Sunday, January 06, 2008

In defence of Pakistan's military dictator!

In defence of Pakistan's military dictator
Jonathan Power
The Star, Toronto, January 06, 2008

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf gets a bad press; Benazir Bhutto a too kind one. Which of them is the real rogue?

When Musharraf, as Pakistan's top army commander, tried to engineer war with India over Kashmir in 1999, he demonstrated his roguish side. Yet even many of his opponents in Pakistan will concede that since he deposed Nawaz Sharif and assumed power he has been largely a benevolent dictator.

Compared with the last days of the Shah – and many in the American foreign policy establishment are falsely comparing what happened then with what is happening today in Pakistan – the country remained until Bhutto's assassination rather stable, except in its lawless frontier provinces that border Afghanistan, a problem area even in British colonial days.

Until now, Musharraf has rarely cracked the whip. His riot police act with relative moderation. His jails are not full. Executions are rare and never for political offences. Pakistan today is not Iran of yesterday, neither in the type of leadership nor in its degree of religious fervour: the Islamist parties have never gained more than 11 per cent of the vote in a free election.

Bhutto and her husband seem manifestly corrupt. The one chance of nailing her lay in Switzerland where she had stashed cash in quantities she could never have earned honestly. At the time of her death she was appealing a Swiss conviction for money laundering. Many believe she was implicated in her brother's death. Certainly she quarrelled with both her brothers and her mother, all of whom competed to have the lead billing in the family's political drama. She also was estranged from her husband.

Yet now, according to her will, her husband was her chosen successor. For Bhutto, keeping the family – to wit her 19-year-old son – in the line of power was more important than developing a democratic, openly competitive, party.

In comparison, Musharraf has done no great favours for his family, nor earned excessive wealth. He is a down-to-earth army man, who when younger loved to test his macho side.

It was under Musharraf that Pakistan extended the olive branch to India over Kashmir. Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, praised Bhutto as someone who had wanted to break the "sterile patterns of the past" that had brought them to war three times over disputed Kashmir.

But this was a gratuitous backhanded slap at Musharraf. Singh knows as well as anyone that the Kashmir dispute is grounded for lack of Indian resolve to go the last mile. He also knows that the militancy that plagues the region, spreading its infection into Afghanistan and to the frontier provinces of northwestern Pakistan originates in large part among the fighters who first engaged in violence in Kashmir in an attempt to oust the Indian presence.

There is no doubt that the Pakistani military was in large measure responsible for developing this infection when it built up the strength of the mujahidin in Kashmir. It provided training. It helped with logistics and provided military materials over a long period of time.

But, apart from clandestine illegal work by some local Pakistani military and intelligence officials, this support network has been closed down by Musharraf. This doesn't stop the militants from drawing their military requirements elsewhere or stop them organizing a big bombing from time to time in India. Nor does it stop them working with the Taliban and the other militants of northwest Pakistan. In their eyes, India has designs on Afghanistan and is the enemy of all Islamic militant movements.

A peace agreement on the lines proposed by Musharraf – which most Western diplomats will tell you is as handsome an offer as they ever imagined – would shut down Kashmir-grown militancy once and for all. The militants are no longer as popular as they were inside Kashmir and the proposed peace deal would finally pull the carpet from beneath them. Moreover, it would be a singular contribution to the lessening of all Pakistan-based terrorism.

Why doesn't Singh do it? Because of pressures from his own military. Because of the aspiring great power role of the foreign policy establishment that can't bear to treat Pakistan as an equal. Because of the ultra chauvinism of Singh's coalition partners, the Communists. Because the priority with the Communists on policy is to persuade them to agree to the pending nuclear deal with the U.S.

But now that Musharraf is losing political strength all bets are off. Pakistan itself may be consumed by this infection of militancy.

Jonathan Power is the author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Quest for Global Justice.

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