WASHINGTON - President-General Pervez Musharraf's resignation last week was the most commendable act of his nine-year dictatorship. One of America's most important foreign allies leaves in his wake a Pakistan plunged into political uncertainty and gripped by rising internal violence.
While Pakistanis danced with joy in streets at Musharraf's fall, the Bush administration, having put almost all its eggs in Musharraf's basket, was frantically scrambling to find a replacement for the always accommodating Musharraf, known to one and all as `Mush.'
I'd known every Pakistani leader since tough, capable General Zia ul-Haq in the mid-1980's. I interviewed Musharraf at length at army headquarters at Rawalpindi after his military coup in 1999 ousted the unpopular prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
After the meeting, I said to myself, `Mush, you're no Zia.' I found Musharraf a rather sour little man with no evident qualities who had come to lead Pakistan almost by accident. He certainly did not seem ready to lead the world's most important Muslim nation of 165 million.
September 11, 2001 turned Musharraf from a minor figure into a prime American ally and national dictator. The humiliated Bush administration needed revenge. Though the plot was hatched in Germany and Spain, Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's Afghan base was chosen as the target. But the US first needed to use Pakistan's air bases, supply depots, army and intelligence service to invade and occupy Afghanistan and overthrow its Taliban-led government.
Pakistan's then director general of ISI intelligence, Gen. Mahmoud, told me the US delivered an ultimatum to Islamabad: Allow Washington to immediately take command of its military forces and bases, and wage war on Taliban or be bombed back to the Stone Age. Musharraf also confirmed this threat in his autobiography.
The little general gave in with unseemly haste and embraced Washington. He quickly leased the Pakistani Army and ISI intelligence agency to the US for some $12 billion in official annual payments so far, and billions more in covert CIA payments to top generals, high officials, politicians and journalists. Musharraf ruled as both army chief and Washington's paymaster general in Pakistan. Washington's money went a long way in desperately poor Pakistan. It also worked wonders in 2001, thanks to ISI, in getting Afghan warlords to switch their allegiance from Taliban to the US invaders.
Musharraf sent his soldiers and intelligence agents to fight pro-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen along Pakistan's northwestern frontier, and allowed the US to use Pakistan airbases and supply depots. Without these bases, the US and its NATO allies could not continue waging war in Afghanistan. Some 80% of fuel, ammunition, food and other heavy goods for US and NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan is trucked in from Pakistan across its wild, lawless Pashtun tribal region known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). These convoys are coming under attack from pro-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen in FATA.
Thousands of Pakistani civilians, most of them Pashtun tribesmen, were killed by Musharraf's armed forces in the effort to bolster the US war effort in Afghanistan. Up to one thousand Pakistanis identified by the US as possible anti-Americans were arrested by Musharraf's security forces and vanished into the CIA's little Afghan gulag at Bagram.
The general was feted in Washington and hailed as a `statesman.' When he first overthrew the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf had some popularity among Pakistanis who were fed up with the rampant corruption of the Nawaz government. But over 80% of Pakistanis came to detest Musharraf, branding him a despot, traitor, and American agent for selling out his nation's national interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Pakistanis chanted, `Mush, make war on India, not your own people!' Few Pakistanis outside tiny rich elite could see any benefit in supporting America's war goals in Afghanistan or President George Bush's egregiously named `war on terror.' Some polls showed up to 75% of Pakistanis supporting Osama bin Laden as a hero fighting western domination of the Muslim world, though most of them opposed his tactics of attacking civilians. Polls showed a big majority of Pakistanis believed the primary goal of Bush's foreign policy was undermining and combating Islam and occupying Muslim nations.
Aside from senior army generals, the wealthy elite, and a handful of fat cat politicians, the widely hated Musharraf was left with almost no support at home. The more opposition to him grew, the harder he cracked down on opponents, the media and judiciary - all with US approval. While claiming to be fighting for democracy in Afghanistan, Washington was doing its utmost to support dictatorship in Pakistan.
Most Pakistanis are now saying, good riddance. Few will mourn Musharraf or his nine year rule. But what next? The rival leaders of the democratically elected coalition government, People's Party chief Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the slain Benazir, and Muslim League (N) leader, former PM Nawaz Sharif, are vying to see who will become the next president or prime minister. This week, the shaky coalition between the PPP and Muslim League finally collapsed.
Zardari announced he would `accept' his party's nomination to run for the office of president. A vote will be held on 6 September. Nawaz and his Muslim League have called for the presidency to be downgraded to a ceremonial post. Zardari has other ideas.
Nawaz appears better qualified, but Zardari has a bigger following and the mantle of martyred Benazir. Both vow to restore the judiciary purged by Musharraf with US and British backing. However, Zardari is dragging his feet, fearing reinstated justices may reopen serious corruption charges that have dogged him for decades. He claims these accusations were all politically inspired. But many Pakistanis see Zardari as mired in corruption and the wrong person to represent their nation which so badly needs an image improvement. However, Nawaz also comes with the baggage of old corruption charges. There is no such thing as clean politics in Pakistan.
The powerful military watches from the sidelines. Its dour, highly professional commander, Gen. Afshaq Kayani, has so far stayed out of politics. But now that Musharraf is gone, Washington's Plan B is to push Kayani into power as a new military dictator though he has given no sign he wants the job.
The White House is desperate for a new strategy in Pakistan. The Bush administration has been so preoccupied by its failing war in Afghanistan, and so busy forcing Musharraf to follow policies hated by his people, that it failed to see Pakistan was turning into a volcano of anti-western hatred and violence.
Americans kept asking why Pakistan appeared to be playing a double game by claiming to fight `terrorism' (i.e. anti-American groups) while quietly abetting them. The answer was simple: Musharraf had arm-twisted, bribed and intimidated his compatriots into policies they detested and strongly opposed. Both Nawaz and Zardari have called for a reduction of Pakistani support for the US-led war in Afghanistan and new policies that reflect Pakistan's national interests, not those of the United States. The Pakistan armed force's view is still unknown, though there is growing unrest in its middle ranks.
The root of many of Pakistan's current problems is the US war in Afghanistan, which is quickly oozing into Pakistan. While Washington searches for new policies towards highly strategic Pakistan, it should also be thinking about a political settlement in Afghanistan rather than sending in more troops. For starters, talk from the Pentagon about sending more American troops into Pakistan's rebellious tribal areas (FATA) should be silenced lest the US find itself stuck in yet a new war.
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