January issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

After narrowly escaping a series of assassination attempts, General Musharraf got some much-needed respite when he won a protracted constitutional battle legitimising his rule. A vote of confidence by the Parliament allows him to stay on as President for the next four years. It was the second boost for the military ruler in a week. On the last day of the year, lawmakers approved a series of amendments in the constitution making him an all-powerful leader vested with the authority to dismiss an elected government as well as Parliament.

Musharraf owed his triumph solely to his new-found alliance with the hardline religious groups that have been at odds with him for his pro-US policies as well as his domestic crackdown on Islamic militancy. In return for their support for his presidency, Musharraf has agreed to shed his military uniform by the end of the year. “There comes a time in the lives of nations when important decisions must be taken,” he said. “That time has come.” The government hopes the move will end the political deadlock, which had paralysed Parliament since the elections 14 months ago.

However, the union between the pro-US president and the religious coalition, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), that achieved unprecedented success in the last parliamentary elections on the back of anti-American slogans, may have far reaching impact on Pakistan’s security. “The deal has strengthened the traditional alliance between the mullahs and the military,” says Samina Ahmed, director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “It has strengthened the Islamists’ hold over the bordering provinces where, according to the US, the Taliban are regrouping. This is one of the main problems Musharraf has to confront.”

This “marriage of convenience”, however, has not deterred the more extremist elements from plotting to kill him. Ironically, the suicide attack on the President’s convoy came just a day after the signing of the deal between the MMA and the government. “He is a marked man and they are after his life,” says retired general Talat Masood. “Musharraf will have to realise he cannot ride on both boats.”

President Musharraf looked visibly shaken when he described on national television on Christmas day how he saw a pick-up laden with explosives racing towards his motorcade. A courageous policeman blocked the path of the attacking vehicle, slowing it sufficiently to allow the President’s car to pass the potentially fatal spot before 60 pounds of explosives detonated. Debris from the car just behind him smashed the windscreen of Musharraf’s armour-plated Mercedes Benz.

It was the second attempt on his life in less than two weeks. Both took place in Rawalpindi, the seat of the Pakistani military headquarters. The first one, on December 14, failed because the jamming device carried by the President’s convoy prevented the transmission of the detonation signal to the explosives placed under a bridge. The fact that explosives were placed under a bridge along the route of General Musharraf’s motorcade and that the second time around, the terrorists’ vehicles could access his convoy in a zone where not the slightest movement can escape detection, is baffling.

The crucial question for investigators is how the assailants penetrated the President’s security. There is serious concern over the precision with which the terrorists have been able to time their attacks on Musharraf’s cavalcade. And that too twice, almost at the same spot in a high security area. At the time of the Christmas incident there were two motorcades moving simultaneously on different routes, but the assassins knew precisely which one was being used by the President.

“In both the attempts it seems the perpetrators had the assistance of experts and were given tracking and other devices not usually available to local terrorists,” said Najmuddin Sheikh, a former foreign secretary. The latest attempt was the most serious of the three attempts on his life since General Musharraf joined the US-led war on terrorism, which has so angered the Islamic militants. “They almost got the President,” said a security official.

Pakistani security officials said the attack was professionally planned and seemed to be the work of a well-organised terrorist network. “Both the attacks carried the hallmark of international terrorism,” says a security official. Suspicion falls on Al Qaeda, after Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a recent audio-taped message aired by an Arab television channel, called upon Pakistanis to overthrow Musharraf for supporting America. The group is furious with Musharraf for supporting the US — led war in which Pakistan arrested hundreds of Al Qaeda militants and handed them over to the United States.

Pakistani security authorities have identified a Kashmiri militant as one of the suicide bombers. Muhammad Jamil, from Pakistani controlled Kashmir was linked with an outlawed Islamic militant group that has close ties with Al Qaeda and Afghanistan’s Taliban movement. The other assailant is suspected to be an Afghan national. Jamil is an activist of Jaish-i-Mohammed, the fiercest militant outfit fighting Indian forces in the disputed state of Kashmir. The group, which was outlawed by President Musharraf, has been involved in a series of terrorist attacks across Pakistan, including a suicide car bombing on the American consulate in Karachi last year. Both the bombers were trained at a former Al Qaeda camp in Rishkor near Kabul.

musharraf-2-jan04Twenty-three-old Jamil was arrested fighting against the US-led coalition forces, but was later released along with hundreds of Pakistani fighters by President Karzai’s government in April. Not surprisingly, Pakistani intelligence agencies, with their long association with militant groups, cleared the young man of any anti-state activities and allowed him to rejoin his outfit.

The suspected involvement of a Kashmiri militant in the suicide bombing on the eve of a crucial South Asian summit conference in Islamabad, which is also being attended by Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has raised questions about the motives behind the attack.

