Alone at the top

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's conflicting statements on Indo-Pakistan relations are indicative of the peculiar problems he faces in the post-September 11 world.

"I'VE told President Bush nothing is happening across the Line of Control. This is the assurance I've given. I'm not going to give you an assurance that for years nothing will happen. We have to have a response from India, a discussion about Kashmir. If you want a guarantee of peace in this region, there are three ways: 1. denuclearise South Asia; 2. ensure a conventional deterrence so that war never takes place in the subcontinent; 3. find a solution to the Kashmir problem," Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said in an interview to the U.S. weekly, Newsweek. Soon after the issue hit the stands in the third week of June, there was an uproar in New Delhi. The A.B. Vajpayee government was livid over what it perceived as a U-turn by the General on the commitments he had made in order to end 'permanently' infiltration across the LoC and the international border.

There was little doubt that Musharraf's observations had jolted the George Bush administration in Washington and the Tony Blair government in London. After all senior functionaries from the governments of both the United States and the United Kingdom, who acted as interlocutors between India and Pakistan, had succeeded in preventing another Indo-Pakistan conflict. After six months of sabre-rattling, New Delhi had announced some concrete steps towards the process of de-escalation on the basis of commitments made by the Pakistani military ruler to the interlocutors from the U.S. and the U.K.

The General's flat denial of any such commitments meant that the situation was back to square one. The 'facilitators' of peace, as India would like to describe the U.S. and the U.K. in that role, soon swung into action to make sure that their hard work did not go to waste. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw got in touch with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to exchange notes on the 'situation arising' out of the interview given by the General. And from Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Musharraf. "During a phone conversation initiated by Secretary of State Powell on June 23, President Musharraf said the halt to terrorist infiltration from across the Line of Control is permanent," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters on the exchange between the two Generals.

For Gen. Musharraf, it must have been a humbling experience to go back on his word. But could the Pakistan President have been so naive as to assume that his interview would not provoke reaction? Gen. Musharraf is a shrewd military commander though his diplomatic skills are considered to be poor. The comments he made in the interview hence appear to be calculated rather than emotional.

This was evident from two other interviews - to the British Broadcasting Corporation (radio and television) - which followed the Newsweek one. It appears that Gen. Musharraf wanted to send out a clear signal to the U.S. and the U.K. on the one hand and to India on the other. Of course, it was also meant for audiences within Pakistan who perceive a definite shift in the Kashmir policy on the part of the military government, under pressure from the U.S.

Musharraf is unhappy over what he believes is the 'inadequate' response of India to his regime's 'major policy' initiatives on Kashmir. He is perhaps disappointed over the inability of the interlocutors to persuade India to be seen to be making some concessions on Kashmir. Conflicting statements from Prime Minister Vajpayee and Defence Minister George Fernandes on infiltration from the Pakistan side and the declaration that India has no intention to withdraw its troops from the border until at least October could have only complicated matters further. This is evident from Islamabad's disinterest in responding to New Delhi's decision to allow over-flight by Pakistani aircraft. "We are examining it," is the refrain of Pakistan two weeks after the Indian initiative. Gen. Musharraf even went to the extent of saying that the de-escalatory measures announced by New Delhi were 'self-serving'.

The Pakistan President questioned India's motives in pulling back its naval ships from the Arabian Sea and also challenged India to retain its forces on the border for as long as it wanted. In categorising the Indian initiatives as 'comedic', Musharraf's message was simple and clear: New Delhi should not only commit itself to engage Islamabad in a meaningful dialogue for the resolution of all differences between the two sides including the Kashmir issue but also be seen in the immediate context as responding positively to actions from the Pakistani side.

The Pakistani establishment and civil society are convinced that New Delhi is trying to extract the maximum mileage from the situation arising out of the September 11 incidents in the U.S. and the consequent 'war on terrorism' declared by the U.S.-led coalition. There is a growing perception in Pakistan that any number of concessions by Islamabad would not satisfy New Delhi. There is also concern that India is insensitive to the domestic and foreign pressures on the government in Islamabad in the post-September 11 world. Pakistan is now faced with one of the gravest crises in its 53-year-old history. Even in 1971, when the country underwent a division, Pakistan did not face such multiple pressures.

