Walking the tightrope
In this interview with a delegation of Egyptian journalists in his official residence in Rawalpindi, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, perhaps somewhat over-confidently, assured his guests that the challenges confronting his vast and varied country can be controlled. But in an ironic twist of events, developments soon after took a sharp and bloody turn for the worse, creating Pakistan's worst political crisis in 20 years. The evolving controversy in Pakistan triggered by Musharraf's decision in March to suspend the Chief Justice of the country's Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudry for alleged misconduct, ignited a firestorm of protest and violence this week which has claimed the lives of at least 40 Pakistanis in the country's largest city Karachi. Responding to questions by Al-Ahram Weekly's Chief Editor Assem El-Kersh and editors of four other Egyptian newspapers, the Pakistani president conceded that the showdown with the chief justice topped his list of most pressing concerns. He defended Pakistan's record in fighting terrorism. His answers covered relations with Afghanistan, India and Iran. He also elaborated on areas of disagreement with the United States. Following are excerpts from the interview:
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Violence rocked Pakistan following the suspension of the chief justice, but Musharraf is confident that things will settle down once the Supreme Judicial Council has decided on the issue
Pakistan is a country that always seems to be standing on the line of fire... How do you conceive the challenges facing your country on so many fronts? Do you see any way out?
Yes there are a number of challenges. First of all the judicial crisis we are facing these days. This is totally a legal issue that deals with the reference of the chief justice (to the Supreme Judicial Council) and it has been handled in a very constitutional and legal manner, handed over to the council and this constitutional body, which will examine it from a legal point of view and take a decision. We have to allow them to take it.
Is there a way that you step in personally to solve the matter?
No, I already stepped in when Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz gave me a reference against the chief justice. I examined that reference with Chaudry before I handed the matter to the Judicial Council to decide. I am very sure that they will take decisions on a legal basis and justice will be done. Whatever agitation you see is by some lawyers, not all. Then it is being politicised by some political parties. That should stop. There should be no politicisation of a legal issue. I am sure things will settle down when the council give their decision.
On the other side, there is the issue of extremism, the issue of Taliban on the borders of Afghanistan and also the issue of religious extremism in our society. There are some similarities to what is happening in many Muslim countries including Egypt. So we need to transform. We are a religious country. We are the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the only country of the Muslim world which has been created for the Muslims of the subcontinent.
But unfortunately religion has been hijacked by some semi- literate clerics, and secondly there are also religious political parties who are using religion for political gains which is again wrong. This harms politics and also harms religion, so this is what we need to reconcile in our society. The people of Pakistan have to decide whether we are to be a progressive, dynamic modern Islamic state or a retrogressive one as the semiliterate clerics want. And I am confident that because the vast majority of Pakistanis are moderate, these religious political parties which came up in the last 2002 elections because of what was happening in the region will go down again.
Lastly, there is the Taliban and Al-Qaeda problem on the borders. We are following a multi-pronged strategy: religious, political, administrative and developmental to deal with the situation and I think it is starting to give returns and we are on the right track.
This leads to a question about what happened in Ankara last month in your meeting with the Afghani president. What did you achieve?
In Ankara, we voiced our concerns and observations and we have decided that we need to coordinate to understand the ground realities, and then we need to cooperate on dealing with them. In this we should not be badmouthing each other, we should be cooperating to deal with whatever militancy there is on the ground. I think the overall outcome of the summit has been good.
Are you willing to give up your military uniform before the November presidential elections?
I have to be re-elected according to our constitution one to two months before the expiry of my tenure which ends this year. And it is the Assembly of Pakistan that has to decide whether to re-elect me for a second term of five years. As for my uniform, I am allowed to wear it and be president till the end of this year. I will take a decision later but as far as my election is concerned, yes it will be a president in uniform.
What is the vision behind your recent call for resolving the Palestinian issue?
