A General's troubles

Print edition : June 08, 2002

Faced with domestic and international criticism for his failure to keep his promise to deal firmly with the menace of terrorism, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf reiterates his government's commitment on the matter through another "address to the nation".

THE three-week-old shrill of "indiscriminate and unprovoked" firing between the Indian and Pakistani forces on the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border has been the loudest since the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war, matched only by a war of words. As Indian and Pakistani leaders kept issuing bellicose statements, Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf went in for another "address to the nation" on May 27.

Pakistan Army officers in a forward position.-SAEED KHAN/ AFP

It would be a travesty of truth to call it an address to the people of Pakistan. Actually, it was an address to the George W. Bush administration and the so-called international coalition led by the United States in general, and the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in particular. The 25-minute speech was yet another attempt to convince them of the efforts taken by his regime to tackle terrorism. Musharraf's rhetoric regarding the determination of the military and people of Pakistan to "fight till the last drop of our blood" and his missile tests were obviously meant for domestic consumption. Although he talked about the 'Hindutva mindset' and the Gujarat violence, the tone and tenor of the speech was defensive right from the beginning. It was a passionate appeal to the outside world and New Delhi to take his words at face value and strengthen his hand in his country's hour of crisis.

The irony was that it the was nth time since September 11 that Musharraf was on the air speaking about terrorism and his government's commitment to deal with it. The latest address is a clear sign that the "war on terrorism" started by the U.S.-led coalition on October 7 (the day the military operations began in Afghanistan) has slowly but definitely shifted to the soil of Pakistan. Pakistan's status as the frontline state in the battle is under a cloud. The General, hailed as bold and courageous for his decision to side with the U.S. in the aftermath of September 11, is suddenly confronted with enemies from within and without. As if the tension triggered by the May 14 Kalu Chak massacre was not enough, came the cold-blooded murder of Abdul Ghani Lone, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leader.

India seems set to take its fight against cross-border terrorism to its logical conclusion. The U.S.-led coalition forces are getting increasingly impatient over what they believe as the 'slow response' of the Musharraf regime in extending cooperation to the operations against the activists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban who are fleeing Afghanistan to safer havens, supposedly in Pakistan.

The environment in Pakistan also offers no solace to Gen. Musharraf. The President, who 'secured' 98 per cent of the votes in the controversial April 30 referendum, is confronted with opposition from all the mainstream and religious forces for a variety of reasons. The contempt he showed towards the political class in his two-and-a-half-year innings has left him with no friends. The religious parties are annoyed with him for his U-turn on the Afghanistan issue and the measures he has proposed to curb the elements that run the country's jehad factories.

The January 12 address of Gen. Musharraf, hailed as path-breaking by no less a person than Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, does not seem to have helped him win friends in any quarter. It appears to have become an albatross around his neck. Forces on both ends of the socio-political spectrum quote it to indicate their dissatisfaction.

Meanwhile, those who praised him in January are raising questions on the follow-up action. Not only India, but even a section of the civil society in Pakistan has pronounced that the words of January 12 have not been translated into actions. Although some people have characterised the follow-up measures as "half-hearted", they are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the General. Their contention is that it is impractical to expect Musharraf to change overnight the 'mindset' of various segments of Pakistani society, including influential bodies of the state apparatus. After all, the 'mindset', almost 25 years old, was actively aided and nurtured by the leader of the present-day coalition against terrorism, the U.S., in revenge against the Soviet Union for the Vietnam debacle.

It is against this backdrop that one has to look at the May 27 address of Gen. Musharraf. He minced no words in articulating the nature of the challenge faced by Pakistan. He said: "We are at a crossroads of history and confronted with a difficult situation. Decisions of today will have intense external and internal repercussions. I understand that in such a situation consultations are of extreme significance. I want to take you in complete confidence."

It was no surprise that the first subject he broached was the gulf between his government and the mainstream political forces in the country. There is little doubt that his regime had not considered the possibility of an actual boycott of the so-called 'all-party meet' convened to discuss the situation arising out of the escalation of tensions on the border in the wake of the May 14 massacre. Although it is difficult to say at this juncture whether he would re-evaluate his approach towards the mainstream political parties in general and towards the two former Prime Ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, in particular, boycott of the all-party meet by 30 odd parties has undoubtedly jolted the Musharraf government.

The President acknowledged that many persons had advised him to re-invite those who did not respond to the first invitation and that he had done so. Conscious of the fact that the suspicions had become too deep, Gen. Musharraf chose to announce the dates for the general elections he had promised in October. He said: "I would like to remove the doubts and suspicions of all politicians. In the first instance I would like to tell the nation that genuine democracy will be established in the country this year in October. Elections will be held from October 7 to 11, 2002. It is my commitment to the nation that these elections will be fair and transparent and all foreign observers who intend to witness them are welcome."

He even offered an elaborate explanation on the controversial referendum and made it a point to apologise for the "excesses, if any" committed by his overzealous supporters and the government machinery in its conduct.

