A Marketing ploy with Military precision

Gulf News, September 28, 2005

Pakistan’s establishment has used General Pervez Musharraf’s annual trips to the UN General Assembly, at least since 9/11, as occasions to prove the international credentials of their boss.

Pakistan’s official as well as semi-independent media covers the general’s meetings with world leaders to prove to Pakistanis he has support of the international community and, therefore, opposing him or expecting his removal from office any time soon is futile.

In the past, Musharraf’s UN visits have been followed with engineered defections of opposition politicians and sponsored commentary pointing out how as Pakistan’s only “leader” with global stature, Musharraf is the country’s only hope.

The phenomenon is not new. Pakistan’s status as a national security state often results in the assumption that external support and internal political strength go hand-in-hand. That several Pakistani rulers have run into unanticipated difficulties at home at the height of their popularity with foreign powers has done little to change the perception of “Allah, America and the Army” being keys to political power in Pakistan. Of course, right now Musharraf appears about as mighty and unassailable as Ayub Khan did at the beginning of 1968 or Ziaul Haq was perceived 20 years later.

The domestic opposition, under constant attack, seems weak and demoralised. Musharraf told Pakistani journalists in New York that he saw no reason to change course. President Bush has never told him (Musharraf) to give up his general’s uniform and thereby return Pakistan to civilian rule. The general sees his overtures towards Israel as a potential new source of external strength. The American Jewish community, always at the forefront of the global struggle for human rights and democracy, might mute its criticism of Musharraf (or so he hopes) in return for the world’s second largest Muslim country possibly extending a hand of friendship to Israel.

Gimmicks are seldom a substitute for substantive actions at home as well as abroad. Despite his confidence bordering on arrogance, Musharraf’s UN trip did not play out as scripted. The general’s universally condemned remarks about rape victims in Pakistan diluted whatever media impact he had expected from his address to the leaders of the American Jewish community.

Not impressed

Not all Jewish leaders were impressed by the general and participants in the meeting were evenly divided between those calling for giving him a chance and those wondering aloud if he could be trusted.

Apart from the rape comment fiasco, the greatest setback for Musharraf came in the stalling of the India-Pakistan peace process. India and Pakistan are still talking, but the absence of a breakthrough during Musharraf’s meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denied him the success he has been betting on.

Since the beginning of the current peace process, there has been a feeling of relief on both sides of the border over the peace process being under way. But that sense of relief is gradually giving way to traditional patterns of confrontation and refusal to back down. The number of Indians refusing to trust Musharraf is now growing.

The hardcore around Musharraf that remains committed to an ideological foreign policy casting India as a permanent enemy continues to thrust the Kashmir issue into the foreground. Musharraf himself shows no sign of recognising that the economic and military race with India is a losing proposition and that Pakistan’s friends such as the United States are fair-weather and cannot be counted on in the contest with India.

Pakistani ideologues continue to assert that “some gain in Kashmir” must precede or accompany any decision to dismantle the infrastructure of anti-India Islamist militancy within Pakistan. Many civilians on both sides continue to engage in cultural and other exchanges. But the question in Pakistan always is, how strong is the constituency for peace within the Pakistani military?

The thinking of civilians is seemingly less important in a country where the military calls the shots. There was no Pakistani civilian constituency for supporting the Sikh insurgency in India during the 1980s. But Pakistan did it nevertheless. The domestic civilian constituency for supporting the Taliban was weak when the Taliban ascended to power. There was confusion in civilian society when the decision was taken to end support for the Taliban after 9/11. Pakistan’s establishment made both decisions because it considered them strategically important.

Musharraf cannot move forward with the India-Pakistan peace process, or for that matter go beyond symbolic gestures towards Israel, because his institutional mandate from the Pakistani military does not go beyond such gestures. The Pakistan army has not made the institutional decision to relinquish political control or to voluntarily give up its position of privilege and power. Musharraf has modelled his carefully balanced combination of foreign overtures and domestic machinations on Hosni Mubarak’s strategy of controlling Egypt, which has become a stagnant nation that lives off strategic rents in the form of US aid. The US may not, however, want Pakistan to be a stagnant nation with nuclear weapons, limiting Musharraf’s options.