- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan Demonization by the West of the world's most wanted terrorist has turned Osama bin Laden into a "cult figure among Muslims," says Pakistan's military ruler.

In an exclusive interview on Monday, Gen. Pervez Musharraf said the world's Muslims are angry with the West because of complaints ranging from "the decline in moral values as conveyed by Hollywood movies" to a perceived pattern of attacks on Muslims in Chechnya, the Balkans, the Palestinian territories and Iraq.

U.S. demands for the arrest and trial of bin Laden, believed to have masterminded the 1998 bomb attacks that killed 224 persons at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, are seen by many Pakistanis as part of that pattern, Gen. Musharraf said.

As a result, the suspected terrorist has become "a hero figure on the pedestal of Muslim extremism."

Wearing a tweed sport jacket and tan slacks with an open-neck shirt, Gen. Musharraf spoke at Army House, his official residence in Rawalpindi.

He repeated a proposal first aired to The Washington Times four weeks ago by Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider that a three-man panel of "distinguished Islamic legal scholars" be convened in an Islamic third country to examine the evidence against bin Laden evidence that he said Mr. Haider has seen and found persuasive.

The Islamic jurists should be drawn from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and a third Islamic nation to be agreed upon by the parties concerned, Gen. Musharraf said.

Mr. Haider told The Washington Times in February that the Afghan Taliban militia's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had indicated to him he was willing to consider such a proposal.

Asked why Pakistan was the only country in the world to support the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Gen. Musharraf replied, "National interest and security, pure and simple." Pakistan is already threatened by India and does not want another enemy on its western border.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times, a position he also holds with United Press International. The following is excerpted from his interview with Gen. Musharraf:

QUESTION: What makes you believe that Pakistan can have a functioning democracy in place in the 18 months you have remaining in office, out of the three years authorized by your Supreme Court?

Frankly, I don't understand how a very poor country of 140 million that is 70 percent illiterate and trying to cope with 2 million Afghan refugees can hope to achieve Western standards of democracy.

ANSWER: This is a very loaded question. But my frank answer is that I totally agree with your underlying assumption. The Pakistani environment is not fully conducive to real parliamentary democracy, as it is understood in the West. But at the same time, the demands of the whole world, particularly the United States, and of our own people, make it imperative that we give it our best shot.

I do not believe there is anyone in Pakistan who thinks we shouldn't have democracy. So irrespective of one's views and with the passage of time, and if we establish the conditions for the very essence of democracy which means beginning with the grass roots where there is none today I think we have more than a sporting chance by returning power to the people.

What we have to eradicate is the parody of democracy we have suffered which was camouflage for the systematic plunder of the country by a political elite. We turn over the first new leaf next August 14 with local elections. This will plant the seeds and start the process of establishing the democratic foundations for a new Pakistan.

Q. So you are confident that 18 months after seizing power following the last Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's attempt to kill you by crashing your plane you have stopped Pakistan's slide into chaos and that you can stick to the timetable for restoring civilian rule by October 2002, with a solvent and honest government and banking transparency. But why is Pakistan's 53-year history pockmarked by occasional military coups you are the fourth military ruler to clean the democratic stables?

A. The problem is that the constitution does not provide an answer to all our political problems.

Q. So you're going for constitutional reform in your remaining months?

A. If we have to amend the constitution, we shall do that, too. The missing link was the district level in our country that was excluded from the political process, in effect disenfranchising millions. The superstructure was also defective. It must be designed to provide a constitutional answer to any political crisis. We must establish a proper balance of power under the constitution.

Q. Are you suggesting you need a strong president?

A. He should certainly not be a figurehead as he is now. But the power of a strong president must also be offset in a system of checks and balances.

Q. So you do not believe Pakistan is ripe for a De Gaulle-type solution that saved France in 1958 from the corrupt Fourth Republic's parliamentary system and a figurehead president, and established a new presidential constitution?

A. No, that is not the proper solution for Pakistan. But we need to bring minor adjustments at the top and major ones at the grass-roots level.

Q. To restore your traditional alliances, especially with the United States, doesn't Pakistan require a major voice that is respected both domestically and internationally? Such as S. Yaqub Khan, your former foreign minister, who would command immediate attention in Washington as Pakistan's most respected elder statesman?

A. This is something we have to give a lot of thought to. First, he must command respect domestically and then internationally.

Q. Right now the only Pakistani politician known abroad is Benazir Bhutto.

A. Unfortunately true. She is the darling of the Western media because they are not informed about what she really did in Pakistan. She is the one who let the country down.

Q. Former President Farooq Leghari, who dismissed Mrs. Bhutto, told me that between her and former Prime Minister Sharif, some $3 billion was plundered from the country. He also said that about $50 billion had vanished in the past 20 years. Is that possible in such a poor country?

A. Yes. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of $50 billion, but I know it was many billions of dollars. As for Bhutto and Sharif, it was more than $3 billion. It all disappeared abroad into offshore tax shelters and investments through front companies and third-party names.

