December Issue 2007

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 16 years ago

A few days after Pervez Musharraf carried out a coup against himself early last month — an unusual luxury that was available to him at the time because he was managing the affairs of state in two capacities — he received a call from the man to whom he has been answerable for the past six years.

You’ve been a naughty boy, George W. Bush told him — or words to that effect. A transcript of their conversation would make very interesting reading, but it is unlikely to be made available anytime soon. We do, however, know the punishment that was prescribed for an ostensible act of disobedience. “My message,” Bush told American journalists, “was that we believe strongly in elections and that you ought to have elections and you need to take off your uniform.”

All sorts of unsavoury connotations could be attached to the last bit of that sentence if it is taken out of context, but the general obviously knew exactly what it meant. Less than four weeks later, off came the khaki attire. Elections? They are scheduled for January 8. Anything else we can do for you, Mr Bush, sir? Emergency? Don’t worry about that, sir. Just give me a few days…

Musharraf had apparently defied instructions from Condoleezza Rice as well as Admiral William Fallon against imposing the emergency, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was thereafter dispatched to Islamabad to put the fear of Uncle Sam in him.

Negroponte knows all about insurgencies and the like, and that too from both sides. As US ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, he turned a blind eye to that country’s death squads and helped to infiltrate CIA-trained terrorists into neighbouring Nicaragua, where a popular uprising had led to the overthrow of a Washington-sponsored military dictator. More recently, he has served in the same capacity in Iraq. He is also a veteran of battles at the UN, although somewhat less combative than the foul John Bolton.

The conversations between Negroponte and Musharraf, again, are not in the public domain, although much was inevitably read into the fact that he spent more time with General Ashfaq Kayani, who was only the deputy army chief of staff at the time. The US envoy made the right sort of noises about democracy and civil rights, spoke on the telephone to Benazir Bhutto (who had been freed from house arrest shortly before he arrived) and then left for Washington, presumably armed with a bunch of assurances for Bush, from Musharraf as well as Kayani.

George W. appeared to be reasonably pleased with the gifts because he declared shortly afterwards that Musharraf “truly is somebody who believes in democracy” and who “hasn’t crossed the line.” One can only wonder which particular line Bush was talking about. The same question may have crossed the minds of some people in his audience because his declaration, according to The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, prompted “derisive guffaws from Democrats.”

Some of them may have been reminded of the period two decades ago when another Republican administration regularly reassured the US Congress that the regime of another Pakistani president-general wasn’t up to any tricks on the nuclear front, just so that military aid could keep flowing to Islamabad. Was the generous financial assistance intended, as it supposedly is at present, to combat jihadis? No, quite to the contrary: it was meant to bolster the mujahideen, alongside all the covert assistance that the CIA was funnelling through Pakistan.

And the Reagan administration was all along reasonably well aware of what was going on in Kahuta. It could hardly be otherwise, given that the country was crawling with US intelligence operatives. The Pressler Amendment was passed only after the Afghan jihad was over. At least that was the received wisdom at the time.

Of course, no one could have foreseen back then exactly what shape the blowback would take, although it was clear that there would be repercussions. Now the Americans are focused on a growing portion of Pakistan’s Northern Areas, where Pakistani military efforts to thwart the ascendancy of Taliban-like groups have, by and large, proved spectacularly unsuccessful. Remnants of Al-Qaeda, including its two top-most leaders, are believed to be based in the same region.

Opinion in the US is divided over the approach towards Pakistan. Only a few commentators have raised the prospect of cutting back on military aid, of which a reported $11 billion has flowed in since September 2001. A fairly large number of them, on the other hand, seem to take more or less for granted the likelihood of a growing US military presence in Pakistan. It is improbable that this would be restricted to a training role or an advisory capacity, which, ominously, is precisely the shape initially taken by US intervention in South Vietnam.

There is, at the same time, a growing feeling among liberal and reactionary analysts alike that the US should seriously be casting about for an alternative to Musharraf — and in most opinions this does not mean Bhutto. She was meant to serve a cosmetic purpose under a mildly modified status quo, but that option appears to have been foreclosed by the general’s bizarre actions. As H.D.S. Greenway put it in The Boston Globe, “Bhutto said she no longer considers Musharraf a suitable boy. And he, in turn, made it clear that he was not going to be dragged to the altar even if the Bush administration holds a shotgun to the seat of his pants.”

Meanwhile, Robert Kagan articulated the emerging consensus when he wrote in The Washington Post that Musharraf “cracks down on moderates with good democratic credentials, and with far greater zeal than he has cracked down on Al-Qaeda.” He went on to say: “There are other generals. With all the billions of dollars in aid the United States provides to Pakistan, it ought to be possible to discuss with the Pakistani military alternatives to the man who so poorly serves their interests…. It ought to be possible to find a general who is willing to let Pakistan return to a democratic path and meanwhile do a better job of fighting Pakistan’s real enemies.”

