PAKISTANI president General Pervez Musharraf has returned after a high profile three week long international tour that took him to Germany, Britain, USA and France. Surely much to the disappointment of General Musharraf himself, this ambitious roadshow did not bring quite the dividends he may have hoped for and the event itself has quickly been overtaken by subsequent international events which have pushed it into the background of the international media. Nevertheless General Musharraf’s visit to important Western nations and the outcome of his visits have not been given their due attention, certainly in India.
General Musharraf’s visit took place against the background of the continued US-Pakistan operations against Al Qa’ida and Taliban remnants both inside Pakistan and along the rugged Pak-Afghan border and the high marks given by the Bush Administration to Pakistan and especially to General Musharraf as a key ally in the US-led “global war on terror”.
An equally important background element is the domestic situation in Pakistan, especially the installation of an elected government, despite many complaints of electoral malpractices including the passing of several ordinances which worked against established political parties, headed by prime minister Mir Zafrullah Khan Jamali of the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam) or PML (Q), popularly known in Pakistan as “the king’s party” since it is widely perceived as being a creation of General Musharraf. The new parliament, however, also has a sizable Opposition comprising not only the established secular parties both of whom have earlier led democratically elected governments in Pakistan but also the numerically largest opposition grouping, a coalition of Islamist parties together forming the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or MMA, substantial sections of which are fundamentalist, pro-Taliban and pro-jehadi factions. Pakistan’s legislature has not yet had a single proper sitting in the many months since it was constituted, since the Opposition has refused to accept the Legal Framework Order or LFO under which General Musharraf rules Pakistan as its president and the military retains the whip hand in governance, and continues to demand that Musharraf lays down office either as president or as Army Chief, thus raising a major question mark over restoration of democracy in Pakistan, a key promise made by General Musharraf both to the nation and to the international community.
General Musharraf has so far been playing a delicate balancing act between taking a stand against extremist forces, even acting against them to a certain extent sometimes even quite sharply when US interests are involved, and playing up to the jehadi gallery by declaring his unflinching loyalty to the “Kashmir cause” and to the “freedom fighters” engaged in furthering it whether from within Pakistan or Pak-occupied Kashmir or inside Indian-administered J&K or indeed crossing over between the regions. The crucial strategic issue which was always going to underlie General Musharraf’s high-profile tour was to what extent are the Western powers, especially the US, willing to continue to wholeheartedly back General Musharraf not only as “key ally” in the vicinity of Afghanistan but also as the leader of a “moderate” Islamic country in a region haunted by Islamist extremism.
General Musharraf carried with him a fairly varied agenda on his four-nation tour. He was seeking to woo foreign investors to bolster Pakistan’s fragile economy, elicit support for his four-point Middle-East style “road map” for resolving the Indo-Pak dispute over Kashmir, highlight Pakistan’s contribution to and importance for the “war on terror” and thereby also distance Pakistan from the general Western perception on Islamic extremism, promote a pro-Western image of Pakistan by holding out the possibility of sending Pakistani troops to Iraq and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and, above all, to obtain a generous financial and military assistance package from the US.
It must be said that, from the above view point, his stop-overs in the UK on the pre-US leg and in Germany and France on the return leg were less than noteworthy.
The Blair government, which seems to be arriving at some kind of long-term assessment of British strategic interests in South Asia, gave no comfort to General Musharraf on the Kashmir issue or on infiltration across the LoC on which it continued to take a tough line. On the other issues on the General’s agenda, the UK had little to offer in terms of military hardware or economic assistance, and, beleaguered as the Blair government itself is on the issue of Iraq, was not particularly keen to bring up the issue, leaving it to Big Brother Bush to deal with that. The British press also remained notably cool towards General Musharraf.
Perhaps, at the present juncture, the UK does not want to prejudice its burgeoning economic relationship with India, especially possible deals on the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer and Airbus aircraft, and is also perhaps mindful of the growing clout of Indian-origin expatriates in the UK, but it has other deeper issues at stake as well.
In the wake of the September 11 attack and unfolding revelations of the deep links of international Islamic extremists in the UK, the British government’s anxiety about the activities of extremist elements amongst various expatriate communities in Britain, particularly those of Pakistani origin, is getting acute. More than most other countries, the UK is increasingly aware that a clear line cannot be drawn between jehadis active in Kashmir and those active on other fronts. Further, the UK is also home to several Pakistani opposition leaders including Benazir Bhutto who spends considerable time in the UK, Altaf Hussain of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement, members of the Nawab Sharief family and numerous Islamist groups owing allegiance to the MMA, all of whom have an axe to grind with General Musharraf and exert pressure on the Blair government especially on the issue of democracy in Pakistan. With all this, General Musharraf must have left for the US looking forward to the greater warmth which he knew awaited him there.
