Bhaskar Roy, who retired recently as a senior government official with decades of national and international experience, is an expert on international relations and Indian strategic interests. In this exclusive column for Sify.com, he says, despite rumours of his imminent exit, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf still wields a lot of clout, thanks to the US belief that he is the best bet to fight terror in the region.
In a free wheeling interview to the Pakistani media in Islamabad June 7, President Pervez Musharraf categorically dispelled all rumours and speculations that he was stepping down.
It was almost vintage Musharraf: confident, with a little swagger. The message was very clear: He was not a quitter. He was willing to compromise, and hoped his offer would be reciprocated. But there was also a warning: he is not going to just roll over if his powers are clipped.
Over the past few weeks, there were several developments, which sparked comments and reports that Musharraf had decided to quit. There was even speculation over whether he would move to Turkey where he owns a villa, or to the US where his son and brother live. After his extended meeting with the Army Chief General Asfaq Kyani, retired General and political analyst, Talat Masood, said that Musharraf was under house arrest. A special aircraft ready to carry him abroad was also reported.
But one highly publicised telephone call from US President George W Bush to Pervez Musharraf last week changed everything. In that, Bush clearly reposed his personal faith and support and that of his country in Musharraf’s continuity as the President of Pakistan. The call made it clear to Musharraf’s detractors that Pakistan’s President must stay in place with his powers intact for the sake of good bilateral relations.
Obviously, Bush still believes Musharraf is their best bet in the fight against terrorism. Otherwise, the US could easily resort to unilateral anti-terrorist military actions in Pakistan’s north-west tribal regions, and tighten the purse strings.
Since the 9/11 terrorist strikes in America, Pakistan has received around $10 billion from the US as aid to fight terror and as development assistance. More is in the pipeline including for training Pakistan’s Frontier Corps (FC) to fight militants in the tribal areas.
The February 18 Parliamentary election brought back democratic politics in Pakistan after almost nine years. On the way, political circumstances exacted a price — the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The elections almost swept away Pakistan Muslim League (Q) or the PML(Q), known as Musharraf’s party or the King’s Party.
The PPP gained hugely in the elections, and Benazir’s widower Asif ali Zardari took over the party as co-chairman. Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) emerged as the second largest party in Parliament, and entered into coalition with the PPP to form a government at the centre.
This coalition is now under pressure, especially on the issue of impeachment of Musharraf and restoration of superior court judges dismissed under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) on November 3, 2007 by Musharraf.
Both issues, which were included in the Muree agreement between the PPP and PML(N), directly involve George Bush’s Musharraf strategy, or fixation. If removed by Parliament and impeached, Musharraf would have an ignominious exit. If the dismissed judges were restored by an act of Parliament and an executive order, it would prove Musharraf had usurped the constitution of the country, and he would be impeached with undetermined consequences for him.
President George Bush, in his two terms as President of the United States, has seen his approval ratings among the American people go sky high and then plummet very low. He is known for his strong personal beliefs.
After “9/11” however, Bush had relied on Musharraf to deal with terrorism in Pakistan, and had given him the ultimatum “either you are with US, or against US”. After initial dithering and discussing with the Chinese, Musharraf gave in and joined the US in the war against terror.
Or that is the common understanding in the US.
In reality, Musharraf “ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds”, as the saying goes. He kept alive President Bush’s claim that the US was winning the war against terrorism. Standing with Bush on the White House podium he had triumphantly declared to the US media that the abducted Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was well and would be rescued soon, when he was actually aware that Pearl had been executed by his adductors in Karachi. Whenever under intense pressure from the White House to show results, he would deliver a second or third rank al-Qaeda operative to the US.
It was a cosy arrangement. Bush was ostensibly making progress on the terrorism front, while Musharraf was keeping pressure off the main terrorist masterminds. Capturing or eliminating Osama bin Laden, Al Zawahiri or even Taliban Chief Mullah Omar was certainly not on Musharraf’s radar screen.
President Bush had settled on two foreign policy objectives for his legacy. One, regime change across the world to establish democracy as per the American prescription, and two, eradication of terrorism. Removal of Saddam Hussain was one, and forcing Musharraf to eliminate the al-Qaeda threat was the other. Saddam’s Iraq had kept Islamic militants out, but today’s Iraq has become a haven for them. Pakistan with Musharraf in charge of eliminating terrorism is proving to be a losing cause.
The PPP led government’s efforts to come to a peace deal with the FATA and the NWFP tribal groups has alarmed the US. This was accentuated when Baitullah Masud of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) held an open press conference recently, stating the US was the main enemy, and that they would continue to attack the government and ISAF forces across the border in Afghanistan. Masud’s condition was he and his followers would not attack inside Pakistan if the government in Islamabad did not interfere with their main agenda.
