No tears for the General

PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf's long and painful goodbye finally ended last Monday as he resigned from office, leaving in his wake a Pakistan awash in political uncertainty and rising violence.

By Eric S. Margolis (America Angle)

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Published: Sun 24 Aug 2008, 11:39 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

Pakistanis danced with joy in streets at the fall of Musharraf, who ruled his strife-torn nation of 165 million for nine years. Meanwhile, Washington frantically scrambled to find a replacement for the accommodating Musharraf, its favourite, most cooperative dictator.

I interviewed Musharraf when he first seized power in 1999. I'd known every Pakistani leader since tough, capable General Zia ul-Haq in the mid-1980's.

After the meeting, I said to myself, ‘Mush, you're no Zia.' I found Musharraf a rather sour little man with no evident qualities who had come to lead Pakistan almost by accident. He certainly did not seem ready to lead the world's most important Muslim nation.

9/11 turned Musharraf from a nobody into a prime American ally and national dictator. The humiliated Bush administration needed revenge. Though the plot was hatched in Germany and Spain, Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's Afghan base was chosen as the target. But the US first needed to use Pakistan's air bases, supply depots, army and intelligence service to invade and occupy Afghanistan.

Pakistan's then director General of ISI intelligence, Gen. Mahmoud, told me the US threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if Islamabad didn't allow Washington to take command of its military forces and bases, and wage war on Taleban. Musharraf confirmed this threat in his autobiography.

The little general gave in with unseemly haste. He quickly rented the Pakistani Army and ISI to the US for $1.1 billion in official annual payments, and billions more in covert CIA payments to top generals, high officials, politicians and journalists. Musharraf ruled as both army chief and Washington's paymaster general in Pakistan.

Musharraf sent his soldiers and intelligence agents to fight pro-Taleban Pashtun tribesmen along Pakistan's northwestern frontier, and allowed the US to use Pakistan airbases and supply depots. Without these bases, the US and its NATO allies could not have waged war in Afghanistan. Thousands of Pakistani civilians, most of them Pashtun tribesmen, were killed by Musharraf's armed forces.

The General was feted in Washington and hailed as a ‘statesman.' When he first overthrew the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf had some popularity. But over 80 per cent of Pakistanis came to detest Musharraf, branding him a traitor and American agent for selling out his nation's national interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Musharraf was accused of handing over up to 1,000 Pakistanis to CIA, all of whom have vanished. Finally, he was left with almost no support at home save for a few fat cat politicians.

Good riddance, say Pakistanis. Few will mourn Musharraf or his nine-year rule. But what next? The rival leaders of the democratically elected coalition government, People's Party chief Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the slain Benazir, and Muslim League (N) leader, former PM Nawaz Sharif, are vying to see who will become the next president or prime minister.

Nawaz is better qualified, but Zardari has a bigger following and the mantle of martyred Benazir. Both vow to restore the judiciary purged by Musharraf with US, British and Canadian backing. However, Zardari is dragging his feet, fearing reinstated justices may reopen serious corruption charges that have dogged him for decades. He claims these accusations were all politically inspired. But many Pakistanis see him as deeply corrupt and the wrong person to represent their nation which so badly needs an image improvement.

The powerful military watches from the sidelines. Its dour, highly professional commander, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, has so far stayed out of politics. But now that Musharraf is gone, Washington's Plan B is to push Kiyani into power as a new military dictator though he has given no sign he wants the job.

The White House is desperate for a new strategy in Pakistan. The Bush administration has been so preoccupied by its failing war in Afghanistan, and so busy forcing Musharraf to follow policies hated by his people, that it failed to see Pakistan was turning into a volcano of anti-Western hatred and violence.

Some US conservatives are calling for Pakistan to be branded a ‘terrorist state' and its nuclear arsenal destroyed by US forces. Meanwhile, Pakistan's politicians keep squabbling while the nation drifts on a sea of dangers.

Eric S Margolis is a veteran US journalist who has reported for several years from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Middle East

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