and that this is America's war, then we will end up with 'warlordism,' “ she said in the days before her return. “We will end up with disintegration, with fragmentation, with ethnic cleansing, with refugees. I hope not, I do not want to point [to] a nightmare scenario. But at some point, we have to learn the lessons of history."
From her exile in London, Bhutto supported a controversial raid in July on Islamic militants holed up in Islamabad's Red Mosque complex, a battle that left hundreds dead.
In Dubai this week, Bhutto again reaffirmed her pledge to confront extremism in Pakistan. The ongoing violence in the western tribal areas has seen hundreds of militants, civilians, and soldiers killed in a recent spate of fighting. The spread of violence and its underlying extremism appear to be the main challenge confronting President Musharraf, as well as Pakistan's 160 million people.
Officials in neighboring Afghanistan have stridently warned of the danger to their country from cross-border activities aimed at destabilizing the young government in Kabul. A recent U.S. intelligence estimate stressed the danger of allowing Pakistan to remain a safe haven for international terrorists like Al-Qaeda.
Pakistani author and regional expert Zahid Hussain told Radio Free Afghanistan that Bhutto's return and her reported deal to forge a post-election alliance with Musharraf is likely to broaden the support base for the president. Hussain said it is also likely to boost Musharraf's military efforts to eradicate the growing threat from Islamic extremism in Pakistan.
"So far, her position on certain issues is very, very clear -- particularly on Afghanistan and India,” Hussain said. “She wants to normalize relations with India and she supports this [ongoing] peace process with India and also wants to cooperate with the Afghan government. So from the outset, this [Bhutto's return] will have a positive effect on the region."
Hussain predicts that much depends on the military agreeing to surrender some of the initiative in political affairs, which they have dominated through much of Pakistan's six-decade existence. "The army cannot take a back seat, but it will not be [so] high-profile,” he said. “It will like to certainly see Musharraf stay as a civilian president. The parliament will be much stronger, and the prime minister will have much greater powers than [the prime minister] has at this point."
The fate of such a political arrangement could hinge on two cases that are currently before Pakistan's increasingly assertive Supreme Court. That court is expected to rule soon on the legitimacy of the October 6 landslide vote -- boycotted by many lawmakers -- that handed General Musharraf a new term.
The other court challenge seeks to overturn the amnesty that paved the way for Bhutto's return by guaranteeing that she would not have to face long-standing corruption charges.
Bhutto divided her eight years of exile between London and Dubai, but months of negotiations recently culminated in a presidential amnesty that pardoned her and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in the face of pending allegations of corruption and mismanagement.