Manipal, India — Although it would be a tad unfair to compare him to a confidence trickster, Pakistan's army-appointed President Pervez Musharraf has survived by convincing a series of patrons to back him, only to let them down later.
After the dour but straightforward Jehangir Karamat was sacked as the army's chief of staff by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for publicly asserting that the military had the decisive say in matters of national security, Musharraf' convinced Sharif that he would be a pliant replacement for the sacked general. This was an important consideration at a time when both Sharif and his brother Shahbaz were reported to be examining the military's links to the immensely lucrative narcotics trade.
For decades, ever since the Afghan jihad began in 1980, opium and its derivatives have been leveraged by elements in uniform in Pakistan to generate cash, not just to send their children abroad to study, but also to fund such "black" operations as the jihad against Indian rule in Kashmir. Politicians in Pakistan, not known for abstemious behavior, watched with envy the flow of profits from the illegal trade -- the primary reason the military wanted to retain control of Afghanistan through the Taliban -- and looked for an opportunity to muscle in.
With the assumption of office by the "spineless" Musharraf, that moment appeared to have arrived. It vanished in a cloud of dust, however, when U.S.-supplied tanks buttressed a coup in 1999 that once again put the military in the driver's seat. Less than a year later, the four army generals who had launched the coup that placed Musharraf in power were themselves edged out by a "chief executive" (later president) of Pakistan eager to show who was boss.
Since then, Musharraf has placed no fewer than 37 presumed loyalists into top command positions within the military. He has given their men -- being a Wahabbi state, the women of Pakistan are not considered good enough to command -- hundreds of well-paying (in both salary and bribes) jobs in the Pakistan state sector.
After charming first Nawaz Sharif and thereafter the corps commanders of Quetta, Rawalpindi and Karachi and his deputy chief of staff -- and then discarding them -- Musharraf turned his attention to U.S. President George W. Bush. Bush has remained faithful to the man who helped train the Taliban for four years in such useful tasks as the making of bombs and the killing of targets, till the (then U.S.-backed) militia were enabled to capture power in Afghanistan by 1996.
Soon after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration made the fateful decision to spurn an offer of help by the Indian armed forces -- which had fought jihadis to a standstill in Kashmir since 1989 and were the most experienced army internationally in "CI Ops," or counter-insurgency operations. Although a few military facilities in India were quietly used to launch strikes on Afghan territory, it was the Pakistan army that was asked to provide the logistical, intelligence and backup manpower needs of NATO forces.
Pervez Musharraf, aware that the Pashtun and jihadi elements within the ranks of his senior commanders would turn on him unless he protected the Taliban, ensured that the leadership of that extremist group escaped to safety from Kunduz and other locations, with the United States looking the other way. Since then, Musharraf has played a cat-and-mouse game with Bush, giving just enough help to keep the United States guessing about his real intentions and interests, even while permitting clandestine replenishment of Taliban forces.
Today, a rejuvenated jihadi force is on the cusp of once again launching major operations against a NATO force that has killed many times more civilians than actual combatants, often because of intelligence provided by Taliban moles acting through Pakistani channels. Simultaneously, under pressure from both Musharraf and his clueless European allies, Bush has succeeded in emasculating the only significant native anti-Taliban force in Afghanistan, the former Northern Alliance. This group has been divested of most of its authority and forces in a (Pakistan-inspired) rush to pamper the unreconciled Pashtun element in Afghanistan, the way the radical Sunnis are being pampered in Iraq. Winning the war -- and thereafter losing what could have been the peace -- seems to be the signature tune of the Bush administration, a dirge in which Pervez Musharraf has played a considerable role.
This columnist was the only commentator to warn in mid-2003, in an article in India's "Sahara Time," that before the year was out, ultra-fanatics would seek to take out the Pakistan president. The information came from within the "China lobby" in the Pakistan military -- men unhappy with the way their chief seemed to be genuflecting before their civilizational enemy. Although two attempts were in fact made on the life of Musharraf toward the end of that year, neither was successful.
Today, the same sources say the Pakistan president has been advised by his comrades in uniform to doff his uniform, thus making him an irrelevance in a country still dominated by the army. Despite owing their promotions to him, most corps commanders favor his stepping down from the post of army chief of staff, and have reportedly told him as much.
Not coincidentally, the numerous jihadi movements within Pakistan are now openly demanding his head, backed by their military patrons. Only tacit support from the all-powerful cadre of corps commanders could have emboldened the Pakistan Supreme Court to challenge the dictator by re-instating his nemesis, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chowdhury, whose quarrel with Musharraf seems to be rooted more in ethnic considerations than in any commitment to democracy.
During the past few years, those considered to be "closet Qadianis" (a sect vilified in Wahabbi Pakistan as "un-Islamic") and Mohajirs (those whose ethnic origins can be traced back to northern Indian provinces) have been given repeated boosts by Musharraf. This angered Punjabis who had previously taken the major share of plum appointments. The spat with the chief justice appears to be linked to this tension between the community and Musharraf, who has further antagonized the Punjabis by preferring (the Sindhi) Benazir Bhutto over Punjab's own Nawaz Sharif to kick-start the so-called "democratic process" in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, perhaps in reaction to the closeness between Bhutto and the United States, the "China lobby" within the Pakistan military is giving its tacit backing to Sharif.
After a lifetime of successful sleight of hand, Pervez Musharraf seems to have reached a dead end. He enjoys the confidence of neither the military nor the jihadis, despite having done much for both. Ironically, it is the man he betrayed through his reluctance to seriously engage the Taliban, George W. Bush, who may yet rescue Musharraf from the oblivion that he seems to be hurtling towards. With "friends" like Musharraf, the United States has no need at all of enemies.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)