Former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf told an audience of American officials and experts that he will return to Pakistan next year to help save the failing Pakistani state, as he compared his 2001 military coup to the actions of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
Musharraf was a featured speaker June 30 at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival and sat for a 30-minute interview conducted by Atlantic Media Company owner David Bradley. Over the course of the interview, Musharraf defended the idea of military coups, claimed that the Pakistani people were fleeing back to the military due to the failure of Pakistan's civilian government, and declared that he tried valiantly as president to convince Iran to make peace with Israel and abandon its nuclear ambitions.
His main message was to defend his actions and those of the Pakistani military over the decades as in the interest of the Pakistani people and the survival of Pakistani democracy.
"When the state is going down, people run to the Army to save the state," he said. "We had a dilemma: save the state in order to save the Constitution. Unfortunately, the military takes over to save the state, in order to save the Constitution."
"This was the view of even President Abraham Lincoln," Musharraf continued. "I know that he had violated the Constitution because his responsibility was to protect the state and therefore protect the Constitution. So this has been the dilemma of Pakistan all through its history."
Musharraf said the Pakistani Army today faces a similar choice.
"The state is being run into the ground at the moment... and the people are again running to the military to save the country. So it is a dilemma for the current Army chief: Should we do something unconstitutional to save the state or should we let the state go down and uphold the constitution?" he said.
At one point, Musharraf proudly declared that his life in exile from Pakistan was actually pretty great, as he gets to travel around the world and give speeches to enthusiastic audiences, but he would nevertheless risk his life to return to Pakistan out of a sense of duty.
"You loved leading Pakistan and you love Pakistan and now you're in exile and you're in legal risk if you go back. Is this hard?" Bradley asked him.
"I'm quite comfortable out living in London and Dubai and being called up by lecture circuits around the world," Musharraf responded. "But I must go back to at least try to recover from this malaise that it is suffering from... I will go back even to the peril of my life."
Musharraf also regaled the crowd with the tale of how he was flying back to Pakistan from Sri Lanka in 2001 when the bloodless coup that brought him into power erupted. Initially, his plane was not allowed to land and all the airfields were blacked out and air traffic control was telling the plane to leave Pakistani airspace.
The plane was unable to do so due to a lack of fuel. Eventually, an unnamed general whom Musharraf knew personally contacted the pilot from the air traffic control center and told the pilot to return to Karachi, where the plane could now land because the military had taken control of that airport.
"I was in charge of the country when I landed," Musharraf said.
"That was a fine evening," Bradley responded.
Musharraf, who lives in London, brought his wife to Aspen, along with their son, their daughter-in-law, and their two grandchildren. At the end of the interview, Bradley praised Musharraf's pledge to return to Pakistan.
"Whether you would vote with or against the president, you have to admire somebody who says ‘OK, it's been seven attempts on my life, let's give the dice one more roll,'" Bradley said.
On Iran, Musharraf spoke about his 2006 "peace effort" to bring about reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world. Iran was not involved, so Musharraf flew to Iran to visit President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and said he tried to get Iran to pursue a path to peace with Israel and move away from nuclear weapons development, but he made no progress.
"They are determined to develop a nuclear arsenal... I did not succeed," he said. "But Iran is not posed any threat, so they need not go nuclear."
On Afghanistan, Musharraf said the country can't be ruled by the current government and said that without an international force left behind by the Americans, the country is likely to descend into even worse violence. He also claimed that "India wants to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan."
Bradley then pressed Musharraf on the U.S. administration's argument that Pakistan is not doing all it can to clamp down on Taliban near the Afghan border and that its top intelligence agency, the ISI, might even be aiding the Taliban and other insurgents in some capacity.
"One can't 100 percent say there is no rogue element within an organization which may be doing something underhanded," Musharraf said. "However, I can't even imagine that as a policy the ISI or the government would be encouraging the Taliban to attack the American troops or the coalition. That is not even a possibility."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.