September Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh. Photograph: AFP

Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh. Photograph: AFP

In the end, the United States appears not to have resisted too firmly the idea of Pervez Musharraf’s abdication. The senior envoys hastily despatched to Islamabad, even before an elected government was properly in place, for meetings with a range of political leaders, suggested that Washington was keen to retain the ex-general’s services. A flurry of activity on the part of locally based diplomats, particularly Ambassador Anne Patterson, reinforced that impression. It was widely whispered that the new leadership in Pakistan had conceded to the American demand that Musharraf be allowed to occupy the presidency at least until George W. Bush remained in the White House.

That conclusion seems to have been mistaken. What’s likelier, though, is that the US was persuaded to change its mind. Husain Haqqani presumably did his bit, and it has been reported that during his maiden voyage to Washington in his capacity as prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani’s entourage included a number of ‘Musharraf experts’ whose task was to convince Bush that his friend’s departure from the political scene would not substantially affect US-Pakistan relations or the ‘war against terror.’

Left with little choice, the US eventually decided that Musharraf must be abandoned. But not completely: the Americans requested two of their closest allies, Britain and Saudi Arabia, to broker a deal whereby the ex-dictator would face no charges or any other repercussions. London and Riyadh dutifully sent across Sir Mark Lyall Grant and Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, respectively, and the desired outcome was evidently achieved. This was followed, not long afterwards, by a phone call from Bush to Musharraf. Their conversation may have been restricted to general pleasantries and a spot of mutual backslapping, but it would nonetheless be entertaining, and possibly enlightening, to lay one’s hands on a transcript.

The loyalty is touching. It’s also more than a little ironic, given that bringing democracy to Iraq was among the reasons cited for invading that unfortunate country, while dictatorial rule in Pakistan appears to have posed no conceptual problem. But then, it has always been thus. Pakistan’s first and third military dictators assumed power with the acquiescence, and quite possibly encouragement, of the US. Field Marshal Ayub Khan was hailed as an Asian de Gaulle, while General Zia-ul-Haq, following a brief period of ostracism after he arranged the judicial murder of the country’s first elected prime minister, was embraced as a precious warrior in the no-holds-barred jihad against godless communism.

Musharraf’s ratings followed a similar trajectory: he was initially viewed with suspicion and a hint of distaste for overthrowing an elected civilian government, but all such qualms were swept aside in the wake of 9/11. The former president says in his autobiography that, notwithstanding Richard Armitage’s threat to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age (Armitage denies using these words), he actually toyed with the idea of putting up a fight. That’s implausible: you don’t have to be a military strategist to recognise that such a course of action would have been suicidal. Not surprisingly, in explaining to his compatriots precisely what rights and privileges had been extended to the Americans, Musharraf was less than forthcoming.

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Pervez Musharraf and George W. Bush. Photograph: AFP

Thus it was that he acquired the status of a valued ally in the ‘war against terror.’ In the US, his popularity extended beyond the neoconservative elite: he was painted, not exactly inaccurately, as the antithesis of the self-detonating Islamic fundamentalist. However, the US foreign policy establishment wasn’t unanimous in this matter: some of its members have consistently viewed Musharraf with a lack of enthusiasm, suspecting that he was playing a double game — although the general himself would have described it as a balancing act. On occasion, representatives of the administration, such as Dick Cheney, would be sent across to berate him for not doing enough.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s antipathy towards Musharraf also posed a problem for the Bush administration, which sought to dissipate tensions by arranging a flag meeting in the White House. It didn’t help. And as the numbers of Taliban on Pakistan’s northwestern frontier appeared to multiply, it lent credence to his critics. It appeared obvious that if Musharraf and his government were indeed making an effort to reverse this trend, then there was something seriously wrong with their strategy.

The ex-president’s image problems got a lot worse last year: the Jamia Hafsa and Lal Masjid affairs suggested that the government was finding it difficult to maintain its writ even in the federal capital. The sacking of the Supreme Court chief justice, followed by the lawyers’ agitation, the imposition of emergency and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto all contributed to the image of a government in disarray, and last February’s elections demonstrated Musharraf’s lack of popularity. Despite all this, the US was keen to continue employing him as its point man in Islamabad.

This soft spot for despots derives from the notion that they are better able to deliver what they promise than prime ministers beholden to party and parliamentary interests. Chances are it was this very idea that endeared Musharraf, to a degree, to the Indian leadership. There was a kind of hush in New Delhi when Musharraf announced his resignation, presumably based on the new uncertainties ahead.

His relations with Pakistan’s giant neighbour got off to something of a rocky start, given that when Musharraf assumed power, he was viewed as the architect of Kargil in 1999. (It was even said that the coup was the consequence of Nawaz Sharif’s insistence, under pressure from the Clinton administration, that Pakistani troops should pull out of the areas they had occupied.) Things got a great deal worse in late 2002, after a bunch of jihadis attacked the Indian parliament. For some months an outbreak of war between two nuclear-armed powers seemed imminent, and international commentators began routinely referring to the subcontinent as the most dangerous place in the world.

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Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf. Photograph: AFP

The fact that a catastrophe was averted may well have had something to do with the presence of American troops on Pakistani soil. What seemed even more miraculous in the aftermath of this near-showdown was a progressive improvement in relations, with New Delhi accepting Musharraf as someone it could do business with, and the Pakistan president exhibiting an ostensibly sincere desire to turn a new leaf. Diplomacy did not come easily to him, however, and a public relations initiative in Agra effectively scuttled a crucial summit. But the sourness did not persist for long. Small but significant confidence-building measures facilitated a thaw of sorts.

Progress was slow, and there was never any sign of a mutually acceptable compromise on the core problem of Kashmir. The valley had turned relatively quiet after Musharraf took steps to halt, or at least hinder, jihadist infiltration. Chances are that the current peaceful upsurge in popular resistance is unrelated to Musharraf’s exit. More broadly, however, it is understandable why India should be concerned about what lies ahead.

The sort of impression — ambiguous but leaning to the positive side — that Musharraf made in India and the US was not, generally, replicated elsewhere. He was fond of Turkey, having spent part of his childhood there, and was no doubt aware of the need to kowtow to Saudi Arabia and certain other Muslim countries. None of them embraced him too tightly, though. Nor did his American appeal translate too well to Europe, where the only leader willing to humour him beyond the call of duty was former British prime minister Tony Blair — although quite possibly only out of a higher sense of duty, given that Blair felt obliged, wherever possible, to follow in Bush’s footsteps.

Will Musharraf be missed? Quite possibly — but nostalgia on the part of the US or Indian leadership doesn’t matter all that much. There would be much greater cause for concern were the people of Pakistan to begin clamouring for his return. Whether that prospect can be avoided depends entirely on his successors.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.