Interview

The General Wants Back into His Labyrinth

The General Wants Back into His Labyrinth

On any given day, Pakistan tops the list of states on crisis alert. But this week has been rocky in the south Asian country, even by that low standard. On Monday, the country’s government looked like it might imminently fall; the prime minister’s ruling coalition shattering as its second-largest party pulled out. Then on Tuesday, one of the country’s most moderate politicians — Punjab Governor Salman Taseer — was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards.

So it’s perhaps not surprising why some in Pakistan are looking with a bit of nostalgia to the government of former president and military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country for nine years. Musharraf, who has been in a self-imposed exile in London since 2009, has leaped at the chance to come back to politics, announcing on Jan. 3 that he’ll be back in Pakistan with his newly formed political party in time for the next round of elections. Late last year, prior to his announcement, Foreign Policy spoke with the former president about what he would do, if given a second shot at ruling Pakistan. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: You once said that being in charge of Pakistan may well be "the hardest job in the world." But you have just announced that you are going back into politics. Why?

Pervez Musharraf: [It’s about offering] another alternative to the people of Pakistan. At this moment, they are stuck between two alternatives: the [ruling] People’s Party and PML-N, the party of former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. If you look at both of them, [they are] dysfunctional.

I call Nawaz Sharif a closet Taliban. He’s a man who is — who has been — in contact with Taliban. He is a man who, today, appeases the clerics and mawlawis [Sunni Islamic scholars] — the extremists. Moreover, he has tried [his hand at leadership as prime minister] twice in the past — and he has failed. Why are we giving him a third chance to destroy Pakistan? My new party is an alternative to the people of Pakistan with the hope of changing the conditions of the people of Pakistan and the state.

At this moment, there is such hopelessness, and there is such a sense of despondency in the people of Pakistan. It’s worrisome. People are quitting Pakistan. They want to leave the country. There’s a leadership vacuum, and no political party has the wherewithal to meet this challenge. What I’ve done really is to present to the people of Pakistan with "here’s another, an alternative." [And] I have been tested also for nine years.  

FP: Why should Pakistanis give you another chance if they weren’t happy with you at the end of your presidency?

PM: I came into office on a very high pedestal; people wanted a change. Until 2007, I was very popular. And now with the situation that Pakistan is facing, my [favorability] graph has again gone up. Because Pakistanis now see what is happening. The poor man is seeing what is happening. Essential items’ prices have gone up about four to five times [since I left office]. Wheat flour, rice, and pulses [legumes] — everything is now five times higher. People have realized what has hit them. And a lot of people are calling me back, [saying] they want me back to save Pakistan. If you see my Facebook [page], which I launched eight months back, I have a fan [base] of 350,000 now today.

FP: You said this fall that Pakistan is doing enough to fight terrorism, despite international criticism to the contrary, especially from the U.S. and some European governments. Does that mean you think that President Asif Ali Zardari has been doing a pretty good job in the war against terrorism?

PM: One has to give the entire credit to the military, which is involved in fighting terrorism, fighting al Qaeda and Taliban. It has suffered about 2,500 deaths [in doing so]. It is the military which is doing very well.

Now, whether we can win or we are winning — well, I think we are not losing. The important thing is not to lose there. And we will not [lose] if we show resolve. On the Pakistan side, I am reasonably sure that we can win.  

I think that the Pakistani Frontier Corps, which is the second-line force, needs to be reinforced substantially with more manpower and with tanks and guns to be able to [keep] all the tribal agencies’ law and order. The Army should remain as a backup. [But we need] to relieve the pressure now on the Army. The Army is dealing with al Qaeda and Taliban in the West, and the Army has to watch the borders on the east, because the Indian military orientation is towards our border. And then when things like this terrible flood [happen], the Army again has to go for flood-relief operations. The Army is overstretched.

When [the West] blames the Army [for not doing enough, they also] blame the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence agency.]. But the ISI itself has suffered about 250 people deaths in bombing attacks. So, on one side the Taliban are attacking them; on the other side the West thinks they are in league with the Taliban.  

FP: Is it true, however, that some parts of the state security apparatus has sympathies with the Taliban — as they did in the past?

PM: Yes, yes, that’s right. Elements who have sympathy toward Taliban or al Qaeda in the past were there. They must still be there. But to blame the Army or the ISI is just having a very negative impact. As I said, the Army is there doing their job; it has suffered so many casualties. If anyone thinks that [there are rogue elements] at a strategic level — at the level of the government or the Army headquarters or the ISI headquarters — that there is an instruction being given down to cooperate with the Taliban — this is absolutely baseless.

There may be some elements who are [cooperating with the Taliban]. But even there, we must understand and differentiate between strategy and tactics. Strategically, we have to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the moment [the West starts to] micromanage how to do that, we are in conflict with those [security forces] that are operating on the Pakistan side.

FP: What advice would you give Barack Obama today about AfPak?

PM: I’m against this idea of setting a timeline for withdrawal [from Afghanistan]. We have to install a stable, legitimate government in Afghanistan before we quit the area. So, to that extent, I do not agree with what he has decided. If they were to quit, all of a sudden in 2011 or start quitting, it may lead to problems in the area — destabilization of the entire area. Announcing [a pullout] is [also] a bad idea because the moment you announce it, you put new forces into play. The Taliban and al Qaeda get encouraged. Time is on their side. They lie low and they come up again in 2011. So, therefore announcing this time schedule — I wouldn’t say it’s a wise step that was taken.

Other than that, the advice that I would certainly like to give him is to give importance to Pakistan and to be conscious of the sensitivities of Pakistan in his political dealings in the region.

FP: What should the Americans be doing in Afghanistan?

PM: [The Americans and NATO] must show resolve and bring about a legitimate government in Afghanistan. But Karzai is not the right man, which he has proved. Who’s the next is the question. [We need to] wean away Pashtuns, [the primary ethnic group from which the Taliban derive] from the Taliban and put them in government. We are [also] looking at dealing with moderate Taliban. We have learned after eight years to go in and deal with moderate Taliban — something I was saying in 2002 and 2003.

FP: If you are elected back to office, how will your approach to fighting terrorism change?

PM: We have to use the military, the political, and the socioeconomic — a three-tiered strategy. We have to wean away the people from the Taliban. In the past, we [thought that we] needed to gradually get [the regions] away from the tribal culture and bring the government into play — provincial government, local government, and national government. But the demand of the day is very different now. We need to empower the ex-tribal maliks to counter al Qaeda and the Taliban because those tribal maliks were the ones who held sway over the tribes. If the Sept. 11 attacks had not happened, one would have preferred elections and local government to do away with the tribal culture. But now, with the Taliban being there, we need to get that same tribal culture back and ask the tribal maliks to take charge against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Educating the masses in the tribal agencies, especially the women — that is very, very important. We should introduce education into the provinces, into the tribal agencies, and get the people educated. It’s a long-term strategy of transforming the tribal agencies and integrating them with the rest of Pakistan.

Let Pakistan handle its situation in Pakistan, and you [Americans] handle the situation in Afghanistan. All the blame for whatever is happening in Afghanistan, including the cross-border activity, is put on Pakistan. Why? Why isn’t the cross-border activity blamed on the coalition forces, the Afghan National Army, the Afghanistan government — why is it not their fault? Is Pakistan responsible for every movement across the border? Doesn’t anyone else also have a responsibility, also? If Pakistan is failing to stop al Qaeda and the Taliban from going across the border, then the coalition forces, the United States, Afghan government, Afghan National Army is also failing to do that.