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Afghanistan: Long-Time Friend And Influential Counterpart Recalls Benazir Bhutto

Fatima Gailani (undated) (Courtesy Photo) A decades-long friend of Benazir Bhutto who has long been a powerful force in her own right in neighboring Afghanistan has recalled her relationship with the slain Pakistani politician and their shared view that debate and democracy were essential to help heal both their turbulent countries.

"Whatever happens in [either of] these two countries affects the people [of both]," Fatima Gailani, Red Crescent of Afghanistan's secretary-general and a scion of one of Afghanistan's most influential religious families, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "If it happens in Pakistan it affects us, if it happens in Afghanistan it affects them."

Gailani says that when they last met, in Dubai just days before Bhutto's triumphant return to Pakistan in October, her children feared for their mother's safety. "She was with her daughter and told me that her children were becoming more worried about her security because they knew how dangerous it could be for her," Gailani says. "Specifically, she told me that her older daughter was complaining about her continuing political activities."

Gailani notes Bhutto's firmly held view that Pakistan and its people "need her, and she has a role to play and she has to play this role." She points out the sacrifices of Benazir Bhutto and her ex-prime minister father and brothers, all of whom were killed before her in connection with their political activities. "The future of Afghanistan and the whole region was very important to her," Gailani says. "Pakistan's history will not forget a strong and brave woman who really loved Pakistan and its people."

She calls Bhutto "a source of pride for all women of the world, let alone Muslim women or women in our area" and a "source of aspiration for most of us."

Like Bhutto, Gailani hails from a powerful family that has played a major role in her country's recent history. Gailani's father, Pir Sayyed Ahmed Gailani, is a cleric who fled Afghanistan after the communist revolution and co-founded the Pakistani-based National Islamic Front to repel the Soviet occupation.

Fatima Gailani attended the UN-backed Bonn Conference to chart a course for postwar Afghanistan in late 2001, and previous studies of the Koran allowed her to become one of just a few women on Constitutional Loya Jirga that drafted the basic law passed in early 2004. She has been a strident advocate of women's rights, but quit active politics in 2004 to head the Red Crescent.

"In our part of the world, if you want to be in politics, if you think about 'is it safe or is it not safe?' you might as well not get involved -- because of course it's not safe," says Gailani, whose own political pedigree, Western education, and outspokenness in the face of hostility invite further comparisons to Bhutto. "It has become a dangerous part of the world. And our hope is that this will be an end to this violence, because we need an end to this violence."

'Our Politics Are Interlinked'

Gailani first met Bhutto 26 years ago, when they appeared together on a television program -- the spokeswoman for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation sitting alongside Pakistan's future prime minister shortly after her political career got into full swing.

Gailani tells Radio Free Afghanistan that they quickly found common interests. "I was in politics in my country, and she was in politics in her country, and Afghanistan and Pakistan, you know, the politics are really very much involved with each other," she says.

That affinity grew in the ensuing decades, which included Gailani's role as emissary for the mujahedin and two interrupted stints as prime minister for Bhutto, as both remained fixated on politics. "We actually laughed about this matter," she says of her last meeting with Bhutto to buy new clothes ahead of Eid al-Fidr, "that we were standing in a boutique in Dubai -- our daughters with us -- and we weren't discussing which dress to buy but we were discussing politics."

Bhutto's recent tough talk about the common cause between Islamabad and Kabul in countering extremism and terrorism was arguably one of the most appealing features of her return to active politics in the eyes of the West and her Afghan counterparts.

But Bhutto was also emphatic in her pursuit of political processes to break out of the vicious cycles of violence that afflict the region.

"The politics of Afghanistan and Pakistan are very much interlinked -- we all know that," Gailani says of conversations with Bhutto when they represented the vanguard in their respective countries' politics. "She always insisted that all of us -- at that time we were the young generation of the Afghan and Pakistani politics -- that the only way to get any bright future is really democracy."

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this story)