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Toward a radical middle

a time for fear
Friday, January 09, 2004  
Global Error

Musharraf survived two assassination attempts this Christmas. (Good effort!) The first attempt was an event assassination: the would-be assassins strapped 550lbs of explosives to a bridge and detonated it as Musharraf's motorcade crossed. In the event, Musharraf's limousine drove clear of the blast by seconds and the bridge was completely destroyed. The second attempt seemed like a hasty reaction to the failure of the first, but was more daring: a stunt assassination. Three suicide bombers loaded two lorries with explosives and tried to ram Musharraf's motorcade from both sides as it drove past two petrol stations. What more could they do? Amazingly, Musharraf escaped with only minor damage to his limo.

Keeping Musharraf alive and in control of Pakistan is crucial to the success of Bush's War on Terror. Most people concede that avoiding regional chaos, theocratic fascism in Pakistan and a nuclear holocaust on the subcontinent takes precedence over challenging Musharraf's autocratic aspirations and the corruption of his abortive democratic "system". The real regional tragedy is that such a decision - or judgement - need be made. Apart from social sticking points, there are two important issues on which Musharraf should be challenged: Kashmir (see below) and the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. It is unclear to what extent Musharraf is complicit in the trade of nuclear equipment to Iran, North Korea and Libya (even Pakistan's nuclear weapons labs boast their share of Islamists) - but this is the issue on which he will be, finally, condemned.

The problem is, without Musharraf in place the WoT axle snaps and there is no replacement or remedy. The alternative is a nuclear-armed Islamist State run by former Taliban and al-Qaeda members, sponsors and allies - the worst possible scenario. Musharraf's position is strong only in the sense that the ISI or the military will not remove him through legitimate, legal, or electoral channels. While Musharraf has power he can rig anything - particularly elections. He can also, slowly and methodically, tighten his grip on power. For example, on January 2, a vote of confidence was held in the national parliament and regional assemblies which Musharraf won. He claimed that the victory "legitimised" his Presidency, and so extended his term of office until 2007. You will notice, however, that the only parties contesting Musharraf's legitimacy, as such, are the very Islamists willing to use democratic victory to dismantle democratic rights. In effect, an Islamist electoral platform urges people to vote themselves out of existence. That's the alternative to sham democracy.

Nevertheless, Musharraf remains internally isolated. In the eyes of many it is impossible to 'legitimise' rule won by force, except by force. The ISI retains a large degree of independence from the government as well as significant ideological ties with Islamic jihadists. Tension between Musharraf and this pro-Taliban secret service - forced to work with the Americans against the Taliban during the Afghanistan war - is extremely corrosive. The face-off with India over Kashmir was exacerbated by the need for Musharraf to placate the ISI and military in exchange for their cooperation with the FBI as it scoured Pakistan for hot al-Qaeda operatives. This paid remarkable dividends with the capture of senior al-Qaeda members in Karachi (Ramzi Binalshibh), Punjab (Abu Zubaida) and Rawalpindi (Khaled Shaikh Mohammed). (Remarkable, because they were plucked from impenetrable tribal nests located inside hardline Islamist territories.) Over Kashmir national and religious tensions rub, and the pride and pettiness of regional power politics takes hold. The fight gets mixed with ISI and militant demands: the reason India accuses Pakistan of ignoring - even backing (i.e. ISI funding) - Islamic jihadists in Kashmir is because it's true. Nuclear rocket rattling last summer was a dangerous game and Musharraf had the ISI in mind when playing. And yet Musharraf knows that he can no longer get away with double-play: it's impossible to ignore Islamist guerrillas operating out of Pakistan in Kashmir while hunting al-Qaeda at the behest of the West. Those kind of inconsistencies are not accepted in W's WoT (a message impressed on the Saudis, who are beginning to understand what's afoot). As Musharraf is forced to crack down on Kashmiri guerrillas, enmity grows in the ranks of the ISI and the military. Put the assassination attempts in the context of Musharraf's recent meeting with Vajpayee in Islamabad and you can see The General in sharky water.

Even within the army Musharraf is in a minority, as Seymour M. Hersh points out in this article from November, 2001:

Musharraf and many of his newly appointed senior aides are muhajir - immigrants who fled to Pakistan from India after Partition, in 1947 - but they are in charge of an Army that traditionally has been dominated by officers from the Punjab region. Even now, an estimated ninety percent of the officers are Punjab. "These things matter a lot," a retired Pakistani diplomat told me. "The Punjab officers would be thinking that there's an earthquake or a revolution taking place. Is it because of the ethnic background of Musharraf? Don't write off the unhappiness within the Army."

The background to the coalition's last major success in Pakistan - the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed - reveals the scale and complexity of the threat to Musharraf. Mohammed was captured in a rich residential location largely populated by retired army generals (and only two miles for Musharraf's own mansion). At the time of Mohammed's arrest, a high-ranking, serving officer with close ties to Mohammed was also arrested (the two arrests were obviously, if not openly, related). Another Mohammed link led to Jama'at Islami, Pakistan's largest radical Islamist party and a substantial political rival to Musharraf (in the event of a free and open democratic election, ironically, although in the last round of parliamentary elections the Islamists made substantial gains despite heavy rigging). Jama'at Islami also has strong ideological and material support from elements of the army disloyal to Musharraf. When he was arrested, Mohammed was being shielded by a Jama'at Islami activist. The whole affair uncovered a tight nexus of al-Qaeda jihadists, muhajir and Islamist army officers and Pakistan's most powerful Islamic party. Such ties obviously extend and include ISI dissidents, if not the whole secret service hierarchy. (The diplomat Hersh cites goes on to say that the ISI is "a parallel government of its own. If you go through the officer list, almost all of the ISI regulars would say of the Taliban, 'They are my boys'.") Such an alliance seems more than capable of producing assassins able to devise and carry out assassination attempts on the scale of Decembers failures.

Musharraf's survival is perhaps due to the tenacity and shrewd caution of a former coup leader able - so far successfully - to play between two opposing and powerful forces (the US and al-Qaeda/ISI/the army/Jama'at Islami). Musharraf has so far displayed a willingness to keep militants in line or have them removed. It would seem, now, to be a question of survival. And Musharraf's survival instinct is so strong that it could almost be called miraculous.

12:29 PM

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