Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf has a warning for the United States: Any attack on Iraq would likely ripple throughout the Muslim world, with potentially grave consequences for America's war on terrorism.
The Pakistani president, too, wants Washington to resume substantial arms sales to his country to help ensure a "balance of power" in the troubled region.
In an interview with Monitor editors, over a lunch of beef tenderloin in Boston, Mr. Musharraf also:
Worried that shifting the focus to Iraq could divert efforts to restore stability in Afghanistan.
Defended his political reforms in Pakistan as a way to allow democracy to grow without the periodic power struggles between the president and prime minister.
Dismissed reports that India and Pakistan are moving toward acceptance of a "line of control" dividing the disputed region of Kashmir.
"That is not a solution," he said, "because as we keep saying it [the line] is the problem."
The comments came Sunday at the beginning of a week-long trip to the US by the Pakistani president, here to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the 90-minute interview, a relaxed and confident Musharraf at times even humorous said that war with Iraq risked inflaming more than the Muslim world's extremes. He said it could damage efforts to root out the Al Qaeda elements in his country and elsewhere.
Attempting to divorce his country from involvement in any attack on Iraq, Musharraf said a US-led war "will give the [extreme elements] within our domestic environment further ammunition" for agitation. He suggested the reconstruction of Afghanistan, which hasn't yet "taken off" as international donors wait for stability to be restored, could face additional uncertainty if the world becomes fixated on removing Saddam Hussein.
A year ago, General Musharraf surprised much of the world by turning against the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, a move that led him even to dismiss some of his own generals who sympathized with the Islamist cause. At the risk of firing up a volatile minority of extremists at home, he cast Pakistan's lot with the US and the war on terrorism.
This week Musharraf visits the US confident of solid support from Bush, whom he meets with on Thursday in New York. But he faces mounting criticism at home as he moves to install what he calls "sustainable democracy" in a country with a legacy of political upheaval and strongman rule.
A four-star general who took power in a 1999 coup, Musharraf referred to himself in the interview as "unfortunately a military man and talking about democracy." He was accompanied by a coterie of aides and advisers, including Foreign Minister Inam ul Haque, who cautioned against the precedent that could be set by the international community recognizing a US doctrine of preemptive action.
"Larger countries may begin to feel they have a right to interfere in smaller countries," Mr. Haque said pointedly. "Why couldn't India take unprovoked action against Pakistan?"
Musharraf visits the US keenly aware of his critics, most vociferous in his own domestic press, who say his recent constitutional reforms leading up to October parliamentary elections consolidate his power and distance Pakistan even further from any transition to democracy.
But he also knows that he's on friendly ground in the US as long as he keeps up the fight against Al Qaeda elements in his country and other extremists focused on the dispute with India over Kashmir.
"Musharraf has clearly heard from President Bush that the war on terrorism trumps democracy at this time," says Karl Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asia under Bill Clinton.
"The State Department is attuned to the vital role that democracy plays in retaking the political base from radical elements, but the White House and Pentagon don't really want to be bothered with that," adds George Perkovich, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Their focus is, 'Are you going to deliver these guys [Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan] or not?' "
A military-style democracy
But Musharraf was the most impassioned in the interview defending his political reforms. He insisted they will allow democracy to develop without the tension between the president and prime minister that has periodically torn the country.
Acknowledging that his constitutional reforms "to the West appear rather odd," Musharraf said they are necessary to "place checks and balances on the power-brokers in Pakistan." "I keep saying democracy does not have a set formula. It has to be tailored," he said, "to suit your own environment."
The centerpiece of the reform is creation of a 13-member "national security council." It includes eight members who are elected, as well as the president and four military chiefs. "I'm not taking power. I'm giving power, in fact," Musharraf said, noting that the authority the president once had to dissolve the National Assembly now falls to the council.
Musharraf's actions also resulted in controversial disqualifications of hundreds of candidates from the Oct. 10 parliamentary elections. But the president said the changes will result in a more representative and better-educated Assembly. "We have given women 60 reserved seats, [and for the] open seats they'll fight, so hopefully there will be about 75 women in the assemblies to bring some kind of sobriety," he said.
But the military ruler sidestepped questions about a transition in the future away from military dominance of the country's political and economic affairs.
"Theoretically, yes, the military should not have a role. Theoretically, yes, if it will hold good in the United States, it will hold good in any developed European country," he said. "But unfortunately it does not hold good in Pakistan. We cannot be idealistic. We have to be pragmatic and practical. It is not letting down democracy: It is in the interest of creating sustainable democracy."
Yet without a transition from military rule any time soon, and with the October elections likely to result, even after the candidate disqualifications, in an Assembly more hostile to Musharraf, some analysts believe Pakistan is headed for the kind of turmoil the US wants to avoid.
"Nobody believes Musharraf will get anywhere near a majority of support from these elections, so the stage is set for the next crisis, and it's something the US is totally unprepared for," says Mr. Perkovich.
On Kashmir, Musharraf insisted that Pakistan is controlling incursions by Islamic extremists across the line into the Indian state, and that "this should lead to reciprocation... this must lead to a response from the Indian side.
"I personally have taken a number of decisions ... which have been very sensitive to our country ... and the reciprocation has not come," Musharraf said. He added it's time for the world community to "make India accept a dialogue," suggesting that the US in particular should be more forceful in encouraging talks. "The United States is playing a role, and they need to play a stronger role" in "mediating" the crisis over Kashmir, he said.
Looking more broadly at what he calls the "standoff" between his country and India, Musharraf said tensions have fallen, thanks largely to the "strategy of deterrence" Pakistan has embraced. But he warned the military balance could be lost, and pressed for the US to resume major arms sales to Pakistan.
"It will be extremely dangerous if the conventional balance of forces is destroyed between India and Pakistan," he said. Stating that India has increased its arms spending by 50 percent over the last three years, he added, "Gradually we are seeing a definite tilt in the balance of forces."
To correct the situation, he wants the US to "proactively deny" India access to high-technology weaponry. He also wants the US to resume arms sales to Pakistan that were suspended over its nuclear weapons program.
Following Sept. 11 and Pakistan's embrace of the war on terror, most US sanctions were lifted and the rest will be phased out by this fall. The US has approved $230 million in subsidized arms sales and is considering reestablishing a US-Pakistan defense working group.
But Pakistan is most interested in a hangar of new F-16s: more than two dozen it bought in 1989 but were never delivered, and 70 more it wants. The US says the 1989 purchase was mostly reimbursed after the sale was stopped.
But Musharraf says the issue of "our F-16s" remains a topic of everyday conversation on Pakistan's streets, suggesting it convinces average Pakistanis of a growing US tilt toward India. And he indicated he will bring up the issue when he sees Bush this week at the UN.
"I won't get into an argument and discussion on that, but one needs to address this issue, especially in light of all that India is doing," Musharraf said. "I will maybe tell [Bush] again when I meet him."