President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Musharraf of Pakistan sit side by side, just as their countries sit side by side on the globe. A sartorial note — a further sartorial note — about Karzai: I can’t work out when he wears his hat and not. The other day, he put it on before striding to the rostrum to speak; now he has it off. He must have certain rules, or notions. In any case, he carries himself with notable style, as we’ve all seen.
On one side of Karzai is Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister of Iraq. On the other side of Musharraf is Fakhruddin Ahmed, who amounts to being prime minister of Bangladesh.
And Karzai talks about a couple of scourges: terrorists and poppies. Between them, they are out to kill Afghanistan. And Karzai emphasizes that it takes time to kill them both. Musharraf, whose country is beset by terror and mayhem, emphasizes economic growth. He’s proud of the growth that Pakistan has achieved; and he badly desires more. Economic growth and political stability go hand in hand, he says. Economic growth has collateral benefits of which most people aren’t fully aware.
And Musharraf talks about how nice it would be to solve the Palestinian problem, once and for all. Yes, wouldn’t it? It would ameliorate conditions in Lebanon, Pakistan, and other places.
Then there is the question of Pakistan’s upcoming elections, in the wake of the Benazir Bhutto assassination. Musharraf pledges that they will be free, fair, transparent — and peaceful. He used to have a mantra of three components: “free, fair, and transparent.” But, he tells us, he has added “peaceful.” Pakistan sits on edge.
And he defends Pakistan’s system as one that has made democratic progress. What he has to say might bring a smile to an American conservative’s face. Musharraf says that there are “reserved places” for women and ethnic minorities — in other words, seats that only women and ethnic minorities are legally allowed to fill. This is a kind of electoral affirmative action. It would go down well with many people in the world. And what outsider knows, for certain, what Pakistan needs? What Pakistani knows?
Barham Salih, as always, is incredibly articulate, and also inspiring. He talks about the huge transition taking place in Iraq, a huge shift in history — he urges his audience to place Iraq’s problems in context. And he says that, at last, Iraq is on the road to beating extremism and terror. If it can be done in Anbar Province, it can be done throughout Iraq. Every Middle Eastern ill and challenge plays out on Iraqi soil, Salih says. And no matter what Iraq’s current pains, remember this: “They pale in comparison with the horrors we endured under Saddam Hussein.”
How many people outside Iraq remember this?
In the beginning — post-invasion, post-liberation — expectations were too high, says Salih. Saddam was gone, and many expected to live happily ever after. A democracy would simply fall into place. Instead, it has been dauntingly hard. But it is coming.
Bangladesh’s Ahmed makes his remarks, and the panel’s moderator, Nik Gowing, asks him about some less than democratic practices in his country. Sometime later, Musharraf addresses this very point: He says, when you judge a country — a country like Bangladesh or Pakistan — don’t use Western eyes. Try to see it from the point of view of that country. Bangladesh, for example, is arriving at democracy in its own way.
Now, this sort of relativism makes many people groan. It is the political or national equivalent of “situational ethics.” And yet I could not help smiling a little, because it reminded me of my education from good liberals and leftists: “Ethnocentrism” was one of the biggest sins; you were not to see anybody through Western eyes!
Musharraf talks about twin blights on his land: al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The first are foreigners, and have no right to be in Pakistan; the government is doing its best to remove them. The second are “from our own population, and we have to wean them away.” During the Q&A, Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, challenges Musharraf on the Pakistani judiciary. Musharraf responds that he has followed every jot and tittle of the Pakistani constitution. His foreign critics have no knowledge of that constitution, nor do they care.
He also has a comment about democratic fulfillment: “Give us some time to adopt what you achieved over centuries.”
The question of the suicide bomber and his mentality arises. Salih mentions that some of the 9/11 hijackers were very well educated. He also decries efforts by “extremists” to “hijack my religion,” to “slaughter innocent people in the name of Islam and Allah.” His own country, he says, has experienced “a tornado of terrorism in the last four years” — and have Islamic leaders spoken out against it? Outside Iraq, says Salih, very few.
Hamid Karzai gives his two cents: As earlier in the conference, he speaks about the terrorist attack on the mosque in Peshawar — the victims were saying their Eid prayers. The terrorists are not engaged in religion, he says; they are engaged in criminality. They are also engaged in business, “unfortunately for all of us.” Terror, according to Karzai, has become a business — has been professionalized, almost corporatized. Poppies and drugs are involved. And ringleaders prey on the vulnerable.