What I was seeking was a new idea for resolution of the Palestinian dispute and also all other disputes which are confronting the Muslim world, and bringing harmony to it. In that I was really feeling that we need to go beyond the Arab world. There is a Muslim world and there are important Muslim countries which can play some role. I think we should look at that.
Look at what is happening to the Muslim world with all the political turbulence. We are the poorest, we are the most illiterate and backward, so shouldn't we do something? What are we doing to ourselves? What is happening? Let us join forces. Let us do something instead of just sitting (watching) as we are going down. Leaders of the day owe it to the Muslim world and the world at large to at least reverse the descendant course. We cannot reach all objectives in our lifetime. But at least let's try to change the decline so that maybe in a hundred years we will be somewhere or else we will keep going down.
How close is a solution in Kashmir?
That is the main dispute between India and Pakistan over which we fought three wars and many skirmishes every day. We want to resolve this dispute, we want to go to conflict resolution with India and may I say that we are meeting reasonable success. There is a desire on both sides, leadership as well as the peoples of India and Pakistan to go for peace, and the basis of peace has to be resolution of conflicts, the main one being the Kashmiri dispute.
What impact do you think a democratic administration in Washington would have on the situation in the region and your country's policy in Afghanistan?
None at all. It will not change. Every country follows its national interests. These interests do not change with the change of governments and also there is an environment in Afghanistan, in Palestine and in Iraq, these environments will be understood by whoever comes, whether democrats or republicans, they cannot change their attitudes towards whatever is happening. And as we are concerned with Afghanistan and India, I think all republicans and democrats (who are involved) know what is the reality. Their interests in this region and in Pakistan will remain because we are in the leading role in the coalition to fight terrorism. Whether it (the administration) is republican or democrat nothing is going to change, and they know that.
But maybe the democrats will be less inclined to use force or war?
No. I do not think so, I think they realise when they will come (to power) that there will be a bigger war in the least, so they should understand that it is much easier when you are not in government and sitting outside and talking. But when you come into government and then if you take bad decisions, these have implications. Whatever happens from now on you are responsible.
On Afghanistan, I think things are very clear, I do not think there will be a change in the policy of the United States. On Iraq, yes there are a lot of speculations, there will be a change of policy. But even if you leave aside the history of whether they should have gone there or not, now that they are here, they have caused certain turmoil, how can they just go away? You must solve the problem or there will be a bigger problem that will affect the whole region and the Gulf. So how can you do this? I really do not know, but I would like to see a republican government or a president coming and let us see what decision he takes.
Outside pressures, especially US ones, do not make life easy for presidents. What are the areas of difference or agreement with Washington, and to what extent are you willing to resist the pressures especially when it comes to Afghanistan, reform, terrorism and Iran?
First of all there is a big misperception that there is some kind of pressure on Pakistan by the US. There is no pressure. They understand our problems, and there is no pressure. Whoever comes, and a lot of times US Vice-President Dick Cheney came here and the whole world thinks that he comes to pressurise me and Pakistan. What pressure? We don't accept any pressure from anyone.
There is a problem we are facing. He came to assess the situation on the ground. And we exchange views. There is consensus of views on the reality on the ground, and there is a total cooperation on the intelligence side, military strategic level and even on the technical side. There is no problem in dealing on Afghanistan because we have a similarity of views; we cannot accept Al-Qaeda here, doing terrorism inside Pakistan and in the world, we cannot accept Taliban who are trying to use military means to promote their cause and we cannot also accept the Talibanisation of our society which means a very obscurated view of religion. I am also a Muslim and we are 97 per cent Muslims here, nobody has the right to tell me that he is a better Muslim.
So there is a commonalty of perception with Washington and there is no problem. Our relationship is going on a broad base as it has military, social and economical elements. And it is a long-term (relationship) also.
