Musharraf's new high

Print edition : March 02, 2002

General Pervez Musharraf, buoyed by the economic and defence packages he has managed to get from Washington, is now less likely to accede to India's demands.

ARE we at the dawn of a new Pakistan where stereotyped roles are reversed? A new buoyancy is evident, thanks to the latest instance of patronage extended by the United States. This might sound like an overstatement but a mutation is definitely taking place. For once, the official machinery is hunting down jehadis; the military ruler wants to protect democracy and a fresh tranche of dollars is making its way to Pakistan. Religious extremists, who were thought to be down and out with the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, are refusing to be taken for granted. The only thing that remains immutable is the complexity that is synonymous with Pakistan and its relations with India.

The Pakistan President, General Pervez Musharraf, during a visit to forward positions on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control in early February.-AFP

This February was worth watching as President General Pervez Musharraf posed as the new Valentine of the U.S., causing obvious complications in the Islamabad-Washington-New Delhi love triangle. Ever since his January 12 address to the nation, wherein he expressed his decision to go tough on the extremists operating from Pakistani soil, his stars have been on the ascendant. The speech was well received in quarters where it was intended to be. He was able to impress both his U.S benefactors on the one side and the pro-jehadi Urdu media on the other.

It would have been almost a bull's-eye for the General, had the Daniel Pearl kidnapping not happened to expose the real mood of the jehadi groups who retaliated in the only way they knew.

Pearl, who worked for The Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped on January 23 from Karachi. The kidnap drama ran like a parallel plot to the General's U.S. visit in early February and the extra courtesies extended to him there. But Musharraf managed to secure the economic and defence packages he was looking for ever since his government's volte-face towards Osama bin Laden and his forces after September 11.

This, despite the inability of the Pakistani government machinery to take the Pearl case to its logical conclusion even while Musharraf walked the corridors of the White House. Will the temerity with which the video recording showing Pearl's throat being slashed was forwarded to the U.S. and Pakistani authorities on February 22, cast a shadow on the relationship?

The world, barring India, seems to look at the twists and turns in the Pearl case as a reflection of the enormous challenges faced by Musharraf in tackling the jehadi elements within Pakistan. That the forces behind the kidnap and the gruesome murder of the reporter had the audacity to deliver the videotape right in Karachi to a news agency office speaks volumes about the situation on the ground.

There is little to suggest that the jehadis enjoy mass support within Pakistan. But their nuisance value cannot be underestimated. What makes the situation even more frightening is the prospect of collusion between the radical elements and members of the establishment. It is an open secret that the jehadis flourished in the past two decades with state patronage.

The government has conceded that Syed Ahmed Umar Sheikh is the prime suspect in the Pearl case. Umar is no ordinary person. Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Umar Sheikh were released by the Indian government in December 1999 in the terrorist-for-hostages swap that followed the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 from Kathmandu.

American journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped by terrorists in Karachi, in a photograph e-mailed by his captors to the media on January 27. His murder was finally confirmed on February 22.-REUTERS

Pakistan tried to involve and implicate India in the Pearl case. The argument, from Musharraf downwards, was that although Masood Azhar and Umar Sheikh were lodged in Indian jails for several years, New Delhi did not bother to bring them to trial. Implied in the observations was the charge that they could be acting at the behest of India.

On the face of it, the argument sounds logical. But Islamabad would have to do a great deal of explaining as to why it allowed these two to take shelter in Pakistan and at least Azhar to emerge as a top leader of the JeM. In this case, Musharraf cannot shift the blame to past regimes. The Pakistani media have published copious accounts of how Masood Azhar was helped generously by the various agencies in early 2000 in the establishment of the JeM. Such was the extent of help that within a few months the JeM emerged as one of the most powerful terrorist organisations in Pakistan.

The twists and turns in the Pearl case were intriguing particularly after the arrest of Umar Sheikh. Even the actual date of his arrest as put out is suspect. While the police claimed that he was picked up from Lahore on February 12, Umar Sheikh is reported to have told the Anti-Terrorism Court Judge in Karachi that he had surrendered himself to save the honour of his family. There has been no explanation from the authorities on the discrepancy. The leading English daily, The News published two damaging reports from the Pakistani point of view, allegedly on the basis of Umar Sheikh's confessions. The first report talked about Mansur Hasnain as an accomplice of Umar in the kidnapping of Pearl. What is more important, the report quoted Umar as telling his interrogators that Hasnain was the "chief architect" of the hijacking of IC-814.

