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Pervez Musharraf: "Pakistan Didn't Know Where Bin Laden Was"

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Osama bin Laden's death "is a big victory for the peace-loving people of Pakistan and the world," former President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan told me on Monday. I also asked Musharraf whether Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, knew where bin Laden was hiding. "ISI had no knowledge", he responded. "It's ludicrous to suggest that they did. Why would ISI protect bin Laden, who has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Pakistanis?"

I interviewed Musharraf earlier this year; the article was originally published in Metro www.metro.lu

Under threat of impeachment, Pervez Musharraf resigned as President of Pakistan three years ago. But, despite living in exile, he remains the country's strongman. The former general, who came to power in a 1999 coup, provided this country with relative prosperity and stability -- an impressive feat, with a war raging in neighboring Afghanistan.

Today Musharraf, a soft-spoken man with a friendly manner, lives in London. And he's a convert to democracy: last year Musharraf launched a new party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), that will participate in Pakistan's 2013 elections. Metro visited him in his remarkably modest home, near London's Arabic quarter. After a lengthy interview, Musharraf offered tea and Pakistani desserts.

You were popular with the Americans as a good ally in the Afghanistan war. How, exactly, did you help them?
Permit me to give you a longish answer. Pakistan has been with the US since our independence. We faced an existential threat, India, and fought wars with them. Because of that, we joined the West. Then, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, we were in the lead role to assist Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. We were the United States' strategic partner. But in 1989 the United States abandoned the area, and our partnership suffered. From 1989 until 9/11 [the September 11 attacks], twelve years, we were alone. In fact, the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan and abandoned us. Instead, it had strategic relations with India.

After 9/11 we again became important. Unfortunately the situation now is that we're again together with the US at the government level, where our strategic goals are similar in that we want to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban. But unfortunately the people of Pakistan are not in favor of the United States because there was a sense of betrayal after 1989. After 9/11 people would invariably ask me, "what makes you sure that you won't be betrayed again?" So, there's a dichotomy. Government-wise, it's in our interest to fight terrorism and extremism, which is an interest we have in common with the United States. And because the United States is today's sole superpower, it's our main economic partner. But at the people's level, the people of Pakistan reject the United States.

But in practical services, did the Americans come to you and say, "we want your intelligence services to tell us ABC"?
No. There has been misunderstanding about my intentions. Our intentions are clear: we want to defeat terrorism and extremism. We want to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban. It's in our own interest; we're not doing it for the United States. It's in Pakistan's interest, the United States' interest, regional interest and the world's interest. But then people get involved in micromanagement for us. They're telling us what to do, go into North Waziristan, telling us to move against person so-and-so. Don't try to teach us! We understand the military realities, we know who the enemy is and we'll deal with them. That's where the misunderstandings have occurred. The charges against the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence; Pakistani intelligence agency] are wrong. They're on board when it comes to defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban, but they may not be on board with details like how to go into North Waziristan. Nobody should try to micromanage Pakistan. Moreover, things like drones coming across the border are most unpopular in Pakistan.

Drones were going to be my next question. The US conducts drone attacks against suspected militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Did you approve of such attacks?
No. I have never approved of them. Between 2004 and 2007, there were only nine drone attacks. This year alone, there have been nearly one hundred. The issue is: drones are important for identifying targets. Drones can identify targets in remote areas, 24 hours a day, flying 18,000 feet above ground. For this they're extremely good. But then there's the issue of engaging the target [killing the person]. Pakistan has certain methods of engaging, like Special Forces soldiers, which are very effective, even at night. In my time, we had all of this. We needed drone assistance in identifying targets. But in engaging targets [killing the person], we have our own means. I told the United States, if drones are so accurate in engaging targets, why don't you give them to us?

As you mentioned, there have been many drone attacks under the current Pakistani government. Are they out of touch with the people of Pakistan?
Drone attacks are completely unacceptable to the people of Pakistan. The government is out of tune with the demands and aspirations of the people. There are two issues: American drone attacks violate the sovereignty of Pakistan, and they kill indiscriminately. There's a tremendous amount of collateral damage [civilians killed]. The drones do kill militants. I know how they observe targets, and they're very accurate, but when they fire on the militants, they kill many innocent children. That has a very, very negative effect in Pakistan. One has to weigh the military advantage against the political disadvantage.

