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Musharraf: Afghan Pullout Would Be ‘Disastrous’

Americans need to prepare for the likelihood that more U.S. troops will be needed in Afghanistan and that they will be there many years, the former president of neighboring Pakistan said in Iowa Saturday.

Pervez Musharraf, who resigned under pressure last year, said it would be "disastrous" for the United States to pull out of Afghanistan now. If the Taliban are allowed to return to power, he said, they surely would allow al-Qaida terrorists to rebuild strength in Afghanistan, destabilizing the region and posing a major threat to the United States.

The only solution, he said, is for international troops, led by the United States, to establish military dominance in Afghanistan and gain the trust of people there so a long-term political solution can be formed.

Musharraf spoke to Des Moines Register reporters and editors at the Clive home of a family friend, where he stopped for the day. The former Pakistani leader, who is a controversial figure at home and abroad, is on a speaking tour in the United States.

Musharraf waved off questions about how long it would take to stabilize Afghanistan.

"May I suggest we forget about talking about timing," he said. "We need to obtain objectives. ... When we lay down timing, it becomes very counterproductive." Musharraf, who was a general in the Pakistani army, took power in a 1999 coup. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, he became a close ally of the U.S. government, which gave Pakistan billions of dollars to help in the fight against al-Qaida terrorists thought to be hiding in his country's mountains.

Supporters hailed him as a bulwark against Muslim extremists in the region.

Critics said he effectively was a dictator who allowed corruption and crushed critics. He resigned last year amid threats that he would be impeached.

He said Saturday that he might consider running for president again.

"It needs to be seen what the people of Pakistan want," he said. "Obviously, if I have a role in the future, it has to be through a democratic means of coming back. ... I have to have a good, accurate feel of where the people stand, and also whether I have the conviction in my own heart that I can deliver to Pakistan as I did in the last nine years." Pakistan's next scheduled election is in 2013.

Musharraf survived several assassination attempts while president, and he still faces threats from al-Qaida and other extremist groups. Security was tight Saturday, with U.S. Secret Service helping guard the house.

An aide said Musharraf would be in grave danger if he returned to Pakistan now. The risk was highlighted in 2007, when longtime rival Benazir Bhutto was assassinated while campaigning. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is the current president.

Musharraf's opponents want him tried on criminal charges, including treason.

He indicated Saturday that he would be willing to return to Pakistan if formal charges are pursued. He denied reports that he would apologize as part of a deal to avoid prosecution.

"I have not done anything wrong. So I do not apologize for doing things right," he said.

In the interview, Musharraf discussed a range of topics:

- When asked if he believes Osama bin Laden is alive and hiding in Pakistan's mountains, he replied, "Your guess is as good or as bad as mine." However, he said, bin Laden is no longer running a highly-organized international terrorism operation. "Al-Qaida is more a symbol now," he said.

- He said Americans should not equate the situation in Afghanistan with the beginnings of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam conflict was a local problem, which posed no direct threat to the United States, he said.

"This is different," he said. "This will engulf the whole region and have effects on the world. So I think defeat or a negative outcome in Afghanistan will have far more far-reaching consequences than you could have in Vietnam.

"Therefore, I think quitting is not an option."

- To build support in Muslim countries, he said, the United States should help settle long-standing disputes that inflame many Muslims. The disputes include the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the rivalry between Pakistan and India over the region of Kashmir. At the same time, he said, the United States can't appear to be dictating what Muslim countries do.

- The United States should not have launched a full-fledged invasion of Iraq, he said. Instead, it should have targeted Iraq's leader. "There, the center of gravity was one man - Saddam Hussein."

Although he is out of power, Musharraf remains the subject of great interest. During his speaking tour, he has met with several members of Congress and former President George W. Bush, whom he called a "good friend." After Saturday's interview, he was the guest of honor at a luncheon whose other guests included Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

However, an academic expert on Pakistan said Musharraf has little influence left back home, and little chance of returning to power.

Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., said in a telephone interview that the former president has a few friends left in Pakistan's military, but little support anywhere else.

Weinbaum, a former political science professor at the University of Illinois, has written extensively about Pakistan and neighboring areas. He said the former president's U.S. speaking tour appears to be an attempt to raise money and rehabilitate his reputation.

"Right now, he can't go home, really - at least not while they're trying to decide whether they're going to bring him up on charges or not," Weinbaum said.

A colleague from the Middle East Institute disagreed with Weinbaum. Nasim Ashraf, who is traveling with Musharraf on his own time, said Pakistan experts also used to count out Bhutto, who twice was tossed out as prime minister but was making a comeback when she was assassinated.

"Things change," Ashraf said.

Fawad Zafar, a Clive urologist who hosted Musharraf on Saturday, said many Pakistanis view the current president as hopelessly corrupt and ineffective.

He said people miss the order and openness that Musharraf brought.

Zafar, who is of Pakistani heritage, said his father was a friend of Musharraf. He said Musharraf has support among many Pakistanis living in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, which could help him mount a comeback.

"I think he has a good chance."

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