For the US, this means Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan would be free country to incubate anti-US terrorists. Washington is not willing to buy the PPP explanation that peace deals would be made only with those groups, which lay down arms.
For the Pakistani army, the tribal belt with Pakistan’s included is a no win situation. They have lost more than 1500 men, many have defected refusing to fight against their brethren, and around 800 have been taken prisoners. This has become a demoralising consequence of the war against the militants. In addition, most of their strike corps, under US pressure, have been redeployed from India’s borders to the tribal and Afghan front.
This is one of the reasons that Army Chief Gen Kyani told his troops along the LoC with India that the army will protect the wishes of the people of Pakistan and that of the Kashmiris. This statement blew a hole in Asif Ali Zardari’s roadmap of friendship with India, of putting the Kashmir issue on the back burner. The army’s pre-eminent position in Pakistan still is sustained by its counterpoise against India.
The core policy makers in the US White House trying to forge the President’s legacy fear the PPP led government may be unwittingly subverting the war against terror, or even shaking hands with terrorists and making the army compromise with those against American security interests. Hence, they feel, Musharraf is the best bet to remain in command of Pakistan.
Pakistan is in a very difficult situation. The radical Islamic militant and terrorists it had created for acquiring “greater depth” in Afghanistan and breaking Kashmir out of India, was not such a good strategy. It brought the al-Qaeda into Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the initial stages, the US did little to persuade Pakistan to desist from this dangerous path. Now, these groups have mutated like a science fiction horror movie character and are sitting on the country’s chest.
Having said that, let history rest. The immediate task is to find ways to tackle the tribal insurgents and the TTP of Baitullah Masud, their forays into Afghanistan, and their offering a safe haven to the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other fighters. The developments, if unattended, would impact a much larger radius.
The US, apparently, does not favour a soft approach of dialogue with the militants. There are distinct signs to suggest they are impatient to try a smaller Iraq-like military action. Can the Pakistan government and the army afford it? Too much pressure on the Pakistan army to battle the tribals including Pakistan’s can very well result in desertions and, even, in minor revolt. This is something Pakistan cannot even chance.
If the Americans take unilateral action Iraq style with huge collateral damages, it would not be acceptable to the people of Pakistan. Pakistan is a much more cohesive society and better managed socially and in the religious sphere than Saddam Hussain’s Iraq was. No power section in Pakistan would collaborate with the Americans for such a clearing attack in north west Pakistan.
Creating false evidence in Pakistan as was done in Iraq with non-existent chemical and biological weapons factories and nuclear weapons may create more problems than solutions. The periodic claims from US top level intelligence officials that Baitullah Masud was responsible for Benazir Bhutto’s assassination have been dismissed with the contempt it deserves by experts in Pakistan and South Asia.
The tribals have certain rules, which they hold as dearly as they hold their religion. They do not kill women, and they do not betray friends. It must not be forgotten that the US had offered diplomatic recognition to the Taliban in 1999-2000 in exchange for Osama bin Laden. The Taliban refused.
The Americans do not understand the region. The British have supported talks with the tribals because they played the Great Game in this very region and understand the pride and sentiment of the tribals.
It will be difficult to wipe out the terrorist problems with one military onslaught, however powerful it may be, except by decimating the entire population. This is not an option. Given this situation, the option to talk to the militants as a first step and at least see where it goes.
But there is a caveat. Pakistan must rein in and withdraw all the militant tanzeems it created --through the ISI and supported by the regular army-- to forage in Afghanistan and India including Indian Kashmir. To rear terrorists with obscurantist religious fervour on one hand, and try to take them on some other aspects is a losing game. Pakistan is yet to prove its determination to totally roll up the ISI created terrorist.
The US may be making a serious mistake by propping up Pervez Musharraf. He has never been honest and true to anybody except himself. He has been working for dictatorship in perpetuity. Washington has espoused dictators like Musharraf elsewhere in the world with unfortunate results.
America, the most powerful country in world today, unfortunately has a very short history. Most of it has been winning wars. Hence, education from history has been ignored. Perceptive have been short-term. The current legacy appears driving at a historical pedestal for George W Bush. Such agenda usually end up in disaster.
But there is the power of money and weapons. Pakistan’s economic growth rate of 6 per cent is mainly buoyed up by the USA. Even that is beginning to prove inadequate. The military aid from the US is more India-centric than anti-terrorism.
Can Pakistan get out of this hole? Can it run its own affairs, seek peace with its neighbours, and concentrate on development? As long as the army wields the reins, the chances are bleak.
The views expressed in the article are of the author’s and not of Sify.com.