Did George W. Bush ask your advice before invading Afghanistan?
No. The United States wanted to invade, which was perhaps justified after what happened at the World Trade Center. I knew that an attack was imminent. They asked us, perhaps even demanded, that we join the coalition. But I knew for sure that the US would attack Afghanistan, whether we joined the coalition or not. And I knew that they couldn't attack Afghanistan without violating Pakistan. They could come from the North, but there's Russia and the Central Asian republics. They could come from the West, but there Iran comes in the way. They could come from the sea, which means Pakistan. They could come from the East, but there's India. India was offering to be available, because of their animosity against Pakistan. That's why it was in Pakistan's interest to join the coalition. But the US didn't ask me how they should attack Afghanistan.

What's the fastest way of ending the war in Afghanistan?
Frankly, there's no quick solution. We have missed opportunities in the past. One of the major opportunities was immediately after 9/11. It was a huge blunder. The Taliban had been defeated with the assistance of the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance members were from Afghan minority tribes, while the Taliban were Pashtun, the majority. Having defeated them, they ran into the mountains of Pakistan. As a result, there was a void in Afghanistan. We were fighting against al Qaeda and eliminated them from the cities. But we had to put a legitimate government in Kabul. A legitimate government is Pashtun-dominated - it has to be. Pashtun have always governed Pakistan, and they're the largest ethnic group. They have a right to rule Afghanistan, with minorities represented. At that point, in 2002, we were in a position of strength, and that window of opportunity lasted for two years. The Taliban resurgence didn't start until 2004. It started because the Pashtun were not taken onboard, and as a result the Pashton moved closer to the Taliban, rather than being weaned off of them. Remember that all Taliban are Pashton, but not all Pashton are Taliban.

Now the situation is that the resurgence is happening. A minority ethnic group rules Afghanistan. It's not a legitimate government. And it's unwise to have an army dominated by Tajiks. Now we're looking for a political solution that should have been done in 2002 and 2003. But now we're speaking from a position of weakness. You ask what the fastest way to end the Afghanistan war is. It's simple: install a legitimate government. In order to do that, you must establish military dominance so you can speak from a position of strength. The question is how to get the Pashtun onboard. Instead of focusing on mullahs we should focus on malliks, the tribes' traditional leaders. The malliks are still there, but they've been suppressed by the Taliban. Let's identify malliks who don't have ties to the Taliban and who can be strengthened, and get them on our side. Also, remember that the Taliban are not a monolith. Everyone calls himself Taliban. We should look for the ones that can be drawn towards peace.

So you're suggesting creating division among the Taliban?
All Pashtun are not Taliban. They look alike and have the same beard, but we shouldn't treat all Pashtun like Taliban. That's the mistake we did, and we pushed them towards the Taliban.

Is your solution to the war in Afghanistan, then, changing the government and including Pashtun?
Yes. We're trying to introduce democracy in a country that can't spell democracy. But let's understand that Afghanistan has always been governed in a decentralized way, called national covenant, with the King as the figurehead. We can't suddenly have a centralized government under Hamid Karzai. Afghanistan needs another national covenant.

Do foreign troops do more good than damage in the region?
They're certainly unpopular and people want them out. But I don't think you can quit the area without defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban. If you do that, the region will suffer. Pakistan will suffer. India will suffer. And the world will suffer, because this region will become a base for terrorism. What would al Qaeda want more than having a clear country as a base to operate from? These soldiers are doing a job which is in the world's interest. It may not be very popular, but sometimes public opinion goes wrong. Afghanistan must install a legitimate government before the troops leave.