Has the May 27 address helped bring the mainstream parties and the General any closer? No, if their response is an indication. Minutes after the General finished his speech, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto expressed doubts about his commitments. The PPP said: "The Monday night address was no more than a regurgitation of pious hopes and vague promises designed only to once again hoodwink the domestic and international public opinion and to perpetuate his illegitimate hold on power...

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that it reflected the sentiment of most of the parties, especially with regard to his attitude towards political outfits and their leaders despite their inherent differences. However, the PPP line on how the General should go about in dealing with the stand-off with India and the problem of extremism is not shared by all. Religious parties have a totally different viewpoint on these two subjects.

Most of the parties are worried that like the former military dictator Gen. Zia-ul Haq, Musharraf might go back on his promise to hold free and fair elections in October 2002 as directed by the Supreme Court. An all-party meet in Lahore, attended by representatives of 30 parties, said in a resolution that the political forces believed that for the elections to be free and free it must be held under a government of national consensus and by an autonomous and independent election commission.

The Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), which organised the all-party meet, went to the extent of demanding the resignation of Gen. Musharraf.

The most important component of Musharraf's address was directed at India. He reiterated Pakistan's 'commitment' not to allow its soil or territory under its control to be used for terrorist activities anywhere in the world. He specially mentioned Kashmir and reminded the assurance he had given in his January 12 speech that no organisation or individual would be allowed to commit acts of terror in the name of Kashmir.

However, the truth of the matter is that the Musharraf government has been half-hearted in translating his words into actions. The case of Lashkar-e-Toiba best illustrates the point. It made a public announcement on winding up its operations in Pakistan, but there was a rider. It said that it was shifting its headquarters to POK. There are several other militant outfits supposedly operating from POK. After the January 12 address, most of such outfits kept issuing statements from Muzaffarabad, the capital of POK, about their goal to "liberate Kashmir from the clutches of Indian forces". Some even claimed credit for the militant attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. Strangely, there was no reaction from the Musharraf government to these developments. After all, defence of POK is the responsibility of Pakistan, though technically and legally it can argue that it has no control over POK. The United Jehad Council (UJC), presided over by Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin, functions from Muzaffarabad and continues to operate without any hindrance. In fact, the UJC adopted a resolution condemning Abdul Ghani Lone, who was later shot dead in Srinagar for his frank and forthright views on the vicious role being played by "foreign militants" in Kashmir.

Having repeatedly assured the world that it would not allow any group or individual to let the guns do the talking in the name of Kashmir, the Musharraf regime would have to answer a number of questions particularly on the follow-up to his January 12 speech. If his words have to be taken seriously, Gen. Musharraf will have to crack the whip against the militant outfits irrespective of whether they are in Pakistan or in POK.

Musharraf contended in his May 27 speech that the world knew that Pakistan also faced terrorism. He cited the March 17 attack at a church in the capital and the suicide bombing in Karachi in support of his argument. "Hence I understand that these days such terrorism is perpetrated by some organisations or groups who want to destabilise us. We condemn them." It was not clear whether he was hinting at the possibility of the involvement of Al Qaeda and Taliban activists in the incidents.

In his message aimed at the international community, Gen. Musharraf said that in the face of repeated provocation from New Delhi, Pakistan had adopted a policy of tolerance and patience. He urged the world community to persuade India to move towards normalisation of relations, which implies de-escalation, reduction of tension on the borders, and the initiation of a process of dialogue and a cessation of the "atrocities" perpetrated on the people of Kashmir.

In the backdrop of the escalating tensions, a few questions arise with regard to the role of the international community. Until India upped the ante in the aftermath of the May 14 massacre, the Bush administration kept insisting that the Musharraf regime had initiated steps to address the concerns of the world in general and India in particular. Until a few days ago, senior functionaries in the Bush administration were counselling India to give some more time to Musharraf and the U.S.-led coalition so that their efforts on the terrorism front bore fruit.

However, after May 14 and the spate of statements from the Indian government, the U.S. appears to have changed its tune. Incidentally the change in the tone and tenor of the statements from Washington came after New Delhi let it be known that it was very "unhappy" over the "double standards" of the U.S.-led coalition forces. There were even hints questioning the agenda of the U.S. vis-a-vis Kashmir. As the Afghanistan war drifts into Pakistan, there is a discernable change in the attitude of the U.S.-led coalition towards the Musharraf regime. The irony is that it is not just New Delhi that is unhappy with the U.S. Even Islamabad shares the same feeling. The only difference is that the former said it in so many words.

The dominant sentiment in Pakistan is that India must come to the table to discuss the core issue of Kashmir for any reduction of tension in the region and for the normalisation of relations between the two countries. The offer of Russian President Vladimir Putin to use his good offices to facilitate a dialogue between the leaders of India and Pakistan was welcomed not only by the establishment but also by influential people in Pakistani civil society. The pressure on India is to realise the need to resume the Agra process. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has stressed the need to resolve all issues, including Kashmir, between India and Pakistan through dialogue. Now the Putin initiative has come, with the unmistakable support of the U.S. President.

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