The General in His Labyrinth

general-in-his-labyrinth.jpgMuch has happened in Pakistan over the past year, and the drama seems to be just that: a long, unending series of brilliantly executed performances on stage; ones where no one has any inkling of the outcome. All one can do is to expect the script to run on ‘expected’ lines. The funny thing is that it never does.

So here we are trying to gauge whatever’s happening with our friends to the west. Pakistan is the sixth most populous country of the world, and was declared the Dominion of Pakistan in 1947, only to be renamed the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1956. Its etymology [paːkɪst̪aːn] means “Land of the Pure, in Urdu and Persian. The name represented the “thirty million Muslims of PAKSTAN, who live in the five Northern Units of (British) India—Punjab, Afghania (North-West Frontier Province), Kashmir, Sindh, and BaluchisTAN.”

Pakistan, since its traumatic creation, has had a deeply chaotic life: Ayub Khan, in 1958, declared a coup d’etat and assumed extraordinary powers; three wars were fought, in 1947, 1968 and 1971; Ayub’s successor, Yahya Khan was responsible for the mess in Bangladesh, the massive civil war in Pakistan ultimately leading to the 1971 Indo-Pak war, genocide of over a 2 million people and finally the secession of East Pakistan/Bangladesh; in 1972, civilian rule commenced under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, only to be suppressed and later put to death by Zia-ul-Haq in 1977-79. Zia was the country’s third military President and was the man responsible for Pakistan’s departure from a secular nation to one that had the Islamic Shariah legal code influencing activities of daily life and work; with Zia’s death in a plane crash in 1988, Zulfikar Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto took to the Prime Minister’s office; her alternating shots at PM-ship, along with Nawaz Sharif saw Pakistan plunging deeper and deeper into economic and political crisis, the rise militant extremism in Kasmir, the impetus to the nebulous Taliban and the mess between India and Pakistan in later years (Kargil et,al); Nawaz Sharif was ousted and exiled by a new General: Parvez Musharraf, in 1999, when the former tried to sack the army chief, albeit unconstitutionally.

Musharraf assumed extraordinary Presidential and COAS (Chief Of Army Staff) powers simultaneously; he declared Zafarullah Khan Jamali (2002), the banker Shaukat Aziz (2004) and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain(2006) as subsequent Prime Ministers. On November 3, 2007, President Musharraf declared an emergency rule across Pakistan and purported to suspend the Constitution, imposing martial law. In Islamabad, troops apparently entered the Supreme Court and were surrounding the judges’ homes and opposition leaders were put on house arrest. Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar has been appointed as the new chief justice of Pakistan, due to the refusal of the previous chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry to endorse the emergency order, declaring the order unconstitutional. Television new has been taken off-air, cell-phones have been jammed, newspapers have been put under rigorous Musharraf-sponsored reviews and gags and there is a general sense of medievalist inquisition in the streets of Pakistan, where fences have been erected and sand bags have been placed in areas where children once played together. Key players in Pakistan’s politics, the like of Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto, Imran Khan etc. are either in exile or under detention. The Chief of Pakistan Human Rights Commission, Asma Jehangir, has been put under house arrest.

In short, Pakistan is in a mess. The question is: Is this mess worse than the one earlier? If George Bush is the world’s most powerful and hated man, then Pervez Musharraf is the most vulnerable, a man who sleeps with a thousand guns at his head and a million daggers at his throat.

“Kindly understand the criticality of the situation in Pakistan and around Pakistan. Pakistan is on the verge of destabilisation,” he said on State television. “Inaction at this moment is suicide for Pakistan and I cannot allow this country to commit suicide,” “Extremists are roaming around freely in the country, and they are not scared of law-enforcement agencies,”. Mr Musharraf has had his share of trouble and a little over:

He caught the world’s attention in 1999 when, in a bloodless coup, he ousted Nawaz Sharif. His attempts at legitimising his Presidency has often been overshadowed by dictatorial decrees (like the Oath of Judges Order, 2000 which expected sitting law keepers and judges to display their allegiance to the Presidential General) and tempestuous tantrums that range from firing a sitting President to a standing, shouting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; by allegations of election rigging (In an attempt to legitimise his presidency and assure its continuance after the approaching restoration of democracy, he held a referendum on April 30, 2002 to extend his term to five years after the October elections. However, the referendum was boycotted by the majority of Pakistani political groupings, which later complained that the vote was heavily rigged, and voter turnout was 30 percent or below by most estimates).

