At 74, the former army chief, who lives with his mother and wife in a tastefully decorated apartment in downtown Dubai, still displays the toughness associated with a soldier.
He runs his own political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), and is facing several court cases.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, he spoke about various issues facing Pakistan and beyond.
Musharraf described President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as “disastrous.”
He said: “Trump has been saying he wants to do something to settle the Palestinian issue, but this isn’t the way forward. This issue is extremely sensitive in the Muslim world.”
Musharraf expressed disappointment with the Muslim world’s reaction to the US move. “Unfortunately, the Muslim world doesn’t have a forum to give a unified voice,” he said.
“Organizations such as the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) are toothless. The OIC should’ve reacted strongly because it’s (supposed to be) the voice of 57 Muslim nations and a quarter of the world’s population.”
Muslim countries “are dependent on the West in different ways, and hence are pulled in different directions. We need to strengthen the OIC again and make our voice united,” he said.
“Maybe in this multipolar world we (Muslim countries) need to use China and Russia to counter this decision. We can only do this through diplomacy.”
Musharraf criticized the Pakistani government for not siding with the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) — comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain — against Qatar.
“I’m shocked at how the Pakistani government dealt with the Qatar crisis. Qatar was never with Pakistan, and we witnessed this many a time,” he said.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE “have always been Pakistan’s great friends. We must never do anything that’s against either country — both have always stood by us, and we must value their friendship.”
Citing the Pakistani ruling party’s business interests in Qatar, he said his country’s “larger interests were ignored over personal business interests. If that’s the priority, then God save our country.”
Musharraf’s words and deeds on Kashmir continue to be an area of interest for most observers and stakeholders.
“I’ve started working for the cause by taking a big initiative on the resolution of the Kashmir issue,” he said.
“Me and other like-minded people have formed a group that consists of popular and prominent people from Pakistan, India and both sides of Kashmir. We’ll go to the UN, and the Indian and Pakistani governments,” he said.
“The Kashmir issue can be resolved, and I strongly believe that the present Indian government is capable of doing it because they represent the hard-liners.”
Musharraf described Kargil — an armed conflict between India and Pakistan between May and July 1999 — as a successful operation militarily even though it failed politically.
“We failed politically because (then-Prime Minister) Nawaz Sharif’s government came under US and Indian pressure, because of which we had to withdraw,” Musharraf said.
“Just two days before the withdrawal, I — as army chief — gave a briefing to Sharif. We shared pros and cons, and I satisfied him and his Cabinet. But then things changed.”
During the operation, Pakistani troops “were inside India in five places, and at some points they didn’t even know we were there,” Musharraf said.
“I had to go there to meet my soldiers, who were at 19,000 feet above sea level. How could I leave them alone? I went there to boost their morale.”
“There’s no doubt that India has a bigger army compared to us. We mustn’t underplay that,” Musharraf said.
“But we maintain equality because of our skills and experience in different kinds of wars, which enable us to engage with them conventionally. With a superior strategy, we can change the situation to our favor.”
He said the Indian Army is facing challenges. “They’re weak on leadership. There are so many deaths and suicides in the army. We often hear many internal issues via the media, such as lack of proper food,” he said.
Maintaining such a large army is not easy for India, he said. “They require lots of logistical support for maintenance. Siachen, for example, is a liability because of communications and logistics issues,” he said.
“From our side, approaching Siachen is much easier. It just takes a day to reach our highest post, whereas the Indian Army takes five to seven days to reach its highest position because there’s a glacier and so many weather hazards on its side.”
“We should stop blaming Trump” for the state of US-Pakistani relations, Musharraf said. “I take Trump’s presidency positively. He started his regime with a clean slate,” he said.
“He may not have a clear idea about Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan or the Islamic world. We could’ve used this opportunity to fill the slate,” Musharraf said.
“If we allow India, or for that matter any other country, to influence Trump, it’s our failure. We shouldn’t blame others for that,” he added.
“Everyone will use the opportunity for their own good. If we’re not using the opportunity, it’s only our loss.”
Musharraf rejected the notion that Pakistan is over-romanticizing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Chinese investment in the port city of Gwadar.
