Pakistan's time of reckoning

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

While warning his country of the scope of the crisis it faced in the aftermath of September 11, Musharraf had perhaps realised that the involvement in Afghanistan of Pakistan's Army and intelligence services and also the Islamicists based in Pakistan was too deep for the U.S. to treat the country simply as a long-term ally.

AS the United States began putting together its global coalition as a prelude to the war on Afghanistan, General Pervez Musharraf, the self-appointed President, issued a stern warning to his fellow Pakistanis saying that the country was faced with the worst crisis in its history since 1971. In the background of this warning was an even more stern warning he had himself received from U.S. emissaries who had presented him with a long list of non-negotiable demands with the proviso that unless the demands were accepted immediately Pakistan too would be put on the list of terrorist states and may have to face U.S. military action against itself. He is rumoured to have been told that it was only because Pakistan had nuclear capability that it was being given the opportunity to accede to the demands and join the coalition; otherwise, immediate military reprisals against it would have been more likely.

There were of course economic rewards: lifting of sanctions, rescheduling of debt payments, release of some additional funds, and so on. Musharraf also managed to persuade the Americans not to ask for direct deployment of Pakistani troops inside Afghanistan; to use only the outlying military bases such as Pasni and Jacobabad, far from the great urban centres; and to have the U.S. Special Forces keep a low profile as they fanned out all across northwestern Pakistan. These concessions, combined with the fact that U.S. military personnel had returned after many years for direct deployment on Pakistani soil, were construed by many commentators as a sign that Pakistan was yet again becoming a key strategic ally - the "most allied ally" in Asia, as it once fondly called itself - and a front line state in America's newest war. This impression was strengthened by the fact that as several other countries were mentioned as possible next targets in the so-called "war on terrorism" - Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, even Indonesia - Pakistan never appeared on that list.

In warning his country of the scope of the crisis it was facing, Musharraf seemed to have had a more realistic sense of things. He probably understood that his own Army and intelligence services, as well as the huge Islamicist network on Pakistan's own soil, were too deeply involved in Afghanistan for the U.S. to treat Pakistan simply as a long-term, reliable ally while that involvement and that network remained intact. For, it was not only Afghanistan that was to provide "strategic depth" for Pakistan in case of a war with India; Pakistan itself was already providing strategic depth to the Taliban and its allies, including all those millenarian bigots, of whatever nationality, who thought of themselves as occupying the cutting edge of a global Islamicist offensive ranging from Chechnya to southern Philippines. A former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), perhaps the most famous of them all, once told me, with a distinct twinkle of insanity in his eyes, that the Islamic revolution in Afghanistan was only the first step in the historic reversal of the defeat of Islam that began in Spain five hundred years ago. That is not the whole of Pakistan, only a lunatic fringe, but a sizable, powerful fringe reaching up to very nearly the top, and it is sobering to recall that in case the Pakistan Army splits under the current pressure the gentleman who offered me that phantasy may well emerge as one of the contenders for absolute power.

TO the issue of Musharraf's own place in that power structure we shall return presently. The least that can be said, even giving him the benefit of the doubt, is that by the time the U.S. decided to launch its planetary war Musharraf had squandered two years in pretending that he was going to curb that whole network without ever doing so, afraid perhaps of large and coherently organised elements in the self-same Army that he purported to lead. What he seems to have perceived, at least very dimly, in the immediate aftermath of September 11 was that a time of reckoning was now fast approaching. To say, just as sanctions were being lifted and debts re-scheduled, that Pakistan was faced with the worst crisis since 1971 was a grim acknowledgement indeed, with a view to preparing the country to face a few facts. As one with intimate knowledge of military realities in Afghanistan he probably knew better than most of us how very quickly the Taliban was going to crumble. With that would disappear not only Pakistan's "strategic depth" in Afghanistan but also the whole edifice of Pakistan's military strategy and regional ambition, including the more aggressive premises of its Kashmir policy. Indeed, the allusion to 1971 seemed to imply more: a severe and possibly fatal test for the polity itself, with the possibility that, unless some very hard decisions were made, even the truncated post-1971 Pakistan could not take its own long-term survival for granted.

