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Martial artist

In the last year, President Pervez Musharraf’s government has faced significant setbacks in Waziristan and Balochistan, but images of unrest and upheaval in Islamabad and Lahore last week have brought up long suppressed questions: just how fragile is the General’s hold on power? Writes Manoj Joshi.

india Updated: Mar 21, 2007 04:36 IST

Events seem to have unexpectedly shown up the growing faultlines in Pakistan’s polity.

In the last year, President Pervez Musharraf’s government has faced significant setbacks in Waziristan and Balochistan, but images of unrest and upheaval in Islamabad and Lahore last week have brought up long suppressed questions: just how fragile is the General’s hold on power? What is the best way of handling him, or a situation arising from his ‘unplanned’ removal?

Pakistan’s neighbours, and indeed the world community, have important stakes in its stability, security and prosperity. They are vitally interested in the ability, or otherwise, of its government to contain and eliminate powerful forces of Islamic radicalism that pose a global threat. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s reported confession reveals that the 9/11 conspiracy was masterminded from Pakistan and several of the July 2005 London bombers had Pakistani links. As for India, it says it has a mountain of evidence of Pakistani complicity, some of it official, in scores of acts of terrorism in the country.

Our short answer to the first question is that Musharraf’s regime is reasonably sound and will remain so as long as the Pakistan army, the self-appointed custodian of the Pakistani State, remains solidly behind him. It may, however, be compelled to change its shape and become more overtly military. The regime only appears fragile because we are witnessing the collapse of the democratic façade around an essentially military government. After ousting elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf used various political devices to construct this house of cards. Since countries of the West and India felt it was in their interest to deal with the General, he faced little international scrutiny or criticism.

But the true nature of the regime has always been evident and has notable landmarks — the sacking of Supreme Court Chief Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui for not backing the coup in 1999, the unceremonious ouster in June 2001 of President Rafiq Tarrar so that the General could occupy that office, the over-the-top April 2002 referendum, where an alleged 97 per cent voters endorsed his rule, the dismissal of Supreme Court judges who voted against his usurpation and now, the rendering of another Chief Justice “non-functional”.

So far, the General has sailed close to the legal wind — he had the Supreme Court (after purges) endorse the coup, held a referendum to underline it and got the National Assembly to pass a constitutional amendment to legalise it. But in seeking another five-year term, without shedding his uniform, Musharraf is being impelled to move on a different path. He is not sure whether the National and Provincial Assemblies that will be thrown up by the elections later this year will again endorse his presidency, so he is seeking a mandate from the outgoing ones. Being elected twice by a single set of assemblies does appear to be gratuitously illegal, and anticipating a challenge, he acted against Chief Justice Chaudhry in advance.

None of this is much of a surprise, or occasion for shock, for the average Pakistani. But the outside world, which for its own reasons upheld the pretence that it was dealing with a democratic government, is now beginning to comprehend that the emperor indeed has no clothes. But this does not really bother the governments that Pakistan is dealing with, including those of India and the US. What concerns them is Pakistan’s failure to contain and eliminate the rising militancy along its western borders and to check fundamentalist groups operating within. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is on record this week saying, “If these forces are not stopped in 2007, they are going to try to take on the State of Pakistan itself.”

The problem is more complex than just the alleged military incapacity of the Pakistan army. Support for Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir has had, and continues to have, an important link with the army. After 9/11, Musharraf undertook a U-turn on supporting the Taliban and in January 2002 and 2004, he pledged to crack down on terrorist groups targeting India. Washington has repeatedly acknowledged the role Islamabad has played in hunting down al-Qaeda leaders. India cannot ignore that since November 2003, a very useful ceasefire is in place along the Line of Control and infiltration into Kashmir is markedly down.

Yet in both Washington and New Delhi, there remains a sense of frustration at the General’s zig-zag approach to combating radicalism. Alarm bells have begun ringing ever since it appeared that the Taliban, allegedly headquartered in Pakistan, are back in business. Facing the spectre of a civil war in Waziristan and Balochistan, Pakistan professes to be chary of pressing these regions harder for fear of a blowback. But the reasons for the Pakistani failure go beyond its alleged inability to militarily act against the Taliban, or crack down in Waziristan. It lies in the unchanged world view of significant sections of the Pakistani establishment who still see, what they call, ‘sub-conventional’ warfare as a means of checking India, and maintaining Afghanistan as a depth area towards this end. So the problem is that the Pakistan army has no real strategy to combat Islamic radicals and, as Sun Tzu has pointed out, “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”. This defeat will be in no one’s interests, least of all India.

So, how do we handle the Musharraf situation? Instead of focusing only on immediate deliverables like military aid or solutions to India-Pakistan disputes, there is need to maintain a longer view on projects such as the systematic dismantling of the Pakistani jehadi machine, its ISI connections, radical madrasas, fund-raising charities and so on. This action can be best accomplished by a Pakistani government, be it military or otherwise, rather than any outside force. But there is no reason why concerted international pressure cannot be maintained to keep Pakistan on the straight and narrow path.

A second goal must be the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Last May, the two exiled leaders, Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, met in London and signed a ‘charter for democracy’ ahead of the 2007 elections. But it will take much more than a charter to set things right in Pakistan. Restoring democracy is not just a matter of getting Musharraf and the army to stand aside and restore the 1973 Constitution. The army, Bhutto and Sharif need to collectively work out ways to recapture the space that has been surrendered to the extremists because of their three-way quarrel. There are some straws in this wind in Bhutto’s refusal to commit her party to exploit the current anger against Chaudhry’s dismissal.

India’s role in all this is perhaps most complex. Indians need to overcome their Schadenfreude because the radicalisation of Pakistan cannot but have the most negative fallout here. Recent terrorist attacks indicate that pockets of extremists, inspired and aided, by their Pakistani counterparts, have taken root in some Indian Muslim communities.

In these projects, the General can be an ally, without necessarily requiring pressure or appeasement. But most certainly, we need to perceive him being part of the solution, rather than as the problem. Sounds simple, but it is not.