Q. No one understands the Taliban in Afghanistan better than Pakistan. Could you explain what is happening in that country where an Islamic tribe that lost its head engages in the kind of cultural vandalism not seen since Hitler, Stalin and Mao?

A. We do not attempt to rationalize vandalism. We regret it. We condemn it.

Q. But do you understand it?

A. It is an ignorant, primitive interpretation of Islam that is condemned by the entire Islamic world. As to what is happening in Afghanistan, quite clearly after the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989, the country splintered into small parts under the authority of warlords fighting among themselves. The Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Pashtuns, all wanted their piece of the action. It was the dismemberment of Afghanistan that was taking place after the United States walked away from the 10-year war effort we conducted together and with Saudi Arabia to defeat the Soviet occupation.

(The) Taliban came in much later and reunified the country by force with the support of the Afghan people. Armed opposition groups fell like a deck of cards because they were up against people power. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind from everything we know that the people of Afghanistan are fully behind [the] Taliban drought and hunger notwithstanding.

Q. Are you suggesting that the United States is responsible for these events after abandoning the mujahideen freedom fighters to their own devices?

A. To a certain extent, without a doubt. All their support walked away and Afghanistan was left high and dry. The so-called Afghan Arab mujahideen returned to their native countries whence they had been recruited and where they now found themselves unwanted as terrorist suspects. Many then went back to Afghanistan. And many also came here or went to other countries in the region.

Q. Why is Pakistan the only country in the world to support the Taliban?

A. National interest and security, pure and simple. We have one big threat from the East with India. We have no desire to add another threat from the West with Afghanistan where we have the same tribes on both sides of the border. We also have 2 million Afghan refugees on our territory, plus 170,000 since last year.

Q. So you have influence over the Taliban in Kabul?

A. Certainly not what the United States seems to believe. As soon as I heard about [the] Taliban's plans to demolish all statues of Buddha, I sent a strongly worded message admonishing them to cease and desist. I also sent my interior minister to Kabul with an unequivocal demand that was ignored.

Q. What, in your judgment, should be done about Osama bin Laden, now described by the United States as the world's most wanted terrorist? How does Pakistani public opinion view him and is he becoming a cult figure?

A. The Western demonization of OBL, as he is known in Pakistan, made him into a cult figure among Muslims who resent everything from the decline in moral values as conveyed by Hollywood movies and TV serials to America's lack of support for Palestinians being killed by Israeli occupation forces; to what Russia is doing to Muslims in Chechnya; what the West did to Muslims in Bosnia and in Kosovo; sanctions against civilians in Iraq; the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan; India's oppression of Muslims in Kashmir. Our Muslims look at East Timor and say why can't Kashmir be liberated the same way.

It is a very long list of complaints that has generated a strong persecution complex that the OBL cult figure has come to embody. He is a hero figure on the pedestal of Muslim extremism.

As to what to do, I think we should take a leaf from how Libya, the United States and the United Kingdom settled the Pan Am 103 act of terrorism over [Lockerbie in] Scotland. A compromise solution was eventually found for a neutral venue in the Netherlands under Scottish law. We must be equally inventive in the case of OBL.

Q. What do you have in mind?

A. The Taliban government has suggested that OBL should be tried in Afghanistan, where the United States would present the evidence against OBL in the bombings of two American embassies in Africa to the Supreme Justice of the Shariat Court in Kabul. That, of course, is a nonstarter for America.

What I would like to suggest is that a panel of three distinguished Islamic legal scholars be formed one from Afghanistan, one from Saudi Arabia and one from a third country to be negotiated. This body would then meet in an Islamic country to be determined among the parties. This could be anywhere from Morocco to Malaysia. Sometimes we tend to forget that almost one out of five people on Earth is Muslim. The three prominent jurists would then listen to the evidence presented by the Americans.

Q. Your Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider, was recently presented with this evidence by U.S. authorities. Was it compelling?

A. Minister Haider determined that it was.

Q. OBL also has many sympathizers in Pakistan?

A. Yes, among the extremists. They are no more than 1 percent of the Pakistani population, but they hold 99 percent of our people hostage to their demagogic sloganeering.

Q. One percent is still a lot of people. And they scare the majority into appeasing them?

A. Yes, 1.4 million extremists add up to a lot of extremists. They make a lot of noise, but they don't get elected because 99 percent of the people are moderate in their outlook.

Q. How do you explain that the "Jihadis" Holy Warriors are growing in numbers and importance in Pakistan?

A. Primarily because of the military struggle in Kashmir, where more and more mujahideen freedom fighters are involved in the struggle to liberate Kashmir. Twenty years of warfare by Kashmiri guerrillas is now morphing into a popular uprising by the people. The other root cause of Pakistani extremism is extreme economic deprivation, which is a mirror image of the growing disparities between rich and poor nations that the digital revolution has not alleviated.

