By Murtaza Ali Shah
Speaking to a packed audience at the Chatham House think-tank here on Pakistan’s Security Challenges, the former military strongman openly justified his policy of engaging the reconcilable Taliban and striking political deals with the militants in order to wean away support from the hardcore Taliban.
Musharraf, who has no plans to return to Pakistan in the foreseeable future and has made London his base for now, made the audience laugh at several points with his wry humour and was frank in his assessment of the regional security situation.
He called Pakistan the most happening place in the world where there is never a dull moment. Musharraf, who served as president from 2001 until early 2008, gave the strongest hint that he would love to take part in the democratically-elected government process, through the power of ballot, not tanks.
He said I love Pakistan and I would do anything for Pakistan. I took this oath at the Kakul Academy. For Pakistan one would be prepared to do anything. However, it is for the people of Pakistan who need to decide.
Musharraf saw in himself the beneficial capability to unite the military, bureaucracy and political forces of the country. “I have to come through the political process, through the process of elections. But I think it’s very good — it’s very good because I think I will have that legitimacy which I never had,” he said. To laughter, he said he was not in a position to take over power anymore.
Musharraf defended Pakistan’s role in cultivating and supporting Taliban and said the world was now realising that Pakistan had adopted a right approach of engaging with the Taliban to change them from within.
I told US president George Bush in March 2000 that we propose a different strategy for the Taliban and advised him to open a US mission in Afghanistan and deal with them. I told Clinton we are better off to change their attitudes and responses from within but nobody listened to Pakistan and we were accused of double-dealing and hypocrisy.
He said time had proven that Pakistan approach was right and today the whole world is talking about a dialogue with the Taliban. Musharraf said if Pakistan’s advice was taken seriously, then the world would have dealt with the Taliban from a position of strength, not from today’s position of weakness.
“We must have political deals. Now they are doing exactly what I was doing in 2003 — deal with the Pushtun elements. That is what has to be done. We have to go for deals, while the military pressure is fully on,” he said.
He advised the West to stop treating all Pushtuns as a monolith Taliban group. We cannot afford to alienate them. Let’s reach out to them, he said. He said the current disposition of the Afghan government was clearly skewed against the majority Pushtuns, who have historically ruled Afghanistan and it is their total alienation in the government institutions, following the Taliban defeat in 2001 that is driving them towards the Taliban and other militant groups.
He agreed with Obama administration’s surge approach in Afghanistan to defeat militant organisations but called Obama’s exit time-frame a wrong-headed time-frame approach which will only strengthen and embolden the militant organisations.
He identified that currently Pakistan was faced with four serious threats to its existence: threat from Al-Qaeda; threat from the Pakistani Taliban in three out of seven tribal agencies; the spread of the Taliban and their ideology in settled areas; and the gravest threat of religious extremism and its rise across Pakistan.
He praised the vision and boldness of Indian Premier Manmohan Singh, with whom he engaged in rapprochement during his tumultuous eight years, and regretted that they could not carry forward the peace process which was nearing settlement on many core issues.
For lasting stability in the region, he said, India must resolve the issue of Kashmir and address the issue of alienation of Muslim youth in India. At the same time, he asked the world to take notice of Indian activities in Afghanistan and its efforts to interfere in Pakistan’s internal matters. He said the United States and its allies must see what effects it is creating when Afghanistan is allowing India influence on its soil to the detriment of Pakistani interests. He said Indian influence in Afghanistan was an irritant and it created disharmony in the fight against terror.
Musharraf called Pak-Afghan border the centre of gravity and explained that without dealing with this region with saner and effective approach, the world cannot win anywhere in fight against terrorism.
Musharraf was asked who called the shots in Pakistan, whether General Kayani, who viewed India as the biggest threat, or President Zardari, who called home-grown militancy as the biggest enemy. Musharraf’s terse reply came: The person, who talks more sense calls the shots