Musharraf in London
Perhaps the most striking thing about a speech given by former president Pervez Musharraf in London on Monday was how many people turned out to hear him. There were two overflow rooms for those who wanted to hear his words relayed over closed-circuit television. I can’t think of many former rulers who can pack a crowd like that — although this was also a measure of the intense interest in London in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Musharraf now lives in comparative obscurity in the Edgware Road area of London — a street full of Middle Eastern restaurants where waiters look at you strangely if you try to order beer, and where men sit outside on the pavement smoking shishas even in the middle of winter. Yet he still talks as articulately as he used to with no hint of the self-pity, or criticism, of Pakistan’s existing rulers. He still cracks a joke with confidence, and at the end raises his hand in a military salute to a clapping audience ( a rather more polite response than he might receive if he returned home).
Some of his main points:
* The West made a mistake in failing to recognise the importance of the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan when it overthrew the Taliban in 2001, and in not giving them proper representation in the government. “The Pashtun are totally alienated and therefore for the past eight years they have been pushed towards the Taliban.” But the notion of “moderate Taliban” made no sense since the distinction was between Taliban and Pashtun. “All Taliban are Pashtun, but not all Pashtun are Taliban.”
* The West was in danger of making another big mistake by talking of drawing down troops in 2011 instead of promising to stay as long as it takes. “We are showing a lack of resolve and a lack of commitment … when we are talking of running away and going after two years.”
“We must win. Failure, quitting, is not an option,” he said. “In Afghanistan, we have to defeat al Qaeda, we have to dominate the Taliban and we have to install a legitimate government in Afghanistan.”
* India remained “an existential threat” and it must stop interfering in Pakistan through Afghanistan. (India denies Islamabad’s accusations that it uses its growing presence in Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan, particularly its restive Baluchistan province.)
At this point, terrorism and extremism in Pakistan may be the bigger threat, but that does not mean it is the only threat. “There is a threat on the eastern border,” he said. “Obviously, I am not going to let my guard down on the eastern border. I will never ignore the eastern border until you tell India to take their forces off.”
* Pakistan would have to tread carefully in taking action against groups such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa — the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba — and others focused on Kashmir, since they enjoyed a great deal of public sympathy. “It has to be done in a very deliberate manner…” he said. “Please let the government of Pakistan handle them.” But in any case “the resolution of the (Kashmir) dispute, is the core”.
* Asked about whether he wanted to return to politics in Pakistan, he said: “I love my country and I would like to do anything for Pakistan.” But this was for the people of Pakistan to decide as he would have to come back through the political process. “I am a civilian now, I am not a military man. I cannot take over anything.” He made no mention of the charges against him which for now prevent him from returning to Pakistan.
You can find audio and video recordings here.
(2008 file photo of then President Musharraf saluting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown)