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How Musharraf conquered Washington

By M K Bhadrakumar
September 26, 2006 13:17 IST
In purely diplomatic terms, the fulsome praise showered on Pervez Musharraf by President George W Bush at their press availability at the White House last Friday was extraordinary by the call of protocol.

In Bush's worldview, Pervez Musharraf is 'a moderate leader leading an important country like Pakistan'; he is 'a strong, forceful leader', whose courage and leadership qualities are the stuff of admiration and encourage Washington to build up 'common strategies' with Islamabad for protecting the American people; he leads a government of 'great organisation and compassion'; and he is a 'person with whom I've now had close working relationships for five-and-a-half years', a person when he looks in Bush's eye and says something, Bush is inclined to unreservedly 'believe'.

Bush said repeatedly he and Musharraf were 'on the hunt together' -- two statesmen riding white horses into dark, dangerous, tangled mountains tracking down elusive Al Qaeda warriors.

Curiously, neither Bush nor Musharraf revealed what lay ahead for Afghanistan, though that was the centerpiece of their talks in Washington.

The 'hunt' in the Hindu Kush and in the lawless borderlands of Pakistan's tribal agency was against Al Qaeda -- not the Taliban. Nor did the press availability give any clue as to where the Taliban fitted into this strange, inscrutable Afghan paradigm.

Bush spoke at some length on the Kashmir problem, though. He said he was 'impressed' by Musharraf's 'will to get something done in Kashmir'. He complimented that Musharraf kept his assurance of 'reaching out' to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Kashmir.

Therefore, Bush said, he would pose a few insistent questions to Musharraf regarding Kashmir: 'What can we do to help; what would you like the United States to do to facilitate an agreement? Would you like us to get out of the way? Would you like us not to show up? Would you like us to be actively involved? How can we help you, if you so desire, achieve peace?'

This week will undoubtedly stand out as a momentous punctuation mark in Afghanistan's tumultuous history. Bush, having met Musharraf on Friday, is slated to meet Hamid Karzai on Tuesday. And Bush will indulge in a rare gesture of hosting a joint dinner on Wednesday with Musharraf and Karzai, where he hoped to have 'good', 'interesting' and 'important' discussions.

The heightened diplomatic activity essentially devolves upon the approaching Afghan endgame. The high praise showered upon Musharraf by Bush calls attention to the extreme vulnerability of Washington's Afghanistan policy in the weeks ahead.

Equally, a daunting task lies ahead for Bush in persuading Karzai to go along with what he settles with Musharraf. Not surprisingly, Karzai is already showing signs of nervousness.

For Musharraf, there are three core elements to the endgame in Afghanistan. First, any future government in Kabul must be a friendly government. Translated into plain terms, this requires that Islamabad cannot accept enhanced Indian influence in Kabul.

Second, the Taliban must be accommodated, if peace is to be durable.

Third, Washington must remain steadfast that the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir does not fall by any definition within the ambit of the US-led 'war on terror'.

Even as the Afghan crisis deepens and the prospects of a historic defeat of the Western powers by the Afghan resistance -- comparable in historical magnitude to the defeat of imperial armies of Great Britain and the Soviet Union -- loom into view, Musharraf is conscious of the trump cards he is holding.

His string of apparently contradictory statements during the fortnight leading to his meeting with Bush last Friday must remain a masterly effort to optimally set the tempo of his discussions in Washington to Pakistan's advantage.

On September 6, Musharraf flew into Kabul and took by its horns the Afghan allegation regarding the Taliban's cross-border terrorism. In public remarks at the Afghan foreign ministry in Karzai's presence, he acknowledged 'yes', the Taliban does cross over from Pakistan to carry out terrorist activities on Afghan soil. But what can he do about it? His recipe: 'we (Musharraf and Karzai) have to be together. We do not have other options -- just one option, to stick together'.

On September 12, Musharraf addressed members of the European parliament in Brussels where he played on the growing sense of alarm in the Western opinion about the Afghan crisis to drive home the point that to equate the Taliban with terrorism amounted to grotesque simplification of a complex political challenge.

He reminded his Western audience that the Taliban had its 'roots in the people' --implicitly warning that the crisis warranted a political dialogue with the Taliban.

Musharraf thereupon took the argument across the Atlantic to remind his American audience virtually on the eve of his meeting with Bush that back in October 2001 Washington coerced him to cooperate with the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

Musharraf's stark 'stone age' imagery served the purpose of jogging Bush's memory about those dramatic action-packed days five years ago -- and the assurances that the Bush administration held out to him.

After all, Musharraf's two principal interlocutors at that time are no longer serving the Bush administration -- Colin Powell and Richard Armitage. And Pakistan has a long memory about the inconstancy of American friendship.

Specifically, Musharraf would have Bush acquaint himself with the substance of Colin Powell's mission to Islamabad on October 16, 2001 -- admittedly, one of the defining moments in the subcontinent's recent diplomatic history. Powell's talks with Musharraf almost entirely focused on two political issues, first, the future of the post-Taliban power structure in Kabul, and, second, how Washington could alleviate Pakistan's threat perceptions from India so that Musharraf focused on the impending 'war on terror' in Afghanistan.

The assurances held out by Powell included the following elements:

a. The US would accommodate Pakistan's concerns in Afghanistan, which implied disfavoring ascendancy of the pro-India Northern Alliance in the post-Taliban phase; giving due representation to the Pashtun majority in any multi-ethnic government in Kabul; and, providing room for 'moderate' Taliban in any future power structure;

b. The US role in the resolution of the Kashmir problem, which would involve a recognition that resolution of the problem was central to good ties between Pakistan and India; persuading India to address the problem with sincerity and with a sense of purpose; and, an unambivalent recognition by Washington that the deep-seated dispute was not an issue of 'terrorism'.

On Afghanistan, as Powell publicly admitted later, the term 'Taliban' did not just mean the government in Afghanistan.

'It also defines,' Powell said, 'a group of individuals, a group of people. If you got rid of the regime, there would still be people who might find the teachings, feelings, and beliefs of that movement still very important. And to the extent that they are willing to participate in the development of a new Afghan assembly with everybody being represented, we would have to listen to them.'

Thus, contrary to mainstream Indian discourses oozing satisfaction that a besieged Musharraf was destined to face very painful arm-twisting by Bush this week over the need to do more in the 'war on terror', the emergent equations are complex.

Musharraf has a strong case that the Americans only partially fulfilled their October 2001 assurances to him. To be sure, the Northern Alliance outsmarted Washington and grabbed the levers of power in Kabul in 2001. It took the US almost four years to incrementally muzzle the Northern Alliance and exorcise its influence in the post-Taliban power structure.

Second, whereas the focus inevitably fell on creating a Pashtun power base for Karzai, scant attention was given to giving political legitimacy to Pashtun majority aspirations.

Third, there has been no serious, sustained attempt to accommodate the erstwhile Taliban.

Fourth, the Indian presence in Afghanistan remained worrisome for Islamabad.

Musharraf would have the satisfaction though that Washington has ignored Indian attempts to establish linkage between terrorism in India and the Al Qaeda problem. Indeed, Musharraf would appreciate Washington's role in finally gaining New Delhi's acceptance of the creation of a joint monitoring mechanism on terrorism.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

More reports from: Pakistan | Afghanistan

M K Bhadrakumar