That was before the war over Afghanistan even began. Some 10 weeks later, after the war was over and the Taliban's Islamicist extremism had been replaced in Kabul with a new oil-and-drug mafia, there came the attack on the Indian Parliament, which does indeed promise to change South Asian equations fundamentally, thanks as much to the timing as to the target and the probable intent. Parliament is no more a mere "government facility" in India than the White House is in the U.S. That description, emanating from President Bush, was unspeakably shabby. Parliament is indeed the seat of India's democracy and the symbol of India's sovereignty. An attack on the building alone was an attack on what it seats and symbolises. Making matters worse, the attack was carried out when Parliament was expected to be in session and only a few minutes after it had been adjourned, with most of India's political leadership still inside the building; there was manifest intent to kill and plunge the country into chaos, with absolutely unpredictable consequences for not just India but the region as a whole. Superb investigative work has swiftly established the culpability of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) with the possible collusion of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). Who else? And with what larger design or compulsion?

The preposterous suggestion that some agencies of the Indian government itself might have carried out the attack, which Musharraf's military spokesman, Maj.-Gen. Rashid Qureishi, has been trotting out, is crass and stupid. Crass in that it presupposes India to be a lawless state, like Pakistan itself, as if there was neither investigative independence nor a sturdy judiciary nor a free press here to expose such conspiracies and, for the most part, punish the conspirators; some hare-brained RSS operative might well think up such things, with some nostalgia for the Nazis, but democracy here is in good enough health for a government to dream up no such thing. And it is an allegation stupid from Pakistan's own viewpoint, since the implausibility of it would suggest that the Pakistan government had something to hide. It would have been wiser for Qureishi either to shut up or have the courage to place the responsibility where it belongs. But where does that responsibility belong, ultimately?

FOR now, one can assume that the JeM, and possibly the LeT, were responsible. That much one can say positively. Negatively, one could also say that the consequences of such an action, especially if it succeeded, were so dire for the whole region and even internationally that no responsible elements in the Musharraf government could have planned or condoned it.

However, that is as far as one can go. There are large numbers of serving as well as retired senior officers of the Pakistan Army and the ISI who have been opposed to the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan, and many of those same officers have close links with the Islamicist establishment within Pakistan as well as elsewhere. For example, when Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, the head of the ISI, was suddenly forced into retirement on the eve of the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, rumours were rife among knowledgable people in Islamabad as well as in New York that the U.S. government suspected him of having directly financed Mohammed Atta whom the U.S. regards as the key figure among the hijackers of September 11. Lt. Gen. Muzaffar Usmani, the then Deputy Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), who was also sent into the twilight at that time, was widely regarded as one of the two top Generals closest to the Islamicist establishment. The other one is Lt. Gen. Aziz, a Punjabi-speaking Kashmiri from Poonch, who was at the same time promoted to become Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee (JCSC) while Musharraf himself remained Chief of the Army Staff. It is not inconceivable that elements close to one of these several centres of power gave the go-ahead for actions that would be the final kiss of death for the Agra process.

The timing itself was significant because it occurred not at that point well before the war when India first offered its facilities and cooperation to the U.S., so that the attack might be seen as a piece of propaganda of the deed in opposition to that offer, but well after the war was for all practical purposes over and the Bush/Blair combine was able and willing to shift much of their attention to problems outside Afghanistan. With Afghanistan fully in hand, military bases in Uzbekistan secured and some other Central Asian states - Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan - fully aligned, the U.S. now needed Pakistan much less and was proportionately more able and willing to cut it further to size. And, it was within the logic of the doctrine of perpetual war, which Bush had announced at the very outset, that attention would shift to another country as soon as Afghanistan was occupied and a puppet regime was installed there. The attack on the Indian Parliament provided the perfect opportunity, and it is no wonder that imperial emissaries, from Tony Blair to Shimon Peres, started showing up in Delhi soon thereafter while Colin Powell, the empire's senior statesman, took it upon himself to keep the belligerents from going to war, and stepping up the pressure on Pakistan finally to confront the Islamicist establishment on its soil while continuing to patrol the Khyber Pass on behalf of the U.S.

But the timing had another aspect as well, which probably had to do with the atmosphere of extreme despondency and desperation in the whole of the Islamicist establishment. This establishment was euphoric after September 11, imagining that the Muslim masses around the world would look at the perpetrators of the World Trade Centre catastrophe as heroes. Having been at the receiving end of unspeakable brutalities at the hands of the U.S. and Israeli terrorist states, and with Osama bin Laden publicly justifying his acts in the name of Palestine and Iraq, many people around the globe, especially in the Arab world, did articulate their anger and, by extension, a certain desperate satisfaction at what was construed as an attack on the U.S. There were also some sizeable demonstrations against their governments when the latter jumped on the U.S. bandwagon as preparations for the planetary war got going. All of this was visible in Pakistan, the one country whose Islamicist establishment was the closest to the Taliban regime.

