General Musharraf in the line of fire

Gulf News, September 6, 2006

The people of Pakistan appear to have reacted strongly to the killing of Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti by Pakistan’s security forces. But General Pervez Musharraf has justified the military action by declaring that he would not allow anyone to harm the country, adding that strict action would be taken against “anti-state elements”.

“Whoever wants to harm Pakistan nationally or internationally would have to fight with me first,” Musharraf reportedly said, implying that he knew better than the people what is beneficial or harmful to Pakistan.

Musharraf’s warning that “any elements opposed to the development and prosperity of the country would be dealt with iron hands” is not new. Neither is his claim that “no compromise would be made on [the] country’s stability and interest”. The Pakistani nation has heard such rhetoric several times before.

Soon after starting the military operation against Pakistan’s erstwhile Bengali citizens in March 1971, General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan told foreign correspondents, “I will be damned if I allow anyone to break up Pakistan.” As it turned out, Yahya Khan presided over Pakistan’s break up and his decision to use an iron hand against alleged “anti-state elements” precipitated that break up.

Musharraf has much in common with General Yahya Khan. He is a soldier’s soldier who takes pride in his military uniform and considers civilians, especially politicians, inferior to himself. Like Generals Yahya Khan and Zia ul Haq, Musharraf has made it clear that he intends to continue running the country, combining the offices of army chief and president in his person.

Musharraf has persistently rejected opposition demands that he take off his uniform, going so far as to say, “At the end of the day I am a soldier and I love to wear uniform. It is part of me, my second skin.”

Within the next few days, Musharraf’s memoirs will be published by American publisher Simon and Schuster under the title In the Line of Fire. The decision to publish a book, outlining his vision of Pakistan and his contribution to a nation he has described as difficult to rule, resembles a similar decision by another Pakistani military ruler.

Self-styled Field Marshal Ayub Khan published Friends Not Masters in 1968. The book was published by the Oxford University Press, reflecting the fact that in those days Pakistan’s Sandhurst-trained generals still had significant affinity with Britain.

Musharraf’s language and decisions are deeply influenced by his predecessor general-presidents. He speaks against anti-state elements with the same vigour that characterised Yahya Khan’s antipathy towards Bengali politicians; His book is likely to echo Ayub Khan’s worldview.

The era of Field Marshal Ayub Khan is often cited as Pakistan’s period of stability and economic growth. But in fact, however, many of Pakistan’s current political and economic problems can be traced back to the Ayub Khan era. Under military rule, Pakistan has consistently pursued lopsided economic development concentrated in a few hands and in specific geographic regions. Alienation of some ethnic groups, impoverishment of the vast majority of people and a total abandonment of politics are the real lasting legacies of Ayub Khan-style governance.

Specific job

Political leaders in most successful countries are pragmatic consensus builders and policy makers. They run their countries, instead of pretending to save them. As for soldiers and generals, they have the specific job of defending their country in the event of war. Generals are not trained for politics and, in Pakistan’s case, have often been responsible for bringing major political disasters upon their country.

Pakistan’s generals from Ayub Khan to Musharraf have always thought that theirs is the only correct way, not taking into account the possibility of there being alternative paths to the nation’s success. These generals have no tolerance with the notion of political process, no acceptance of allowing institutions and individuals to do their own job, no willingness to accept the occasional messiness of democracy and pluralism.

In Friends Not Masters, Ayub Khan spoke disparagingly of Pakistan’s Bengali citizens and laid out the case for why Pakistan was unfit for democracy and needed the steadying hand of the army. Thousands of copies of Ayub Khan’s book, in both English and Urdu, were bought by the Pakistani government and were available by weight to wrap things soon after the Field Marshal lost power to Yahya Khan in 1969.

The cover of Musharraf’s book In The Line of Fire features him in civilian dress, making one wonder why his pride in his uniform is not reflected in the title photograph of his memoir. The decision to feature the general in mufti on the cover of his book indicates the lurking fear of every coup-making general about the legitimacy of his regime.

Musharraf probably wants the rest of the world to see him as a benign pro-western leader, in an Armani suit so that he is not considered as the New York Times recently characterised him, “a garden variety military dictator”.