Zakaria: Q&A With Musharraf

Since Benazir Bhutto's assassination weeks ago, Pakistan has been plunged into one of the worst crises in its history. President Pervez Musharraf, having recently given up control of the nation's army, remains firmly in charge and as reluctant as ever to share power, despite a rising tide of criticism. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria from his camp office in Rawalpindi. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you make of reports that the United States is thinking about launching CIA operations in Pakistan with or without Pakistan's approval?
Pervez Musharraf:
We are totally in cooperation on the intelligence side. But we are totally against [a military operation]. We are a sovereign country. We will ask for assistance from outsiders. They won't impose their will on us.

How do you take Hillary Clinton's suggestion that the United States and Britain help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons?
Does she know how secure [the weapons] are and what we are doing to keep them so? They are very secure. We will ask if we need assistance. Nobody should tell us what to do. And I'd ask anyone who says such things, do you know how our strategic assets are handled, stored and developed--do you know it?

Have you told the American government that?
No, why should we? We have said we are totally under control.

Graham Allison of Harvard says that these weapons must be disbursed for them to have survivability, which means that they could also fall into the wrong hands, because there might be a local command structure that is weak.
He doesn't know anything--how disbursed they are, and he shouldn't think that we don't know these things. We are from the military, we understand how to handle things, whether they need to be disbursed or concentrated.

But you understand that due to past episodes there is concern.
Yes, the past has [caused] some concern, but we must understand the difference between past and now. Before we were a declared and overt nuclear state, we had to hide everything. Everything was covert. Only the scientists and the president of Pakistan knew what was going on. Now there is a national command authority. It is the top body, headed by the president and the prime minister, and there are members from the military and the civilian side. And there's a huge strategic planning division, a full secretariat headed by now-retired [Lt. General Khalid] Kidwai. He is in charge of this Strategic Planning Division that is the secretarial arm of the National Command, responsible for development and employment. Then we have army, navy, air force, the strategic force command. If anything happens, indeed it's a failure of everyone from myself to SPD to the Army Strategic Force Command.

But it would need the collusion of several people, up and down the chain.
Absolutely. It's like an army unit. Can one rifle be taken away from an army unit? Can the bullet of a rifle be taken away from an army unit? I challenge anyone to take a bullet, a weapon, away from an army unit.

You've said that Benazir Bhutto took risks. Surely it's normal for a politician to stand in a car's sunroof. If this is taking a risk, then politics is impossible in Pakistan.
This gathering she addressed was maybe 25,000-to-30,000 people. I have addressed gatherings of hundreds of thousands. She was given security. [But] you have to be conscious of security. The man in charge of security should be conscious. The man in charge of her security was her own handpicked superintendent of police. This area was known to be dangerous. There was a death threat, intelligence that there would be an attack, and we told her, yet she wanted to go, she was intent about it. She went into a dangerous place, and if you get out of the vehicle, you are responsible. All the others sitting inside the vehicle were safe.

But there is a widespread view in the country--and I've talked to many, many people, including supporters of yours--that in some way the government was complicit.
I refuse to listen to such accusations. I refuse to. I am the government, OK? I am not feudal, and I am not tribal. May I ask you, would you, if you were at the head of affairs, ever think of killing somebody like that? It didn't appear in our minds. Would it appear in your mind that you could get rid of a person through a bomb blast?

What do you do to give credibility to the government at this point? Do you think your investigation will be enough? Do you think they should exhume the body and do a post-mortem?
Yes, exhume it. A hundred percent. I would like it to be exhumed. Because I know for sure there is no bullet wound other than on the right side. Whether it was a bullet or a strike, I don't want to comment, I don't know.

But you've seen the x-rays…
Yes, I've seen the x-rays.

Does it appear there was a bullet entering and exiting?
I am a soldier, I've seen a lot of bullet wounds. A bullet wound is a small hole, and if the bullet goes through it makes a big hole on the other side. Now that is what I understand to be a bullet wound. This was not that, although I'm not an expert. But how does it absolve the government if it was a bullet or not? If you or anyone else were to accuse the government, the issue of the bullet [versus] explosives is not significant. The media and everyone are involved in an issue that is not very pertinent. Why would we be hiding [the cause of death]? It's ridiculous, and when I read these comments, I laugh at them.

Why not order a post-mortem? You can do it; you're the chief executive.
Everything is not black and white here. It would have very big political ramifications. If I just ordered the body exhumed, that would be careless, unless [Bhutto's] people agreed. But they will not.

Because they know it's a fact there is nothing wrong.

So you think Mr. Zardari [Bhutto's husband] is playing a political game?
Everybody is trying to gain political advantage; the entire opposition is trying to take political advantage. I know what [Bhutto's opponents] used to say about her, but all of a sudden ... it makes me laugh, actually. And then there's the cultural factor. Somehow, in our culture, a post-mortem of a woman is not done. When the body was at the hospital, Zardari himself said it could not be done; he didn't want the post-mortem done.

Now he says if there were a United Nations investigation he would allow a post-mortem.
There cannot be a U.N. investigation. There are not two or three countries involved. Why should there be a U.N. investigation? This is ridiculous.

You said in one of your comments afterwards, "I told [her] to be careful and I told her that this was not the Pakistan that you left. It's a different country." Is it fair to point out that for most of that period you have been in charge of Pakistan? Why has Pakistan gotten so much less safe under your presidency?
Because of terrorism and extremism, which we have been facing since 1979, for 30 years. We fought a war in Afghanistan in coalition with the Americans against the Soviets for 10 years. We trained the Taliban and armed them and sent them in [to Afghanistan]. Was I doing this? The West was doing it, the United States was doing it. Then what happened between 1989 and 2001? Mayhem and destruction. Did I do this?