The significant fact, however, was that while the U.S. was widely criticised for using a terrorist act for its own war designs, the general populace in Pakistani cities was so deeply opposed to the Islamicist menace that few joined their demonstrations and, despite widespread Islamicist sympathies in the Army, there was no breaking of the ranks. Musharraf not only ditched the Taliban but also felt strong enough to get rid of some key Islamicist officers and continue with his peace overtures toward India.

Then came the quick unravelling of the Taliban regime. Bereft of active support from the Pakistan Army the Taliban was shown to be what it actually was: not a group of revolutionaries of the Right but a pack of half-witted desperados intoxicated on religious frenzy and utterly out of touch with the realities of the modern world. That Musharraf ditched the Taliban so quickly was a source of great resentment among its tutors, sponsors and supporters among Pakistani Islamicists. Its swift and ignominious collapse, meanwhile, spelled the end of not only its own pretensions but also of its friends who survived rather too well on Pakistani territory.

For the Pakistan-sponsored part of the militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, meanwhile, there were now two new, disheartening questions: if Pakistan could ditch its Afghan friends so very quickly, what guarantee was there that it would not do the same to its clients in Jammu and Kashmir; and, if the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the spearhead of global Islamic revolution, could collapse so quickly, what hope was there for the little groupings operating in the Valley?

The carnage in Srinagar on October 1, 2001, and the outrage against Parliament on December 13 thus seem to have been a peculiar combination of extreme desperation and millenarian bravado. A suicidal haste to say: we may have been defeated in Afghanistan but we are still here, defying a state comprised of a fifth of humanity. A mad belief in one's own self-appointed station as Allah's soldiers, and therefore the frenzied belief that even though Allah's aid was delayed in one place it will surely arrive on time in another. That much one can speculate safely about the murderous fraternities such as the JeM but there may also have been behind them other forces, with other calculations, less religiously frenzied but no less cold blooded for all that.

NO Islamicist in Pakistan has forgotten that Musharraf started his innings as a ruler with the declaration that Ataturk was his hero, the modernising General who abolished the caliphate and put the Turkish Islamicist establishment permanently on the defensive, giving to the armed forces there a secularising mission that still lasts. I very much doubt that Musharraf really is anything resembling Ataturk, but he is undoubtedly a secular officer. He loves power too much and therefore has not been willing to take big risks, but he did make half-hearted attempts to collect the illegally held weapons in Pakistan and to make the Islamicist establishment financially accountable to the state. In India, especially, we need to recall that unlike Nawaz Sharif, the showboy of the Lahore Declaration, Musharraf offered real ceasefires and real de-escalations on the Line of Control right up to Agra where Vajpayee proved less flexible than him. Even as India prepares for a war that has the potential to send up all of us in a ball of nuclear fire, it is best to recall that Musharraf has been uniquely the one Pakistani ruler who began his visit to us with a pilgrimage to Gandhiji's samadhi. How the Islamicist establishment must have hated that!

A few things have become increasingly clear in Pakistan since September 11. One, Musharraf ditched the Taliban and was able to move against at least one group of Islamicist officers without losing his grip on power or inviting any large public protest. Second, the Pakistani troops patrolling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have remained loyal to the command, regardless of the fairly widespread pro-Islamicist sentiments among the rank and file. Third, the crackdown on the Islamicists actually began well before the attack on the Indian Parliament - soon after the Srinagar bloodshed of October 1, in fact - and the politically articulate elements among the urban middle classes have rallied behind this crackdown, minus of course the Islamicists themselves; that crackdown included the house arrest of Mullah Fazalur Rehman, the chief of Jamiat-i-Ulema-Islam (JUI), the chief Deobandi organisation, which was closely allied with the Taliban. Fourth, Pakistan's economy has boomed and that has further strengthened the support of the middle classes for the regime. Fifth, within three weeks of the attack on the Indian Parliament, Musharraf did put behind bars not only Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of the JeM, but also, more significantly, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the chief of Dawa wa'al-Irshad (DwI), the parent organisation of the LeT. These three organisations - the JUI, the DwI and the JeM - comprise the heart of the Islamicist establishment in Pakistan outside the Jamat-e-Islami itself, and they command the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of people, possibly a couple of million. Freezing their assets may be a "joke" as the Indian government claims, but putting their chiefs behind bars, for the whole country to see, is by no means a minor matter.

