From the Philadelphia Daily News – Tuesday, January 27, 2009
On Sunday, I had dinner with ex-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in town for a talk at the World Affairs Council, courtesy of Raza and Sabina Bokhari. Raza is a past president of Pakistani American Public Affairs Committee.
I’ve written many times on my frustration with U.S. policy on Pakistan. We’ve outsourced the hunt for Osama to Pakistan, which lacks the will and motivation to get the job done. I voted for Obama in part because on this issue he promised change.
I was seated at Musharraf’s right and across from Sen. Arlen Specter, who explained to Musharraf my media role, including my radio show. Musharraf told me he wasn’t doing interviews. He’d had a contentious interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, but had no intention of doing any more. So I didn’t use my recorder, or take notes, but Musharraf gave me permission to ask whatever I wanted.
I said that many of us wanted to know how the Pakistani government could reach an accord with the leaders of the tribal region in fall 2006, about the time it was revealed that the U.S. was sending $80 million a month to Pakistan to fight al Qaeda.
Musharraf spoke decent English in a low but audible voice. He didn’t look at me, but interrupted his meal and stared straight ahead while speaking. It was a conversation only between the two of us.
Defiant is probably the best description of his tone. He said many Americans were naïve. People don’t understand Pakistan, he said. There are Pakistani troops in those tribal areas (overlooking my point that they weren’t doing anything), and 1,500 Pakistani soldiers had died in the war on terror. There are important matters of strategy, he said, and, “Don’t tell us what to do in our country. ”
I wanted to know what we had to show for the $11 billion the U.S. had paid the Pakistani government for its counterterror efforts. He said that this was very “frustrating,” that there had been many successes by the Pakistanis in the war against terror and that many leaders of al Qaeda had been killed.
He lamented that in his own country he is perceived as a U.S. “lackey,” and in the U.S., he is seen as “double-dealing. ”
Incidentally, the buzz in the room is that he’s not well-off. More than one individual surmised over cocktails that for all the money that was paid to Pakistan, you’d think Musharraf wouldn’t need to do the U.S. lecture circuit, which is the reason for this visit.
I told him of my trip to Qatar, and how I had visited CENTCOM headquarters and seen the maps depicting military activity in real time, including how all U.S. troop activity stopped at Pakistan. I told him that soldiers told me of frustration at not being able to pursue al Qaeda when it retreats into Pakistan.
He said that wasn’t true. Soldiers had crossed the border, but it’s foolish for them to do so. Because of the terrain and the nature of life in the tribal areas, they could get sucked in and killed in great numbers. According to Musharraf, crossing from the Afghanistan border was not an option for American troops. He also said that terrorism was created in Afghanistan and imported to Pakistan, not vice versa.
With some reluctance because I was sure he’d heard it thousands of times, I asked where bin Laden was. In the Swat valley? He laughed and said no. In Waziristan? More grimly, he said, “I don’t know. ”
I asked what he thought when Barack Obama said in August 2007 that if Musharraf didn’t act on intelligence regarding high-level al Qaeda targets, the U.S. would. Musharraf said they are doing that. He said we mix up strategy and tactics. Tactics, he said, are how to deal with al Qaeda. There is disagreement there, he said, but overall, strategically, we agree.
I expected him to say that Obama was wrong to make that assertion. He did not, but did offer that personality changes don’t change policy, only changes in policy do. He said that the aims he had pursued with President Bush was the best policy. He also said that through last March, things in his country were “pretty good,” which I found to be odd. (He left office in August.)
I asked if Pakistani condemnation of U.S. Predator strikes are simply to save face. Musharraf took this as an opportunity to tell me how angry Pakistani people are with the Americans. He said the man on the street doesn’t like the U.S., but the U.S. needs Pakistan and vice versa.
When I asked what we Americans don’t understand about the situation in Pakistan, he said that the Mumbai coverage had been all about the Pakistani role, with very little said of the Indian role.
He said that Americans don’t appreciate the danger posed by India, which had sided with the Soviets during the cold war, and that for more than 40 years, we’d been allies of the Pakistanis, and people were too quick to question Pakistan’s loyalty to the U.S. He repeatedly made a case for continued U.S. economic aid to Pakistan.
By then, others had taken their places at the table. I felt I was monopolizing the conversation. Switching to a lighter topic, I asked him how he relaxed. He mentioned reading and tennis, describing himself as a good defensive player. He also sang the praises of bridge.
So what were my other impressions?
He was most anxious to defend his policies. From my first words, he was very forceful. Measured, never ungentlemanly, but very determined.
And, in the bigger picture, as our limited foreign-policy attention focuses on Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, real American security is being determined in Pakistan, where the same forces who killed 3,000 seven years ago continue to have free rein.
This column was one of nearly a dozen that I wrote expressing disenchantment with the way the Bush Administration was pursuing Osama bin Laden by placing too much responsibility in President Musharraf’s hands. I said likewise on radio and television. It still stuns me to think about my friend Raza then calling and saying, “Why not come to dinner with him?” Two days later, after I gave a recap on radio which Raza heard, Raza called me and said the president had enjoyed our dialogue and had consented to a formal interview with me. One day later, I returned to Raza’s house, where, in his wine cellar, I recorded a lengthy discussion with Musharraf.
On the record, I did my best to summarize how I saw the situation and shared my concern that we’d taken our eye off the ball with respect to bin Laden. His immediate response was: “None of what you are saying is true.” We then had a 40-minute wide-ranging conversation which left me second-guessing some of my longstanding criticism. He seemed earnest. And honest. I left wondering if perhaps he was the dance partner we could find in that part of the world? For the next few years, Musharraf went into a self-imposed exile in Dubai and London, but he continued to return to the Philadelphia Main Line to stay with Raza and Sabina, who took to referring to their back patio as the “Musharraf deck”.
When a Musharraf visit in 2010 coincided with our U.S. midterm elections, my wife suggested I take him with me when I voted. (He’s the second most important person to ride in my car. One morning I drove Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel down the Schuylkill to Citizen’s Bank Park.) At my quaint polling place in Lower Merion Township, we walked past yard signs for Pat Toomey, Joe Sestak, Tom Corbett, and Dan Onorato as I told him of American voter apathy and bragged that I had never missed an election. I will not forget his reply: “You said you’ve always voted. Let me shock you by saying that I have never voted – except in the last eight years [while president].”
The people manning my polling place could not have been more gracious. They allowed me to enter my polling booth accompanied by President Musharraf and I took delight in showing him our means of casting a ballot. When we exited, Musharraf told me that because of the number of illiterate Pakistanis, they record ballots for symbols, not parties or individuals. He also shared that he would compete in Pakistan’s 2013 election. He’d already settled on his party’s symbol: a shaheen falcon. “It flies higher than all other birds,” he told me. “It doesn’t fly in a flock. It is independent. It flies alone. It doesn’t come back to a nest . . . so I think it’s a symbol which shows independence, which shows courage, which shows confidence.”
Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.