Pervez Musharraf, the former Army general turned (former) President of Pakistan, is a different man than the Musharraf who has now declared that he will again contest for his nation's presidency. The earlier version of Musharraf would bristle at questions about his respect for democracy, about the relationship of the Taliban to the security organs of the government, and, well, just about anything. Musharraf, before, was self-confident, a talker more than a listener, and personally intimidating.
The man who spoke to the students of Washington College on the eastern shore of Maryland yesterday evening struck a significant contrast to the man that so many believed had become a de facto dictator during his tenure as Pakistan's president. Musharraf listened. He met students and engaged them seriously. He spoke to them like mature adults who were informed -- and didn't dumb down his commentary.
The former four-star general said that while he grew up "as a man of war", he now knew how to "construct the peace" in his neighborhood, even with India -- though he had a number of testy comments about India and what he considered to be its meddling in Afghanistan and its efforts to create an "anti-Pakistan Afghanistan."
Musharraf offered a sweeping historical narrative of why Afghanistan had become the hotbed of regional proxy conflicts and had since American disengagement after the "defeat of the Soviet Union in 1989" become a "total disaster." His perspective on Pakistan's allies and strategic choices is forged in realpolitik -- in which Pakistan's interests actually ally well with many interests of the United States. He said it was extremely frustrating and disheartening for Pakistan to watch the US tilt toward India after the demise of the Soviet Union -- even though Pakistan had helped the US and its proxies defeat the Soviets inside Afghanistan, thus in many ways triggering the end of the Cold War.
He suggested that weak political leadership inside Pakistan and the failure to align institutions, their objectives, and conduct could be resulting in rogue military and intelligence elements freelancing in ways that were detrimental to both Pakistan's and America's security. He believes that bin Laden living in Pakistan represented a real intelligence failure for Pakistan -- and severe negligence, not complicity, is the explanation. Interestingly, President Musharraf said that bin Laden is now dead -- and off the minds of people; what is not off their minds though is the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.
Most of the questions I posed while chairing this meeting with President Musharraf were drawn from Washington College students -- and I'll be posting the video when it appears on the college website -- but I did ask Musharraf about his views on Pakistan's blasphemy law and the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, on religious militancy, and whether if he was President of the United States, whether he would fire drone missiles at al Qaeda leaders.
Musharraf said that more than forty nations had blasphemy laws and that Pakistan was among many. Religious extremism and militancy, he said, is often a manifestation of other social turmoil -- and that it would take time to urbanize, to educate, and liberalize a populations undergoing huge demographic shifts. On the drone issue, Musharraf said that as a military man with a military objective -- if serving as the US President -- he might in fact decide to use drones. He would, however, operate cautiously and carefully because of the obvious violations of sovereignty, which is deeply toxic to a nation's identity.