There is little doubt that Gen. Musharraf, despite all the authority he commands, is confronted with problems which no other Pakistani ruler faced in the past. Days after September 11, it was forced to abandon its two-decade-old Afghanistan policy, and it lost its so-called 'strategic depth' on the eastern borders. It was not only faced with a hostile regime in Kabul but earned the wrath of Al Qaeda, the terror network of Osama bin Laden.

Under pressure from the U.S. the Musharraf government has been forced to dispatch military and paramilitary forces to sensitive tribal areas, where the writ of the government does not run. Incidentally, it is for the first time in Pakistan's history that it has sent troops into these tribal areas. What this could mean was evident in the bitter battle on June 26 between the Pakistani forces and elements of Al Qaeda who were hiding in the tribal areas. Eleven members of the security agencies were killed in the clashes.

Even before the military establishment could cope with the situation arising out of the developments in Afghanistan, it was forced to give up its Kashmir policy. No doubt Pakistan has only itself to blame for the present state of affairs. However, it is one thing to make an announcement of a policy shift and another to implement it on the ground.

For two and a half decades, a period that saw both military and civilian governments, Pakistan favoured jehad (holy war) as an instrument of foreign policy. So is it practical to expect Gen. Musharraf to reverse the policies and dismantle the jehadi infrastructure and disconnect its linkage to state institutions? India has undoubtedly succeeded in forcing Pakistan to admit its 'sins' in Kashmir. Pakistani newspapers, at least the English media, are full of commentaries on the 'Bleed India' strategy adopted by Islamabad in the last 12 years. Some of the writing is so candid that India need no longer harp on evidence on the ground. A commentary on the dilemma faced by Pakistan, in the English daily The Nation by M.A. Niazi, best illustrates the point. It says: "Pakistan had followed a policy of bleeding India and of engaging its forces there, by all-out support for the indigenous Kashmir freedom struggle there. In the 12 years since it started in 1989, it was 'contaminated' by Pakistani volunteers, and also transformed into a jehad. This was one of the reasons given for abandoning the Taliban - to preserve the Kashmir policy. India made that impossible, by two threats of going to war in six months. The international community refuses to see the distinction between a national liberation struggle and terrorism."

But the commentaries do not stop here. They want to know whether India is willing to return to the negotiating table to resolve the Kashmir issue. The biggest worry of the establishment and civil society is the possibility of India edging out Pakistan as a party to the Kashmir issue. Their argument is that Pakistan has invested so much, in material and political terms, in the issue that it is impossible for any regime in Islamabad to give it up without risking its own survival.

On the face of it, Gen. Musharraf is the most powerful ruler Pakistan has seen. But all the same, the bitter truth is that he is alone at the top. Thanks to a combination of domestic and international developments, he has ended up antagonising virtually all influential sections of society.

Musharraf deeply distrusts the leadership of the mainstream parties and has vowed several times never to allow former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan politics. Most political observers believe that the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Sharif continue to enjoy mass support and between the two of them could poll over 60 per cent of the vote in any fair election. Much to the dismay of objective analysts, Gen. Musharraf refuses to do business with the leaders of the two parties. Minions in the military establishment have been desperately trying to split the parties despite the conviction of many that it is the two leaders who matter and not second- or third-rung leaders in the parties.

The sweeping changes in the Constitution proposed by him to consolidate his position as President and reduce the status of the Prime Minister and Parliament into 'rubber stamps' have further widened the gulf between him and the mainstream parties. It is rumoured in diplomatic circles that even traditional allies of Pakistan such as China are concerned over Gen. Musharraf's attitude towards popular political leaders.

Unlike his predecessor Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, a ruthless military dictator, Gen. Musharraf cannot look to the religious parties for support. With the U.S. breathing down his neck and with Islamic fundamentalism an anathema in the post-September 11 world, he has to keep the fundamentalists at bay. Before September 11, Gen. Musharraf had an equation of sorts with some of the religious leaders but his subsequent policies on Afghanistan and Kashmir have turned them all against him.

This is the backdrop against which one has to evaluate the recent statements of Gen. Musharraf. India needs to think seriously whether undermining the authority of the military ruler would help or harm the objectives it is pursuing since September 11. New Delhi cannot ignore indefinitely the demand to return to the negotiating table unless it has some other calculations in mind.

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