Musharraf’s Mounting Woes

U.S. benediction could prove a curse for Pakistan’s beleaguered president

A head of state who engages in a sequence of self-serving and contradictory public remarks about a matter as sensitive as the murder of his country’s former prime minister, would seem to put his chances of political survival at serious risk. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan though, derives his authority from sources that put him beyond such mundane notions of public accountability.

Four weeks after the assassination of Pakistan Peoples’ Party leader Benazir Bhutto, the causes of her death remained a matter of bitter contestation. After his initial claim that Bhutto died from hitting her head against her vehicle’s sun-roof, Musharraf came around to an admission that she could possibly have been killed by gunfire. But he insisted as a military man with adequate ballistics expertise, that the evidence he had seen – from pictures and X-rays – did not indicate that the former Prime Minister had suffered any bullet wounds.

Yet how could a head of state be so grossly negligent of basic processes of law, as to make an issue of great public importance a matter of his word against that of the murdered leader’s husband? The answers were delivered in the course of a long interview – in parts belligerent and in parts petulant – with the U.S. magazine, Newsweek. “Somehow, in our culture, a post-mortem of a woman is not done”, he explained: “When the body was at the hospital, (Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali) Zardari himself said it could not be done; he didn't want the post-mortem done”.

Having shown an acute sense of cultural sensitivity in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Musharraf – when under pressure -- had little hesitation with proposing an even more repugnant act under Islamic custom: the exhumation of the slain politician’s body. Here again, he warned, matters were not quite so simple as western observers would assume: “Everything is not black and white here. It (exhumation) would have very big political ramifications. If I just ordered the body exhumed, that would be careless, unless (Bhutto's) people agreed. But they will not”.

Basking in the halo of martyrdom of his wife, Zardari rose to the challenge. An exhumation would be permitted, he said, but only if the investigation into the assassination were to be handed over to the United Nations. The man who spent three terms in prison since 1993, for crimes as diverse as extortion, corruption and complicity in the murder of a troublesome brother-in-law, was obviously enjoying the opportunities he had been granted by his wife’s death, to return to political centre-stage in Pakistan. Yet he was finding his effort to make the Bhutto assassination an international issue, a difficult agenda to pursue.

The precedent that Zardari was banking upon – the murder of a former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, in a devastating bomb attack in Beirut in 2005 -- was proving difficult to apply, because of inconsistent western standards. As a commentator in Pakistan’s main English language daily, Dawn, wrote: In the Rafiq al-Hariri case, the U.S. and its western partners in the U.N. Security Council were the real “sponsors, promoters, organisers and financiers” of the U.N. involvement. This was for reasons “known to the world”. In Bhutto’s case though, whatever their sympathies may have been for the slain leader, “they were in effect … on the other side”. No parallel could be drawn between the two cases, because of “historical, political and legal” considerations.

With this debate raging on one flank, Musharraf faced a multitude of challenges on other fronts. Bomb blasts in Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad, claimed innocent civilian lives in the scores. Bitter sectarian rivalries were imposing a major burden on security forces over the religious observance of Muharram. The Waziristan area was the scene of intense battles, as tribal militias repeatedly overran outposts maintained by Pakistan’s security forces. And despite official claims that the Swat valley in the North-West Frontier Province had been secured after the challenge posed by forces of the recalcitrant cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, media reports spoke of continuing turmoil, including targeted assassinations and organised attacks on Pakistan army contingents.

If they did not have enough to worry about, Pakistan’s security forces were concurrently handling a challenge of quite different dimensions on the food front. Prices of atta were spiralling, ostensibly because of speculative activity by the country’s powerful flour-milling lobby. Much valuable wheat flour was being smuggled across the border into Afghanistan. On January 13, Musharraf authorised a newly constituted Federal Food Commission (FFC) to post armed personnel from Pakistan’s Ranger Force and the military, to safeguard atta stocks around the country’s flour mills. Routes of transit from the flour mills to the country’s main urban centres were secured against unauthorised diversion of the precious food. And exports to Afghanistan were banned, till the domestic price situation stabilised.

The Afghanistan government reacted in pique by closing one of the main transit points between the two countries shortly afterwards. The food supply situation in Afghanistan, they argued, was reaching near critical levels.