According to Wikileaks documents, Pakistan's ISI quietly assists al Qaeda and the Taliban. Did this happen during your time?
This is another area which has created a lot of confusion. It started in 2004, against me. I was called a double-crosser; people said I played double game. But how can I be on the side of people who have tried to kill me several times? And I'm not an extremist. I could never be on the Taliban's side. What was misunderstood was when we adopted a strategy of weaning the Pashtun away from the Taliban. I decided the best way of doing it was working with the jirgas [gathering of tribal notables]. We started with jirkas in South Waziristan. There were 100-150 people. We worked with them on the condition that they had no al Qaeda connections, and no Taliban activities across the border. This was seen as me, the ISI and the Army dealing with the Taliban. We were not. Among these people there may have been Taliban supporters, but my position is that even if only 50 or 60 of the 150 were good partners, we gained something.

Today, the ISI and the Army are certainly not in favor of helping al Qaeda and the Taliban. But there may be instances where someone turns a blind eye. And intelligence services always have an interest in having inside information from different groups. But this must not be read as if there's official patronage in assisting the Taliban. This is the situation from 9/11. Before then, the reality was totally different. When the Taliban came into being in 1996, the opposing side was the Northern Alliance, which consisted of minority groups. They were being assisted by India and Russia. Therefore, Pakistan had no choice but to assist the Taliban, and we had ethnic, cultural, geographic and religious links with the Pashtun. I continued to recognize the Taliban. When Bill Clinton came to see me in 2000, he said, "why are you dealing with the Taliban?" I told him, "you, too, should open an embassy in Kabul, and let's jointly moderate the Taliban's views". They're backwards and obscurantist, but having an embassy doesn't mean you're supporting their views. If countries had had embassies Taliban-led Afghanistan before 9/11 and had links to the Taliban, we may even have solved the Usama bin Laden issue. Countries could have threatened to close their missions in Kabul if the Taliban didn't give up Usama. We could have done a lot. I feel very proud that I said this to everyone.

Why does Pakistan need a new political party?
Pakistan is on a downhill slide. The economy is on a total nosedive. In 2006 our economy was thriving, and now we're being declared a failed state, the sick man of Asia. Another problem is the dysfunctional government, the issue of political turmoil, and the issue of terrorism and political extremism, which isn't being handled well. None of the political parties at the moment are capable of understanding and handling these issues, and none of the current political leaders are capable of handling them. That's why there's a need to create another political party, which has credibility internationally as well as in Pakistan.

You came to power in 1999 through a military coup. Is democracy really the best solution for Pakistan?
Yes. We've seen Communism and Socialism, and we know about dictatorships. The problem is, what's the system of succession in a dictatorship? What's the guarantee that the next dictator will be effective and benevolent? Dictatorship isn't an answer, and neither is martial law. Democracy has checks and balances to ensure good governance, but it should be tailored to the model of the country. Where we in developing countries fail is that democracy is not tailored to the environment. We simply import it from the West and try to implant it in our own countries, and we don't have any checks and balances. When a leader misgoverns, the country goes down, but yet he continues. There's nobody who can change the situation.

Popular uprisings are taking place across in a number of Muslim countries. Is a wind of democracy flowing through the Muslim world?
Every country has its own environment. When we talk about a democratic wave in the Middle East, we have to be very careful. Introducing democracy takes time. I strongly believe that change shouldn't be imposed. Transformation should be gradual. Whenever change has been imposed, it has failed. Just look at Iran and Turkey. For decades, Atatürk in Turkey and the Shah of Iran tried to modernize their countries, through an imposition I believe. What did they achieve? Look at what has happened in Iran. Imposition doesn't work. If countries want democratic change, they first have to focus on education and poverty alleviation. That will automatically bring change. But if you come and say, "within one year we'll be modern and democratic", it won't work.

Do you feel safe returning to Pakistan today?
Certainly there will be security issues, but they won't deter me. There's also extremism and terrorism, which is a dangerous trend. I faced these dangers when I lived in Pakistan, and I'll face them again. But one has to take risks to gain something.

Your Facebook page has over 400,000 fans. Do you use the site?
I have people who write there for me, but they ask me, especially when it's complicated issues. And my son is involved; he's the one opened the Facebook account for me.

Is Facebook a tool that helps democracy?
It's good, but sites like these are not the only way of interacting with people or gauging your standing. In Pakistan, or any developing country, how many people use Facebook and the internet? Not that many.