The mind of Musharraf

24 Jan 2008


Prem Shankar JhaEver since Benazir Bhutto's assassination Europe, like most of the rest of the world, has been in the grip of acute anxiety about Pakistan's future. The question on everyone's lips is, "what will happen to Pakistan's nuclear weapons if the Jihadis acquire a toehold in Pakistani state?

At a 90-minute meeting with the cream of France's security establishment at the French Institute for Research in International Affairs (IFRI), on 22 Jnauary, President  Musharraf sought to allay these fears and painted an on- the-whole optimistic future for Pakistan.

Pakistan was not going to disintegrate. He asserted. " The seven tribal agencies that make up FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) account for only three per cent of Pakistan's population. The two agencies in which most of the unrest is centered, North and South Waziristan, account of only 0.3 per cent. I do not see how such small numbers can threaten the Pakistani state" To gain control of Pakistan  the Jihadis will either have to defeat the Pakistan army, or  win an election". Neither, he asserted, was going to happen.

Musharraf also left no one in any doubt that he expected Pakistan to remain a moderate Islamic state. In response to a questioner who asked him whether he expected 'basant' to be celebrated in Pakistan this year despite the interdictions placed upon it by the 'maulvis', he waxed lyrical on the kite flying and other rituals with which people all over Pakistan welcome the arrival of spring, and assured the questioner that he did not see anyway in which their ardour could be diminished.

In response to a pointed question about his views on the issuance of a Fatwa of death issued by the Imam of Al Azhar mosque in Egypt against a Muslim who had converted to Christianity, Musharraf asserted that if Christians are converting to Islam there is no reason why a Muslim should not become a Christian. Categorically repudiating the Fatwa Musharraf said that in Pakistan there was no bar on conversions.

Musharraf is in France to 'sell' Pakistan to French investors and to convince the EU commissioners and foreign ministers that Pakistan remains a stable, democratic country inspite of the near-civil war that rages in the north west. So it is only to be expected that he will try to paint his country in as secular a light as possible. But despite having doffed his uniform he remains an army man at heart. His candid answers therefore threw a flood of light on how he views his country's future. He gave the impression of having overcome the attack of nerves that had made him want to cling to his uniform, and of being comfortable with, possibly even relieved by, the prospect of a return to democracy.

Reading between the lines of his remarks it seemed  clear that he  has no intention of postponing the elections any further, On the contrary, he seems to be looking  forward to them. "The religious parties are going to lose heavily" he said. "They secured a large increase in vote after 9 / 11, but that effect has passed." He left the audience in no doubt that this was not a hope, but a finding of his intelligence agencies.

Piecing together his statements and responses it seems that Musharraf anticipates, and is preparing himself, to work with one or other of the mainstream parties, most probably the PPP; is confident of the loyalty of the Pakistan army and expects to play a pivotal role in bringing the democratic and military establishments together in the fight against the Jihadis.

But in the end all of this sounded just a little hollow because he left one crucial question unanswered: how will this new 'alliance' stem the rise of radical Islam in Pakistan itself if it cannot insulate the country from the war in Afghanistan?

Musharraf did not address this question because no one in the entire audience thought of asking it. But it is the question that is uppermost in Pakistani minds. An editorial in Dawn  on January 23 put it succinctly: "Never before has the situation in Pakistan been more conducive to the design of religious extremists and militants to gain a foothold, as they are already doing, in their bid to Talibanise the whole country‚Ķ"

This black hole of mutual silence is not difficult to understand. The audience did not pose the question because no one, either in Europe or America, knows how to end the war in Afghanistan, but knows that it cannot be fought without the wholehearted cooperation of Pakistan. And Musharraf did not raise the question in order to answer it (as General De Gaulle used to do) because the answer will destroy all remaining illusions in Pakistan about their country's independence, and thus complete the moral victory of the Jihadis.

And so the war will drag on and Pakistan's drift into the arms of chaos will continue. New Delhi seems either blissfully unaware of, or resigned to, the consequences of this drift. In recent weeks it has been basking in its newly-found importance in the world order: in the past 10 days Prime minister Manmohan Singh has visited China , hosted Gordon Brown of the UK, and is hosting Nicolas Sarkozy, the new President of France.

These visits have consumed hundreds of hours of decision-making time, spent forging  the ambivalence of text that is needed to create the illusion of accord. But one glance at the joint declarations shows that all this was pure theatre for it produced nothing.
In the middle of all this has Dr. Singh had a minute to think of the monster that is growing in his own back yard? Or to remember that spring, when the snow on the high passes melts, is around the corner?

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