Is President Musharraf Impaled on his own Petard???

January 26, 2004

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[Administrative note: This will be the last Comment for 6-8 weeks because I will be on an extended trip out of the country and will not have access to any email communications during this period.]

While the world has been focused on the growing crisis in Iraq and the creation of what may become yet another a petri dish fueling the spread of fourth generation war, there have been some interesting peace overtures on the Indian subcontinent suggesting Pakistan and India might be moving in a serious way toward more normal relations. I find this very odd and quite surprising because it has been my understanding that Islamic radicalization within Pakistan, particularly in the Army's officer corps, was increasing. The terrorist attack on India's parliament and the probable complicity by Army extremists in the sheltering of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives in the Pashtun border regions with Afghanistan come to mind. Also, for years it has been an open secret that the military's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) was deeply involved in giving birth to and a supporting the Taliban as well as stirring up Islamic radical groups operating in Kashmir.

So, what is going on?

I asked my good friend, Professor Harold A. Gould of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia, for his initial take on the recent peace overtures. What follows is his assessment of why the military leadership (former General Musharraf) in Pakistan may be moving toward a rapprochement with India.

President Musharraf: Impaled on his own Petard

By Harold A Gould
January 26, 2004

The two recent attempts on President Pervez Musharraf's life may have been Pakistan's version of 9/11. In the United States it led to the War on Terrorism. In Pakistan it may lead to Mr. Musharraf at last waging a real 'war on terrorism' of his own to save his political skin.

The disaffected Islamic extremists and their disgruntled allies inside the Pakistani military have given Musharraf no place to turn except toward political moderation and hopefully institutional reform, including democratization. This altered state of affairs should redound to the advantage of American strategic interests in the region, of the prospects for peace and reconciliation between India and Pakistan, and of the cause for democracy within Pakistan itself.

Initial reactions to this stunning turn of events have understandably been pessimistic. With Pakistan in such an unstable condition that many refer to it as a failed state, it is not easy see any silver linings in the fact that the one person who has, thanks to American support, and Indian restraint, kept Pakistan from plunging into political chaos, now appears to be living on borrowed time. In Nabonita Sircar's words, "Pakistan has a cancer inside it... It is the only country which actively nurtures Al-Qaeda terrorists and nuclear weapons." (Hindustan Times, Sept. 9, 2003)

Hope arises, however, from the possibility that Osama bin-Laden and his fellow extremists have now so overplayed their hand that President Musharraf's propensity to pursue dangerous political games may have been driven into remission. As Jim Hoagland puts it, "assassination attempts that rely on inside knowledge focus the mind in special ways!" (Washington Post, January 21st)

There is no question that the Pakistani military dictator has tried to have his cake and eat it ever since America initiated its War on Terrorism. While ostensibly opposing terrorism in its Al-Qaeda incarnation that targets the United States, he has unquestionably condoned, indeed even sponsored, it when directed against India. Also, he has paid lip-service to democracy in order to placate his American patrons, while systematically subjecting his own people to what I have elsewhere called "one-man democracy." The Hindu, May 1, 2002) Furthermore, he has trafficked in nuclear weapon technologies with rogue states while piously denying that he does so.

Basically, Musharraf has thus far followed in the footsteps of what Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi terms his "Praetorian" predecessors (Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, and Zia al-Haq), and engaged in what S. E. Finer characterizes as the "military colonization of other institutions." The result has been that Pakistan has long been, in Haqqani's words, a "rent-seeking state, living off the rents [derived from] its strategic location, since its involvement in US-sponsored treaties of the cold war era." (SAIS, April 2, 2003). Instead of building a healthy civil society, as India did, the dominant Pakistani elites opted for dictatorship and (Haqqani's point) degrading dependency on the whims of super-power politics. It is this which has landed Musharraf in the pickle he now finds himself.

In the rapidly changing world that is currently unfolding, Pakistan's militarized government has lost everybody's trust, including the Islamic radicals whom it so cynically courted (commencing with Zia) when all other means of thwarting the rise of civilian popular government were exhausted. Now the collapse of the illusion that Pakistan could get away with playing the volatile Islamic card apparently has made it clear to Musharraf that rejecting extremism and turning toward civil society and political moderation is the only viable option left.

