His North America tour may be over, but questions persist about Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president-cum-dictator. Which countries is Pakistan giving nuclear technology to? Do the Pakistani Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (still) support extremist groups? Does the general have enough control to crack down on Islamic extremists? Does he really want to? How long, exactly, does he plan to stay in office? How long will he be allowed to?
As a key U.S. ally in the war on terror (and an intermittent beneficiary of U.S. aid and trade carrots), Musharraf is caught between his allegiance to the United States and his need to contain domestic extremists and Al Qaeda sympathizers without inflaming a deeply anti-U.S. population. Musharraf may be a military dictator, but it’s not clear he’s fully in charge. He’s certainly vulnerable; just this week Osama bin Laden’s deputy called for Muslims to topple Musharraf, for being a “traitor” to Islam.
Time puts it bluntly: “Whose Side, exactly, is Pakistan on?”
“In early summer U.S. soldiers scrambling after Taliban remnants along the craggy mountains of southeastern Afghanistan made a surprising discovery. Among the gang of suspected Taliban agents they nabbed were three men who, it emerged in interrogations, were Pakistani army officers. Authorities in Pakistan clapped the three in a military brig; an official from military intelligence called them ‘mavericks.'”
Eliminating extremism in Pakistan will be no easy feat, as the Time reporters point out:
“For years, the top brass drummed into midranking officers a sense of Islamic mission. A Prophet-length beard helped an officer’s promotion, as did praying five times a day. Now, says [a retired lieutenant] ‘the army is taking measures against officers who are too religious minded.’ Those deemed overly fanatic are discreetly steered into nonsensitive or dead-end jobs, he says, and a soldier needs permission from his commanding officer before he is permitted to grow a beard.
The difficulty of redirecting the army toward moderation is illustrated by Musharraf’s struggle to reform Pakistan’s powerful internal-security apparatus, ISI, once the Taliban’s No. 1 ally. These days, says a Western diplomat in Islamabad, the ISI’s top brass carries out Musharraf’s bidding, but some of the lower-echelon officers seem to retain ties÷ideological and financial÷with their former Taliban proteges.”
According to the report, in June U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage showed Musharraf satellite images of terrorist training camps located along Pakistan’s side of its border with India:
“‘Musharraf acted outraged and upset,’ a State Department official tells TIME, but it wasn’t clear to the Americans whether he was angry that the camps were functioning or that the U.S. had uncovered them.
Musharraf has failed to sustain his promise to crack down on extremist groups that in the past fed fighters to the Kashmir cause, carried out sectarian killings and attacked Westerners. In January 2002, at the insistence of the U.S., Musharraf banned five such groups. Yet the government has allowed them to resurface under new names. Abdul Rauf Azhar, formerly of Jaish-e-Muhammad, says, ‘We are still doing our work.'”
Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher who recently published a book, based on a year’s immersion in Pakistan, about the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, told the Washington Post he doubts that Musharraf has complete control:
“What has become obvious is the tremendous power of the ISI, Pakistan’s secret service – so dreaded by average citizens that they rarely speak its name but refer to it instead as the ‘three letters’ – and the deep infiltration of this powerful organization by militant fundamentalists and jihadists.
“The most dominant factions in the ISI, in fact, have come to constitute a virtual jihadist group itself. And this is why Pakistan has become the subject of numerous other urgent questions: Did it shelter Osama bin Laden and other members of al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks? Has it provided bin Laden with medical attention since the Afghan war, in the Binori Town Mosque in Karachi, which I happened to visit? Was it involved, and to what extent, in the murder of Pearl?”
Musharraf recently admitted that Pakistan received ballistic missile technology from North Korea, but says that it did not provide nuclear weapons technology to them. In the U.S. last week, he said Pakistan’s nuclear material was under strict control, but he didn’t sound too convincing. And anyway, Pakistan’s nuclear know-how resides with the scientist Abdul Qader Khan, who isn’t necessarily inclined to take orders from Musharraf. Says Levy:
“This public figure, this great scientist, this man who knows better than anyone (since it is he who developed them) the most sensitive secrets of Pakistan’s nuclear program, is both close to the ISI and a member of Lashkar e-Toiba, a group closely allied with al Qaeda. My story concerned Khan’s ‘vacations’ to North Korea and his links with bin Laden’s men; one of my hypotheses is that Pearl may have been killed to prevent him from reporting on such trafficking of nuclear know-how.”
Dr. Ahmed Faruqui, writing in Pakistan’s Daily Times, questions Musharraf’s overall intentions, wondering why it took September 11 and U.S. pressure to get the General to turn against the Taliban. “If this policy was bad to begin with as he now asserts, Musharraf should have dispensed with it once he became the nation’s Chief Executive in October 1999,” he says. Faruqui echoes moderates who ask:
“How credible is it to say in Ottawa that Pakistanis should ‘shun militarism and extremism, which will get us nowhere’ when he rules the country only because he is the army chief and when everyone knows that it is the Pakistani military whose proxy wars have contributed to the rampant extremism that now holds the country in its grip?”
Levy wonders why the United States, which has promised Islamabad billions in aid – doesn’t do more to reform the country:
“Is it not possible at least to tie this aid to certain simple political conditions — for example, that the Pakistanis must give proof of a genuine effort to reform the ISI; or that they impose the most severe sanctions on their high-ranking nuclear scientists and officials who take “vacations” in Iran, North Korea or Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan?”
Not to be lost in all of this is Faruqui’s main point, that Musharraf has no right to speak on behalf of Pakistan. Musharraf refuses to say when he will step down, and he wants parliament to ratify a bill that would essentially make the military the guardian of the democracy after he steps down. That job is usually given to the country’s supreme court.
On the far side of Musharraf’s rule, says Levy, is another Pakistan, one “which is liberal, democratic, secular, which fights, back against the wall, against mounting Islamism, and which does not understand why, in this combat, we are not at its side.”
That, of course, is the best-case scenario. A less rosy view, and one held by not a few U.S. policymakers, is that a democratic, pluralistic Pakistan would swiftly catapult to power an Islamist firebrand, hostile to the U.S. and less than cooperative in its war on terror. Whether having such a government in a nuclear-armed Pakistan represents an improvement over Musharraf, at least from the point of view of international security, is a question that could soon be more than academic. Either way, it’s unlikely the United States will have much say in the matter.