SPIEGEL: Mr. President, Pakistan is a breeding ground for terrorism, and al-Qaida wants to topple your government and take over the country's nuclear weapons. Is Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world?
Musharraf: This is highly exaggerated. But I do not deny the fact that al-Qaida is operating here. They are carrying out terrorism in the tribal areas, they are the masterminds behind these suicide bombings. While all of this is true, one thing is for sure: The fanatics can never take over Pakistan. This is not possible. They are neither militarily so strong that they can defeat our army, with its 500,000 soldiers, nor politically -- and they do not stand a chance of winning elections. They are much too weak for that.
SPIEGEL: The New York Times has reported that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are planning covert operations with CIA agents in the tribal belt. Have you been informed about this?
Musharraf: I would never allow American forces to operate on Pakistan's soil. If we need support, we ask for it. It is we who are operating, nobody else. Just before our interview, I met with a delegation of American intelligence officials. We fully share our insights and there is total coordination. They have conveyed that President Bush considers me to be a most sincere friend.
SPIEGEL: His time in office is almost over.
Musharraf: Personally, I will miss him very much. He is a friend, a very upfront man. Personal relations do count in politics, but more than that it is the national interest which matters.
SPIEGEL: The next US president could be a Democrat. The front-runners have already stated they would change their political course with Pakistan. Hillary Clinton wants to impose American controls on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and Barack Obama would like to send American troops to fight extremists in your country
Musharraf: ... (laughs, shakes his head) ...
SPIEGEL: ... they also might cut back military and economic aid to Pakistan, which has amounted to more than $10 billion since 2001. Have the Democratic front-runners contacted you already?
Musharraf: All these politicians you have mentioned and who talk that way do not have access to intelligence information that could provide them with an accurate view of the situation. When these people get access to that kind of intelligence, I am sure they will not take a different approach than their predecessor. Why would they want to do something to destabilize us, a nuclear power? They will not act against their own national interest.
SPIEGEL: The biggest nightmare of the Americans and the West is that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of religious fanatics. Recently, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, expressed his concerns about the security of Pakistani nuclear weapons. Is the fear that extremists could one day infiltrate the security system around the nuclear installations really that far-fetched?
Musharraf: Mr. ElBaradei's impression is totally misplaced. Before we were officially declared a nuclear power in 1998, our nuclear program was kept top secret. At that time the leading scientist A.Q. Khan had direct contact with the president and could act independendly
SPIEGEL: ... a privilege which he used to close illegal deals with North Korea, Iran and Libya.
Musharraf: When I became the chief in 1999, I suspected that A. Q. Khan had been doing prohibited things and I fired him. Then I decided to introduce a custodial control, the Army Strategic Force Command, which is organized like a military corps to keep the assets safe. Everything is accounted for. Terrorists could not even take out a bolt from a rifle.
SPIEGEL: You exclude the possibility that individuals inside the army or the ISI intelligence agency who sympathize with the religous fanatics could infiltrate this system?
Musharraf: ISI does not handle any nuclear issue at all. They have nothing to do with it.
SPIEGEL: Benazir Bhutto has been the symbol of hope for a moderate, democratic Pakistan. She claimed to fight for free and fair elections -- and was assassinated. Many Pakistanis doubt that the Feb. 18 elections will be fair and free and they believe that you are planning to manipulate the vote.
Musharraf: Must I prove that elections are not rigged? How can I? I had to postpone the polls for six weeks because of security reasons. Everything will be correct. I have invited international observers.
SPIEGEL: Would you be willing to work with opposition leaders like Nawaz Sharif -- whose government you toppled eight years ago in an unbloody coup and who has urged you to resign -- or with the widower of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, who publicly accuses you of being responsible for the murder of his wife?
Musharraf: National interests should reign supreme. We have to make sure that economic progress continues, we have to carry on fighting terrorism and we need a functioning, democratic government. I am ready to work with whomever wins.
SPIEGEL: Who killed Benazir Bhutto -- and how? New conspiracy theories pop up every day, and most in Pakistan seem to think that just about anything is possible.
Musharraf: We obtain new evidence every day. Today, I am quite reasonably sure about who killed her, because we have tapped the telephones of militant extremists. We heard the voice of Bethulla Mehsud, a terrorist from South Waziristan, who expressed his satisfaction about Bhutto's death.
SPIEGEL: After the terror attack against her on the day of her return from exile in Karachi in October, Ms. Bhutto blamed certain people in the Pakistani security apparatus.
Musharraf: A very strange and improbable claim. She was accusing the same organization that had warned her about suicide bombers, who provided intelligence and offered her security. She was warned, but she decided differently. Three weeks before her death, I did not allow her to hold a rally at the most congested square in Rawalpindi. She was blaming, and trying to give bad names to, people without any proof. But why should I have to prove my innocence?
SPIEGEL: There have been contradicting versions of how she died.
Musharraf: The spokesman of the Interior Ministry has unfortunately pinned himself down to the version that she died from banging her head on the handle of the sunroof lever -- and he called a press conference on his own to make that announcement. The fact is, the man who shot, shot from the left side. Nevertheless, on Benazir's body, there is an injury on the right side of the skull. I saw an enlargement of the x-ray, which showed a crack on this side of the skull. (It's difficult to fit all this together and it) shows that one should never give a final statement until the investigation has been finished.
SPIEGEL: Which is the most probable version in your opinion?
Musharraf: Witnesses in the car said that she slipped before the explosion. She was waving and turned a little right and that angle may have been enough for a bullet to hit.
