In this frank interview, Pervez Musharraf tells Adrian Murdoch of his optimism about Pakistan’s economic prospects and geopolitical role. In particular, the president defends his unpopular policy of allying with America in its “war on terror”. However, the general is robust in his criticism of India over Kashmir, and insists that Pakistan bears no responsibility for the London bombings

Every few minutes throughout an interview with Pervez Musharraf, a perfectly-dressed aide de camp appears at his side and passes the general a folded note. After three or four such interruptions, Pakistan’s president can barely contain himself. Turning to Global Agenda and with little pretence at keeping a straight face, he confesses that they tell him every time that a wicket has fallen. Pakistan is trouncing England at cricket.

It is a human side of the man who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and who has resolutely remained in power ever since. There is no single key, however, to Musharraf’s character and he raises more questions than he answers.

Pakistan’s press is one of the freest in Asia, the liberalization of the country’s economy deserves to become a template for other countries and the president’s vision of a moderate, liberal Islam is rightly lauded.

However, he refuses to rule as a civilian and to remove the army uniform that he was wearing when he took power, and he dismisses human-rights activists as “fringe elements” that are as bad as the “extremists”. Last September he outraged women’s groups by saying that rape was a “money-making concern”. “A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped,” he said.

Other than coping with the challenge of reconstruction after the October 8 earthquake, two issues continue to dominate Musharraf’s agenda. One is international terrorism. He is a vital ally in the American-led campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghan border areas, even though this policy is far from universally popular at home. The second is the long-standing and thorny issue of relations with India. Pakistan has come a long way since 2002, when war between the two nuclear neighbours seemed possible.

GLOBAL AGENDA Relations with India seemed briefly to take a step forward in the aftermath of the earthquake, but they now appear to have taken two steps back. What’s happening?

Pervez Musharraf It is unfortunate that there is so much suspicion in the relationship between India and Pakistan. We have to resolve the Kashmir dispute, otherwise we cannot normalize relations. This is Pakistan’s position and India must realize it. It is quite unnatural if they think we can keep improving relations and ignore Kashmir. That is not possible. The earthquake has given us a golden opportunity where both parts of Kashmir are affected. There is a bond that has come about on both sides of the line of control where the people of Kashmir, India and Pakistan want to help one another. This is an ideal opportunity to go for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute. I am trying to say that, but somehow, there is no real response from the other side.

GA What steps need to be taken now? Do you see a way forward?
PM It depends on the Indians, I will leave it at that. We are forthcoming, we have given ideas and we want to move forward.
Do the Indians want to move forward? No. If they don’t want to move forward, then one thing is clear in my mind – we don’t move forward on anything.

GA Why is Pakistan reaching out to Israel? What can you bring to the dispute in the Middle East?
PM In the past, we had no relations – or no direct ones – with Israel. You can’t contribute anything if you don’t talk to someone, negotiate with them or have any dealings with them. I thought the best way of contributing to the Palestinian cause and the resolution of the dispute was to accept the reality of Israel. That idea encouraged us to start the negotiations. This has contributed a lot in two ways. Domestically, our stature has improved, and we are now in a position where we can contribute positively.

GA You have remained one of America’s closest allies in the “war on terror”. Yet many Pakistanis vehemently oppose the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. How do you manage that balancing act?
PM Yes, it is a balancing act, but I feel that the people of Pakistan understand and accept that our national interest is in having good relations with the US. However, the US is not very popular in the mind of the common man. There is a dichotomy that while people do not appreciate US actions historically vis-à-vis Pakistan and now internationally in Iraq and Afghanistan, they do understand that the policy I am pursuing is in Pakistan’s interest.
For 42 years, from 1947 to 1989, we were with the US through thick and thin. We were strategic partners everywhere and we fought the war in Afghanistan together. That was all done through Pakistan. There was no problem until 1989. Something happened then.
Obviously, some US actions led to the alienation of the Pakistani people against the US: such as the F-16 issues [America aborted an agreed sale of jet fighters to Pakistan in 1990 because of Pakistan’s nuclear programme], putting sanctions on us and getting into a strategic relationship with a country [Russia] that had been their enemy for 42 years.
This earthquake, however, has created an environment where the people of Pakistan are seeing the US assist in the relief operation. Chinook has become a household word, and people see that it is the US who is helping. The best foreign hospital in Muzaffarabad, for example, was set up by the Americans. If we can capitalize on this positive sentiment, it will have a tremendous impact.

