After the U-turn on the Turning Away

Indian Express and The Nation (Pakistan), September 25, 2002

One year has passed since General Pervez Musharraf abandoned Afghanistan’s Taliban, disavowed state sponsorship for Islamic militancy and aligned his government with the United States. The general has benefited enormously from his famous U-turn. Foreign aid has started flowing, Pakistan’s crippling debt has been rescheduled and the military regime’s international isolation has given way to praise and acceptance.
But the U-turn remains incomplete and the Pakistani people have yet to benefit directly from this policy shift, which amounted to cutting of losses rather than a bold initiative in any case. Since his recent visit to the United States for participation in the UN general assembly, General Musharraf’s emphasis on ties with the US seems to have shifted. Instead of working overtime to secure US approval, as he had done throughout the previous year, he is now trying to be a less compliant ally. Is there another U-turn round the corner?

The signs of the shift are subtle but unmistakable. First, the general refused to get drawn into the controversy over the prospective invasion of Iraq. ‘‘We have our hands full,’’ he declared, which is true in addition to being practical policy. Pakistan has nothing to gain from a US invasion of Iraq or even from the toppling of Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, it could be a major loser if the doctrine of ‘‘justified preemption’’ is invoked in attacking Baghdad, resulting in changing international law that has so far not endorsed preemptive attacks against sovereign states. But General Musharraf had marketed himself to the Bush administration as a strong-willed ally. If allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia nuance their positions in case of multilateral action against Iraq, it will be difficult for the general to stay away from action and still seek critical ally status in Washington.

Soon after sending the ‘‘too busy to help you with Iraq’’ message, the Musharraf regime directly contradicted a top US official over an alleged attempt on the general’s life. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had been an interlocutor in the last round of Indo-Pak sabre-rattling, told a committee of the US Congress that a plot to kill Musharraf had been foiled, which Musharraf’s spokesmen later denied. Information Minister Nisar Memon went to the extent of wondering where Armitage had got his information from, not realizing that US officials take extra care in being factually correct before Congress.

Either the report was correct or the Pakistani authorities had tried to score points with the US by incorrectly passing information of an impending threat to General Musharraf’s life. An ally taking risks to his person gets sympathy, even concessions. But the denial was necessary for domestic political reasons. Military strongmen do not seem that strong if there are reports of as many as seven attempts or plots against their life. In any case, officials of an authoritarian regime trying to be all things to all people are more likely to lie than a senior US official who has nothing to gain from such inexactitudes. Although relatively minor in importance, the episode indicates that Washington and Islamabad are not reading from the same page.

In supporting the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks, General Musharraf had expected a US tilt towards Pakistan, especially in its dispute with India. This was the same expectation that led Field Marshal Ayub Khan to allow U-2 spy flights against the erstwhile Soviet Union from Badaber, near Peshawar during the 1960s and encouraged General Yahya Khan to stumble into the war over Bangladesh in 1971. But the US cannot change its worldview to suit Pakistan. The Bush administration is willing to support General Musharraf but only to a point. As America’s need for Pakistan’s support in the war in Afghanistan declines, or the focus shifts to another region such as Iraq, its attntion to Musharraf’s requirements is bound to diminish.

As if to gain Washington’s attention, Interior Minister Lt General Moinuddin Haider declared recently that there was no conclusive evidence of Al Qaeda involvement in attacks on Western targets in Pakistan this year and suggested that India may have financed them. He said al-Qaeda suspects arrested this month came to Pakistan as fugitives, not to carry out attacks.

But Haider also claimed that there had been about 200 cases of bomb blasts or sabotage in Pakistan in the past three years, of which only four or five had been solved. ‘‘And it of course was pointing towards India,’’ he said of those cases. His remarks mean that Pakistan and the US also do not have the same enemy. The question is, whether the US and Pakistan will be able to remain strong allies if their definition of the enemy remains so far apart.

Pakistan has many justifiable grievances against India but other countries of the world do not share its view of its neighbour as a permanent enemy. Pakistan’s security seems in peril whichever way one looks at Haider’s allegations. If he is right, and India has managed to generate 200 acts of sabotage in Pakistan of which only four or five cases have been solved, there is reason for Pakistanis to be concerned. And if he is blaming India to drum up domestic support from an anti-India constituency then, too, Pakistan faces trouble. The ability of Pakistani rulers to mobilize support by turning on India means that there is no reasonable prospect of an early settlement of India-Pakistan disputes. The Sangh Parivar and the anti-India establishment in Pakistan will see to it that both countries continue to talk of each other as enemies, instead of searching for ways to live together in peace.

Toning down the alliance with the US would make sense for Pakistan only if it was accompanied by some progress in relations with India. Alternatively, Islamabad could seek somewhat better terms of engagement with New Delhi through the good offices of the US. But it is unrealistic to expect American support while maintaining hostilities with India especially when in the past such support has never been forthcoming.

If the Musharraf regime is playing tough in the hope that it will somehow influence Washington into another tilt like 1971, it may do well to remember that even that tilt did not help Pakistan in the Bangladesh war.