A Gun To His Own Head: How Pervez Musharraf Played America

By Tommy Brown

“Pakistan now negotiates with its allies and friends by pointing a gun to its own head,” an anonymous diplomat is quoted as saying in Stephen Cohen’s The Idea of Pakistan, and there is probably not a more pithy and accurate perception of America’s relationship with the turbulent Muslim nation and its former generalissimo, the wily and unpredictable Pervez Musharraf. For seven-plus years Pakistan has been one of America’s key strategic allies in the “War on Terror,”, and from 9/11 until his resignation as president on 18 August 2008, Musharraf ruthlessly pursued what he perceived to be his own nation’s interests while paying naught but lip service to his benefactors in Washington. The severity of the situation is little-known outside of political circles, but the consequences could be catastrophic (and possible apocalyptic) for the entire region between Kazakhstan and India.

Understanding why Musharraf acted the way he did is impossible without first grasping the two most important factors in his political life: the military and the disputed region of Kashmir. The military and its attendant secret police, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate, have run Pakistan virtually since its inception, even when civilian governments were putatively in charge.  And unlike the “Deep State” Turkish military, which turns the Ankara government’s rudder in a more secular direction when radical Islam occasionally pops up, the Pakistani armed forces rely on the support of a coalition of Islamist political parties.  The fact that the army and ISI are popularly perceived (in America at any rate) as the secular bulwark against the rising tide of Islamic extremism is probably the most successful propaganda operation of the 21st Century, because nothing could be further from the truth.

This Is How He Balled

The answer to Musharraf’s support for violent extremists inside his own country lies in Kashmir, the majority-Muslim province straddling the border between Pakistan and India. Every single political issue in Pakistan must be seen through the lens of Kashmir, from their terse nuclear standoff with India to the ISI’s active support of the Taliban. Indeed, Musharraf first gained international prominence in the late Nineties as the general who recklessly started the Kargil War in Kashmir, which came within a hair’s-breadth of leading to atomic winter over South Asia, and cemented his reputation as both an ardent nationalist and being capricious and unpredictable

When questioned about why Pakistan had done a total one-eighty on their relationship with America following 9/11, Musharraf simply replied, “Our national interest has changed.” But it hadn’t changed that much. Cracking down on radical Islamist terrorists was a total nonstarter for the self-styled Chief Executive: His own intelligence service had basically created and put the Taliban into power, and his power base was very keen to continue the proxy war in Kashmir with extremist groups in the south.  So after the requisite bowing and scraping to the Bush Administration before and during the Afghan War, Musharraf freely allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to cross the border into the hinterlands of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. At the same time, he was assuring Washington and the world that he was sealing off the escape routes, which was ludicrous on its face, because an actual border between Afghanistan and Pakistan only existed in the mind of a long-dead Englishman named Durand.

The general played the game very shrewdly: The Islamist-dominated ISI assisted the CIA in hunting down AQ operatives south of the borderlands, for which Musharraf received billions of dollars in aid and military support, a good portion of which ended up financing the Taliban for its insurgency in Afghanistan, all the while denying that they existed in FATA at all. Almost every single time before he met with Americans, Afghanis or the United Nations, there would always be a much-hyped “crackdown on insurgents” to allow him to keep face. It was also a good excuse to disappear or jail nationalist Baloch and Sindhi rebels who were giving his regime a headache in the southwest.

All Fall Down

Of course, while Musharraf happy-talked the international community, the Islamists were pursuing totally different interests. Mullah Omar set up his Taliban shura (ruling council) in the city of Quetta, with no government interference as long as he kept it a non-Arab, non-AQ organization, at least officially.  These rules did not apply to FATA; Al Qaeda led the efforts to “Talibanize” the Pashtun border regions from South Waziristan to the North-West Frontier Province. Eventually, they forged links with the Kashmir groups and even the nationalist insurgencies that were not explicitly Islamist. Islamic extremism in Pakistan had become, in the words of journalist Ahmed Rashid, a “multilayered terrorist cake,” starting with the Talibanized Pashtun tribesmen in FATA, who provided a bolthole and logistics; the Afghan Taliban who settled there after the war; Sunni militants from the Middle East, Central Asia, Chechnya and Kashmir who wanted to be where the jihad was; and finally the Arabs, from Al Qaeda’s shura (bin Laden et al.) to those trusted to protect them.

