Back in the late 80’s, the internationally-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan was coming to an end with the Soviet decision to pull out troops. While President Reagan decided to abandon the cause of jihad, General Ziaul Haq vowed to continue it. “The CIA,” wrote Edward Jay Epstein in a special report titled “Who Killed Zia?” published in September 1989 issue of US magazine Vanity Fair, had become concerned that Zia was diverting a large share of the weapons being supplied by America to an extreme fundamentalist Mujahideen group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.”
Epstein continued, “Not only was this group anti-American but its strategy appeared to be aimed at dividing the rest of the Afghan resistance so that it could take over in Kabul—with Zia’s support. American anxiety was also increasing over the progress Zia was making in building the first Islamic nuclear bomb. His clandestine effort included attempts to smuggle the Kryton triggering mechanism and other components for it out of the US, which had only added to the tensions.”
Eroding US Support
Twenty years later, while US concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets date back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11, they have assumed grave dimension in recent months, especially during the days after Benazir Bhutto’s murder, which have seen the political turmoil and security predicament facing the country only becoming more acute and deadly.
Not just that, the Musharraf regime has been castigated by the Bush Administration and US media for not meeting growing US expectations from Pakistan in the War on Terror for the past couple of years. It has condemned Musharraf for imposing emergency and scuttling independent judiciary and media, and pressed him consistently to hold free and fair elections.
More recently, Musharraf has come under US criticism for not providing due security to Benazir, a factor that, in US perception, was responsible for her assassination. Just the other day, US media quoted a CIA official as saying that US forces would not hesitate from crossing over to Pakistan if the United States found any information about al-Qaeda leadership’s location inside Pakistani territory.
Tirade against US
Signs of tension in US-Pak ties are as visible today as they were during the last phase of Zia era. Musharraf’s response to America is also becoming bolder by the day. For instance, in an interview withNewsweek published on January 11, he opposed any US operation against pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda elements on Pakistani territory, saying, “We are totally in cooperation (with the US) on the intelligence side. But we are totally against (a military operation). We are a sovereign country…We will ask for assistance from outsiders. They won’t impose their will on us.” He said if the American troops came into the mountains, “they would curse the day they came here….American troops don’t have any magic wands.”
In another interview published in the January 11 edition of Singapore’s The Strait Times, Musharraf warned that US troops would be regarded as invaders if they crossed into Pakistan to hunt al-Qaeda militants. “Certainly. If they come without our permission, that’s against the sovereignty of Pakistan….The United States seems to think that what our army cannot do, they can do, this is a very wrong perception….I challenge anybody to come into our mountains. They would regret that day. It’s not easy there.”
Musharraf has been equally tough on the nuclear question, telling US/Western critics of Pakistan’s ability to safeguard its nuclear assets that the issue should not concern them, as Pakistan was quite capable of ensuing nuclear security and safety.
Signs of Desperation?
Coming from Musharraf—who has generally been perceived as an American protégé, for personally leading on Pakistan’s behalf the US-led War on Terror in the region—such hostile remarks vis-à-vis the US look quite strange. Do they reflect some sort of frustration or desperation on his part? Is this frustration due to the fact that the United States is no more as supportive of his leadership in as stronger and steadfast a manner as it has been during most of the post-9/11 period?
The United States is well known for supporting authoritarian leaders in developing countries as long as they are perceived by its leadership to be serving strategic US interests in the relevant region. But the United States is also quite notorious for callously abandoning them the moment their strategic utility erodes, or when the chips go down for them domestically. Take the case of Reza Shah Pahlavi! Despite serving US interests in the Persian Gulf region for decades, the Iranian King was not able to spend his days of ailment in the United States, and died a lonely death in Egypt.
Growing Domestic Problems
Are then the chips also down for Musharraf domestically? There is no doubt about his fast eroding political standing at home, especially in the aftermath of Bhutto’s assassination. Just as the Pakistani nation is quite uncertain about the country’s future, Musharraf may be equally uncertain about his own. His frustration with the gathering domestic political storm was visible in the interview he gave to The Strait Times.
Asked about the intended decision of the mainstream political party leadership to impeach him after the elections, he said: “If that (impeachment) happens, let me assure that I would be leaving office before they did anything. If they won with this kind of majority and formed a government that had the intention of doing this, I wouldn’t like to stick around. I would like to quit the scene.”
However, such humbling talk on his part only pertains to what happens after the elections. For the period until the elections and in its immediate aftermath, the former General is still talking tough. In each new public statement, he is becoming tougher and tougher when it comes to the holding of elections.
The elections, he has declared, will not only be free, fair and transparent but also peaceful. And to ensure peaceful elections, he has pledged to deploy the army on the polling stations with shoot-to-kill orders against miscreants, even though without identifying the latter.
In the meantime, however, reports citing anonymous defense sources seem to indicate that the new Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, wants the Army to distance itself from politics, and is considering the withdrawal of military officials from various civilian jobs.
According to a news report based on such sources published in a section of the press, General Kayani has directed all army officers to stay away from politics in line with the established rules. The COAS is also reported to have said that there was no role of the Army in the country’s politics.
Another report carried by an English newspaper stated that the COAS had directed all military officials not to personally meet the President. “Military officers, including corps commanders and senior generals, cannot meet President Pervez Musharraf without the army chief’s consent,” the said report stated quoting former army chief Gen (r) Mirza Aslam Beg.
Another report carried by an Urdu newspaper stated that the army leadership has decided to withdraw in-service officers posted on deputation in government institutions, such as WAPDA, Railways and state-run universities by the end of March 2008, and that only retired army officers would be able to serve there afterwards. The Army may have decided to withdraw from politics and the civilian domain under a new leadership; or it may be only an eyewash, given its traditional domination in the country’s politics.
Isolation on the Way
There has been general perception at home about the erosion of Musharraf’s power the day he surrendered his army uniform. This is because the Army being Pakistan’s most powerful institution provided him the ultimate base for personalizing political power. In the light of Musharraf’s fast eroding personal standing in the domestic political sphere as well as in the international domain, it is very much possible that the new army leadership may attempt to distance itself from him.
Isolated abroad, and isolated at home, even from within the ranks of an institution that he proudly claims to have been associated with for 43 years, including 9 years as its chief, Musharraf may exhibit some more signs of frustration and desperation in coming days and weeks. This may mean more outburst at the US, or greater toughness at home. But this is just one possibility.
It may be that Musharraf successfully weathers the current political storm at home and growing criticism from abroad by acting sagaciously and responsibly insofar as his domestic political responsibilities and external diplomatic commitments as the country’s leader are concerned. However, at least in public perception, the latter possibility looks quite remote.
Access column at weeklypulse.org