This European wariness of Pakistan was also to be seen on General Musharraf’s return leg in France and Germany. At least part of the General’s agenda here was to sound the two nations, of whom France is a permanent Security Council member and Germany a member of the presently-constituted 15-member Council like Pakistan, on the possibility of a fresh UN resolution mandating a multi-national “stabilisation” force in Iraq which would provide Pakistan a much-needed cover for sending its troops.
The French are well known for their pragmatism in international relations, particularly with regard to arms sales. France’s previous sales of Mirage 2000 fighters and several other prospective and lucrative arms deals with India had not prevented it from the sale of the highly sophisticated Agosta class submarines to Pakistan. Ironically, it was the shadow of the Agosta which clouded General Musharraf’s visit. France continues to be restive about the terrorist attack on the Karachi hotel killing several French engineers working on the Agosta project and what it perceives to be slow progress in bringing the culprits to book, especially in comparison to the quicker and more effective action in cases involving American personnel such as the journalist Daniel Pearl.
When a Pakistani court, just a few days before General Musharraf’s arrival in Paris, found guilty and sentenced two accused to death in this case, the reaction in France was one of deep skepticism, seeing the judgement as an engineered sop and one which did not touch the real perpetrators of the ghastly crime. To add to General Musharraf’s woes, while he was in Paris, a massive terrorist strike took place in Quetta targeting Shia worshippers at a mosque and probably carried out by Sunni extremists, focusing international attention on the pervasive roots of extremism in Pakistan and severely damaging the General’s credibility as a moderate doing his best to stamp it out. To nobody’s surprise, there were no major military or diplomatic deals struck in France. And everybody knows that whatever France nor Germany feel about a new UN resolution or Iraq, the deciding factor was what Big Brother the US wanted.
KUDOS IN THE US, BUT WHAT ELSE?
The undoubted high point of General Musharraf’s tour was the three hours as president George W Bush’s guest at the presidential retreat of Camp David which, commentators especially in South Asia repeatedly pointed out, was the first such invitation by a US president to any leader from the region. General Musharraf himself, while addressing the press along with president Bush at Camp David, could not help gushing like a schoolboy and fawning at how “touched” and “proud” he felt at the “privilege” accorded to him. Bush responded by praising General Musharraf’s role as a “key” and “major” ally in the “war on terror”, specifically for his role in securing the arrest of more than 500 Al Qa’ida and Taliban suspects and in military action against these forces along the Pak-Afghan borders.
As reward, president Bush announced a US 3 billion dollars (Rs 14,100 crore) package of economic and military assistance to Pakistan. The figure was fairly close to that put forward by Pakistan’s finance minister Shaukat Aziz prior to General Musharraf’s departure on the tour as the losses incurred by Pakistan due to the US’ Afghan war and its aftermath. However, there was a cloud behind this silver lining! There was to be no total debt write-off leaving Pakistan still saddled with US$ 1.8 billion left over even after an earlier write-off of US$ 1 billion, the former being also included in the present package. President Bush also announced that the actual appropriations would have to be approved by the US Congress on a case-by-case basis, and Administration spokespersons made it known that Pakistan’s role in fighting terrorism and in moving towards full democracy would be used as indicators. Pakistan government spokespersons have since been touting the package as a major if not unprecedented achievement but commentators, including prominent ones in leading Pakistani media, have noted that the US has handed out larger amounts to previous Pakistani governments and that too without strings.
Perhaps even more disappointing was the refusal by the US to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan, an item on top of General Musharraf’s wish list and which he had publicly and repeatedly announced his desire prior to his departure.
For Pakistan, the F-16s have long been an emotive issue symbolising American betrayal when US sanctions against Pakistan´s nuclear weapons programme froze not just the supply of the planes already contracted but also half a billion dollars that Pakistan had paid in advance for the fighters. If the US this time agreed to the sale of F-16s, it would signify that any remaining problems in US-Pakistan ties had been resolved and that Pakistan was once again firmly in the US camp with all that it entailed. For President Musharraf, this would have been a major achievement signaling his negotiating abilities vis-a-vis the US and the latter’s acceptance of his primacy in Pakistan and would also have struck a heavy blow against his critics back home. But this was not to be. Nor was there a positive US response to Pakistan’s request for Predator unmanned aircraft.
