Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, said Thursday that he may renege on his pledge to step down as army chief of staff because "the vast majority" of the Pakistani people "want me in uniform" and fear that he would be weakened without it.
Musharraf said conditions in the country have changed since he promised in a nationally televised address last Dec. 24 to leave the army as part of a deal with opposition lawmakers that would allow him to remain president through 2007.
"It's primarily the security of Pakistan, the internal conditions," he said in an interview. "There's too much happening around," he continued, citing terrorist threats and potentially divisive battles over the sharing of limited water resources.
A decision by Musharraf to stay on as army chief of staff could provoke an angry political backlash in Pakistan, where Musharraf has promised repeatedly to create "sustainable democracy" since the 1999 army coup that brought him to power. It also could prove awkward for the Bush administration, which has embraced Musharraf as a key ally in the war on terrorism while calling for greater democracy in the Muslim world. Pakistan has been ruled by military governments for much of its 57-year history.
But Musharraf, 61, said that whether he stays in uniform has "nothing to do with democracy," adding, "It's only the Western media, which is attaching, linking my uniform with democracy."
Wearing pleated khakis, black loafers and a striped button-down shirt, a relaxed-looking Musharraf spoke for more than an hour in a reception room of Army House, the colonial-era mansion that serves as his primary residence in the city of Rawalpindi, about a half-hour drive from the capital, Islamabad. He departs this weekend for New York, where he is scheduled to meet with President Bush on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. He will also hold his first meeting with Manmohan Singh, India's new prime minister, to discuss the progress of peace negotiations that began between the two governments in February.
Besides his comments on his army status, Musharraf, who narrowly escaped two assassination attempts last December, offered insights into the terrorist threat against him and his government. He described it as an alliance of foreign al Qaeda "masterminds" hiding in the mountainous tribal region near Afghanistan, and Pakistani "planners" recruited from homegrown extremist groups.
At the same time, Musharraf speculated that it was unlikely Osama bin Laden was still hiding in the area because of the large military presence in the tribal region and the success of security forces in rounding up al Qaeda members elsewhere in the country. "Pakistan is no more a safe haven for them," he said.
Musharraf added that intelligence gleaned from computers and disks seized in a series of high-profile arrests this summer suggested that al Qaeda leaders -- although not bin Laden specifically -- may be looking for refuge in Somalia, among other places. "It was an indication they are under great pressure here," Musharraf said.
Musharraf said military operations in the tribal area of Waziristan -- sometimes conducted with intelligence from U.S. satellites -- had killed scores of foreign al Qaeda fighters in recent weeks. But he acknowledged that security forces were facing pockets of stiff resistance from local tribesmen.
Musharraf denied assertions by U.S. and Indian officials that Pakistan has yet to fully dismantle training camps used by Pakistani extremist groups battling Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
"There are no militant camps," Musharraf said, although he added that "no amount of effort" can completely seal the cease-fire line dividing Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir.
Assessing the prospects for peace negotiations, Musharraf said he had been encouraged by discussions this month between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in New Delhi, although he emphatically rejected the idea -- favored by India -- that the two sides put off substantive discussions on a final settlement of the Kashmir dispute in favor of short-term confidence-building measures.
"This is not possible," he said. "Status quo is not the answer. We have to catch the bull by the horns and we have to deal on the dispute. . . . We are looking for a final resolution."
Musharraf said he had not made a final decision about whether to stay on as army chief of staff. He said he was "still looking at the pulse of the people" and noted that he has until the end of the year to make up his mind. Musharraf pledged to give up his military post as part of a deal late last year with an alliance of Muslim fundamentalist parties, the Muttahida Majlis Amal, to secure their backing for constitutional changes that would effectively legitimize his presidency through 2007.
For the last several months, Musharraf has dropped hints that he is reconsidering his pledge, and other senior officials have started to prepare public opinion for a reversal that foreign diplomats and Pakistani analysts regard as all but inevitable. Earlier this week, the legislative assembly in Punjab, one of Pakistan's four provinces, passed a resolution calling on Musharraf to keep his uniform, a plea that has since been repeated by cabinet ministers as well as by Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan's new prime minister.
In the interview, Musharraf bristled when asked whether he was reluctant to step down as army chief -- and name a replacement -- for fear that in doing so he would effectively create a new rival. "I know that the army follows me," he said. "I know they are with me, and the next chief of army staff will be appointed by me. And he'll be a person who is most loyal to me, obviously, so I don't see this issue of the army being a center of power or being some kind of a competition or a tussle between me and the army."
The real issue, Musharraf said, was "more in the realm of the perception of the people of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan think that the strength of a president is much more than the strength of a president out of uniform. . . . I know that the vast majority of the people, from all the mail that I've seen and all the telephone calls, do want me in uniform. . . . If their perceptions change that I have been weakened, maybe it won't be good for Pakistan."
Political opponents have vowed to challenge Musharraf if he goes back on his word. In an interview Thursday night, Raza Rabbani, a leader of the Pakistan People's Party, the country's largest political party, disputed the president's claim that public opinion favored his remaining in uniform.
"There has been no credible public opinion poll that has shown that the majority of people want him to keep the uniform," Rabbani said. "I think he feels he can get away with it at this time because the response that has come from Washington is not strong enough to deter him."