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Gen. Pervez Musharraf is the president of Pakistan. He sat down for lunch on June 28 during a visit to California for a conversation with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels and other members of the Pacific Council. Following are excerpts.

QUESTION: How has the world changed, especially for Pakistan, since 9/11? Where does the fight against terrorism stand?

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: The strategic situation, of course, is radically different today than only three years ago. Up to 9/11 it was more or less still set in the old Cold War mold of an East-West orientation. Now, the strategic focus has shifted to the Middle East, the Gulf states, the Central Asian republics -- most importantly Afghanistan and South Asia. Pakistan, especially as a Muslim country, is situated at the crossroads of this region. It is the epicenter of this new strategic focus, and, as such, is on the front line of the war against terrorism.

Our fight against terror exists in three dimensions: against Al Qaeda, against the Taliban -- by which I mean the functionaries of the ex-Taliban government of Afghanistan and their supporters -- and against religious extremists in general.

This fight has a two-pronged strategy: to cut off the branches (ital) and (unital) to get at the root causes of terrorism. That requires the suppression of extremism, but also an approach of "enlightened moderation" that seeks to emancipate us from the depths of illiteracy, poor health and poverty. It also means settling political disputes -- from Kashmir to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- in a just manner. To that end, we want dialogue on all issues with India. We have fought three wars in the past, and we don't want any more.

This enlightened approach is critical because the Islamic world has come to see itself as a Western target, and the developed world has come to see Islam as a religion of militancy and intolerance. Both of these are wrong.

We have so far arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda members. But they are only 500 leaves of a tree. If the roots remain intact, these leaves will grow again. That is why we seek to reduce the influence of the "madrasas" (religious schools) and emphasize modern education. That is why we are trying to get the economy going so we can reduce poverty. And, odd as it may seem for a general to say, that is why we are trying to put in place honest governance as the building block of a functional, sustainable democracy instead of the same old corruption of the past that actually robbed the common man and woman of their rights.

Q: You have tried to position Pakistan close to the United States and far from the Muslim world. Won't that posture be undermined by the "functional democracy" you seek to establish?

MUSHARRAF: We are not far from the Islamic world at all. I have good relations with all the Islamic countries.

As far as support within Pakistan, I am certain I have the vast majority on my side. Believe me, I wouldn't be roaming around for 22 days outside the country (as I have been doing) if I wasn't sure of my support.

If we go back to my decisions right after 9/11 to side with the United States in the war on terror, the media reported uprisings of fundamentalists and extremists, often predicting some kind of revolution would come to Pakistan because people were demonstrating in the streets.

I always said, "No, this is not true. Look at the people marching in the streets in Karachi. They have beards. But Karachans don't sport beards. These are outsiders, many from Afghanistan. And they are a handful of the 14 million who live in Karachi." The same was true in Lahore and Quetta. Only the minority extremists were in the streets.

Two years later, where is the revolution?

Let me assure you, the vast majority supports Pakistan's course now. They support "enlightened moderation." That is the reality on the ground.

Q: What would it take for Pakistan to recognize the state of Israel?

MUSHARRAF: As I said, political disputes need to be addressed and settled in a just manner if we are going to deflate terrorist rage. I am thus very encouraged by the Middle East peace process, led by the United States and President Bush personally. That is part of getting at the roots of terrorism because this issue is very contentious. I am extremely glad that Hamas is prepared to accept a cease-fire.

As for Pakistan, the tendency of our policy in the past has been to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. If the Palestinians are ready to have peace, shouldn't we be, too? We are so far away, after all. I don't see why we can't engage in some rethinking of our attitude toward Israel. It can't be done overnight. There needs to be national consensus. In principle, though, there is scope for reconsidering our policy.

Q: What are your views now about the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq?

MUSHARRAF: Their visibility must be reduced. It is hardly a good image to have American tanks facing off a crowd of 100,000 or 200,000 people. Like every place else, including Afghanistan, people are adverse to a foreign presence of this kind. You have to take into account local sensitivities.

Reducing U.S. visibility will only be possible when governance, especially law and order, is handed over to the Iraqis themselves. Perhaps law and order need to be administered by retired military men instead of the police, who have such a bad reputation among the people. But it needs to be done as soon as possible.

Q: Are you optimistic about talks with India as long as the BJP (Hindu nationalist) party is in power in India?

MUSHARRAF: I am very hopeful that the dialogue process with India will start. But if you ask me now how it will continue -- whether it will address the core issue of Kashmir and move toward a just resolution -- I wouldn't be able with certainty to say yes to that.

Unfortunately, in the past, we've seen India make overtures and call for confidence-building measures. But when we come forward to meet them, they always sideline the issue of Kashmir. They accuse me of being "unifocal" by insisting on dealing with Kashmir. I'm not unifocal at all. I see the reality on the ground -- we have fought wars over Kashmir. Every day there are killings and human-rights violations. What are the other issues between India and Pakistan?

Having said that, I am still hopeful. Mr. (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee himself (the Indian prime minister) is one for peace, and he recognizes that Kashmir is a core issue.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint/Pacific Council. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 6/30/03)