Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf returned to his home country on Sunday after nearly five years in self-imposed exile, hoping to lead his All Pakistan Muslim League in elections this May.
He faces a number of challenges, including death threats from the Pakistani Taliban and potential prosecution in mutiple legal cases, one related to the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- charges he categorically dismisses. A court granted him preliminary bail, allowing him to avoid arrest for the time being.
Musharraf, a four-star general who served as chief of the army, seized control of Pakistan in a 1999 coup, then ruled for nearly a decade. When he tried in 2007 to dismiss a popular chief justice, he was met with widespread protests and a threat of impeachment by the newly elected parliament. He resigned the following year and soon left the country. He has lived in London and Dubai ever since.
Musharraf still faces an electorate deeply skeptical of his desire to return to power. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE shortly before his departure from Dubai, Musharraf voiced criticism of the secret US raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden and laid out what he sees as Pakistan's biggest challenges.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Musharraf, elections are to take place in May and you want to run. You don't enjoy particularly overwhelming respect among the population right now after your 10-year rule. Why do you want to go back?
Musharraf: Two things are important to me: Pakistan's economy absolutely has to be brought back on the path to success, and we have to fight terrorism and extremism. Both were not addressed to a great enough degree by the last government. Pakistan in my time was a successful developing country. And terrorism was not as big a problem as it is now. Success in these two areas of policy is the key to making Pakistan a stabile and healthy country. I want to bring Pakistan on the path to prosperity and to free it from terror.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the population hardly trusts you to solve these problems. On the contrary, you're accused of clinging to power and repeatedly delaying the transition to the democracy that you promised after your 1999 coup. You're seen as a man of the past.
Musharraf: My popularity up until 2007 was at 78 percent. So I was very successful for eight years. All social and economic indicators showed that Pakistan was an up-and-coming country. So whatever went wrong under my leadership happened in 2007. Eight successful years against one perhaps not so successful year. The past five years of democratic governance, in contrast, were a miserable failure.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Relations with the United States are at a low point. A CIA agent shot dead two Pakistanis; a group of Navy SEALs found and killed Osama bin Laden in a raid not announced to Pakistan; and an American air attack killed several Pakistan soldiers. What would you do differently in terms of policy toward the United States, of whom you're considered a friend?
Musharraf: Relations are indeed very poor. But they weren't bad during my time in office. Back then there was always mutual trust. I want to work to rebuild it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It was reported after the killing of bin Laden that you had given the United States carte blanche to hunt terrorists in Pakistan shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. You reportedly told the US that Pakistan would publicly protest but secretly tolerate it.
Musharraf: Whoever makes such claims is talking nonsense. There was never any such kind of agreement.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you regularly condemn the US mission against bin Laden? It was a successful attack against the most-wanted terrorist in the world, who had been living undiscovered in Pakistan for several years.
Musharraf: I have my doubts as to whether bin Laden was living in this house for five years, as was reported. I honestly don't believe it, and I have my own good reasons. The United States has given no evidence that this was truly the case. I rather presume that he was only temporarily in Abbottabad.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Yes, about a kilometer away from the military academy of the Pakistani armed forces. How could something like that have gone unnoticed?
Musharraf: He did live close to the military academy. Its mission is to train young officers, not to work in intelligence operations. What military academy in the whole world is aware of who is living within a few kilometers?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you're sticking to your criticism of the United States' killing of bin Laden in Pakistan?
Musharraf: The way they did it was not okay. No country is allowed to violate another's sovereignty like the US did in this case. Pakistan's authority was harmed, how can I approve of such a thing?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you do find the fact that bin Laden was eliminated praiseworthy, do you not?
Musharraf: It was certainly a success, but this success could have been achieved by Pakistani security forces.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But they were apparently clueless, so how could they have done that?
Musharraf: The United States was obliged to inform Pakistan. We are still their anti-terrorism partners. And speaking of cluelessness, the CIA failed months before 9/11, when 19 men began preparing terrorist attacks. When they hijacked four airplanes, the CIA failed again. When they flew two planes into the World Trade Center, the CIA was blindsided. The same goes for when a plane crashed into the Pentagon. The CIA has failed so many times. Can we be forgiven for failing just once?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In contrast to the Pakistani ISI, the CIA is hardly accused of complicity with extremists.
Musharraf: Accusing Pakistan's military and intelligence service of complicity is nonsense. You can accuse us of negligence, but not complicity.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you respond to the US drone strikes, which have killed several high-ranking terrorists and, according to US diplomatic cables, have the secret approval of the Pakistani government?
Musharraf: I'm against these drone wars. It's also an infringement on our sovereignty. If the US wants to fight terrorists with drones, they should provide us with the corresponding technology so that we can carry out that fight.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Taliban hates you, and recently vowed to send you "to hell." In addition several politicians and judges would prefer to see you on the gallows. Do you have any fear of returning to Pakistan?
Musharraf: Terrorists have repeatedly tried to send me to hell over the past 12 years. Unsuccessfully. And they're not going to succeed in the future either. My experience as an officer is that the most dangerous situations aren't so terrible once you're in the middle of them. One thing becomes clear: They were there only to create fear. And I know that fortune favors the brave.