What did Pakistan’s government know about Osama bin Laden’s presence in the garrison city of Abbottabad? According to Pervez Musharraf, the country’s president from 2001 to 2008, not a thing. That the al-Qaeda chief lived there undetected for several years represents “an absolute case of negligence of the highest degree, and not complicity.”
In a presentation delivered at a July 21 Woodrow Wilson Center Director’s Forum, Musharraf, a former general, insisted that had officials in the Pakistani Army or Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan’s spy agency) been aware of bin Laden in Abbottabad, they would have told him. “The army—they are my people,” he declared. From the institution’s highest echelon to its lowest tiers, he insisted, no one would have hidden such information from him.
The Abbottabad affair—both bin Laden’s presence in the city and the unilateral U.S. raid on his compound—has dealt a major blow to U.S.-Pakistan relations. Another major concern for the bilateral relationship, Musharraf argued, is the rampant anti-Americanism that dominates Pakistani public opinion. He attributed such sentiment to a sense of betrayal. For the first few decades of Pakistan’s existence, Washington was strategically aligned with Islamabad. Yet once the Iron Curtain fell, the United States shifted its focus to India—a nation ensconced in the Soviet camp during the Cold War. The Pakistani people, according to Musharraf, concluded they had been “used, ditched, and betrayed.” Now, with the United States beginning its phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistanis worry they will be betrayed once again—and left to fend for themselves if Afghanistan descends into anarchy.
Musharraf offered his vision for improving U.S.-Pakistan ties. Pakistan must somehow convince the United States that it did not shelter bin Laden. And the United States must demonstrate more respect for Pakistani “sensitivities.” These include public anger toward the collateral damage caused by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas; unhappiness with America’s “negative” nuclear policy toward Pakistan; and the perception that American approaches to India-Pakistan relations are not even-handed enough.
Musharraf also offered recommendations for stabilizing Pakistan and the greater Subcontinent. Acknowledging that the Pakistani military may be “overstretched,” he called for a strengthening of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He argued for a full-fledged assault on extremism in Pakistan—its ideologies must be eliminated from mosques, its publications banned, and its organizations outlawed. He underscored the urgency of resolving the Kashmir dispute with India, and reminded his audience how as president he came tantalizingly close to concluding a deal on the contested region—one involving gradual demilitarization and “maximum self-governance” for the Kashmiri people. He also called for broader India-Pakistan rapprochement, noting that “I’m a man of war, but I’m a man for peace—because I know the ravages of war.” At the same time, he accused India of “trying to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan,” and referred several times to the “existential threat” that India has posed to Pakistan.
Asked what he would have done differently while president, a defiant Musharraf asserted he had done little wrong. He contended that his only regret was concluding a deal with the late Benazir Bhutto, which enabled her to return to Pakistan from exile. According to Musharraf, Bhutto violated this agreement by returning to the country prior to the 2008 presidential elections (she would be assassinated in late 2007, after making a campaign speech in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi). If he were to once again take over the reins of power, “I would not need to reinvent the wheel.” He would simply return to the policies and statecraft that he believes succeeded during his presidency.
Musharraf, who faces numerous legal problems in Pakistan (including charges related to Bhutto’s assassination, which he dismisses as politically motivated), splits his time between London and Dubai. However, he intends to return to Pakistan in March 2012, and plans to run for president in the country’s 2013 elections. With Pakistan suffering from a “leadership vacuum,” he concluded, it is high time to end the political status quo.
By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program