Musharraf’s recent peace overtures with India and attempts to resolve the protracted dispute with India over Kashmir, has further infuriated the Islamic militants who see him as “a traitor to the cause of jihad.” Earlier this month Musharraf said he was prepared to drop Pakistan’s long-standing demand of holding a plebiscite in the disputed territory in line with the UN Security Council resolution of 1948. This is the first time that a Pakistani ruler showed such flexibility on an issue which has, for the past five decades, been the centre of hostility between the two South Asian nuclear powers. “The anger towards Musharraf and his policies is natural,” says a Kashmiri guerrilla leader. “We have lost so many friends, brothers and relatives in the Kashmir struggle. What was that for? We are not going to sit quietly.”

The attack has also raised new concerns over General Musharraf’s security. What is more alarming is that the assailants chose the same spot for both attacks. That particular road is used nearly every day by General Musharraf as he travels from his residence to his presidential offices in Islamabad. Security is always tight when Musharraf travels, with roads closed to allow his long motorcade and the heavily armed soldiers surrounding his vehicle to pass. Security around the country was even more vigilant on that day as Pakistan’s tiny Christian community celebrated Christmas.

Most analysts contend there has been a serious security breach as the attackers have, in less than two weeks, managed to penetrate the heart of a highly fortified army cantonment twice. “There has definitely been a security lapse,” said information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. Security around the President has been totally overhauled after the December 14 bomb attack.

musharraf-3-jan04Defence sources appear convinced that certain elements within the army or intelligence agencies may have either encouraged or tacitly allowed such threats to materialise. “Musharraf is viewed as having sacrificed Pakistan’s national security interest,” says a retired military official. The attempts on General Musharraf’s life came amid reports of simmering dissent in army ranks. Last month, an anti-Musharraf opposition leader circulated a letter purportedly written by some army officers criticising the President for his pro-west policies. Javed Hashmi, president of the liberal Alliance for Democracy, has been arrested and is being tried on sedition charges.

These reports are, perhaps, not without foundation. A few months back, several army officers were arrested for alleged links with radical Islamic groups. One of the detained officers had also given shelter to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, a top Al Qaeda leader, in his home in a restricted cantonment area in the North West Frontier province. Muhammad was arrested last April from a house in the Rawalpindi cantonment.

According to military sources, there is a growing anti-Musharraf sentiment among the middle and lower ranking officers who are infuriated with his support for the United States in the war on terrorism. “There is a large group of retired Islamist generals and former intelligence officials who may also have been involved in the plot,” says a retired general.

Besides his peace move on Kashmir, it is Musharraf’s perceived compromise on Pakistan’s nuclear assets — manifest in the manner in which top scientists at the main nuclear facility were detained for questioning for their alleged links with Iran’s nuclear programme — which fuels dissent.

Last month Pakistani security agencies detained for questioning Muhammed Farooq, a director at the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), and Yasin Chohan , both key players in Pakistan’s successful nuclear tests in 1988. Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb was also “debriefed” after the disclosure that some Pakistani scientists may have sold critical technology to enrich uranium to Iran, Libya and possibly to North Korea.

Dr. Khan is the former head of KRL, named after him. Situated at Kahuta, some 30 miles from Islamabad, it is the country’s main nuclear weapons facility where uranium is enriched. It also runs Pakistan’s missile programme which has been developed with the help of North Korea. The United States clamped sanctions on KRL in March for “material contribution to the efforts of a foreign country and acquiring missiles capable of delivering mass destruction.”

The arrests have provoked intense criticism from retired military generals who have accused the government of targeting the scientists under foreign pressure. “The arrest of scientists associated with the country’s security on America’s behest is alarming” says General Aslam Beg, a former army chief. “There is no indication that Musharraf will change course after the assassination attempts,” said General Masood.

Defence analysts believe that the ground swell in his popularity after the assassination attempt will strengthen Musharraf’s hand in dealing with militancy. “Musharraf knows that a reversal in his policy against militancy will not make his life safer. There is no going back for him,” said Rifaat Hussain, a defence analyst.

Political analysts and western diplomats fear that if Musharraf is eliminated, it would affect the international campaign against terror, the stability of Afghanistan and disrupt the process of normalisation that India and Pakistan have recently begun. “There will be much chaos and a period of uncertainty if Musharraf is killed,” says General Masood. “The military will try to hold the country together. But it will take a while for the new man in to assert his leadership.”

Military analysts in Islamabad, however, discount the prospects of an Islamist takeover, pointing out that pro-Western generals are next in line to succeed Pervez Musharraf. General Mohammed Yousuf, the current vice-chief of the Pakistani army, who is widely seen as maintaining Islamabad’s pro-US policies, has been tipped to take over from Musharraf. The majority of the other senior officers under General Musharraf are also seen as liberal and pro-US.

There is, however, an apprehension that religious elements will try to exploit the situation and try to force the new man to reverse his predecessor’s course. “There will be a struggle between the mullahs and the moderates as to which course Pakistan should pursue,” says Rifaat Hussain. Though Musharraf still has a year left in uniform, it promises to be a year of living dangerously.

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.