Reaping the whirlwind

EVER since he seized power in a coup over six years ago, Pakistan President General Musharraf has been picking fights and rejecting potential friends. The result is that today, politically he stands completely isolated.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 2 Mar 2006, 9:46 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:35 PM

Militarily, his troops are heavily engaged in Waziristan and in Balochistan. His support from the religious parties of the MMA, the natural junior partners of military rulers in Pakistan, has boomeranged.

And yet, textbooks on grand strategy and military history clearly warn commanders not to open multiple fronts. They also urge them to seek allies rather than make enemies.

The ongoing protest movement against the tasteless Danish cartoons has the potential to spiral out of control. This is an issue that has united the opposition, and has the potential to pull the crowds in a way other political issues have not. While the opposition seems energised, Musharraf is looking shakier than he has done since he seized power.

When President Bush visits Pakistan this week, Musharraf must put his own house in order, rather than appear a beleaguered leader in his own capital. Naturally, the opposition can be expected to use this occasion to embarrass Musharraf, so we will probably see demonstrations and possibly violence on the streets of Islamabad to greet the American president. I suspect the insurgents in Wana as well as in and around Dera Bugti will use this visit to escalate their hostilities.

However, a lot of these problems could have been avoided had Musharraf been prepared to negotiate in good faith. His record of broken promises has made his foes now think that the only way to remove him is through street protests. As his toadies indicate that the President is unwilling to leave even after the elections in 2007, they have raised the temperature in Pakistan's tough game of power politics.

His only supporters, apart from the army and the Americans, are the carpetbaggers of the Muslim League. But as other military rulers have learned to their cost, this ragtag collection of opportunists back a dictator only as long as he is seen to be in charge. As soon as they sense his power ebbing away, they immediately look for the next rising star to hitch their wagons to.

Some of Musharraf's problems have been imposed on him, but the rest have been self-created. The explosive situation in the tribal belt dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan is a direct result of being America's ally in the 'war against terror'. While before 9/11, Islamabad would hardly have shrugged a shoulder over the Taliban cross-border raids, today there is enormous pressure from Washington on Musharraf to block these attacks. And occasionally, in a conflict with well-armed and highly motivated men, there are going to be civilian casualties, an issue that provides the mullahs with more ammunition against Musharraf.

In the conflict in Balochistan, we have been seeing the tribal fighters using an amazing number of rockets, mortars and mines against government targets. This ordnance is expensive, and one can only guess where the money is coming from. Musharraf has accused India of organising and financing the shadowy Baloch Liberation Army. While we cannot establish if this charge is true, it would seem a natural Indian response to Pakistan's own support for Kashmiri rebels. Had Musharraf lived up to his many promises to halt cross-border terrorism, we might not be facing the Baloch insurgency today.

In political terms, Musharraf is entirely responsible for his isolation. From day one, he has tried to marginalise the country's two major politicians, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. While the former was handled with kid's gloves and sent into a luxurious exile, the PPP leader and her husband have been persecuted ruthlessly. Every attempt has been made to force their party members to abandon them. Now, when Musharraf needs their support to face the Islamists, he finds them in the opposite camp.

When Musharraf was asked recently by a foreign publication why he had pressed Interpol to issue its 'red corner warrants' against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari at this time, he was economical with the truth. Coolly, the President said he had nothing to with the matter as the National Accountability Bureau had initiated the case, and it was an entirely autonomous body. He can now be expected to claim that the Chief Election Commissioner is independent as well...

And as for the many charges against corrupt politicians, it is a fact that many of them are members of his cabinet, as previous NAB enquiries have established. If honesty becomes the sole criterion for politics, I'm afraid there won't be many politicians in Pakistan or elsewhere. So clearly, the whole exercise in so-called accountability is motivated solely by a desire to keep certain politicians away from the scene.

To stay in power, politicians will happily sup with the devil. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, while trying to neutralise the opposition in 1977, attempted to garner right-wing support by banning alcohol, gambling and night clubs. The move backfired, as we know to our cost. What deals might Musharraf cut, and with whom? His options are clearly limited: he cannot appease the Islamists without drastically reducing his close cooperation with the Americans. It follows from this that the uprising in the tribal areas will continue.

When dealing with the Baloch insurgency, he is probably exercising all his self-control not to follow his first instinct and go in with guns blazing. He lacks the temperament to negotiate patiently and arrive at a formula that gives the Baloch a greater share of the national cake. After six years of constant harassment and defamation, it is unlikely that a deal with the PPP is now possible. But as we know, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Who knows, given the right inducements, how politicians react to the whiff of power?

But there is still time for Musharraf to end his isolation. However, politicians who have been in power for a long time are convinced of their own invincibility. Another problem is that his army deputies and corps commanders are now very junior to him, and in the military, this does count for a lot. While in his early years as president, his colleagues could have spoken to him as near-equals, their successors are probably far more deferential. This usually makes for bad advice.

In the final analysis, dictators become isolated because they have no contact with the real world, and are convinced that they have all the answers.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani commentator based in London. Write to him at

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