GA How do you react to those who hold Pakistan responsible for the bombings in London last year?
PM Quite angrily. We cannot be held responsible. Those people may be Pakistani originally, but they were born, bred, educated and brought up in the United Kingdom. One of them happened to come here and go to a madrasah. What about the four [sic] others? They didn’t come here or go to a madrasah. Just because one man [sic] came here, the whole London bombing is Pakistan’s responsibility. Amir Khan, the boxer who got a silver medal [in the 2004 Olympics], is a Pakistani, but he is called British. The [former England] cricket captain Nasser Hussein is a Pakistani, so why don’t they call him Pakistani?
This blame game, when we are coalition partners and are fighting terrorism together, is very negative. Let’s not show we are failing. We are winning and we should encourage each other.

GA One newspaper has called sectarian violence in Pakistan an “unending war”. What do you plan to do about it?
PM There are three short-term aspects and three long-term aspects to our strategy. First, banned organizations and extremist organizations must not be allowed to resurface. Many of their leaders have been arrested. Second, we have banned hate material, pamphlets, books and handbills. Anyone selling or printing them is arrested. Third, in the mosques, we won’t allow clerics to incite sectarian hatred or militants. In some, which allow clerics to stir sectarian hatred, we arrest them.
In the long term, with regard to madrasahs, we have had to ensure they teach board examinations, instead of only teaching religion. We are also modifying the syllabus to offer more lessons about the values and responsibilities of individuals to their communities and to their nation. Finally, we are entering into a national discourse on Islam. The Iqbal International Institute of Islamic Research will soon be opened in Lahore. This will be a fountainhead for an Islamic renaissance.

GA The single biggest issue for business confidence is what will happen next year. Can you reassure the business community of your intentions?
PM I am confident that elections will be held in 2007. My first concern is the internal problem: the threat to Pakistan is to reject terrorism. I am confident that the people of Pakistan have rejected the extremists and I am reasonably sure there will be a similar pattern in 2007. As far as other political parties are concerned, I have no problem with any of them. I do have a problem with two people [Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto] who both ran the country twice and brought it to a condition when it was effectively a defaulted state. Today, they are barred from fighting for a third term in office. If they are not there, any party is welcome to win or lose.

GA What are your intentions?
PM I am considering a number of options. I will do everything in Pakistan’s interest, but I will never abandon Pakistan. I will adjust my role in accordance with the people’s will.

GA There has rarely been a democratic transition from one head of state to another in a Muslim country. Do you think you can break the mould?
PM I have introduced sustainable democracy through checks and balances and through the local government system. I have no doubts in my mind that the system will sustain itself. I am bothered about the continuity of policies. Continuity and sustainability of policies are far more important and significant than continuity of people. No individual is permanent, so you have to create institutions and policies that move the country forward. I think we have done that. We now have a functioning national assembly, local government and provincial assembly. This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that that has happened. Why should anyone doubt that elections will take place in 2007? There will be a provincial assembly, a national assembly and a senate in place.

GA Poverty remains one of the largest challenges for Pakistan. How are you tackling it?
PM This is the first year that poverty and unemployment have declined, and we have to keep this up. The basis of unemployment and poverty is economic stagnation. Our economy is growing at 8.4% and we hope to maintain, despite the earthquake, something about 7%. A fallout on the people takes place when an economy grows. Per capita income has risen from $450 to $791 and, today, Pakistan is in the median income group. Our tax revenues have jumped from Rs304 billion [$5 billion] to Rs700 billion. Public sector development projects have jumped from Rs100 billion nine years ago to Rs300 billion today. This is the kind of growth and money going to development that will have an automatic impact on poverty alleviation. I am confident that we will carry on the downward trend.

GA What is your vision for Pakistan in 2015?
PM Pakistan will have overcome the issue of terrorism. I see a balance in law and order; sustained economic growth of about 7% or more; poverty and unemployment much reduced; and improved living conditions and prosperity levels for the people. We will be an important player in the international community of nations, with a role both nationally and in the Muslim world too.
We will be a key player in the region. With the political developments in the 1990s, the Central Asian republics and Afghanistan – all of them landlocked – are looking southwards trying to interact with India through Pakistan. Pakistan has been blessed with such a strategic location. It is the trade and energy hub of the whole region. We must take strength from that.

Pervez Musharraf
President of Pakistan

»Born in Delhi, 1943
»1961 Joins the Pakistan Military Academy
»1964-1990 Commissioned in an elite artillery regiment, saw action in Khem Karan, Lahore and Sialkot, winning the Imtiaz-i-Sanad for gallantry. Served seven years in the commandos.
»1991 Major general
»1993-1995 Director general, military operations
»1995 Lieutenant general
»1998 Promoted general, appointed chief of army staff
»1999 Seizes power and becomes chief executive. Appoints himself president of Pakistan. Sworn in as president for five years after a referendum. Transfers powers of chief executive to newly elected prime minister
»2004 Wins confidence vote to stay in office until 2007