Musharraf is often credited as being the architect of the Kargil conflict of 1999. While there is no solid evidence in support of this, and while both Musharraf and Sharif were busy pinning the blame on each other, amid heightened international isolation, criticism and uneasiness in the nuclear Indian sub-continent, the Kargil conflict is seen as an attempt to re-ignite uneasiness in the Kashmir situation, at a time when both feuding nations were engaged in dialogue, and there were chances of a solution. In terms of strategic gains, the conflict seemed to backfire on the perpetrators (with immense international criticism, diplomatic isolation and a general sense of mistrust, at a time when the Indian PM, AB Vajpayee was seen as a harbinger of peace and hope to the troubled region; with intense economic collapse in Pakistan and a steady rise in religious extremism in domestic Pakistan- something not seen earlier.). India, on the other hand was applauded by the world for its commitment to peace and dialogue and on its handling of the entire situation. Pakistan’s biggest ally, the US was now its biggest critic. Bill Clinton, then President of the United States, would later reveal in his autobiography that “Sharif’s moves were perplexing” since the Indian prime minister had travelled to Lahore to promote bilateral talks aimed at resolving the Kashmir problem and “by crossing the Line of Control, Pakistan had wrecked the [bilateral] talks.”

But lately, and exclusively after the coup of 1999, Musharraf has taken a hardliner’s stance against extremism. On 12 January, 2002, he spoke emphatically against Islamic terrorism and vowed to fight it, along with lawlessness in Pakistan. On 17 September, 2007, at a speech organised by the Council for World Jewry in NYC, he lambasted terror in all forms and demanded for greater interaction and dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Muslim clerics and Middle Eastern Arab leaders widely condemned Musharraf for this, but the latter gained the world’s and Jewish appreciation. Musharraf has been against the ways in which Madrasas function. He has banned foreign funding to these Islamic institutions, placed numerous restrictions on international students keen to study Islam in these Pakistani religious institutions, and has undertaken a drive to make them more transparent, modern and technologically at par with the world outside.

Attempts on his life have been numerous, though all unsuccessful. On 14 December 2003, Musharraf survived an assassination attempt when a powerful bomb went off minutes after his highly guarded convoy crossed a bridge in Rawalpindi. Musharraf was apparently saved by a jamming device in his limousine that prevented the remote controlled explosives from blowing up the bridge as his convoy passed over it. It was the third such attempt during his four-year rule. On Christmas Day, 2003, two suicide bombers tried to assassinate Musharraf, but their car bombs failed to kill him; 16 others nearby died instead. Musharraf escaped with only a cracked windscreen on his car. On 6 July, 2007, there was another attempted assassination, when an unknown group fired an anti-aircraft gun at Musharraf’s plane as it took off from a runway in Rawalpindi. For this man who became what he is living by the edge of the sword, life’s razor sharp. One wrong move and he could well be on his way west.

One can only wonder how long the wonder that is Musharraf will last, before another despot comes around, and clad in khaki, usurps all power. There is too much power in the armed forces of Pakistan. One wrong move on Musharraf’s part and the entire façade falls. And going by the tenor of those moves, their frequency is only increasing:

On 9 March, 2007, Musharraf suspended the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. While the General charged the judge with official misdemeanour, impropriety and abuse of office (such as a demand for an ostentatious Mercedes Benz car for official use), experts feel that many rulings by the judge, against the Government brought about his eviction from office (such as the Pakistan Steel Mills privatisation case, the Hasba bill, case involving missing people and ghost prisoners, a ruling allowing Nawaz Sharif to return from exile, and upcoming cases on Musharraf’s validity as President, his Uniform issue and an inquest into certain edicts issued by madrasas). The Justice is largely seen as a free and fair man, and his unceremonious sacking drew much protest from the law fraternity and the public, so much so that he was reinstated by the Supreme Judicial Council. All thirteen of the sitting justices agreed that Musharraf’s action had been illegal, and ten of the thirteen ordered that Chaudhry was to be reinstated and that he “shall be deemed to be holding the said office and shall always be deemed to have been so holding the same.” A slap on the General’s face indeed!

Lal Masjid (“the Red Mosque”) is a mosque in Islamabad that follows the Deobandi school of thought and is affiliated with the Jamia Hafsa Madrasa. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the Pakistani government announced that it would be supporting the United States-led “War on Terror”. This was strongly opposed by the leadership of the Lal Masjid, which was openly pro-Taliban. Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsa deny having had any links with organisations now banned for supporting terrorism. But they have been vehement in their support for the “jihad against America” and have openly condemned President Musharraf leading to conflict between Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa students and the government of Musharraf. Taliban-style system of Government inside the mosque, scores of instances of arson, kidnappings and murder, using of female students and young children as human shields, kidnapping of ten Chinese nationals, law enforcers, women and children, setting of fire to a Government’s Environment Ministry building and finally the murder of 19 civilians, 1 rangers personnel and 1 commander of Pakistan’s Special Forces ultimately led to the siege of the mosque from 3-11 July, 2007. 10 soldiers died and 33 were wounded. 61 militants were killed, 50 were captured and 23 students were killed. 14 civilians perished in the entire fiasco. Spanish-language news channels such as Univision, Antena 3, and Telecinco claim that the total number of deaths in the siege is above 286 and may even reach 300. According to an article in The Nation, reporter Fozia Azam stated that a gravedigger at the cemetery where the bodies were being buried claimed there was a possibility that there was more than one body in each coffin. The reporter further states that an unidentified man in the cemetery also claimed that the government was “levelling the ground in order to dig more graves on top those in which it has already buried.” Musharraf is criticised by the liberals for being too soft about the entire episode and claim that a lot less damage would have been caused by timely and incisive action. Religious groups and hardliners claim that Musharraf acted as a cold-blooded murderer or as an agent of the imperialist USA. Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a new videotape on 11 July, 2007 calling for Pakistanis to join the jihad, or “struggle”, in revenge for the attack by Pakistan’s army on a radical mosque. Al-Zawahri’s four-minute address was entitled “The Aggression against Lal Masjid” and entirely focused on the recent clashes between Islamic students and Pakistan’s army at the mosque. “Muslims of Pakistan: your salvation is only through Jihad,” Al-Zawahiri said in the video, which was subtitled in English. “Rigged elections will not save you, politics will not save you, and bargaining, bootlicking, negotiations with the criminals, and political manoeuvres will not save you,” a bespectacled and white-clad al-Zawahiri said. “Musharraf and his hunting dogs have rubbed your honour in the dirt in the service of the Crusaders and the Jews,” he said.

Musharraf was responsible for the killing of renowned Balochistan leader, ex-Governor, ex-Interior Minister of State, Nawab Akbar Bugti in July 2006. Balochistan is fighting for autonomy in Pakistan and Bugti was accused of being a warlord, running the outlawed Baloch Liberation Army, dozens of militant guerrilla training camps and generally indulging in activities against the nation’s interest. Bugti’s death was followed by rioting by hundreds of students from the state-run Balochistan University. Musharraf’s security has been beefed up to the highest level, and his movement has since been very restricted, fearing a retaliatory attack. The media both in Pakistan and outside have severely condemned the killing as the “military’s second biggest blunder after [Zulfikar] Bhutto’s execution”, calling it a “political nightmare”. Others have likened it to the East Bengal crisis of 1971 where military violence eventually led to the Bangladesh Liberation War.