We are trying to increase the economic contents of the relationship, we are not asking for any aid because our economy is now doing very well. It is trade more than aid. There can be no compromise on national interests and we do not compromise with anybody, otherwise there are policies, policies are created according to the environment. We analyse the environment and whenever we (are) faced with differences of opinion we try to correct (them). Now on the understanding of Afghanistan there is a difference of opinion over the Taliban. Where are they? The perception in the media in the West about the Taliban is that everything is happening from Pakistan. They are the same Taliban who ruled for six years from 1995 to 2001. They are actually the same people who are doing this. There are sometimes, there is a difference in opinions but this does not mean there is confrontation with the US. We convince them, and we know that we are right, that their strategy is going wrong in Afghanistan and that they do not understand the ground realities, and they are understanding now.
Recent local reports are claiming that Pakistan is being bullied by the US for not doing enough in fighting terrorism.
First of all, I do not get bullied, I do not accept any bullying from anyone. And Pakistan also will not accept any bullying by anyone. We take decisions wherever our national interest is involved. And the example is Iraq. We will not send forces to Iraq (despite the fact we were asked to). Why should we send forces? Nobody bullies us. But yes, there is a lot of talk that Pakistan is not doing enough? I get annoyed at such talk. If Pakistan is not doing enough, I would ask which country is doing enough? It is only Pakistan which is doing something, and I will substantiate that. First of all, Pakistan is not the exporter of terrorism, extremism, Al-Qaeda, or Taliban.
This product is being brought into Pakistan and the world must know that.
In 1979-1989 we fought a war against the Soviets because they had occupied Afghanistan, for 10 mujahideen flocked here from everywhere, including Egypt. They all came here from everywhere and into Afghanistan. For 10 years they were fighting. Then, everyone went away in 1989, and Pakistan is all alone, and there is war in Afghanistan, everyone is killing each other, Uzbeks, Tajiks, madness going on.
Al-Qaeda is the same mujahideen who were brought there, the same people, and they were joined by Uzbeks and Chechens after the Soviet Union collapsed. Then the Taliban came in 1995. Where? In Afghanistan. Four million refugees came to Pakistan, from where? From Afghanistan. All this had impact on Pakistan. So what I am trying to say is that Pakistan is a victim of terrorism, extremism, militancy because of what is happening in Afghanistan, and we are suffering. Pakistan acted. We have caught several hundreds of Al-Qaeda people from our cities and mountains.
You tell me which other country has caught anyone. We caught them, then we acted against Taliban, and in the last six months we caught about 130 Afghani Taliban who keep going and coming. Had anyone caught them? You give me one name. The 130 were governors, ministers, and important people in Mullah Omar's government. Only Pakistan has caught them. Have the coalition forces or the Afghan government caught anyone? We have suffered 400 casualties. There are 50,000 troops involved in Frontier Tribal Areas. So anyone who says Pakistan is not doing enough, I tell them you don't know what is happening there. And we don't accept such accusations at all. If Pakistan stops doing anything, you will all collapse. So please don't give such wild accusation about Pakistan. We are doing much more than our share but there is a problem which is very big. Instead of refusing, join to see realities, join to strategise to fight this problem.
How do you see the prospects of a military strike against Iran for its nuclear programme?
The Iran situation is dangerous. We, in Pakistan, are against nuclear proliferation. I think the world is so dangerous, we should be talking of reduction of nuclear power, nuclear potential, nuclear weapons rather than making more. At the same time we are for the right of every nation to have nuclear energy. Thirdly, we are against any military action. Because I think that will open another front whereas we should be thinking of closing fronts. Now within this we realise there is a confrontational situation between Iran and the US and there has to be some mediatory role where both sides step back from military action there.
How do you respond to the report issued by the IISS in London claiming that Pakistan is illicitly procuring nuclear material and equipment?
Such accusations keep coming. We have nuclear weapons (we have) already got missiles, we are making them, this is no more a secret. And we will continue making them whatever the world thinks. We are not violating any international treaty, it is our own capability. We do not get assistance from anyone, Pakistan's scientists are capable of producing all kinds of nuclear weapons and devices and nobody will stop it, we will keep making it.