Some commentators, especially in India and more particularly pro-government ones, have tried to make this appear as being due to Indian pressure, a major Indian victory. US media had reported that earlier, during Indian deputy prime minister Advani’s visit to the US before General Musharraf’s visit, when US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called on him at the former’s hotel, Rumsfeld had hinted to Advani that the US was likely to release F-16s to Pakistan and had also pressed Advani on sending Indian troops to Iraq. Some Indian commentators gave this a spin, and “disclosed” that Advani had told Rumsfeld that both together were not possible and that thereafter Rumsfeld assured Advani that the F-16s would not be given to Pakistan! Not only did the US defence department and other US spokespersons vehemently deny this story, they also denied that the F-16 deal was under consideration at all. There are good reasons for this.
Part of it lies in the vexed history of the US-Pakistan deal for the nuclear weapons capable F-16s which had been frozen along with other strategic weapons sales under the so-called Pressler Amendment in 1989 when the then US president Bush Sr could no longer declare that Pakistan did not have a nuclear weapons programme. These restrictions, along with other US sanctions against Pakistan after the latter’s tit-for-tat nuclear weapon test after India’s Pokhran-II tests were waived by the present president George W Bush. But authorities are uncertain of the status of the Brown Amendment which specifically excludes the F-16s from the scope of the Pressler Amendment.
It must also be noted that while the defence department under the hawkish Rumsfeld was reported to be in favour of the military deals, the state department and intelligence agencies were reportedly against. While these latter may have been more sensitive to the fact that the F-16s could only have been used against India and that, since US forces were operating in force on the Pak-Afghan border, giving Predators to Pakistan did not make sense in that context, the comparatively lukewarm response of even the US to General Musharraf’s overtures must be understood in a broader strategic context.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
To put it bluntly, Pakistan is no longer as important a strategic partner for US imperialist interests as it once was. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan and central Asia is over, the Soviet Union itself has collapsed and with it the Indo-Soviet alliance so hated by the US. While Pakistan’s military and covert forces under ISI command or supervision played the US-surrogate in Afghanistan during the Soviet presence there, and remained there in support of the Taliban so much so that thousands of Pakistani regulars and mujahid fighters had to be hurriedly evacuated when the Taliban regime collapsed, today the US itself is well-entrenched in Afghanistan, with regular operational bases in Diego Garcia as well as in Khazakstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The US is also physically in occupation of Iraq and, with fairly pliant allies elsewhere in the region, now has only Iran as a significant opponent in the region.
To be sure, Pakistan has an important role to play in assisting the US as regards Al Qa’ida and the US will continue to rely on Pakistan in this regard both logistically and politically. Pakistan under General Musharraf is doing well in this regard and will be rewarded to that extent. But as regards the Taliban and jehadi extremism in general, the results are not that encouraging. Recent developments in NWFP and Baluchistan where Taliban-style laws and enforcement structures have been institutionalised are cases in point. General Musharraf has not been able to carry out as effective a campaign to neutralise extremism as he had been promising.
One of the key reasons has been the continued reliance of President Musharraf himself and, in general, of the Pakistan military, the ISI state-within-a-state and substantial sections of the ruling elite on jehadi elements for carrying out its foreign policy goals vis-a-vis India particularly in Jammu & Kashmir. It is obvious, and widely acknowledged, that one cannot have bastions of extremism or training camps in which there are only “Kashmir cause” jehadis but other kinds of jehadis are excluded. General Musharraf is a moderate no doubt, and wishes to keep on the good side of the US as shown by his dramatic abandonment of the Taliban, but he is also committed to a statecraft legacy which itself contributes to extremism. How long can he keep riding both horses? With his own legitimacy also increasingly under question in Pakistan, and therefore his ability to deliver, it is not unreasonable to expect that his key Western allies may not wish to put all their eggs in his basket.
All these above have contributed, as the outcome of General Musharraf’s four-nation tour has shown, that Pakistan’s strategic importance in the region has declined. Unfortunately for India, the BJP-led government is yet to grasp this reality and, despite its repeated pleas to the US and other major powers not to hyphenate their relations with India and Pakistan, itself always does so. It is surely no coincidence that deputy prime minister Advani visited the US just weeks before General Musharraf whose footsteps were shadowed into the US and Europe by National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra!
Indian interests would be better served by a more multi-faceted Indian foreign policy rather than one which only looks at the US and Pakistan. Indian interests, as indeed those of South Asia in general, would also be better served by a consistent opening up towards the Pakistani people, cultivating and assiduously building a constituency for peace and better Indo-Pakistan relations, going above the heads of vested interests. The visit of one Pakistani family to Bangalore for heart surgery of their daughter, made possible by the resumption of bus services between the two countries so abruptly and self-defeatingly cut off by the BJP-led government, has done more for Indo-Pak relations than a thousand vacation musings. But alas, our own vested interests and extremists in the Sangh Parivar, have their own legacy just as their counterparts in Pakistan have