Pervez Musharraf: Sly Skater on Thin Ice
Sreeram Chaulia

“I express our thanks to President Musharraf for his bold and courageous actions as part of the global coalition against international terrorism.”
--Colin Powell, October 16 2001

“How can he be concerned about terrorism? He has promoted it.”
--Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Pervez Musharraf, September 21st 2001

A comical Hyderabadi wisecrack came to mind when Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf appeared in his emergency televised ‘Address to the Nation’ in military raiment on September 19th, discarding the civvies that he pretended to be effortlessly slipping into ever since he declared himself head of state:

oopar sherwani, andar pareshani!
(finery outside, misery inside)

For a flamboyant Chief of Army Staff used to displaying his ‘commando’ and gung-ho images, these are uptight days indeed. Epaulettes are being brought back with the wishful hope of rallying the General’s plummeting domestic popularity. The genesis of Musharraf’s headaches can minimally be traced back to “quick and unconditional support” demanded by Wendy Chamberlain, US Ambassador to Pakistan, after the September 11th jihadi terrorist attacks on the polestars of American economic and military power. It was a perfect example of asymmetric exchange, with Washington ‘expecting’ and Islamabad acquiescing in the hunt to track down perpetrators of the barbarous acts that shook humanity.

In negotiation theory lingo, Musharraf’s BATNA (Best Alternative to Negotiable Agreement) was next to zero because of the threatening plausibilities of America declaring Pakistan a terrorist state (since 1993, it has been on the US ‘watch-list’ of suspected state sponsors of terrorism); turning to India for prosecuting the declared aim of “concrete action against Afghanistan”; and tightening the financial screws on the Pakistani economy’s lifelines, IMF and IBRD loans. State survival and international credibility were at stake and compliance was the only option.

But this begs the question- what happens to Pakistan’s internal survival? Musharraf’s address reminded the nation that “after 1971, this is the most critical period”, a metaphor that aptly sums up the volatile domestic tinderbox over which he is ensconced. A reported 7.5 million ‘tribals’ in the NWFP and Baluchistan have declared jihad on the centre for embracing the infidels of the western world against their blood brothers in Afghanistan. Rallies in major cities by militant Islamic hordes, organised under Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam auspices, are resounding with slogans- “Taliban Zindabad, Osama Zindabad”. Bin Laden CDs are selling more copies than ever before in Karachi’s bazaars, further manifestations of what Harvard’s Jessica Stern has christened as ‘Pakistan’s Jihad Culture’.

The General’s dilemma should be maximally viewed as stemming from this assiduously galvanised constituency of fundamentalist Sunni hardliners whose hearts and spleens bleed for the whole Muslim ummat and their predicaments across the length and breadth of the globe, irrespective of nationality. Violent universalism across national frontiers was what the General sought to indirectly refute by declaring, "Pakistan comes first, everything else comes later". Are the Jamaatis and Pushtuns listening?

Are the army and ISI listening? Most accounts of Musharraf’s suspension between Scylla and Charybdis are focussed on popular unrest and neglect the real levers of power, their stakes and attitudes towards assisting America against Afghanistan. During the Kargil war with India in 1999, the Clinton administration sent General Anthony Zinni to persuade Pakistan to withdraw from its unlawful occupation of Indian territory and from then onwards, the top military echelons have been chafing against American “favouritism for India”. When the scenario of NATO forces landing on Pakistani soil for a land invasion of Afghanistan was mooted after September 11th, numerous brigadiers and corps commanders reacted in horror by imputing that the hidden agenda of American forces, while they are hosted ostensibly for targeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, would be to ‘take out’ Pakistan’s nuclear and defence installations. It may sound like a puerile and illogical suspicion but dovetails well with the absolute dejection that was expressed in Rawalpindi (Army Headquarters) at American mediation during Kargil.

The ISI is cooking its own goose in Afghanistan, source of 75 percent of the world’s heroin supply. Taliban were trained and installed in Kandahar by Pakistani intelligence and interior ministry special forces with the express objective of controlling and funneling lucrative profits of the drugs and contraband trade, a goldmine that has enriched many an ISI Chief since the early eighties and funded the jihad in Kashmir. Although the Taliban are believed by the CIA to have curbed down heroin cropping and export last year on US behest, ISI’s revenues from drug-laundered money have hardly fallen. American pounding and replacement of the Taliban with an ‘unfriendly’ regime to Islamabad would render a well-oiled narcotics pipeline clogged and a reliable monetary source for infiltrating India closed. A combination of these vested interest calculations could propel an internal coup against the General if he does America’s bidding wholeheartedly. Recent shake-ups in army and ISI structure are pre-emptive strikes at pro-Taliban elements in the establishment before they castle him in classic apparatchik style.

Pervez Musharraf is indubitably skating on thin ice, but many are turning a blind eye to his own past and pedigree that militate against exterior avowals of “unstinted cooperation in fighting terrorism” and sympathetic western press portrayals of him as a “last beacon of hope against the jihadi menace”. His meteoric rise within the army hierarchy began when Zia-ul-Haq talent-spotted him in 1982-3 after strong recommendation by the Jamaat that he was a “devout Muslim”. Musharraf’s “long-standing links with several Islamic fundamentalist groups” (CIA) were bolstered when, as Commander of Pakistan’s Special Services Group (SSG) in Afghanistan, he came into close proximity of a rising Saudi Civil Engineer, Osama bin Laden, whom he later deputed to crush a Shia uprising in Gilgit.

Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (member of Osama’s umbrella network, International Islamic Front for Jihad) and Lashkar-i-Tayyaba (biggest jihadi network in Pakistan) are particular favourites of the General on the Kashmir side and his denials of any leverage with “indigenous Kashmiri freedom fighters” are taken with a pinch of salt by all intelligence sources. It was these very facades behind which Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry infiltrated the Kargil heights in 1999 and triggered a quasi-war with India. Only last week, Musharraf was also exposed as a patron of the 'Rabita Trust', a covert-funding agency for the Jaish-i-Muhammad group, just proscribed by the US State Department as terrorist. Similarly, Musharraf’s pleas to the US that he has no influence over the Taliban and Osama and that he can only ‘advise’ them to moderate their activities fly in the face of accumulated evidence.

The point being made is that Pervez Musharraf’s power-base and legitimacy spring from jihadi Weltanschauung and he would be hacking off his own support system by genuinely aiding the war against terrorism. Pakistan’s great exigency, occasioned by external circumstances far away in New York and Washington, is essentially a crisis of its own making. Let none be befooled by falling into the trap of overlooking the ultimate causes and harping solely on immediate causes.

[Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied History at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a Second BA in Modern History at University College, Oxford. He researched the BJP’s foreign policy at the London School of Economics and is currently analyzing the impact of conflict on Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY.]