With all these troubles mounting, Musharraf was given the faintest sliver of hope by the ostensible finding by British police detectives called in to assist with the Bhutto investigation, that responsibility for the crime lay with Al-Qaeda forces marshalled in Pakistan by the tribal chief in Waziristan, Baitullah Mehsud. This finding was underlined by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) shortly afterwards, in calculated leaks to the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Baitullah Mehsud was the suspect first named by the Pakistan government after the Bhutto assassination. This initial ascription of responsibility was met with a flat denial by the man concerned, who declared that the killing of women was contrary to his faith. Since then, the Pakistan government’s offensive against the Mehsud area has climbed several notches in intensity, with frequent air-strikes and the denial of transit for civilian supplies. Shortly after the CIA endorsed the finding that he was the man behind the Bhutto assassination, Mehsud reportedly issued a warning to the Pakistan military forces to stay out of his area. A jirga, or assembly of tribal elders, meanwhile, called for the lifting of the siege that was denying civilians their essential supplies, including food.

The Pakistan military’s supposed airstrikes in Waziristan were in the perception of many, a mere camouflage for more significant U.S. military action. With his country in turmoil, with bitter battles raging on its frontiers, brutal terrorism threatening its city centres and daily supplies of food becoming a matter of chance for large sections of his people, Musharraf left for an eight-day long tour of Europe, giving the word “nonchalance” a new definition. He was received with the courtesy due to a man who has been certified by the U.S. as a vital ally in what it fancifully calls the “global war on terror”. Civil society groups though, had a different perception, organising a series of protests against the growing authoritarianism of his regime.

A power sharing arrangement between Musharraf and Bhutto, was a remedy crafted in Washington DC for the country’s many ills. Ever since a meeting in Abu Dhabi last August, the two had conducted an on-now off-again dialogue, while denying any rapprochement in public. Bhutto’s rival for the democratic mantle, Mian Mohammad Sharief, meanwhile had sought to short-circuit that dialogue by arriving precipitately in Pakistan in defiance of an agreement under which he had accepted self-exile rather than imprisonment for alleged acts of “treason”. Sharief was unceremoniously bundled out, but managed to regain entry in the slipstream of Bhutto’s return last October. Today, he seeks a rapprochement with Bhutto’s party after years of bitter jealousy, which have been in no small way responsible for the repeated failures of bourgeois democracy in Pakistan.

Sharief’s peace-offering to the Bhutto camp is a “national government” that will involve all Pakistan’s political parties and shut Musharraf out. The latter objective may seem attractive to Zardari, but the man who earned the well-deserved sobriquet of “Mr Ten Percent” for his untrammelled exercise of patronage and pelf during Bhutto’s last administration, is not about to let a lifetime’s opportunity slip. A “national government”, he has said, is not appropriate at a time when elections have already been notified and campaigning is underway.

The months following Musharraf’s effort to discipline the country’s judiciary by dismissing Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury, have been traumatic for his regime. Since the siege of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad was broken in July by heavy-handed military methods, he has suffered an even more rapid descent in public esteem. Moderate and enlightened opinion in Pakistan, which he had been counting on for support, has turned decisively against his intent to stay in office and his determination, only recently renounced, to retain his status as army chief. People are now increasingly tilting to the belief that the Lal Masjid militants were marionettes that Musharraf had self-servingly put into play, to create a climate of fear and bolster his claims to another term as Pakistan’s uniformed president. The armed confrontation that followed only proved that he was not quite in control of the forces that he chose to unleash.

The Lal Masjid confrontation was followed in short order, by a public repudiation by tribal chiefs in Waziristan, of the peace agreement that Musharraf had forged with them in September 2006. This effectively turned the clock back four years, to the military operations that Musharraf had begun in the region in the turbulent summer of 2002, when India and Pakistan were mobilising forces for what both sides vowed, would be a decisive battle, and the U.S. was pressuring the Pakistan leader into doing its bidding as a price for its continuing neutrality.

Musharraf then sent his forces into the tribal areas, only to see them suffer grievous casualties. Today, he is compelled by circumstances, to seek fresh recourse to the discredited technique of using maximal force against an adversary that is resolute and resourceful in resistance. He can count upon the cushion of political safety afforded by a newly appointed army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, who has reportedly vowed that the Pakistan Army will not get involved in politics under his watch. How long the army’s patience will hold out, though, is anybody’s guess, even when the matter involves a former member of its top command hierarchy. 

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