For instance, they’ll go to families of the terminally ill and say, “Look: He’s going to die anyway. Let him be a suicide bomber, and he will receive glory. Plus, we’ll pay you for the act.”
Musharraf furthers the discussion, saying that many suicide bombers are — here, the president chooses his words carefully — “below normal,” mentally. He has seen the videos that these wretches have made before dying, and killing others. They tell their families that they, the suicide bombers, will open the way for all of them, to heaven. And Musharraf says something else about suicide bombers — something memorable. He says, “If a person is miserable in this life, he thinks he’s going to be a V.I.P. in heaven.”
Finally, Barham Salih is asked whether Iraqis want Americans out of Iraq. Salih says (basically) sure — adding that Americans want their soldiers home, too. But it will take more time, he says, for Iraqi society to “fend off regional predators.” How much more time? That vexing question is left unaddressed . . .
‐Entering the Belvedere Hotel, I see Naomi Campbell exiting. So I can confirm that she does not live with Hugo Chávez full-time. Or Fidel Castro . . .
‐Have you ever thought of Bill Gates as Bill Gates III? I haven’t. But as he sits on a panel, his nameplate says, “Gates III.” So there you go. And it occurs to me that I have never seen him out of a sweater — usually a V-neck sweater. But my next thought is: “Jay, you’ve never seen him outside Switzerland in January.”
‐The session with Karzai et al. was in a medium-sized room, but now Musharraf takes the stage of Plenary Hall. His introducer and interlocutor will be Henry Kissinger. The former SecState says that Pakistan is on the “front line” of the war waged by Muslim radicals against moderate and civilized people and institutions. He also says that Pakistan has been “America’s ally in the War on Terror.”
While he’s at it, he includes a personal note — both a personal and a historical note: He says he will “always be grateful” for the role that Pakistan played in his secret trip to China in 1971, “which brought about the reversal of the freeze between China and the United States.” (Kissinger flew on a Pakistani plane.)
At the microphone, Musharraf says that he wants to talk about “my country, my passion, Pakistan.” He says that Pakistan is “the victim of misperceptions and distortions.” Pakistan is a nuclear state, and “unfortunately we are seen as unstable.” It is thought that “our nuclear assets can fall into the wrong hands.” Musharraf assures the audience that this is not the case: There are sophisticated and multilayered controls in place, in accordance with the strictest international standards.
A phrase Musharraf uses repeatedly, about several subjects, is, “Let me assure this house . . .”
He objects to the phrase “Islamic bomb.” No one talks of a Hindu bomb, he says, or a “Jew bomb,” or a Christian bomb. “Why is [Pakistan’s] bomb an ‘Islamic bomb’? I don’t understand, and the man on the street in Pakistan doesn’t understand, either.”
Musharraf repeats many of the things he has said in the earlier session: about the Pakistani constitution, about how to judge a country in the developing world (i.e., not through Western eyes), about economic growth, about the upcoming elections. He says that, in Pakistan, “the democratic process was derailed; but we have put it back on the rails.” In the end, Pakistan will be, he says, “a strong, capable Islamic state.”
As the two begin a discussion, Kissinger says, “I belong to those who have really appreciated the role Pakistan has played after 9/11.” He mentions in particular a speech Musharraf gave “attacking fundamentalists” and the religious schools that produce them. Kissinger wants to know about the presence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban on Pakistani territory.
Musharraf says, again, that al-Qaeda are foreigners who must be crushed, or removed. Pakistan is succeeding, he says. Al-Qaeda has been forced out of the cities and into the mountains; and there are fewer of them now. As for the Talibanists: Well, they’re Pakistani, and must be “weaned away,” through a variety of measures. This is a great and ongoing project, which includes a spiritual component. Young men can be won back from the Taliban with hope.
I have reported on Musharraf at Davos for years now. He has always been cool, calm, collected — crisp. A picture of self-control, with remarkable serenity. This year, however, he is rattled, a little off his game. Tired, stressed, and harried. I wonder why.
Thanks for joining me today, Impromptus-ites, and I’ll be back to you with a great deal more . . .