But in the late '90s a politician in Pakistan could have addressed a rally without fear for her life. Within Pakistan there has been a rise of militancy and suicide bombings under your presidency.
You have to see it in context. How did suicide bombing [start]? Who started it? The LTTE [the militant group in Sri Lanka], and then it was taken up by the Palestinians. And then Iraq. I would say we were the last to adopt it. Even your own [U.S.] intelligence says that Al Qaeda or the Taliban--whatever you want to call them--are now moving east into settled populations. Why?

It doesn't seem that your effort to control extremists is working.
It is working on the Taliban. Now the issue is the locals and extremists. The extremists are Pakistanis, and I think many do come from South Punjab. They have a lot of madrassas. They are hiding, but they are there. But there are some foreigners. Al Qaeda is using these people. I can't say [with certainty] that every act of theirs is Al Qaeda-guided--I 'm not sure. But we know that a person like Baitullah Mehsud [the Taliban commander in Waziristan] is training suicide bombers. And we know that they were sending suicide bombers for me, against Benazir and other political leaders. We have caught many people in the last two weeks. These people had explosives--many, many caches of explosives.

Who would they target?
Politicians who [make up] the political system, the democratic system.

Why have they turned to Pakistan now?
They are turning against Pakistan because they are against me. They are against anyone who is supporting me. So therefore, they want to weaken the government, they want to weaken me. [Perhaps] they think they can take over Pakistan.

Your tribal agreements didn't solve the problem?
No, they didn't.

Do you think they were a mistake? There are some who think that the government didn't follow through on them, that you didn't keep your word.
We have to try everything. We have started dealing with everyone, including religious people, who we think are not jihadis. Now, if they turn out to be double-crossers, and it is possible, and you ask me, "Have you succeeded?" I'll say, "No." Maybe we'll succeed 25 percent. But if you say then we should stop it: no, we should not stop it. We must persevere.

There are people who say though, that on the political side that you suppress the political parties, and so only the religious parties and the extremists have gained as a consequence.
No, we have not suppressed political parties. Nobody is allowed to go into tribal agencies. Tribal agencies have a different structure. They have their own system. In fact, we have introduced elections to them. These political parties never used to go into the tribal agencies. They come directly under the governor and the president.

But that's almost a colonial system. Shouldn't there be real politics?
Yes, I agree. And that is what we tried in '99. But then, all hell broke loose with 9/11. Every tribe had its own armory of machine guns and mortars and rocket launchers. Whenever a tribe fought another tribe, they would dish out weapons from the armory and fight, and then make some kind of truce, and the weapons went back to the armory. With the emergence of the Taliban, this whole system has been disturbed. We, in our political management, are trying to bring the [tribal authorities] back again. [But this puts us] in a fix. To fight the mullahs we need the old structure. But to modernize we need to get rid of the old structure.

Do the Americans want to undertake some operations that you are reluctant to undertake in these areas?
No. If the American troops came into the mountains, they would curse the day they came here. I know these areas, and I know American troops. I know our troops. This is not easy. American troops don't have any magic wands. Our troops, who are the locals, who understand groups and customs, are very hardy. Our troops can go on roti and water. American troops would need chocolate. And logistic support to them would be very difficult. Military men won't say it. The politicians don't have the complete information. President Bush gets the information and intelligence every morning. I don't think Hillary Clinton or anyone else gets the intelligence every morning. When one of them is the president, whoever it is, when they get the intelligence every morning, then I will see what they say.

Do you think you're the right person to fight this war against the jihadis?
The United States thought Benazir was the right person to fight terrorists. Who is the best person to fight? You need three qualities today if you want to fight the extremists and the terrorists. Number one, you must have the military with you. Well, she was very unpopular with the military. Very unpopular. Number two, you shouldn't be seen by the entire religious lobby to be alien--a nonreligious person. The third element: don't be seen as an extension of the United States. Now I am branded as an extension, but not to the extent she was. Pakistanis know that I can be tough. I can speak out against Hillary Clinton. I can speak out against anyone. These are the elements. You be the judge.

Could you work with the Pakistan Peoples Party in a post-election scenario?
I can work with anyone. I am hoping and praying that [the election] is fair and transparent and is seen to be fair and transparent.

Many people think it will not be.
That's because you people are writing that way [laughs].

No, it's not us. Every political party is making that accusation. How could we not report that?
On what basis?

You've seen Benazir's document?
Should you believe that? That's the question. It's always the opposition who is talking of unfair [elections]. Why do they do that? When you lose you're going to [say] that the polls were rigged.

In the past, has there been any manipulation of elections? Is there a history here?
I would like to talk of 2002 because this election was fair. Although I know nobody believes it. It was fair. If we were manipulating [ballots], would we have manipulated them in such a stupid way that we elected a parliament where we couldn't form a government? Am I that stupid? No sir. There was no arrangement with anybody.

Do you know that your personal credibility is on the line with this election?
Yes. But at the same time the media is saying that I am going to rig the polls. What kind of logic is this? Why should I do this? Whoever says this, I would like to say, prove that I am going to rig it.

What did you think of Benazir's document?
She sat in a drawing room making this document. I would like to make a document against her and give it to someone. This is just not proof.

Who is your preferred prime minister?
I can't say, I'm not going to say that at all.

But you must have some preference.

But are you willing to accept a kind of diminished role as part of a troika?
My constitutional powers have been the same since 2002. But what I am fortunate to have is my influence over everyone, over the political leaders, over the coalition. My influence is not [the result of] constitutional powers I have. If somebody listens to what I am saying, don't grudge me that. I am not using any force.