The jihadists, as per usual, weren’t very grateful, still viewing Musharraf as a secular apostate leader along the lines of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Despite his largesse towards jihadists in general, there were two assassination attempts against him in 2003, one of which was narrowly foiled by American-supplied signal jammers. This did not derail his long-term strategy of mostly talk and some ceremonial action, despite the irony of the fact his intelligence service and military were assisting the same people trying to kill him. Any criticism of his weak counterterrorism policies was itself countered with the “devil you know” argument: Better a man like Musharraf in charge, then an unknown quantity, and if he was pushed too hard, his regime would collapse.

By 2006, the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda had reconstituted their strength to the point that they launched an all-out offensive in southern Afghanistan, focusing on the city of Kandahar and the opium-rich Hemland Province. While they were repulsed in the end, and it was a significant tactical defeat by any measure, it was a propaganda coup on par with Tet that shocked both the global media and the Afghans into realizing that the Taliban was much more powerful, and much more of a threat, than the conventional wisdom held them to be. Musharraf, pushed into action by White House pressure and world opinion, moved the Pakistani military (what little he was willing to spare from the Indian border) into the borderlands, but met with very little success. The Taliban continued to strike into Afghanistan and then retreat across the borderlands, and the occasional Hellfire missile strike from a Predator or Special Forces team crossing into Pakistan was not going to make much of a difference.

Lawyers > Guns And Money

It was few months later that Musharraf made the first serious mistake that eventually led to his downfall: He spat in the eye of the legal profession. On 13 March 2007, he suspended the Chief Justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court on the traditional Third World charge of Attempted Judicial Enforcement In A Banana Republic. A dangerously honest Court might have prevented Musharraf from winning the upcoming presidential election in which he hoped to legitimize his rule. Across the country, lawyers and judges formed a protest group, Judicial Activism, boycotting all court proceedings and rallying in the streets of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and even fundamentalist Quetta. Four months later, amid these massive protests, the Chief Justice was reinstated.

The Chief Executive knew that his grip on power was slipping away; shortly after his legal woes, the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident occurred. The week-long siege, organized by Talibanized students who had declared an alternate sharia-based legal system, showed the world that Islamists were much more powerful in Pakistan than had been believed. Musharraf himself was now besieged on all sides, with the legal system calling for his resignation as army chief, Chief Executive or both, and the return of his two mortal political enemies, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, all the while trying to win the upcoming presidential election

Still, on 28 September 2007, Pervez Musharraf was elected President of Pakistan by plebiscite. Several days later, he stepped down as head of the armed forces, appointing his right hand man. But hopes for a return to normalcy were dashed when he declared a state of emergency in November, suspending the Constitution, putting the Supreme Court under house arrest and taking control of the media outlets. Unrest was further intensified by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, whom he had deposed as prime minister in the 1999 coup, about a week before general elections were to be held. The elections were delayed until March.

Musharraf spoke of “an era of democracy” and putting Pakistan “on the track of development,” but the 2008 elections destroyed any authority he had left. The Pakistan People’s Party of the martyred Bhutto and Sharif’s Pakistani Muslim League-N combined to win sixty-three percent of the votes, putting their coalition in the governmental driver’s seat. Under threat of impeachment by the new government, President Musharraf resigned his position after only five months of legitimate rule, replaced by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari.

The Perfect Storm

In the final analysis, Musharraf’s rule from the start of the “War on Terror” until his resignation can only be deemed a failure, not just for American interests but for Pakistani ones also. Secure in the tribal hinterlands, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have not only reconstituted, but have spun off a Pakistani Taliban franchise and forged close links with the Kashmiri terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba. Lashkar and the Taliban, once fully-owned subsidiaries of the ISI and the military, have turned on their former masters with a vengeance, vowing to destroy the secular apostate government. The recent Mumbai attacks may signal that they are attempting to provoke a full-out war with India to accomplish this, which could very easily turn into a nuclear exchange.

America’s prospects in Pakistan are even bleaker, from the standpoint of terrorism. Through our willful blindness concerning Musharraf and our bafflingly counterproductive actions, we have turned a semi-stable, secular military dictatorship into a country whose government is on the brink of dissolution, thanks to a homegrown Islamist movement assisted by sympathizers in military/intelligence circles; where the president and the majority party are the ones who funded the Afghan Taliban movement in the first place; where Al Qaeda has reconstituted to pre-9/11 strength and has rebuilt its training-camp network and leadership. And while the average person had little idea that any of these events were occurring, the Bush Administration and both the State and Defense Departments were well aware of these developments and turned a blind eye to them..

In short, Pakistan makes Iran, with its ruthless but pragmatic mullahs attempting to build a nuclear weapon, look like Canada in comparison. Pakistan has become the nightmare nexus we have been warned about since 9/11: nuclear weapons, a government on the verge of an Islamist revolution, and terrorist groups working unchecked inside its borders

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