Strangely, the government did not deem it necessary to contradict the report. It put out a bland press statement, that too only after the newspaper published a second report. It quoted him as saying that he and his associates were responsible for the attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building on October 1, the December 13 attack on Parliament House in New Delhi and the subsequent targeting of the American Centre in Kolkata.

Although the second report was denied by the government as being "fictitious and baseless", both reports raised many eyebrows in political and diplomatic circles in Islamabad. The question on everyone's mind is, what is the source of these reports? Even assuming that they were planted, it would be interesting to know who did it.

One explanation is that the reports reflect a rift within the establishment on the overall approach to tackling jehadi elements. The other is that they indicate differences between the U.S. and Pakistan on the kidnap issue. American investigators were closely associated with the probe into the kidnap. Whatever the truth, the episode does raise disturbing questions.

Rightly or wrongly, the kidnap of Pearl cast a shadow on the first official trip of Musharraf to Washington in February. Within Pakistan there are two views on the outcome of the visit, although Musharraf insists that the trip benefited Pakistan enormously. The trip was good for Pakistan and great for Musharraf personally. The Friday Times said editorially. After all he did manage to get a "soft" International Monetary Fund (IMF) and donor assistance for economic restructuring and poverty alleviation at the rate of $1 billion a year, a possible $1 billion U.S. debt write-off, direct U.S. social sector assistance of about $150 million, $150 million for military education and training in the U.S., and a U.S. textile quota increase of about $145 million a year. Besides, it was a great reception for a military leader who was considered an outcast prior to his country's rediscovery as a front-line state in the U.S.' war against terrorism.

The local media, however, highlighted the flip side. The Friday Times said: "what is worrying about all this praise for and attention to the person of General Pervez Musharraf is its likely fallout on the prospects of democratic revival in Pakistan. All other things being equal, after being eulogised in the capital of the sole superpower of the world, isn't General Musharraf less inclined to share power with civilians than he was before his D.C. trip?"

Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat, wrote in The Nation: "Gen. Musharraf reportedly told Pakistani reporters during his recent Washington visit that he felt his continuing in office was necessary for things in Pakistan to move forward in an orderly manner. 'I never said I will not go beyond three years,' he said, adding, 'I only said I would hold elections within three years as mandated by the Supreme Court.' That elections can be held without affecting who rules the country is an integral part of military rule. But General Musharraf also insisted that he wanted to stay on to sustain democracy."

Besides, the U.S. has once again specified its demands. The Friday Times editorial commented: "Get religion out of politics in Pakistan. Finish off the fundamentalists. Educate and modernise Pakistanis. Don't get into an arms race with India. Safeguard and freeze the nuclear programme. Live and let live with Afghanistan. Build oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia. And don't meddle in the problem between the Kashmiris and the Indians. Ironically enough, all this seems to be in Pakistan's intrinsic self-interest too. Everything, that is, except perhaps the bit about Kashmir."

In fact, Musharraf has already announced that he will work to stop the export of jehad. But if he were actually to implement it in the context of Kashmir, he stands to lose the only bargaining chip he might have in any future negotiations with India. As expected, the official version still says that the war on terrorism inside Pakistan or any other part of the world is unlike the war of terror in Kashmir.

How does this new-found exaltation it affect India-Pakistan relations? The new self-perceived high in Pakistan and Musharraf's self-esteem are proportionate to its belligerence towards India. The ascent of Pakistan in the U.S. charts is often accompanied by a steep descent in its diplomatic ties with India. Of course, New Delhi cannot escape responsibility on this count.

The perception in Pakistan was that India's mobilisation of troops along the border was largely motivated by domestic political factors - to be precise, the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The calculation was that India would come down once the elections are over. But India's latest rhetoric and actions, such as the air exercises near the border, seem to belie such expectations.

So it is only natural for Pakistan to respond suitably. If the General was ready to visit Agra when the world had spurned him as a military dictator, relations between the two South Asian neighbours are at a grim low today ever since his ratings rose with his new role in the post-September 11 drama.

Besides, a buoyant Musharraf is less likely to accede to India's demand for the extradition of the 20 wanted offenders who are residing in Pakistan. Instead, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani was named in some local reports as an accused in a plot to assassinate Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1947.

The latest in this unfolding strategy and war of words is the candid statement by Musharraf that he will not hold talks with India unless it pulled back its troops from the border. He even said that Pakistan had no problem in stationing its troops as long as Indian troops remained on the forward lines. There is little scope for improvement in bilateral ties unless the two countries developed mutual trust. Sooner than later, New Delhi will have to decide whether it is prepared to trust Musharraf and give him the much-needed helping hand in tackling the jehadi elements. Tough words from across the borders could only help those very elements that India does not want to thrive.

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