A pivotal player in the US-led war against Al Qaeda, the leader of Pakistan has not only put his Islamic republic on the line in the year since Sept. 11, but himself.
But President Pervez Musharraf left behind all the death threats from extremists in his own country this week and came to the US to seek support for Pakistan's challenges. And there are many.
The soft-spoken and articulate Army general, who took power in 1999, spoke with Monitor editors at length on Sunday about how he plans to restore democracy, improve ties with India, and keep militants like Al Qaeda in check. But he also worries about the world's flagging commitment to his unstable neighbor, Afghanistan, and about how a US-led attack on Iraq might have a "negative impact" on the Muslim world. (See story, page 1.)
He's right to say Afghanistan still needs a strong central government to counter warlords, a multiethnic balance in its politics, and quick delivery of a promised $4.5 billion in aid even before there's stability. "Money must be placed in the hands of the Karzai government," he said. War in Iraq would "dilute" the Afghan effort, and thus he suggests the US seek a world consensus before acting.
For now, Mr. Musharraf's support of the US is largely in mopping up members of Al Qaeda, mainly in Pakistan's autonomous tribal areas. Is his Army being successful? "In many areas we've met successes. There is no doubt we have recovered a lot of weapons, and I think we have arrested 400 Al Qaeda members," he says.
To do that, he's broken a tradition by sending troops into the tribal belt where they once could not intrude, but now are winning local support.
That military task isn't being helped by tensions with India over disputed Kashmir. He needs more US weapons, he claims, because India's military budget has risen by 50 percent in the past three years, making it the world's largest arms importer. Pakistan must keep parity in its conventional forces, a point India may never accept. But that's needed to prevent Pakistan from using nuclear weapons in a war.
He's angry that India has not resumed bilateral talks after he ordered his military to block the infiltration of militants into India-controlled Kashmir. Without reciprocity from New Delhi, he says there's a need for mediation by an outside power "and that is what the United States is doing ... and they need to keep playing this role." He admits infiltration cannot be stopped fully, given the mountainous terrain, but, he adds, "let's initiate the dialogue and things will keep moving forward."
Musharraf is most on the defensive in his plan to bring a "sustainable" democracy to Pakistan. He's set up a powerful security council, with a minority of seats given to the military, that will act as a check on a prime minister and president. He hopes it will prevent the kind of breakdown in democracy that the country suffered in the past. "We cannot be idealistic. We have to be pragmatic," he says in justification. "There's no dictatorship; there's a free press; the judiciary has never been as independent."
But eventually extracting himself and the military's current dominance may not be as easy as he plans. Most other nations that have had well-meaning military rulers end up badly. But, as Musharraf notes, no one else has been able to sustain democracy in Pakistan for three decades.