- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

Islamic societies face a period of intense self-examination and must choose between confronting the United States and the West or adopting politically moderate, “self-emancipating” policies, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said in an interview yesterday.

Finishing up a Washington visit highlighted by a Camp David meeting Tuesday with President Bush, Gen. Musharraf said he was “fully satisfied” with the state of U.S.-Pakistani relations. But he acknowledged that there was strong anti-Bush and anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan in the wake of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The Islamic world must adopt a strategy of evaluating ourselves, deciding whether we want to follow a militant, confrontationist approach or choose a self-emancipating path away from poverty, away from a lack of production and opportunity,” Gen. Musharraf told reporters and editors at a wide-ranging luncheon at The Washington Times.

But Gen. Musharraf said the United States must address quickly the security and political problems in Afghanistan and Iraq to counter “the very real feeling that it is the Islamic world as a whole that is being targeted” in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Gen. Musharraf had a productive week, with President Bush announcing a $3 billion, five-year development, trade and security aid package widely seen as payback for the Pakistani leader’s decision to side with the United States in the global war on terrorism in the days after the September 11 attacks.

Gen. Musharraf visited with senior congressional leaders yesterday and said he had received strong assurances that Congress would approve the package.

While insisting that the vast majority of Pakistanis rejected militant Islamic policies, Gen. Musharraf said relations with Washington were complicated by a number of bilateral irritants, from the long-standing U.S. refusal to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan to a post-September 11 visa crackdown that has affected many Pakistanis living in the United States.

Gen. Musharraf, a former chief of Pakistan’s army who took power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, said media reports had greatly overstated popular support in his country for Osama bin Laden, leader of terror network al Qaeda, and neighboring Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime. He said Pakistani troops for the first time were present in force in tribal regions on the Afghan border where bin Laden and his allies are suspected to have fled.

But Pakistan’s Islamic parties, including some openly sympathetic to the Taliban, made major gains in parliamentary and provincial elections last fall, and have denounced the new U.S. aid package.

The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of six Islamist parties and a leading opposition voice in Pakistan’s Parliament, said Gen. Musharraf was a “stooge of the United States” who was “compromising the country’s sovereignty.”

Gen. Musharraf addressed a number of topics during the nearly 90-minute interview, including the following:

• Afghanistan. The Pakistani leader has pressed Bush administration officials for a much broader deployment of international forces to improve security and curtail warlords who dominate much of the country outside the capital, Kabul.

He said the “power vacuum” in much of Afghanistan and the lack of representation of ethnic Pashtuns in the Kabul government must be addressed, but that the security problems could be solved without a huge infusion of troops.

• Israel. Gen. Musharraf said he had “broken the taboo” in his country about discussing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

The issue remains politically sensitive in Pakistan, “but why should Pakistan be more Palestinian than the Palestinians?” he asked. If Israeli-Palestinian peace talks prove fruitful, “that would give us more room to maneuver in Pakistan to develop a national consensus on the recognition question,” he added.

cBin Laden. Gen. Musharraf had said the leader of al Qaeda probably had been killed in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. But the Pakistani president said his “best guess” now, based in part on new intelligence, was that bin Laden had survived. Gen. Musharraf said it was most likely that the terror mastermind remained at large on the Afghan side of the border.

A report issued by the United Nations in New York yesterday said that al Qaeda remains a “significant threat” to international security, and that its finance networks were still intact.

• The recent “unfortunate eruption” of attacks on Christians in Pakistan. Mr. Musharraf blamed the attacks on “extremists” inflamed by the events in Afghanistan and the Middle East and said the violence had been condemned by a broad cross-section of Pakistanis.

“This is not part of our tradition; there is no record of this in our past,” he said. “Even our religious leaders have condemned these incidents. Our mullahs have gone to the sites where the attacks occurred to condemn them.”

• Postwar Iraq. Gen. Musharraf said Pakistan would consider a request to contribute up to a division of troops to a peacekeeping force, but that it would participate only under the auspices of the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Countries, or some other international overseer.

“In principle we can agree to this, but the modalities must be worked out, for this is a sensitive question for us back home,” he said.

He urged the United States and its coalition partners to return power to an Iraqi-led government as soon as possible to avoid a destabilizing breakdown of authority that could have consequences throughout the Middle East.

• India-Pakistan relations. Gen. Musharraf said rising Indian defense budgets and weapons purchases were “tilting the conventional balance of forces in South Asia.” The disputed province of Kashmir remains a flash point between the two South Asian nuclear rivals, but Gen. Musharraf said he was more than willing to reciprocate Indian efforts to ease tensions.

“I tell you, for every one step they take, we will take three,” he said.

The poor image of the United States and Mr. Bush among Pakistan’s population has not translated into rising support for Islamic militants, the Taliban or bin Laden, Gen. Musharraf said.

“There is a broad understanding that the policy of my government in allying with the United States is in the national interest,” he said. “Our people do understand that supporting al Qaeda or the Taliban is not in our interest. In that sense, they actually agree with President Bush. The problem is the perceptions which need to be changed.”

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