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What's Musharraf up to?

By Lt Gen Eric A Vas [Retd]
May 02, 2003 20:56 IST
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Many Indians question Prime Minister Vajpayee's wisdom offering an unconditional olive branch to Pakistan and then stating that Pakistan would have to end cross-border terrorism before India extended its hand of friendship. America and Pakistan welcomed the PM's gesture. A brief recapitulation of current events may help one understand the background to this third offer of friendship by the PM.

In the Muslim world, a dog and a sari represent un-Islamic symbols. Yet, after the military coup, General Pervez Musharraf in his first public appearance with his family, stood holding a dog in his arms and his wife wore a sari.

In his first television address as president, Musharraf proclaimed that he wished to emulate Turkish leader Kemal Attaturk and modernise his country. The majority in Pakistan admits that previous military and civilian governments had ignored the rule of law and exploited their power to family advantage.

They hoped the general would be different. Though the Commonwealth suspended Pakistan's membership till democracy is restored, he remained America's blue-eyed boy.

Musharraf accepts that Pakistan cannot prosper without freedom and democracy, but he insists that each country must evolve its own form of democracy to suit the psyche of their people. Pakistan's attempt to blindly copy the Westminster system has been a failure. Even India's democracy has become a hollow sham with members shouting, gesticulating and walking into the well of the House, necessitating daily adjournments costing the nation lakhs of rupees.

The stink of corruption envelops India. Pervez wants to have nothing to do with such a system. The general is convinced that Pakistan needs a Turkish-type political system in which the armed forces are enshrined in politics. Musharraf promised that he would hold free and fair elections in October 2002. He was confident that the Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam) (PML-Q) would win a two-thirds majority enabling him to amend the constitution and usher in the reforms he earnestly desired.

The US in its desire to 'punish' the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan, provided arms to Pakistan for the mujahideen at a reckless scale. It turned a blind eye on the misuse of this aid across Indian borders. This deepened extremism and corrupted those who dealt with the distribution of arms. When the Russians left Afghanistan, the Americans turned their back on Pakistan which responded to Washington's desertion by attempting to create strategic depth by backing the Taliban regime and its notorious consort, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

9/11 came as a shock to the general. He had to join the US-led alliance against international terrorism. This meant he had to abandon several cherished strategic policies. He was forced to turn against the Taliban, assist the US in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and begin rounding up Al Qaeda leaders. He also had to promise that Pakistan would stop providing military and material aid to jihadis based in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and operating across the Line of Control in J&K.

Meanwhile, within Pakistan ancient animosities and differences rose to the surface. The Pathans continued to hope for a greater Pakhtunistan embracing Peshawar and Kabul. Tribal leaders and the clans living in un-administered territory lying between Pakistan and Afghanistan, remained true to their principle of safeguarding a guest and gave shelter to fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. In Sindh, the Mohajirs prayed for deliverance from Punjabis while rival militant gangs made Karachi almost ungovernable. Punjabis dreamt of liberating J&K.

In this confused environment, Musharraf kept his cool and promulgated a number of new electoral laws. These imposed no restrictions on the electorate but prospective candidates had to be graduates without criminal records. The three most popular party leaders, ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan Peoples Party), ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif (Muslim League [Nawaz]) and Altaf Hussain who leads the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which has its stronghold in Karachi and parts of Sindh, were living outside Pakistan. They were warned they would be imprisoned on various criminal charges if they returned.

Last October's election for the 272-member national assembly saw the emergence of the religious right. The Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of six parties, won 52 seats. Most of the support for the MMA came from Baluchistan and the NWFP, where a mix of anti-Americanism and pro-Taliban sentiments prevails. This support for the MMA was also reflected in the local assembly results that enabled the MMA to form a provincial government in the NWFP, and head a coalition government in Baluchistan. The PML-Q and PPP won 77 and 62 seats respectively. Neither was close to the magic figure of 137 and the MMA became a crucial swing factor. The PML-Q, with the help of 19 Independent members and others, was able to gain a thin majority and appoint Zafarullah Khan Jamali prime minister.

