In September 2009, I sat next to Pakistan's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, at a poolside dinner in his honor in Villanova.

When he flew home from a self-imposed, four-year exile two weeks ago, I couldn't help recalling our conversation. The former president spoke about his secret efforts to produce a framework for ending the bitter 66-year-old conflict between Pakistan and India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Such an accord might have prevented the current jihadi surge in Pakistan, and ensured a far more hopeful future for Afghanistan. But those efforts were derailed by his resignation in 2008.

I'll get back to that fascinating conversation in Villanova, held at the home of Musharraf's friend and U.S. point man, Raza Bokhari, who accompanied the former leader on his recent flight home. But first, a word about the significance of the general's return to Pakistan, where the crowds that greeted him were small, and he faces serious legal charges and security threats.

U.S. and Pakistani analysts doubt his new political party will win more than a few seats in the May elections - which feature a discouraging mix of old discredited parties, religious fundamentalists, and a movement led by cricketer Imran Khan, who wants to cozy up to the Islamists. Yet Musharraf's return offers a sad reminder of how history might have differed if he had made other choices in 2007-08.

The Pakistani leader was once admired by his country's liberal elite even though he had seized power in a 1999 coup against an elected president. A secular general who appeared with his wife and enjoyed a good whiskey, Musharraf was a study in contradictions.

He battled extremists after 9/11 (under pressure from Washington), and, on his watch, Pakistan did arrest some al-Qaeda militants. Yet he repeatedly insisted Osama bin Laden was not in Pakistan. He presided over an economic boom, yet hastened his political demise by holding on to autocratic power for too long, and sacking Pakistan's Supreme Court chief justice. This sparked popular outrage and military unhappiness, and led to his downfall.

Yet this general - who nearly precipitated a war with India in 1999 over Kashmir - ultimately tried to halt Pakistan's downward spiral. He recognized that if Pakistan and India made peace, the Pakistani military would be freer to confront its own jihadis, whom it originally trained to fight the Indians in Kashmir. Those same jihadis now help the Afghan Taliban; they also threaten the nuclear-armed Pakistani state.

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Which brings us to that conversation in Villanova. I asked Musharraf why skeptics should believe he wanted to end the Kashmir standoff, since it provides the huge Pakistani army with its raison d'être. He bristled. "I thought we had to have peace for the sake of the entire region, and for India and Pakistan," he insisted. "We could reap a lot of economic advantages."

He had come to realize that the Talibanization of Pakistan posed an existential threat. So he authorized secret talks with India, and devised a compromise to resolve a seemingly intractable problem: India won't negotiate its current Kashmir boundary, the so-called Line of Control, dividing the disputed territory, but Pakistan rejects this boundary.

Musharraf explained: "I wanted to make the Line of Control irrelevant, to open it on six to eight places and let trade flourish."

Kashmiri citizens on both sides would have been given a maximum of self-government, with a joint governing mechanism for the territory that included Pakistanis, Indians, and local Kashmiri leaders.

He hoped to implement this framework "for 15 years, and then revisit it and see how to move forward," he said. "The Line of Control would become almost irrelevant after five years." He insisted that Pakistan and India had been "close" to an accord when he resigned.

For a Pakistani leader, this was an extremely daring position. I asked Musharraf whether his military and powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency would have agreed. "The army and ISI would have 100 percent accepted," he responded. "They are disciplined organizations."

Sadly, that hypothesis was never tested.

After the general resigned, jihadi groups linked with Kashmir resurfaced and conducted the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India. Under a weak civilian government, terrorist groups with sectarian agendas now operate with seeming impunity, murdering Pakistani Shiites and Christians, and threatening the state. The group that perpetrated the outrage on Mumbai holds public rallies.

Today, it's hard to imagine a Pakistani civilian leader with the courage to promote a Kashmir proposal similar to Musharraf's. The general isn't likely to regain the political standing needed to resurrect it, and India has rebuffed past U.S. interest in mediation.

Yet Musharraf's return is a reminder that a formula for Kashmir peace is not out of the question, if there is a strong leader with the guts to pursue the goal.

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Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member of The Philadelphia Inquirer.