“In this multipolar world, all three leading superpowers have strategic interests in Pakistan. We must use this interest in our own favor. For example…Gwadar provides China with access to the Indian Ocean,” he said.
“In today’s world, geo-economics will determine geopolitics and geo-strategies. CPEC gives us an excellent opportunity to use our strategic location to our favor,” he said.
But Musharraf is unconvinced about how Gwadar is shaping up. “I don’t know whether we’re using this opportunity in the right way or not,” he said.
“Gwadar is one of the world’s few deep-sea ports. We need container terminals and ship repair facilities there.”
Infrastructure needs to be built, as per international standards, to run the port efficiently, he said.
“Roads and bridges come in the second stage when trade starts. First we need to establish the port with high-class facilities. There’s certainly a lack of vision from our side.”
Musharraf said he banned the organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) because he wanted to continue political dialogue with India.
“It was the time when we were having peace negotiations with (then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari) Vajpayee,” he said.
“When you follow a political line, you need to drop the military side. At that point, I decided to ban several organizations, including LeT. We wanted to achieve a solution to Kashmir via political means.”
The governments of former Pakistani Prime Ministers “Benazir Bhutto and Sharif supported LeT and its involvement in the Kashmir struggle,” Musharraf said.
“When I came to power, I continued supporting it. I always believe that mujahideen aren’t terrorists,” he said.
“Unlike Al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), LeT has never been involved in any terrorist activities in Pakistan,” he said.
LeT co-founder Hafiz Saeed “is against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He has taken hundreds of thousands of religious youth toward welfare work,” said Musharraf.
“I saw how hard LeT worked on the ground following the 2005 earthquake. Its social welfare wing Jamaat-ud-Dawa is one of the best NGOs in Pakistan,” he said.
“If we push these religious welfare people to the wall, they could join the Taliban and take up arms, which could become a huge problem,” he said.
“There are many religious organizations in Pakistan that are very moderate. They don’t believe in terrorism, and are against Al-Qaeda,” he said.
LeT has been declared as terrorist “because India is influencing the whole world, including the US and UN,” Musharraf said.
He added that it is unfair to question his secular image because he supports a religious organization’s welfare work.
“I’m very secular. I’m proud of that. My parents are secular. My family is secular. I have best friends from other faiths,” he said.
“We need to understand all the dynamics at the macro-level before coming up with any conclusion,” he said, adding that unfortunately people do not look at the larger picture before criticizing. “We should engage these forces (LeT) for the betterment of society.”
Pakistan’s religious social fabric
To understand Pakistan, one needs to understand its religious environment, Musharraf said. “Pakistan can be divided into four groups religiously. The first are the moderates, who are enlightened, progressive and educated, but are a minority based in urban areas,” he said.
The second group are conservatives, the vast majority of whom are in rural areas. “They’re religious and come from poor, backward, less-educated segments. They’re the masses of Pakistan,” he said.
The third group are fundamentalists, who are a growing minority that is drawing in conservatives and wants to impose its ritualistic ideas on others, Musharraf said.
“If we leave (conservatives) with no education and in poor economic condition, they’ll become fundamentalist, but if you educate conservatives and bring socioeconomic changes, they’ll become moderates,” he said.
“My focus was to bring socioeconomic changes in rural areas, but this is a long-term strategic plan,” he said.
“It requires at least 20-25 years of strategy, not one or two years. We need to think long-term.”
The fourth group are extremists and terrorists. “They’re very few in number compared to conservatives and fundamentalists,” he said.
Musharraf said he is optimistic about his party’s future. “The APML can make a difference if I return to Pakistan. I have support on the ground but I need to talk to my supporters,” he said.
“I firmly believe people’s affection for me can translate into votes. I feel I can make a difference, but I have to lead from the front. I have to be in Pakistan,” he said.
“I’ll return well before the election. I must. I’ll fight my cases as well. The courts are better now.”
Former Chief Justice “Iftekhar Chaudary and Sharif are gone. Both of them leveled politically motivated charges against me,” Musharraf added.