Elections to the 100-member Senate were held in February. The PML-Q and its allies won 53 seats giving them a slender majority. The MMA questions Musharraf's constitutional legitimacy and spurns an alliance with the US. The PPP accepts Musharraf's pro-US strategy but is hostile to his proposed reforms. Thus the PML-Q is unable to form a coalition with either party and create a two-thirds majority and carry out radical amendments to the constitution.

These circumstances are forcing Musharraf to postpone his dream of reforming and modernising Pakistan. Now his first task is to survive by maintaining close relations with America at all cost. He has promised America that he would stamp out extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. To facilitate the rounding up of fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, he has permitted about 50 FBI teams to operate within the country alongside Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency. However, his government's plans to deal with terrorists confront legal obstacles and many contradictions.

For example, last year the government arrested Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hafiz Saeed Butt, leader of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. Both these organisations are banned in Pakistan. Late January 2003, both men were freed from detention on the Lahore high court's orders. The government seemed unable to convince the court that they were a threat to public order. These outlawed organisations have simply changed their names; they are setting up new offices, enlisting fresh recruits to their cause and openly training them in camps across the country.

When the body of Aimal Kansi, who was executed in the US in December for murdering two CIA officials, was brought to Baluchistan for burial, local army corps commander attended the funeral and the National Assembly condemned Kansi's 'executioners.' Meanwhile, at Friday prayers the virtues of jihad are preached at mosques throughout Pakistan. Muslims are urged to resist all infidels, especially those supporting 'America's crusade against Islam in Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya and Afghanistan.'

There are at least 40 jihadi publications in Urdu, including six weeklies, four fortnightlies and 30 monthly magazines. The total circulation of these publications is over one million, which is about equal to the circulation of all Urdu daily newspapers and ten times that of all English dailies in the country. Most of these publications present a no-holds-barred, absolutist view of the world with emotional letters from mothers and sisters of jihadi martyrs, which are meant to inspire others. All this is embarrassing to the government, which keeps reassuring the Americans that it is enforcing stringent anti-terrorist laws. Every now and then a few Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects are arrested in Pakistan and handed over to FBI agents. But the general knows any merit mark he gains from America is offset by hostility from many of his countrymen.

The US strategic plan is for Pakistan and Turkey to hold the eastern and western flanks of the West Asian Muslim world. Then, with a prosperous pliant Iraq occupying centre stage, the US could exercise a powerful strategic influence on Egypt, all the surrounding Arab states, Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Musharraf is aware that the Americans are not impressed by his efforts to stamp out jihadis within Pakistan. But Washington has no better options available than Musharraf, who, however imperfect, remains preferable to any known alternatives. Critics believe the general is afraid to deal firmly with cancerous extremists. Others dispute this assessment and counter the charge that the general is reluctant to deal with extremists by insisting that he is a man of action, but will only act at the right time.

Musharraf is convinced that the US, having enforced a change of regime in Iraq, has altered the balance of power in the Muslim world of West Asia. This will have a profound effect in the region, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He believes that now that the balance of power has shifted in West Asia, the whole world, including Germany, France and India, will be happy to jump on the US bandwagon. He is sure that his opponents in Pakistan, the MMA, jihadis and the PPP, will also be torn between the very human anxiety to back the ultimate winner and forsake their old loyalties. That will be the time for him to act. In anticipation of events, Musharraf has publicly warned the jihadis, 'if you don't mend your ways, the Americans will make Pakistan their next target after Iraq.'

The general continues to face threats to his life and rumours of an impending coup by dissatisfied elements in his army. He was forced to carry out the flag-raising ceremony on Pakistan's Independence Day in a closed auditorium.

The US strategic plan involves propping up Musharraf at all costs and satisfying India's security perceptions. It has brought pressure on India to reopen talks with Pakistan. Robert D Blackwell's early exit as US ambassador has spurted speculation that this has happened because he followed India's line and publicly kept stressing that the fight against terrorism could not be won until terrorism against India ends. 'There could be no compromise on this otherwise we sink into a swamp of moral relativism and strategic myopia,' he said.

This brings one to the question, which heads this article. 'What's General Musharraf up to?' Many are tempted to answer, 'Up to his neck in trouble.' But that would be too simplistic if we accept that the general is a courageous survivor, has full US backing, is playing for time and has a dream of making Pakistan a modern Islamic state.

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Lt Gen Eric A Vas [Retd]