Can Pervez Musharraf help soothe US-Pakistan relations?
- 28 October 2011
- From the section Magazine
What do you call a man who has been a general, a president and is now the kind of "ordinary" citizen who has an outstanding warrant for his arrest, aspires to lead his country once more and has three barrel-chested heavies keeping an eye on him?
The smart answer might simply be 'whatever he wants'.
For a man with such a high-profile and controversial past, Pervez Musharraf can be thoroughly disarming, even as his entourage deferentially address him as "Mr President".
The man who ruled Pakistan for nine turbulent years from 2001 is many things to many people (take your pick from "dictator" to "saviour").
Boring is certainly not one of them.
Mr Musharraf is on a charm offensive, and a potentially lucrative one at that.
Shuttling between the States and his homes in London and Dubai, he has appeared on chat shows, given speeches and taken questions from students, academics, politicians and journalists.
His stated mission is to try and ease the furrowed brow of US-Pakistan relations, which he told me are "at the lowest ebb".
He says there has been a total breakdown of trust and confidence between the two countries.
What he finds "most surprising" is the distrust that now exists between the CIA and ISI, the two country's respective intelligence agencies.
"There is a lot of dismay and a lot of concern all over in Pakistan and all over the Pakistani diaspora here," he says.
In reality, it is a relationship that has been in slow decline since 2001 when Mr Musharraf was faced with former US President George W Bush's bleak choice that Pakistan was either "with us or against us in the fight against terror".
This was not to be a simple case of cheerleading from the sidelines.
Mr Bush made it clear that "a coalition partner must do more than just express sympathy, a coalition partner must perform".
For some, Pakistan has excelled as much as it has sacrificed; losing thousands of lives in a battle against militancy, providing indispensable help with the capture and killing of key al-Qaeda operatives.
That is not the view in Washington, where suspicion that people in the government and armed forces may have been "double-dealing" has grown into shrill accusations.
Mr Musharraf clearly regards himself as the peacemaker.
He concedes that there may have been "incidents" at a tactical level and some "rogue elements" but warns that this should not be mistaken for wholesale or strategic collusion.
"It is not a policy that Pakistan is following or that ISI is following to assist the Taliban or pump them into Afghanistan."
The former leader of Pakistan plays the dispassionate broker very well.
But it would be a mistake to ignore questions about his role throughout much of the period.
In a new BBC documentary entitled Secret Pakistan the former head of Afghan intelligence claims he handed evidence of Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts to Mr Musharraf in 2006.
He alleges that the head of al-Qaeda was living in Manshera, Pakistan, at the time, just 20km (12 miles) from where he was eventually found and killed earlier this year.
This is when Mr Musharraf's camouflage starts to slip.
The substance of the claim he handles like a politician (it was actually a case of mistaken identity involving the CIA, he says).
But he bristles with anger at the mention of Amrullah Saleh's name, clearly angered by what he feels is impertinence on the part of a "lowly" Afghan intelligence chief.
This is when you get a glimpse of the man who seized power in a coup in 1999.
"Amrullah Saleh I have never liked and therefore he has no right to present anything to me."
Mr Musharraf later apologises for "getting emotional" but as he prepares to launch a political campaign in Pakistan it shows how much work remains to prove his democratic credentials.
It is difficult to know what kind of support he really commands at home.
He is quick to boast that he has more Facebook friends than others (nearly half a million at the last count) but the question is: how many are voting Pakistanis, as opposed to the wealthy ex-pats who are funding his current tour of the US?
Anecdotally, there is little evidence he has the support needed to mount a serious campaign for office.
And there is the not inconsiderable issue of an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
Charming yes, capable undoubtedly. But with a history as cloudy as it is controversial, Mr Musharraf is probably destined to remain a figure of Pakistan's past rather than its future.