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The case against Pakistan's dictator

The case against Pakistan's dictator

Author: Tunku Varadarajan
Publication: The Wall Street Journal
Date: November 20, 2001
URL: http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/tvaradarajan/?id=95001492

Which president, of a country that is ostensibly--and ostentatiously--a part of the international coalition against terrorism, made the following public remarks (and numerous others like them)?

"Jihad is not terrorism. Mujahideen organizations are not terrorist organizations. Jihad had been revived during the Afghan war and now it is jihad in Kashmir. Muslims from different parts of the world are coming together to support their oppressed brothers and sisters." -- Feb. 5, 2000

"The Taliban are the dominant reality in Afghanistan, and the international community should engage rather than isolate them." -- Aug. 14, 2001

The answer is Pervez Musharraf, the general who led a coup against the democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan--admittedly a corrupt man, but isn't that something the voters of that country might have been expected to address the next time around?--and who now swans about the world wearing a badge, "President of Pakistan," to which he has no moral or constitutional right.

This man, this military adventurist, was a near-pariah who was kept on the sidelines of the international stage in the days before Sept. 11. After that date, he has stolen the limelight. Members of the Bush administration describe him as a "kind of Ataturk"--a reference that must make old Mustafa Kemal gyrate in his grave--and he has been lauded, by people who should know better, as "responsible," "farsighted," "statesmanlike," "courageous," "moderate," "Westernized" and "brilliant."

Of these adjectives, the only one I would accept is the last--brilliant--and I would adjust even that, for right and truthful nuance, to "supremely wily."

Gen. Musharraf is a nakedly opportunistic man. He may be doing The Right Thing so far as the West is concerned, but he is hardly doing it for the right reasons. He has allied himself with the forces of good in the current war in Afghanistan for only one reason, and it has nothing to do with conviction, integrity, humanity, or a revulsion against international criminality. He is on board, quite simply, because the U.S., after Sept. 11, had him by the short-and-curlies. A conversation along these lines took place between the general and senior members of the administration:

U.S. Interlocutor: "We need your airspace and landing rights in Pakistan."

Musharraf: "But, but . . ."

U.S.: "No buts. You're either with us on this or against us."

Musharraf: But . . .

U.S.: "What did we just say? The Taliban are your guys. Osama bin Laden has their protection. We just lost 6,000 people. We're in no mood for games. You join us, or you face our wrath too."

Musharraf: "bu . . . oh . . . OK. You can have everything you want."

That India--secular like the U.S., democratic like the U.S., and, like the U.S., a victim of Islamist terrorism--wasted no time after Sept. 11 in offering its resources, intelligence and goodwill gave the general even less wriggle room than he might otherwise have had. Thus was born an "act of statesmanship," in which Gen. Musharraf, dictator of a sectarian Muslim country, came to be portrayed as someone who was laying his life on the line for universal ideals.

In the Western press, as if by some miracle, articles started to appear that emphasized the great personal risk he was running in offering to help the U.S. The general, of course, had much to gain from this perception. After all, if his land were to look like a place in ferment, a place wracked with angry, riotous dissent, the general's image would acquire a new sheen. Instead of being regarded as a man with no choice but to jump to attention on America's orders--orders the U.S. was fully entitled to issue, given Pakistan's sponsorship of the Taliban--the general gained in stature. So much so that seasoned Pakistan-watchers came to suspect that many of the pro-Taliban, anti-U.S., anti-Musharraf demonstrators who milled about on the streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi in the days after Sept. 11 were induced to do so by the general's own administration. How much of a threat there really was to Gen. Musharraf's survival could be gauged by the fact that he felt free, and safe enough, to visit the U.S. recently, without fear of being toppled.

Right from the start of the war, Gen. Musharraf has played a double game. In the first weeks, he urged and counseled and wheedled against any attacks on the Taliban frontlines, on troops who were, in effect, damming the advance on Kabul by soldiers of the Northern Alliance. This was accompanied by a litany of libel against the Northern Alliance, painted by Pakistani propagandists as barbarous animals who would descend bloodthirstily on a hapless population, raping, killing, pillaging, looting, razing buildings to the ground. Against this vision of hell was ranged the risible idea that there was--there is--within the ranks of the Taliban an element that might be described as "moderate," which was better fitted to ruling Afghanistan than the "rabble" and "ragtag" forces of the Northern Alliance.

Of course, what Gen. Musharraf was hoping to do was to buy time for the Taliban, to prevent their forces from being decimated in air strikes, and--here's the key objective--to secure a postbellum order in Afghanistan in which Pakistan would continue to dominate. The same thinking informs his preposterous insistence that the war in Afghanistan halt for the month of Ramadan. (Question for Gen. Musharraf: Will your no-combat rule for Ramadan apply to Pakistan-sponsored terrorists in Indian-administered Kashmir? Or does the rule apply only to infidels waging war on pious Islamic types?)

The outcome of the war so far suggests that Gen. Musharraf may come badly unstuck. Before Sept. 11, he had a client government in Kabul and was able to pursue Pakistan's terrorist agenda in Kashmir pretty much unchecked. Now Kabul has fallen to the Northern Alliance, and if there's anything the Northern Alliance hates more than the Taliban, it's Pakistan. Worse, the alliance has the backing of India, which has--without declaring so publicly--consistently bolstered that grouping with matÈriel and, on occasion, medical personnel, not to mention the most valuable contribution of all, unflinching diplomatic support.

Can it get worse for Gen. Musharraf? Yes. With the Northern Alliance likely to insist that Pakistan play no role in a postwar settlement, the general's utility to the coalition--exaggerated even at the best of times--becomes truly Lilliputian. The U.S. can dictate terms to Pakistan more openly than would have been politic just two weeks ago; witness the Bush administration's refusal to transfer F-16s to Islamabad. (Of course, Colin Powell cannot have been unaware of the dangers of supplying such aircraft to the likes of Gen. Musharraf. The last time Pakistan took receipt of U.S. warplanes, the craft were rewired and made nuclear-capable.)

What the U.S. should insist on now is accountability for the masses of aid that will soon start to go Gen. Musharraf's way. Washington has already sought guarantees that the money will not be channeled into the purchase of weaponry that will be turned, later, against India. The American taxpayer is not inclined to fund an arms binge by an unelected soldier-president who might, at any time, be replaced by another goon in uniform.

Pakistan needs to spend its war booty on educating its population, and on replacing its hundreds of madrassas, or Islamic seminaries, with proper, civilized schools. These terrorist-factories need to be shut down, and replaced. They pose a threat not just to neighboring India--which is likely to see an influx of bellicose Islamist terrorists now that the paths to adventure (and heaven) in Afghanistan are being cut off. They pose a threat also to the West.

Frankly, when I hear talk--and there's much of it--of the need for nation-building in Afghanistan, I think of something else, arguably just as pressing.

Isn't it time, too, for some nation-building in Pakistan?

(Mr. Varadarajan is deputy editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears Tuesdays.)

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