FOUR points can now be made quite explicitly. One is that, far from being an act for which Musharraf can be held responsible, the attack on the seat of India's sovereignty was quite possibly an attack designed to undermine his position domestically as well as internationally. Whatever the frenzied phantasies of the perpetrators and the immediate leaders of their terrorist organisations may have been, whoever authorised them to carry out such an act knew that the normalisation process that Musharraf led in Agra would now be at an end and that Musharraf would come under unbearable pressure at home and abroad, blamed by India and the U.S. for not doing enough, and blamed at home for succumbing too much, betraying the cause of Islam, Kashmir, Pakistan and so on. This game of blame and counter-blame could then be used to topple him.

The second point here is that Musharraf seems to be standing tough, so far as the domestic pressures are concerned, and keeping his cool with respect to India in a remarkable fashion. India was the one which cancelled the bus service and the Samjhauta Express, the symbols of a decent resolve to let the poor of the two countries visit their loved ones regardless of the tensions between the states. Pakistan responded on the issue of overflights but it is much to Musharraf's credit that he did not withdraw his High Commissioner even when India did so and even though India forced the 50 per cent cutback in the respective High Commission staff. India began by refusing to talk to him in Kathmandu but he strode up to Vajpayee to greet him personally, forcing a conversation. The Indian electronic media, which functions merely as an echo chamber for state policy, has made it out that these are pathetic attempts to please the Americans. Well, perhaps they are, in part. But the main thing is to ask ourselves how all this plays in Pakistan, with the ultra-nationalist hawks portraying it all as capitulation to the arch-enemy, India.

Third, it is certainly India's right, indeed duty, to seek redress for acts of terror on Indian soil and for crimes committed against Indian sovereignty. India should seek this redress from Pakistan directly, by presenting evidence and demanding effective action against culprits in accordance with international law. And, as Frontline has suggested editorially (issue of January 18,2002), the government should present this evidence to the people of India in the shape of a White Paper and also take this evidence to the Security Council, which is fully empowered to hold a member-state responsible for acts of terror committed by individuals residing on its territory. All this, and whatever else law and diplomacy permit, New Delhi must do. However, the kind of war preparations India is making and the threats that are emanating from key Ministers of government, including the Prime Minister of dovish reputation, play directly into the design that seems to have been behind the attack on Parliament in the first place.

This, then, brings me to the fourth point in this chain of arguments. While addressing some European and North American audiences on events of September 11 over the past couple of months, I have argued that far from being an attack on American power as the perpetrators of that crime had persuaded themselves, that act of terror was, politically speaking, a gift from the subordinate section of the global Right to the dominant, imperialist wing of the global Right. The U.S. was surely stunned but then moved quickly to seize the opportunity to put in place machineries of perpetual, planetary war, taking advantage of the great revulsion that people around the globe had felt at that crime. It seems to me that the attack on the Indian Parliament was an event of the same kind, a gift from the Islamicist Right to the Hindu Right. Terrorists of the JeM might have used the name of Kashmir as bin Laden routinely used the name of Palestine, but all that they managed was to give the RSS fraternity the cardinal opportunity to wrap itself up in colours of patriotism and to whip up, by word and deed, the war hysteria that satisfies all those who are themselves opposed to normalisation and good neighbourly relations between India and Pakistan, and who want to persuade the Indian middle classes that India can be strong only if the RSS is at the helm of affairs.

Thousands of crores of rupees are being spent on fake rhetoric of an impending war that imperialism shall simply not allow but which plays well in the Uttar Pradesh elections upon which the future of the NDA government is said to depend. The government of India has long been at its wits' end in Kashmir, in the face of the sullen alienation of a whole people caught between the terrorist and counter-terror; for now, though, even the pretence of finding a political solution need not be sustained. The coming elections in Jammu and Kashmir promise to be what elections there usually are. As for international relations, Jaswant Singh would have us believe that we are now the new yankees in the region but, in reality, L.K. Advani is in Washington to try and persuade the real yankees of this world to punish the Pakistan government adequately, for a crime that was probably committed to undermine that very government. The U.S. sees superprofits coming from India (Blair was virtually salivating when he came here) but also some geopolitical advantage in keeping Pakistan as its own pretty little poodle; so it balances, awkwardly, infinitely. And the game goes on.

