One-time doughty ally at odds with his friend in the West

In the Line of Fire

April 27, 2007

Four military dictators have presided over Pakistan for half the time since the Muslim state was created by India's partition in 1947.

General Pervez Musharraf is the latest. Reading his memoirs one cannot help recalling the autobiography of Pakistan's first military "strongman", the self-styled Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Ayub seized power in 1958 and reigned with immense admiration from Western leaders, great political thinkers (Toynbee and Huntingdon) and journalists until, in 1969, a popular uprising forced him to bid politics a sudden farewell.

Both the latest and the older memoirs appeared along with sniggering reports from Pakistanis that the pen was not the hero's but a ghostwriter's. Both swarm with boasts about the warrior prowess of Pakistani soldiers, our heroes not least. Both were published while their authors were still in office. Perhaps they thought it wise to have their say before an exit less glorious than their debut.

Both books, inevitably, are marked by obsessive self-justification. Pakistan's civilian rulers are almost invariably depicted as the most bloody-minded creatures imaginable, ravenously addicted to corruption and thuggish misrule, their military overthrow coming as a godsend to the suffering populace. This is self-serving, but it has much truth. To be sure, military rule never proved any better than civilian after a while.

The civilian Prime Minister whom Musharraf threw out in 1999, Nawaz Sharif, was undoubtedly a bad lot, given to terrorising judges and journalists. He also indulged in reckless military adventurism. In 1999, he allowed a Pakistani military incursion into Indian-held Kashmir. This led to a major war, with a chance of nuclear conflagration. Musharraf, then the Army chief, boastfully claims to have been the architect of this supposed Pakistani "victory". He rightly ridicules Sharif's claim that he knew nothing about the incursion until war broke out.

The war led to a humiliating American-enforced retreat by Pakistan. It stoked the tensions between Musharraf and Sharif. Musharraf's ouster of Sharif followed a few months later, and it was greeted with elation by the Pakistani public. Musharraf became a darling of the Anglo-American media. Many of its reporters affixed the description "straight talking" to him like a Homeric epithet. Much was made of his noble freedom from excessive Islamic religiosity, his parents who had had modern careers. Even his two dogs, Dot and Buddy, were said to provide cuddly proof of his lack of traditional Muslim prejudices. India was archly advised that it should seize the opportunity to end the running conflict over the disputed region of Kashmir with this eminently personable and well-meaning Pakistani ruler. India pointed out that despite the assurances of "straight-talking" Musharraf, Pakistan continued to train and dispatch terrorists to kill on a big scale inside India. This was generally pooh-poohed by the Anglo-American media as a sad indication of Indian small-mindedness. The Anglo-American idyll with Musharraf and Pakistan was abruptly smashed along with New York's twin towers on September 11, 2001. Quickly realising that the apocalyptic deed was the work of Islamic al-Qaeda terrorists patronised for years by Pakistan, the US demanded of Musharraf with deadly seriousness whether he was "with us or against us".

Some of Musharraf's most compelling pages are about this confrontation. He describes how the US threatened to bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age if it failed to co-operate in its campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan and the extreme Islamist Taleban regime in Afghanistan, which had strong Pakistani patronage. As a soldier, Musharraf's urge was to tell the Americans to "go forth and multiply", he says, but what could Pakistan do against the might of the US?

Unexpectedly, there now ensued a second romance between Musharraf and the West. He might not be quite the "straight talker" anymore, but what a bold chap he was, the Western press told us, to break with Pakistan's dreadful past of patronising terrorism and to side wholeheartedly with us to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taleban. He was the West's doughty champion on the front line, the Muslim leader who interpreted the Koran correctly.

Things have gone sour since. The US and its allies are coming under increasing pressure from guerrilla attacks by the Taleban in Afghanistan. Persistent Western press reports and statements by Western military personnel on the scene indicate that the Taleban resurgence is being aided by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The general, of course, denies it all in his bluff, straight-talking way. But now the Americans seem no longer amused. These Pakistani machinations are costing Western lives; they could easily return Afghanistan to its former role as al-Qaeda's base.

Musharraf's book, though rife with omissions, also describes many arresting events. In October 1999, Prime Minister Sharif dismissed Musharraf while he was returning by air from a visit to Colombo; Sharif tried to force the airliner to land in India. Musharraf tells how he held out against this humiliation, and how his plane, filled with civilians, landed in Karachi in Pakistan with seven minutes' fuel left, while his colleagues in the Army overthrew Sharif and put Musharraf in charge. The tale is nothing if not suspenseful.

The account of how the US journalist Daniel Pearl was lured to his beheading by the British-born al-Qaeda terrorist Omar Sheikh makes sombre reading. There are striking details about the capture of the fearsome Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed, the brains behind the September 11 attacks.

Episodes such as these are the dream of pulp-thriller writers. They undoubtedly lend a sinister fascination to Musharraf's book. He does not, of course, admit that his precious ISI has long been a key inspirer and protector of the Omar Sheikhs, the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds and countless others of their ilk, a major purpose for it being the struggle against India. He talks as if he and the Pakistani Government had nothing to do with chaps such as these and only come into the picture by joining the US after 9/11 to hunt them down.

Musharraf claims that the Pakistani Government knew nothing of the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to dangerous regimes by the former head of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme, Dr A. Q. Khan. Even the Western press, usually amazingly gullible where Pakistan is concerned, does not swallow that.

Yet it would be wrong to put all the blame on Musharraf. He inherited a deadly situation created over several decades by many Pakistani governments with great, short-sighted opportunistic help from the US and its allies such as the UK and Saudi Arabia. Their success in turning Pakistan in the 1980s into a centre of extremist Islamist zealotry awash in arms and drugs in order to fight the Russians in Afghanistan was hardly Musharraf's doing.

Nor is it his fault that India failed to take decisive measures against the huge process of Pakistani-aided terrorism killing scores of thousands of Indians since the 1980s. Such policies by the US and India gave many Pakistanis the justified idea that Islamist terrorism on a massive scale from Pakistani territory would not bring retribution from its targets. Large numbers of people got deeply involved.

Much of the Pakistani schooling system has spread the propaganda of Islamism. Aiding or ignoring all this for decades, the US turned round only when it got hit itself on 9/11. The Americans then suddenly expected Musharraf to end the whole complicated business right away. But neither the US nor India has been steadfast and ruthless in this demand. Naturally, Musharraf finds it sensible not to comply strictly with the demands, which put him at dangerous odds with very powerful Islamist opinion in Pakistan.

Islamist terrorism is expanding in Afghanistan and India. Pakistan remains a fount of this, with its very large and fast-growing pool of frustrated young men. In this murderous arena, Musharraf portrays himself as the daring master of events; but he is merely the temporary puppet of forces far beyond his - or America's or India's - control.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

In the Line of Fire: A Memoir

Author - Pervez Musharraf Simon and Schuster
Pages - 352
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 9780743295826

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