By Pervez Hoodbhoy
22 March, 2007
threats by the Bush administration to cut off billions of dollars in
aid to Pakistan have sparked panic in government circles. Likewise,
according to the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, military strikes
by the United States aimed at Al Qaeda and Taliban havens inside Pakistan’s
tribal areas would destabilise Pakistan and “possibly could bring
[General Pervez Musharraf] down.” But how worried should the Pakistani
authorities really be in the face of growing US pressure to root out
Occasional frustrations notwithstanding,
it is, in fact, unlikely that the US will turn against a faithful —
and dependent — ally, especially one whose leader enjoys cordial
personal relations with Bush. Nor, due to a lack of organised opposition,
will public anger at Musharraf’s pro-US policy destabilise his
regime. Indeed, the wily general-president does not merely survive crisis
after crisis, but has thrived in power.
How does he do it? The answer
lies in a finely honed strategy, perfected over years, that juggles
US demands and the interests of local intelligence chiefs, mullahs,
tribal leaders, venal politicians, and a host of fortune seekers. Webs
of intrigue and murky players obscure details, but the priorities are
First, American impatience
must be held in check. Pakistan is expected to deliver results on Al
Qaeda and the Taliban. However, the pot is not to be emptied all at
once. For example, when US Vice-President Dick Cheney arrived in Islamabad
in early March, threatening an aid cut and direct US action against
Islamic militants, his message was not lost. Shortly before his unmarked
aircraft landed, Pakistan announced the capture in Quetta of Mullah
Obaidullah, deputy to the elusive Taliban chief, Mullah Omar. Obaidullah
carried a $1 million reward and was the most senior Taliban captured
since November 2001.
— carried out reluctantly — underscores the Pakistan military’s
ambiguous relationship with the Taliban. Despite more than 700 Pakistani
combat deaths, many in Musharraf’s army wish to retain the Taliban
as quasi-allies who — when the Americans leave Afghanistan someday
— will give Pakistan the ‘strategic depth’ it needs
against India. Thus, to the chagrin of Afghanistan’s president,
Hamid Karzai, Quetta remains a hub of Taliban opposition to his regime.
A second aspect of Musharraf’s
strategy is to create mutually beneficial relations with Islamists.
This is a tricky business. Musharraf cannot permit the mullahs to become
too strong. The mullahs, on the other hand, consider Musharraf an agent
of the great Satan, America, and thus a traitor to Islam.
men have skillfully fractured the main Islamic opposition party, Muttahida
Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), with bribes, blackmail, and internal dissension
fomented by agent provocateurs. As part of the trade-off, terrorist
leaders who are officially under house arrest — like Maulana Masood
Azhar and Hafiz Saeed — remain able to open offices, address rallies,
and preach jihad freely.
Such appeasement carries
a price. This is clear in Islamabad, where over the past two months,
Kalashnikov-toting students have openly challenged the state, following
a government order for the demolition of dozens of illegally built mosques
and seminaries. Unnerved by the wild-eyed students, the government faltered,
then surrendered. In a dramatic reversal, Musharraf’s minister
of religious affairs, the son of former dictator General Zia ul Haq,
promised to rebuild damaged mosques and even symbolically laid the first
stone at one construction site.
The third element of Musharraf’s
strategy is more positive: he knows that he must do some good —
and also be seen doing it. This is crucial for his image as a newly
emerged world leader, promising moderate Islam in an ocean of extremism.
Some of Musharraf’s
achievements are significant. Relations with India have improved, the
Kashmir insurgency supported by Pakistan has been scaled back, a women’s
protection bill was passed in the teeth of Islamic opposition, and a
virulent public school curriculum that emphasised jihad and martyrdom
has been toned down.
But men who live by the gun
are willing to die by the gun, and Musharraf is not taking chances.
He knows that the real threat to his power — and his life —
comes from within his constituency, the military. As a result, he has
become obsessed with micromanaging everything from troop movements and
special events to postings and promotions, all of which require his
personal stamp of approval. Hardline Islamists, favoured previously,
are now out, and soldiers charged with mutiny have received the death
Although this has further
deepened pro- and anti-US divisions within the army, among both commissioned
and non-commissioned officers, Musharraf clearly expects to remain president
well beyond the October 2007 elections, as well as to extend further
his term of leadership of the army. To achieve this end, whatever needs
to be done will be done; principles and rules are elastic.
One might have expected the
Americans to know better than to bet all on a man who might be gone
tomorrow. But, beyond pumping in dollars and supporting Musharraf and
his military, the US appears clueless in dealing with Pakistan and its
problems of social development. With the defeat of Al Qaeda and the
Taliban America’s only visible goal, it is no surprise that the
US remains enormously unpopular among Pakistanis, forcing Musharraf
to maintain his perilous balancing act.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches at
Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad
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