The times are tough for Musharraf, but there may also be an opportunity. He has made many half-hearted attempts in the past to put some controls on the jehadis but always stepped back, too weak to go through: weak in will, weak in the extent of the power he actually commands - it hardly matters which. His main problems have been two. One is that - well - he is a dictator and has therefore been at odds with the democratic temper of those same sections of the urban middle classes that could have been his mass social base for the fight against religiosity, sectarianism, terrorism and the rest. So, passive support for his steps against Islamicists has been immense, but it never becomes an active kind of support that would face the Islamicists in the street in the name of their government because the democratic impulse of the secularists in Pakistan makes it impossible for them to come into the streets in support of a self-appointed President who is also the Chief of the Army Staff. For this problem, Musharraf has had no solution except to proclaim, rightly but merely, that he is a liberal dictator.

His other problem is that he subscribes to a strategy which relies upon an ideology that he seems to despise. After the historic defeat of 1971, when Indian military action forced the creation of Bangladesh, what remained of Pakistan has relied on a strategy of 'forward defence' in which the defence parameters of Pakistan were to be drawn well into the territories of those neighbouring states, namely Afghanistan and India, which it deemed hostile (see ''The Many Roads to Kargil'', Frontline, July 16, 1999, for extended comment on this). Insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir on the one hand, and the U.S.-sponsored anti-communist jehad in Afghanistan on the other, were supported militarily under this doctrine. At length, and especially after the Khalistan movement fizzled out and General Zia-ul-Haq perfected his grip on power, this strategy of forward defence came to be identified with the ideology of Islamism. Both the strategy and the ideology became more grandiose after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Pakistan began to see itself as the fulcrum of a full-scale state system comprising itself, Afghanistan, the former Muslim republics of the Soviet Union, perhaps even Turkey and Iran; it was going to outflank India's own little sub-imperialism in South Asia by becoming a sub-imperial power in Central Asia and parts of even West Asia. Military action and commerce were going to be the material instruments, Islamism the ideological instrument. The whole of Pakistan's military brass has always subscribed to this inflated vision, and Musharraf has been no exception to it.

Now that whole inflation has been punctured and Musharraf has to pick up the pieces. To get rid fully of Islamism as ideology he has also to get rid of that particular lust for "forward defence" as strategy. This requires liquidation of the Islamicist establishment on the one hand, re-education and re-definition of the military establishment on the other. It is not at all clear that he would be equal to this predicament but the current difficult situation does offer him a very peculiar kind of opportunity. As for controlling the jehadi world, he can simply go to his cohorts in the Army and the rest of the ruling elite saying 'I have no choice' and citing American pressure; nothing works with the Pakistani elite as magically as the invocation of the will of the U.S.; on such grounds, he could even recruit Benazir Bhutto as his public relations agent. As for renouncing that particular version of "forward defence" and sub-imperialist ambition, reality itself requires it. But what power, other than the citing of U.S. pressure, does he have in order to force such vast ideological and strategic revisions - so vast that they would necessarily involve something resembling the birth-pangs of a new Pakistan?

THAT is where the question of democratisation in Pakistan comes up yet again. In order to work for such fundamental changes Musharraf needs a real social base, either in the military-bureaucratic elite or in the politically motivated middle classes (Pakistan having no mass politics at the moment, other than the Islamicist rabble). He is likely to make the bureaucratic rather than the political choice, being himself a man of the military bureaucracy.

However, there is still another venue open for him. As General-Presidents go, he has actually been quite liberal, quite secular; and his peace overtures toward India have been widely supported. The real divide between him and the politically articulate liberal middle classes in Pakistan has been on the issue of establishing - or re-establishing - fundamental democratic structures. Were he now to lead that process of democratic restoration he may yet succeed in making those more fundamental changes in ideology and military strategy, without getting toppled in the process. India should pin him down on concrete actions against actual and potential terrorists. But, by the same token, India must understand that no stable peace between the two nations is really possible unless both become stable secular and democratic polities. And India must therefore refrain, as much for Pakistan's sake as for its own, from creating a situation in which any move on his part toward curbing those elements and creating, instead, a secularising regime looks like capitulation.

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