Today's Highlights
Musharraf More Valuable than Ever in 'War on Terror'
by M. B. Naqvi
December 22, 2003

This month's narrow escape by Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf of an attempt on his life has made him even more important to the international coalition in its 'war on terror'.

The incident could not but alarm U.S. and several European governments that see Musharraf, the country's embattled military dictator, as a lynchpin in this western-led war.

In the days after the Dec. 14 assassination attempt – the third by official count and seventh according to some western media reports – they have naturally offered technical assistance to beef up Pakistan's security apparatus.

The official reaction was predictable: Authorities blamed Islamic extremists, al Qaeda to be precise, and Pakistan Army's spokesman did not fail to suspect a foreign power, referring to India's intelligence agency.

What is disconcerting about this bomb attack was its sophistication. It was an expertly assembled operation that must have taken experienced bombers at least an hour or more to attach to a bridge and was timed to go off at exactly the time when Musharraf's motorcade was to pass over the bridge.

That Musharraf escaped is said to be due to a device fit in the cars he uses: it jams the electronic timing device, and it successfully jammed the timer for a minute or so during which the vehicles passed over the bridge.

Speculation is rife: either the Islamic terrorists have penetrated the official security apparatus or it was an elaborate drama staged to impress the U.S. administration about the perilous circumstances that Musharraf is in, while stoutly defending western causes.

Going by this theory, he would thus earn more understanding, support and aid from U.S. President George W Bush.

This is addition to recent and ongoing developments in the India-Pakistan relationship, which apart from Iraq and Afghanistan have made Musharraf even more important to the international coalition fighting terror that now badly wants Pakistan to make up with India. Musharraf, as it happens, is engaged in just that effort.

He is also the key asset that the west possesses for fruition of its schemes for South Asia as well as Central Asia.

For that, it is essential that his regime is consolidated at home and threats to it eliminated.

But inside Pakistan, Musharraf is beleaguered, though he has support from the United States, British, Chinese, Russian, some European and even the Indian and Israeli governments.

How or why is his support at home so patchy and uncertain while all major nations are ready to keep his regime afloat?

The reasons are several. First, the manner of his coming to power and the nature of his regime have forced the Commonwealth to keep Pakistan's membership suspended. He violated his country's constitution in seizing power the way he did: he was a dismissed officer of Pakistan Army dismissed by competent authority. Instead of obeying the prime minister's orders, he staged a coup, overturned the organic law of the land and imprisoned the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

In addition, he has arbitrarily amended the constitution to permit himself to remain army chief and president, able to dismiss all elected governments and assemblies.

Most major parties refuse to recognise the legitimacy of his presidency or that of this amended constitution.

Even the traditional supporters of army, the Islamic parties' front, have been forced to start what is claimed to be a protest agitation against Musharraf from Dec. 18, though both sides remain in touch and are still negotiating, after 14 months of talks.

This confrontation, dubbed by many as a fixed fight, is not likely to bring any significant change in the situation even if all the demands of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) – the alliance of six religious parties – are met by Musharraf.

He would remain in power with all of today's powers.

The MMA now controls 20 percent of the parliament, has its own government in the North West Frontier Province and comprises a large chunk of Balochistan's provincial government as a result of October 2002 polls.

In those polls, Musharraf is supposed to have used the intelligence agencies to ensure the MMA candidates' success.

There has also been a long history of active cooperation between the main parties of the MMA and the Pakistan Army's secret services in Afghanistan and in the rise of the Taliban. They also fought Indian rule in Indian-controlled Kashmir for 13 years.

The two, for political purposes, are seen as partners in the army's major enterprises. This is one reason why many say MMA stands for 'Military-Mullah Alliance' and why the harsh MMA rhetoric of opposing the Musharraf regime lacks credibility.

The MMA's rise is often said to be Bush's gift to Pakistan. In all seven elections in Pakistan until 2002, religious parties, all combined, never got more than eight percent of the national vote.

Thanks to Sep. 11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the toppling of the Taliban regime made a darling of all religious parties. But today, Musharraf is opposed by all the major mainstream parties.

It is actually a three-way division among the major parties: the largest party to emerge from the October 2002 polls, under a controversial legal framework, was the Pakistan Peoples Party led by self-exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, then by the Pakistan Muslim League of exiled former prime minister Sharif. The third is of course the MMA.

Pakistan is thus a moderate and modern Muslim state, run by a dictator claiming to be a moderate and modern Muslim, supported by virtually all the world but isolated at home.

As a modern and moderate ruler, intent on fighting terrorism by Islamic extremists, one would expect him to try and win the hearts and minds of moderate Muslim parties and groups.

But the mainstream major parties that had won the October 2002 election, flawed as the winners say it was, are being kept at arm's length. The regime prefers to do a deal with mullahs – the MMA – and has virtually persuaded them to accept him as the legitimate head of a moderate and modern state.

Musharraf and the generals' caucus court these pro al-Qaeda groups – and fight those elements that want a western-style democracy: Benazir's and Nawaz Sharif's parties.

What is happening inside Pakistan is strange. Bush, Blair and others' support for Musharraf co-exists with their favouring of western-style democracy in Pakistan. Whether or not the outside world notices it, Pakistanis make a pointed note of this contradiction.

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