The General, declaring Emergency recently, is facing the biggest challenge and threat. Pakistan stands on the brink of turmoil. There is rapid re-visitation of Taliban style Afghanistan in Pakistan’s once famous tourist hotspot of Swat, and in Waziristan and NWFP regions. In recent years, militant Islamists in the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) organization, led by radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah have rebelled against the Pakistani government in Swat. In 59 villages, the militants set up a “parallel government” with Islamic courts imposing the shariah law. The Maulana spews his poison via FM radio and is often know as the ‘Mullah Radio.’ He views the drive against Polio as a western propaganda to make Muslims impotent! The TNSM envisages enforcing the shariah in all of Pakistan a-la Afghanistan-Taliban style.

Pakistan is already a failed state as far as its experiments with democracy for 60 years go. India and Pakistan were born together but faced separate destinies since the beginning. While one was formed on the basis of pluralism, self-expression and freedom, the other was formed on the basis of religion, segregation and subjugation of the politically incorrect. This is evident in the situations of both nations today: while one houses the largest number of Muslims in the world, grants in principle civil liberties and privileges to all regardless of caste, creed or religion, is poised to be the world’s next big economic and soft-power superpower and has never had a dictatorial ruler, military or otherwise, the other has been incessantly plagued, since its inception by all the malaises and contradictions that have as of now not touched the former. There is something seriously wrong going on in Pakistan, and that will inevitably affect India. For the two nations share a history and culture that goes way beyond 1947 and the LOC, the Siachen glacier and tandoori chicken: one that goes millennia into the past, since the time civilisation breathed its first.

Musharraf today stands as a buffer as far as religious extremism and terror vis-à-vis India are concerned. If he falls, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraqi sponsored despotism is not too far for New Delhi to handle. Then there is the scenario of nuclear weapons and WMDs falling into hands of those who are only too trigger-happy. Remember AQ Khan siphoning off nuclear material and knowledge, right under the nose of his bosses to North Korea, Libya and god knows who else, using the Pakistani Air Force as transport (‘The Nuclear Jihadist,’ by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins)? As the NYT journalist, David Sanger questions, “…[we don’t know] just how bad things could get in a country whose nuclear controls are just seven years old and have never been tested by chaos, street turmoil or a violent government overthrow…If General Musharraf is overthrown, no one is quite sure what will happen to the team he has entrusted to safeguard the arsenal. There is some hope that the military as an institution could reliably keep things under control no matter who is in charge, but that is just a hope…Once you’ve figured out the weapon is gone, it’s probably too late.”

For all his misgivings, Musharraf is a man who will not nuke anybody in his vicinity. He understands the Hawk-Dove equilibrium only too well. But do those who have been brought up on pills of hatred, soups of suppression, teas of torture and extravaganzas of extremism? I doubt it. Pakistani politics today seems to be a whimsical game in the politics of power. Bhutto, Sharif and the entire coterie is as interested in development as they were decades ago. I don’t mean to say that Musharraf is the nice guy. But the pertinent question is: is there an alternative? For all his misgivings and unquestionable un-integrity, the General is a man who has control of the army. And in Pakistan, one who wields the beret wields the authority.

Which is why this Emergency makes the autumn of terror and extremism doubly worrying. There are bigger issues for the General to handle than an errant insolent Chief Justice. The biggest casualty of this Emergency could be Musharraf. That would lead to utter chaos and turmoil in the Indian Sub-continent. Which is why he needs to think a million times before he takes a step. I wonder how a man lives and sleeps like that. But in Pakistan, you either live and sleep like that, or you perish. There are no friends, only business associates. As for the good of the world, one Mush in the bush is better than two Bhuttos in the corn field.

Credits: Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The News (Pakistan) and Aasim Sajjad Akhtar,, The New York Times and Roger Cohen, Dateline Islamabad by Amit Baruah (Penguin India), The Guardian (UK), Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri, Chidanand Rajghatta. The Internet, as always, was indispensable.

Rijul Kochhar