Arthur Keller, a former CIA case officer in Pakistan, appeared to endorse Kagan’s opinion, commenting in The New York Times: “Our expensive investment in [Musharraf] has yielded little in the way of tangible results. We need a policy based on what is actually happening along the Afghan frontier, not on wishful thinking that someday Pakistan will become an effective partner in the war against terrorism.” And Robert Oakley, a former ambassador to Pakistan, in a Washington Post comment cowritten with Joshua Yaphe, suggested that the return of Nawaz Sharif “probably will mark the end of Musharraf’s political career…. Sharif may be the future of Pakistan, an eventuality the United States must prepare for.”

us-pakistan-2-dec07The US, of course, expects to have a lot more leeway in determining the shape of Pakistan’s polity, rather than merely hoping that whoever pops up post-Musharraf will be prepared to lend an attentive ear to Washington. That is precisely why it, along with the British government, so determinedly pushed Bhutto as a candidate for cohabitation. The possibility of a ménage à trois was never seriously contemplated, until the Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines seemingly summoned Musharraf to Riyadh and informed him that the kingdom was no longer prepared to put up with Sharif as a guest.

It is intriguing, but not altogether surprising, that the foreign co-sponsors of the Afghan jihad, which played an enormously important role in getting us into this mess in the first place, are now competing to sponsor Pakistan’s next prime minister.

It also isn’t particularly remarkable that American commentators of almost every stripe, including the ones quoted above, and arguably excluding only those who operate via alternative media outlets on the radical left, are united in assuming that their government has every right to interfere directly in Pakistan’s domestic affairs. The concept isn’t even questioned. This is Manifest Destiny writ large, the very mindset responsible for some of the biggest American foreign policy cock-ups — to say nothing of monumental crimes against humanity — in living memory, from Hiroshima to Iraq via Vietnam. They are concerned almost exclusively with perceived US interests. That’s perfectly natural. The same cannot be said about the pretence that whatever suits America must perforce also be good for Pakistan.

Even a cursory glance across the 60 years of Pakistan’s existence proves that this has rarely been the case. Even now, the apparent unity of purpose in the context of combating violent Islamist extremists disguises the fact that Pakistani and US motives in staving off this threat don’t exactly coincide.

It is obviously makes sense for the US to be concerned about the possibility of terrorist attacks on its soil in the wake of 9/11, but the probability of recurrences has been reasonably low ever since. On the other hand, assiduously cultivating the fear of a threat makes it simpler to justify moves aimed at military and economic domination abroad. It’s hardly necessary to point to Iraq as an outstanding example of such perfidy, in a region whose natural resources the US believes it cannot do without.

For Pakistan, on the other hand, staving off the extremist threat is a matter of survival. Yet Musharraf’s efforts in this regard have floundered in large part because of the not entirely inaccurate assumption that he has been pursuing an American agenda. Contrary to his utterances, last month’s emergency had nothing to do with the Islamist militancy in Swat or anywhere else: tellingly, Musharraf never made an attempt to explain exactly how the suspension of basic rights would assist military operations in a region that is anyhow lawless (which goes some way towards explaining the popular appeal of Shariah in those parts).

The general was also playing on American fears when he hinted that Pakistan’s nuclear assets (or, more accurately, liabilities) would somehow be less secure in the absence of direct military rule. Why should that be so? Ideally, Pakistan should dispense with its nuclear weapons. They have never served any useful purpose, and they never will. But as long as we have to live with them, is the army incapable of guaranteeing their security, evidently with American assistance? If not, then why should it make any difference whether or not it wields political power?

The emergency was intended mainly, if not exclusively, to facilitate a judicial cleansing and to thwart the rule of law. At his swearing in last month as an ostensibly civilian head of state — an unconstitutional move, but does that matter much in a milieu where military rules can amend the constitution more or less at will? — Musharraf once more directed his remarks at the West, reiterating his stance that western democratic norms cannot be established overnight in Pakistan.

It would be interesting to discover, as he tries to reinvent himself as a sort of Suharto, whether Musharraf’s concept of democracy includes any concession at all to representative rule. He is a beneficiary, of course, of the fact that Washington’s rhetoric about democratic rule is basically a lot of blather: whatever it may say, the US primarily values sustainable puppetry. Its increased military involvement in this country would portend a disaster of unimaginable, or at least Iraq-like, proportions.

A crucial aspect of Pakistan’s unfolding tragedy is that conditions necessary for national progress include the banishment of American interference and an end to military influence in politics, yet the prospects in these two respects have never been grimmer.

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