This has occurred not because Musharraf has suddenly become a born-again democrat or a Benjamin Disraeli. It is rather because the Islamic fanatics he so hypocritically cultivated throughout his career in order to save his political skin have decisively turned against him. There is irony in the fact that one of President Musharraf's favorite extremist organizations, Jaish-e-Muhammad, is now leading the radical pack that is out to get him. Its leader, Masood Azhar, has been one of the principal beneficiaries of Mr. Musharraf's duplicitous political largesse. In the words of Tim McGurk ( Time Magazine - Asian Edition, January 19th), "Once allied with Musharraf's government, the group is now linked to al-Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, called for Musharraf's overthrow in a recent audiotape." Clearly it is no surprise that assassination attempts have followed the consummation of this [un]Holy alliance! In contradistinction to his wishy-washee American patrons who have willingly cut slack for him whenever he failed to deliver on his promises to act decisively against terrorism, the Islamist hardliners really mean business. They don't hesitate to deliver lethal blows against perceived turncoats in their ranks. And they have now made it clear that Musharraf is adjudged to be a turncoat who must be appropriately dealt with.

The lineaments of how Mr Musharraf will try and wiggle out of his political dilemma are becoming clear.

He has responded warmly to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's patient diplomacy which began last April in the form of a speech by the Indian Prime Minister offering a "hand of friendship" to Pakistan. It has been followed by eight months of secret talks and climaxed with behind-the-scenes meetings between Vajpayee and Musharraf at the SAARC summit that recently convened in Islamabad. A free-trade agreement (SAFTA) has come from this conference that promises to open up trade between India and Pakistan and create opportunities for Pakistan to enter the global economy. Pakistan is indicating a willingness to soften its position on Kashmir to the point of considering options other than the now outdated, 50 year old UN resolutions on the dispute, including even an acknowledgment that the portion of the state now in Indian hands is an "integral part" of the Indian Union. Even more, Musharraf's disavowal of cross-border terrorism and efforts to disband terrorist bases in Azad Kashmir are at last deemed credible enough both by Indian and American observers to be taken seriously. Commerce Minister Humayun Akthar speaks of a "composite dialogue" commencing in February "to resolve all disputes."

Apart from the concrete accomplishments emanating from this pattern of rapproachment, the domestic political implications are striking.

Musharraf is moving toward the center and distancing himself from the Islamic radicals who are now out to get him. Choosing this route out of his dilemma by no means guarantees that he will get home free. Perhaps more daunting than the negotiations he must face with India once the "composite dialogue" gets going are those he must face with the opposition groups in his own Parliament. Musharraf has already pledged to "take off his Army uniform by the end of this year," which would mean weakening the symbiotic link between the office of President and the Army. Throughout Pakistan's post-Independence history, this link between the military and the "extraparliamentary" office of President has been the principal mechanism by which genuine democracy has been denied to the Pakistani people. If Musharraf truly surrenders these powers to a democratic constitution, Pakistan will at last be able to move in the direction that India did more than fifty years ago. This would be the door through which middle-class values and secular society could enter and by their very upsurgence gradually undermine and erode the powers of both the Islamic radicals and the autocratic generals.

The question that will then arise is will the military oligarchs Musharraf leaves behind allow this transformation to take place? Or will they join hands with the fanatics and attempt to talibanize Pakistan? In which case Musharraf may very well go the way of Benezir Bhutto and Nawaz Shariff.

Clearly the jury is out on what the future now holds for Pakistan. But the fundamentalists and the ISI through their recklessness have presented Pakistan with a golden opportunity to move toward civil society by forcing Mr Musharraf to veer toward democratic reform at home and peace with India abroad.

If Musharraf succeeds, a new era will dawn in South Asia that bodes good for the Pakistani and Indian people, and indeed for American strategic interests as well.

Chuck Spinney

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822

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