Young unemployed are easy prey for ideological recruitment in the name of religion. It gives meaning and purpose to their young lives that they see without hope. Extremist recruits can also see that despite all the loans they read about from international institutions and friendly countries nothing has materialized. They conclude, rightly, that they money has been stolen by a tiny minority of political elites. These are the people who have been the gravediggers of democracy in the name of defending democracy.

Q. Interior Minister Haider says, "Islam teaches us patience, kindness and understanding, but what is happening today is destroying our society and it will destroy our country." Do you agree?

A. If we do not check extremism is what Mr. Haider is referring to. We have a large community of Shi'ia Muslims in Pakistan and the divide with the Sunni Muslims is comparable to the strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Sectarian violence, exacerbated by clandestine Indian agents I have proof positive on this score has taken 300 lives in recent times.

Q. The Jihadis behave like paramilitaries, swaggering with automatic weapons in public and your madrasas religious schools where the holy Koran is taught are proliferating by the thousands. Is a scenario whereby "mullahs with nukes" take over Pakistan, as the mullahs conquered Iran in 1979, conceivable?

A. Like Americans, Pakistanis consider it their birthright to own guns. But at our last Cabinet meeting, we decided to ban any public display of weapons and the provincial governors have been ordered to enforce the ban with vigor beginning very shortly. As for the madrasas, they fill a vacuum in very poor rural areas that are illiterate to teach the Koran. But "mullahs with nukes" is bad science fiction.

Q. Last week the International Court of Justice in The Hague rendered its decision on a territorial waters dispute that concerned oil and gas rights between Bahrain and Qatar. Both countries had agreed to the jurisdiction and Qatar won four of the five points in dispute. Why not submit the Kashmiri dispute to the ICJ?

A. Because this is not a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. This concerns the right of the people of Kashmir who do not wish to be with India. It is not a question of adjusting the Line of Control here and there between Indian-controlled Kashmir and free Kashmir. The Line of Control itself is the problem. The aspirations of the Kashmiri people is what this is all about.

Q. And you can resolve this across a table with India as you are now advocating?

A. Why does India say no? They want to talk about bilateral problems except Kashmir. But we have no bilateral issues with India except for Kashmir.

Q. Doesn't this require third-party involvement?

A. By all means, but India says no. Let the United Nations or the United States become involved. India won't hear about it. India says let's go back to the Lahore declaration of 1999. But I was there as chief of staff when it was drafted. The first draft did not even contain the word Kashmir. It was added later as an apologetic afterthought.

Q. Is Pakistan now prepared to sign a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?

A. We are not quite there, but getting there. There are a number of prominent voices that believe this means we would be giving up our nuclear option now that we have become a nuclear power. This will have to be carefully explained by me in the coming weeks that there is no rollback of our security. Unless we change perceptions to accept the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we would be destabilizing ourselves internally.

Q. But you have just retired your two leading scientists Qadeer Khan, the father of your nuclear bomb, and Ashfaq Ahmad, the chairman of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission who then declined to join your government as advisers with Cabinet rank. So perhaps people put this together with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and conclude that means freezing further nuclear development.

A. Their retirement has nothing to do with the CTBT. Both these national heroes have been extended in their positions several times already. But I believe they will now join the government. Dr. Khan told me his position has been misreported in the media and we are having dinner this coming week to work out his new assignment.

Q. Only 1.2 million Pakistanis out of a population of 140 million pay any kind of tax, which gives you a tax-to-GDP ratio of only 11 percent, woefully short of what it takes to run a government that meets minimal essential services and adequate defense. As a result, Pakistan's $38 billion foreign debt, run up over the last two decades, eats up 86 percent of your revenue. By 2004, you will owe IMF and other foreign creditors over $21 billion in debt servicing alone more than twice your annual exports. How does one square this vicious circle?

A. You paint a nightmarish scenario that is an accurate picture of our present predicament. But we have a strategy to get out of it. More than half our expenditures go to debt servicing. Which means we have to reduce debt servicing. This in turn means our donors must be persuaded to give us some relief. At least in the short-term heavy-interest debt.

If the donors do not wish to assist us, we will accelerate privatization [and] proceeds would then go to pay the heavy-interest debt. Beyond that, we plan a vigorous export drive to increase our foreign earnings.

Q. This brings us back to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as a sine qua non for the relief you seek.

A. Linkage of sorts.

Q. There is a direct link between debt rescheduling and CTBT?

A. Not direct but some linkage, especially with Japan for the next tranche of aid [an estimated $1 billion].

Q. How do you view the new Bush administration?

A. Every Pakistani was rooting for Bush and when he won there was sincere jubilation.

Q. And now disappointment?

A. No, not yet. We understand they need time to reassess relations with friends and adversaries alike. As you know, we took our lumps under the previous administration that initiated sanctions against us because we were not willing to leave India with a nuclear monopoly in the subcontinent. Hopefully old friendships can now be rekindled.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide