Musharraf the Candidate


Steve Clemons Pervez Musharraf Chestertown Maryland 24 October 2011.jpgPervez 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.

Musharraf’s most compelling commentary focused on the importance of
economic and political modernization — the importance of exposing
people to what was going on in the world and building the economy.  He
kept referring to the strong economic growth rates that Pakistan had
achieved during his term — and that Pakistan was considered to be in
“the next set” of eleven fast growing nations after the larger lead
developing countries today.  He lamented the loss of pride and
self-confidence of the Pakistan people in the current period and said
that the political leadership was insolvent, corrupt, nepotistic, and

There’s much more that I’d like to share about Musharraf, who intends to
make his first campaign trip back to Pakistan in March 2012 and until
then is operating through Skype, Facebook, and other new social network
media to build out his campaign and new political party.  He had just
the day before spoken to a crowd of more than 3,000 Pakistanis via Skype
— and was proud that he now had more than 400,000 “fans” on Facebook.

I did push Musharraf privately on the democracy question, which he said a
young Pakistani lady had posed to him that very day on a BBC event and
program.  He was pushed on a number of fronts — including the question
of whether Pakistan could really be considered an ally of the United
States anymore.  I’ll write more about this democracy question when I
post the Musharraf video. 

The former President didn’t get irritated, or ruffled, or dismissive —
he got more deeply engaged and answered questions succinctly, posed
questions to some of his student handlers, and spent the evening
charming and chatting with several tables of college VIPs after his
speech.  He was compelling and deeply informed on the details of global
security and economic issues as well as many dimensions of state and
global governance.

Last night with Musharraf reminded me of a time I secured Bill Clinton
as a dinner speaker for a major Nixon Center event — and the President
(then) came to the cocktail party, sat down for dinner, gave a long and
thorough speech, and hung out a bit after.  While I remember the content
of that April 1995 speech, few others do; but almost everyone remembers
how much time that night a sitting President of the United States spent
at one dinner party.

In a more modest way perhaps, former President Musharraf did the same as
Clinton for the Washington College community.  He gave those in the
community and the students and professors a lot of time — not because
he actually had a lot of time — but because he is out testing the new
Musharraf, the listening Musharraf, the Musharraf concerned and
interested in the tough and complex questions a public can pose.

And I have to say that much to my surprise, I was impressed with this version of the controversial former president of Pakistan.

— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons


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