On Wednesday, I handed Pervez Musharraf a recently-posted story from the website of The New York Times. “Deadly blast in Pakistan casts shadow over Clinton’s visit,” read the headline. The corresponding report detailed how a car bomb detonated in the city of Peshawar (coinciding with a visit by the American secretary of State), reportedly killing at least 100 people.
“So sad,” the former president of Pakistan muttered under his breath as he solemnly read the news from home.
Musharraf told me Wednesday’s attack in Peshawar was not just an effort by the extremists to send a message. It was also a “desperate reaction” to the Pakistani military’s heightened efforts to eradicate the militants—members of slain Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud’s operation, he noted—camped out in South Waziristan.
“We need to go for deals—deals with the Pashtun, the elements in that tribal area so that we wean them away from the Taliban supporters there. We need to go for deals, that is the political strategy in Pakistan,” Musharraf said.
I asked President Musharraf what he thought President Obama should do relative to troop levels and strategy in Afghanistan. He acknowledged the “difficult decision” Obama faces. “But one has to evaluate all pros and cons,” he continued. “In the overall context, what do we want to achieve? I would like to start from that. We want to eliminate al Qaeda. We want to militarily dominate Taliban. And then we want to install a government which has credibility, which has acceptability to the people of Afghanistan. Now to do that, we need military strength first of all. We need to be speaking from a position of military strength.”
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Musharraf said drawing a difference between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is “not very logical.” He was distinguishing between al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“Certainly they have a nexus. And even if we eliminate al Qaeda, we should not think that by allowing the Taliban a resurgence and governance in Afghanistan, al Qaeda will not come back into the same area. Therefore, we should not treat them separately. They have a nexus, and both have to be dealt with.”
Still, I asked whether President Musharraf would support some level of a negotiated peace with the Taliban, as distinguished from al Qaeda. He expressed support for the idea of negotiating with certain elements of the Taliban. Fifty percent of the Afghan population is Pashtun, he noted. And instead of equating all of them with the Taliban, he suggested working with the Pashtun and “through them also maybe talk to the saner elements within the Taliban, yes.”
“The ballgame is a little different” in Pakistan, he continued. The Taliban elements there exist in the tribal areas, and cutting deals with those local elements is essential to the political arm of Musharraf’s multi-faceted approach. “We need to go for deals—deals with the Pashtun, the elements in that tribal area so that we wean them away from the Taliban supporters there. We need to go for deals, that is the political strategy in Pakistan,” he told me.
On the Pakistani side of the border, Musharraf told me he is “absolutely” in agreement with the government’s assault on the militant factions hiding out in the country’s ungovernable tribal regions. This came as no surprise. Just last month, in a prior conversation, he insisted that the Pakistani army is “capable of dealing with any situation” and that foreign military assistance within Pakistan’s borders “is not required at all.”
The former Pakistani president’s border policy reflected that isolationist instinct. He told me he favored erecting a fence—lined with mines where possible—to prevent the militant border-jumping that has so hamstrung American forces there. He made clear that such border control would need to facilitate the orderly interaction between families with legitimate business in both countries. He also said fencing requires self-contained posts with forces and resources necessary to fend off aggressors. “Mining,” he continued, “will not be possible all along because of the terrain problem. But also because we have a historical arrangement called ‘easement rights’ between Afghanistan and Pakistan where people are allowed to travel across the borders.”
As he had in prior discussions with me, Musharraf professed no insight as to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. He told me he questions whether bin Laden is alive, referencing longstanding questions about the al Qaeda leader’s health. He also sought to downplay the significance of the two 9/11 masterminds in the larger scheme of the war on terror. “Wherever a terror attack takes place, many people associate themselves with al Qaeda. Now that doesn’t mean that centralized instruction and directives are being given from the mountains of Pakistan by Zawahiri and Osama. So therefore it’s more a symbol now and we shouldn’t think that getting these two will finish al-Qaeda,” he said.
The man who resigned as Pakistan’s president under threat of impeachment more than a year ago seemed anything but retired. He said he was disturbed by the current government’s performance “on the law and order issue” and lamented the “downward trend” of the country’s economy.
“I’m looking at where the public opinion stands,” he said. “If at all I have to go back, it has to be through the political process, through democratic elections. So one has to target the next elections.”
He sounded to me like a prospective candidate keeping his options open. “You can call it any way,” he told me.
Michael Smerconish is a nationally syndicated radio host. His latest book, Instinct: The Man Who Stopped the 20th Hijacker, was published last month.