'You Should not Underestimate the Capability of a Nuclear State'
SPIEGEL: Why was your security apparatus unable to prevent the assassination?
Musharraf: The beginning of the rally was well organized. Her arrival and her public address were secure. Her getting into the car was not a problem. But what happened inside the car? Everybody else in the car was safe and uninjured. But she stretched herself out of the car. Somebody should have told her not to do this.
SPIEGEL: You have asked Scotland Yard to help with the investigation, but you have refused to allow an international probe by the United Nations that the Bhutto family has asked for. Why?
Musharraf: What does the UN have to do with this? There is a killing and we will investigate ourselves. If we lack forensic or technical details we ask Scotland Yard. But you should not underestimate the capability of a nuclear state that has 160 million people and a very well organized military and intelligence service. We are very capable.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, about a year ago, you said Benazir Bhutto had plundered and robbed the country and that she would never play a role in Pakistani politics again. What made you change your mind and allow her to return?
Musharraf: The statement that I made was based on facts. My personal likes or dislikes cannot affect national interests. But many people wanted her back in the country. If they want to vote her into a political office -- what can I say about it? Should I have stopped that democratic process, which the West is so keen on? You in the West have an obsession with democracy, human rights and civil liberties. But do not get me wrong: We also want democracy ...
SPIEGEL: ... and when will you deliver?
Musharraf: Please understand: Pakistan is not Germany. We are a developing country, give us some time. Do not try to impose your kind of democracy on us.
SPIEGEL: You have survived two assassination attempts. Do you consider yourself the possible next target?
Musharraf: Shots either hit you or they do not. I have been lucky that the would-be assassins did not get me. But I also take measures and I know how to protect myself.
SPIEGEL: For a long time the Taliban, who today work closely together with al-Qaida, were supported by the ISI in order to promote Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. They conquered Kabul and they were ousted after Sept. 11, 2001. Now they have become powerful again in southern Afghanistan. Will they gain the upper hand?
Musharraf: I am certainly fighting the Taliban -- they are dangerous people. But we also see hopeful trends. In many places the local militants -- who sympathize with the Taliban -- are turning against foreign militants and al-Qaida.
SPIEGEL: What do you think Western countries and their forces, as well as President Hamid Karzai, should do to stabilize Afghanistan? Should they embrace the Taliban and negotiate or should they try to eliminate them?
Musharraf: During the 1990s, Pakistan was the only state worldwide that recognized the Taliban government
SPIEGEL: besides Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates
Musharraf: ... and not because we liked them -- it was a strategic decision. But when I came on the scene in 1999, I told everyone, including President Bill Clinton during his state visit in Pakistan, that the best strategy against the Taliban is to recognize them and try to change them from within. Nobody agreed. Then came the problems with Osama bin Laden. Everybody asked me to help the West to get him arrested or deported, but by then it was too late. I sent four or five missions to Mullah Omar from here, without any result.
SPIEGEL: What can be done today?
Musharraf: You cannot ignore (the fact that) a majority of 55 percent ...
SPIEGEL ... of Afghans are from the Pashtun tribe, and that the Taliban recruits the lion's share of its members there ...
Musharraf: ... Afghanistan has always been ruled by the Pashtuns. There should be a change of strategy right away. You should make political overtures to win the Pashtuns over.
SPIEGEL: In your biography "In the Line of Fire," you said your uniform is like a second skin. After 46 years you have removed this powerful skin to become a civilian president. What did you lose -- your second "home" or the source of your power?
Musharraf: My second home. If the army chief works in total harmony with the president and the prime minister, then three men can do the job better than one.
SPIEGEL: Many influential Americans in Washington seem to be looking for a new strong man in Pakistan and appear ready to drop you. What makes you sure that you can count on the loyality of your successor as army chief, General Pervez Kiyani?
Musharraf: After 46 years in the army you learn to judge people. You fight wars, you are often in danger and you experience hard times. And there is something even stronger than personal loyalty -- loyalty to a cause, for a vision. Kiyani and I share that vision on Pakistan, on the Taliban, on al-Qaida, on politics, on human rights and on the media. We are two of a kind.
SPIEGEL: After eight years of ruling this country, what do you see as your greatest achievement and your most dramatic failure?
Musharraf: My greatest achievement has been the economic revival of Pakistan. When I took power, we were in danger of going bankrupt and becoming a failed state. I do not see complete negative development, but some things could have perhaps gone better. Finishing and curbing terrorism and extremism -- there is still a lot to be done on this front.
SPIEGEL: We still do not understand why you imposed a state of emergency on Nov. 3, 2007. Your message seemed to be: You can choose between chaos and me. Which measures would you not have been able to take to tackle extremists without emergency law?
Musharraf: The unlimited utilization of the military was an issue, the media issue was critical, also the judiciary. The chief justice was corrupt, involved in nepotism, and he interfered directly in cases that were out of his jurisdiction. The nail in the coffin came when he challenged the sovereignty of the parliament, which legally elected me as the president.
SPIEGEL: Your extremely negative assessment of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry of the Supreme Court is not shared by all Pakistanis. Many view him as a couragous defender of the constitution and have harshly protested against your politics. Are there any circumstances under which you could imagine resigning from your post as president?
Musharraf: First of all, there is my own disposition. Following the developments of the last seven or eight months, to resign would be the easiest thing. I like playing golf, bridge and tennis, and I feel like socializing more often than is possible in my position. I like relaxing. Believe me: On the day I think the people, the majority, dont want me any more and the day I think I have no contribution to make to this country, I will not wait a second. I will leave.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Erich Follath and Susanne Koelbl in Islamabad.