He was corps commandant, Karachi, before he was assigned a senior post at army headquarters in Rawalpindi. After retirement he settled in Lahore to run a business and tour the seminar circuit, one of which brought him to India as part of a delegation of retired military officers led by Zafar Chaudhry, former air chief marshal, Pakistan Air Force.
While upbeat about the peace process in an interview to Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt, General Akhtar proudly proclaims that the Pakistan army is a Muslim army fighting for jihad.
How many wars you have fought?
I have fought two wars against India. In 1965 I was in the Rann of Kutch and then in the Chhamb area in Kashmir. In the 1971 war against India I was posted in Sialkot.
How seriously do you take the peace process?
I am very positive. I feel both leaders are committed to peace. I am very, very positive. Peace will be established in the subcontinent. I believe the engagement of the two leaders must continue whatever be the case.
For 36 years of your life India was the enemy for you.
For a serving Pakistani soldier India is the enemy. And he is trained for it. But once we retire from service we have our own perceptions about things and events. We have to see the realities of life. It is not an immediate turnaround for us. Reality demands that peace must return to the subcontinent. We must eliminate poverty.
The war is not between India and Pakistan but against poverty. Between India and Pakistan the war is about Kashmir. It is a core issue which must be resolved. In our case everything that moves from head to foot is Kashmir.
For you Kashmir is not important because you are a large country but to us it is very, very important. It is the only issue.
How is your delegation different from other peace delegations?
It is very important because the senior army officers who are visiting India have served in high posts. They interact almost on a daily basis with the corridors of power. When you have seen things physically you are in a position to comprehend better at the higher level. Once we go back we can talk about India with authority.
We know war cannot bring results, only dialogue will.
What do you expect from India?
There should be flexibility when we talk. (Pakistan President) General Musharraf wants to change the mindset on both sides. He has proposed a seven point plan. Let us debate it.
India has said there will not be any redrawing of maps.
The LoC (Line of Control) is not acceptable to us. You can't fix a line that redrawing is not possible. Discuss it and then come to a conclusion. Give us a space to discuss. Development is moving both of us towards peace.
(Then prime minister Atal Bihari) Vajpayee has said often that a strong and stable Pakistan is in India's interest. We appreciate that.
Once the Kashmir solution is found Pakistan will be much better equipped to fight poverty. If this problem continues we will not have enough funds to spare for development projects.
General Musharraf is courageously moving forward even after four attacks on his life. He is pushing on with the peace process. Terrorism and extremism can be contained only if you resolve the Kashmir issue.
Many Pakistanis have found on their first visit to Kashmir that the Kashmiris are not keen to join Pakistan either.
Then, the answer is a plebiscite.
The Pakistan army is considered hawkish and is believed to be highly Islamised.
All armies are hawkish, otherwise we can't survive.
When you talk of the Islamisation of the Pakistan army you must realise that we are Muslims. Right? We have lived with Indians before. A large section migrated to Pakistan from India. Now all of us are religious Muslims, but we are not fundamentalists.
We are practicing Muslims. Our army is the most modern army. But we are Muslims and our religion says to fight for jihad.
All over the world the armies fight with religion in their minds. Christians do. Yes, we are a Muslim army. There is no denying that fact. It has always been Islamised.
All armies have religion on their minds. When an Indian Muslim soldier fights against us he too has his motherland and his religion on his mind as an Iraqi would have when fighting against a Kuwaiti. When Pakistanis fight they fight for Pakistan and also for Islam.
Our religion says to fight for jihad.
When you accept that you are fighting for religion, you are targeting Hindus. There is a kind of malice.
Why do you say that? Haven't Muslims ruled the subcontinent for 800 years? Haven't Hindus and Muslims lived together? Haven't you fought the First War of Independence against the British in 1857? You are always fighting for a cause.
Jihad is one of the important factors when you fight. It is a greater motivation.
What are the differences between the Indian and Pakistani armies?
The Indian Army is very professional and hardworking. Basically, the Indian Army is predominantly a Hindu army and the Pakistan army is a Muslim army. The fundamental difference is in the religious approach.
During the wars with Pakistan, the Indian Army was fighting for the nation, not for a religion.
Pakistanis also fight for the motherland. It is not a religious war between us. It is a war for Kashmir. But when you are fighting, religion does play a predominant role. You have to motivate the troops. And the troops can only be motivated through religion.
You should realise that Pakistan is an ideological State. In an ideological State religion has to play a very predominant role. But not that you take religion to the extent of extremism and your own leadership gets threatened.Exactly that has happened in Pakistan.
Religious extremism is because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Jihad got rooted there when outside forces supported the jihad against the Russian invasion. Today we are on the side of the Americans and fighting terrorism. We don't support the Taliban or religious extremism.
Why did you attack Kargil in 1999?
Our idea was to merely cut off the supply line from Srinagar. Kargil was done to pressure India to resolve the Kashmir issue. We wanted to start a process of dialogue. Kargil was attacked to put pressure on India on the Siachen glacier issue. Kargil was attacked by the mujahideen.
Why was the Kargil attack not successful for Pakistan?
Kargil was successful because India started talking on Kashmir!
At that time the world intervened between us. They feared we might use nuclear power. Eleven times the nuclear threat came up from both sides during the Kargil war. Both sides officially exchanged nuclear threats.
We have to behave responsibly when the nuclear threat comes up. We agreed to a ceasefire because of nuclear threats.
How different is the Pakistan army of this generation when compared with your generation?
Every day the Pakistan army is getting better and getting better training. The F-16s will improve our defensive capabilities. But you (India) are getting weapons from all over the world and amassing arms which is worrying all of us.
What are the grey areas in the peace process?
The grey area is the willpower of leaders of both countries. Both should have a strong will to resolve issues. You should not reject any ideas before discussing it the way you rejected General Musharraf's seven point agenda. We should talk about everything including territory, ideology and autonomy.
What is your minimum demand for peace?
Pakistan wants to sign on anything which is agreeable to the people of Pakistan, India and Kashmir.
India must not set the agenda alone. Don't drag the issues in one direction. We have already said that the Line of Control in this form is not acceptable to Pakistan. We are ready for any other solution or option.
As an army officer how do you react to the presence of American soldiers in Pakistan?
We have no American soldiers on our land. Our army is carrying out operations against militants. US soldiers are not in Pakistan but are present on the Afghan side.
But you did give the Americans a base.
Yes, we gave them a base and gave them facilities. But they are vacating it as the Afghanistan situation is stabilising.
What was the Pakistan army's thinking on sending its soldiers to Iraq?
I was for it. I believed Indian and Pakistani soldiers must support the American effort and stabilise the situation in Iraq. That was a long time back. Now the situation has worsened. It is just not possible now to send Pakistani troops.
Pakistanis troops have been in Iraq before. In the First World War Indian and Pakistani soldiers fought together against the Ottoman empire.
Pakistani soldiers during the First World War!
We were part of the Indian troops then because there was no Pakistan at that time.
I say so because when we talk of history or define it we have to talk about the Pakistani troops in the Indian army who came from Punjab, Sindh, the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan. They fared well. But now the situation is very bad.
Iraq had a troubled history. I will not be surprised if Iraq is spilt into three small principalities. Basra for the Shias, the Baghdad triangle for the Sunnis and Kurdistan for the Kurds.