Every military ruler of Pakistan has had an extended honeymoon with the US, Pervez Musharraf is no exception. Ayub Khan’s towering personality was tailor-made for the Cold War period when the US needed staunch friends in the region to counter the spread of communism. His autobiography “Friends, Not Masters” said it all. When the US imposed sanctions on both India and Pakistan because of the 1965 War, Ayub became a very disillusioned and disappointed man. Yahya Khan was tacitly encouraged on his accession to the President-ship in 1969, but it was his facilitating of Pakistan as a bridge to China (for Henry Kissinger’s historic, secret visit in July 1971) secured his position with the US. Even though the US Seventh Fleet never materialized in any Pakistan-supporting posture in the Bay of Bengal in 1971 during the Indo-Pak war as hinted by Henry Kissinger, the US dissuaded Indira Gandhi from expanding the war in the West Pakistan. Ziaul Haq was a pariah to the west when he ascended the throne for any number of reasons and remained so for the hanging of an elected PM, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in April 1979. When US President Jimmy Carter visited India, he pointedly ignored Pakistan. Thanks to the Russian misadventure in Afghanistan in late 1979, Zia became the darling of the west and Pakistan a cornerstone of US policy. It was only after Zia’s death that the US decertified Pakistan because of its suspected nuclear capability. When Pervez Musharraf countered the civilian “coup de etat” of another elected PM, Mian Nawaz Sharif, the US recognized by their diplomatic silence that the masses who thronged the streets were not registering any disapproval but were distributing sweets. In contrast to his imperial visit to India, President Clinton did make very brief whistle-stop stopover in Pakistan during his South Asian tour. And while he did not read out the riot act to his Pakistani military hosts, the US body language conveyed their muted displeasure at the state of affairs in Pakistan sans democracy. Pakistan’s hope of change of heart on a Republican taking over the White House took a nose-dive when the Bush Doctrine made it clear the US was ready to sacrifice Pakistan to gain India’s love, the US desirous that India (a la Chester Bowles May 1965 memo) be a counterweight to China in Asia.
Sep 11, 2001 changed all that! Within a 24 hour period thereafter Gen Pervez Musharraf’s fortunes vis-a-vis the west, particularly the US made a U-turn. To his credit Pervez Musharraf grabbed the opportunity for Pakistan and himself in a flash. Some call it opportunism, so what? It was pragmatic opportunism that served the country’s vital interest in the face of adverse ground realities. Like nearly all his esteemed predecessors military-rulers, Musharraf (and Pakistan) became what no one could ever have imagined on Sep 10, 2001, the west’s bulwark for the war against the Talibaan and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. And this to the lasting chagrin of India that had invested a decade in wooing the US. We came back from political and economic isolation that was taking us headlong into apocalypse!
Pervez Musharraf’s visit to the US has been a resounding success. For a military man ruling a country sans democracy to have been invited to address any forum at Harvard University is always a rare privilege, to be able to exact public respect from such a critical crowd has to be acclaimed. The President continued in the same vein in Chicago and New York, charming the assembled intelligentsia and the elite with disarming wit and candour. His address at the UN General Assembly was a resounding success, full of substance and realpolitik. He did not play to the gallery, and without rhetoric he managed to get Pakistan’s point of view across. Even when the audience was skeptical about his explanations regarding his “democratic initiatives”, they were willing to give him the benefit of doubt, so good was his presentation. This despite the fact that Ms Benazir Bhutto had been doing a number on him on a concentrated basis up and down the media and lobby trail all across US and UK for several months. With elections looming on the horizon the President not only managed to hold his own but scored telling points in describing his version of “grass-roots democracy” and why he needed to oversee the transition thereof. He seemed to convince audiences, that other than domestic compulsions, living in a dangerous neighborhood in dangerous times required special democratic measures. Despite an odd aside here and there, the US fully backed Musharraf and that is what counts. He managed most assiduously to contain and/or deflect media criticism. As much as many others will hasten to take credit, it was a very virtuoso solo performance. On the external front, Musharraf has pulled Pakistan from the doghouse it had been consigned to in the last decade.
On the domestic front, the President will fly back to problems of the strange kind. Some of his close aides have gone literally berserk in manipulating the candidates pre-elections. The blatant manner they are going about their business it seems they have been given a free hand to stack the desk in such a manner that it will not make a major difference on election day. Unfortunately he has Humpty Dumptys in the form of Chaudhrys of Gujrat and some others, and with their adverse financial evidence as a matter of record, all the King’s men and all the King’s Horses will not be able to make the Humpty Dumptys electorally legal. The urgency with which the Tariq Aziz/Ihtesham Zamir/Randhawa/Ejaz Hussain Shah combine are working, it seems Musharraf has asked his aides to do what they have to do in the next few days and then “lay-off” well before election day to allow the exercise of a free vote in front of foreign observers. It is quite clear that a bloc of seats that would otherwise be border-line at best may go to the King’s Alliance (KA) by default as the real stalwarts have been knocked out of the races, as per “the laws of the land”.
The best-laid plans of men and mice can go awry. Elections 2002 is increasingly looking like Elections 1970 (in West Pakistan) when the PPP came from nowhere (but the charisma of its leader) to capture maximum seats and consign the “oldies” into political oblivion. This time around, barring the regional parties, MQM, ANP and the Baloch mix, things are very ambiguous for the PPP, the PML (N) and the PML (Q) and alliances thereof. There is no doubt Imran Khan has the youth vote (18 years to 26 with him) and there are indications of the 65-plus crowd rallying to his uncompromising stand against corruption. His problem is good candidates and the solid middle ground of voters (the 30-65 crowd making up 75% of the electorate) who do not seem to be convinced yet. It is a real shame that Musharraf’s aides have alienated him from natural ally like Imran Khan. And what a sorry bunch of horses they have substituted into the electoral race in lieu! Who has the nation’s best interests at heart? Mr President, throw this lot out, otherwise they will destroy your real-time achievements of the last 3 years, all for personal motivations of the Jat-kind. What these people are upto is unacceptable in any form of democracy.
The corrupt and illiterate may have been excluded from the polls, but not entirely so. The motivated must also be made to take their grubby hands off, the slate must be wiped clean. The President is at his best when he listens to his own head and heart. Take a breather, Mr President, and do what you really believe is best for this nation, not what your motivated aides are leading you into, a post-election political morass!
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).