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"The myth of the good general Musharraf"
Comment by Samina Ahmed and John Norris published in the Observer Online.


Since September 11 and the beginning of the war against terror, Pakistan has been transformed from pariah state to a key diplomatic and military partner for the west. President Bush has praised President Pervez Musharraf's courage and pledged more than a billion dollars in aid. Pakistan's assistance is certainly facilitating the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan and, given the Pakistani military's central role in bringing the Taliban to power, its changed posture was bound to make a difference. But the West's new engagement with Pakistan is based on some dangerous misconceptions - and could easily backfire.

Uncritical Western support for Musharraf is driven mainly by fear of the alternative. Western officials regularly warn that the military government could be overthrown by angry Islamic extremists, while others point to cleavages between the military and the powerful Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to explain away the military's support for Islamic radicals. Still others justify the military's control of the government as an antidote to corrupt and ineffective secular politicians. For the West, Pakistan├Ęs military government is thus seen as a bulwark against a tide of chaos and religious extremism.

Recent attacks by militants, such as the murder of five people at a church service in Islamabad's diplomatic enclave certainly demonstrate the dangerous capacity of Pakistan's Islamic extremists to kill and maim. However, these actions should also underscore the importance of understanding the complex relationship between Pakistan's military and fringe religious groups. In response to the Islamabad attack General Musharraf sacked the top echelon of Islamabad's police force, and he and his ministers reiterated their vow to battle terrorism. But Musharraf's public posturing, which has been well received in the west, has not always been matched by decisive action.

There is also little evidence to warrant Western fears that religious zealots could overthrow the government. There has long been a symbiotic relationship between Pakistan's military and security agencies, and Pakistani religious extremists. The military has used religious extremists to weaken the influence of its domestic opposition, to promote its influence over Afghanistan and to bleed India in Kashmir. It has been the military's support that has allowed Pakistani religious extremists to become a well-trained and well-armed threat to regional security. The ease with which the Musharraf government quashed street protests by Islamic parties after 11 September demonstrated that religious extremists pose little menace to a military establishment on which they remain dependent for patronage.

Nor does Musharraf face an internal revolt for cooperating in the military campaign in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army remains highly disciplined and Musharraf should be taken at his word when he emphasises that the ISI remains under firm military control.

In fact, Musharraf's image as a moderate leader fighting off a rogue ISI contrasts sharply with his past. As Director-General of Military Operations at Army Headquarters, Musharraf oversaw ISI assistance to the Taliban. As Chief of Army Staff, he was personally responsible for masterminding the 1999 Kargil conflict during which hundreds of jihadis were spirited into Kashmir - which almost escalated into a full-blown war with India. After 11 September, Musharraf had no choice in the face of western pressure but to reverse course on Afghanistan and to put a temporary halt to the jihad in Kashmir. Yet, the logic is clear. Since the Pakistani military is the main beneficiary of this changed posture, gaining Western applause and economic rewards, why then would its intelligence arm, the ISI, destabilise the government?

The military government has announced its intention to crack down on religious extremism within Pakistan and has taken a number of important steps to change its policies towards Afghanistan and Kashmir. It still remains to be seen if this constitutes a fundamental strategic shift or a tactical move by Musharraf to secure Western support while maintaining his dominant position. Despite some adjustments, the military's approach to Kashmir remains unchanged and it remains too early judge whether Pakistan will continue to exercise restraint in Afghanistan. Nor has the military government done much beyond rhetoric to clamp down on militant madrassas and their pupils in Pakistan.

General Musharraf is making an attempt to extend his military rule indefinitely under the guise of a quasi-democracy. By equating continuity with political and economic stability, Musharraf is telling many western leaders exactly what they want to hear. Should the United States and Europe tacitly endorse a military dictatorship with only a window dressing of democracy, Pakistan's extremists could, ironically, be the biggest beneficiaries.

Pakistan's history shows that periods of representative rule have strengthened democratic forces against their religious counterparts while military-dominated governments have time and again entered into alliances of expediency with Islamic extremists. As Pakistan approaches elections, there is once again evidence of a new alliance of expediency.

Official pressure on extremist parties is easing and the religious right is once again the recipient of official patronage. In recent weeks, the head of the pro-Taliban Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, Maulana Fazlur Rahman was released from prison while the head of the banned terrorist organization, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Maulana Masood Azhar has traded his cell for the comforts of home imprisonment. On Pakistan's national day, the Jamaat-i-Islami was allowed to hold a public gathering in Rawalpindi, the seat of the army's General Headquarters. Leaders and activists of the moderate and secular Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy were arrested in Lahore when they tried to exercise their right of association.

The contradictory signals sent by the military government will only serve to embolden religious extremists, undermining the international war against terrorism.Unless the international community more clearly recognises this, it will likely cede the current military government far too much latitude in delaying, or denying, long overdue moves to restore democratic governance and create a disturbing impression among the citizens of Pakistan that the West actually favours authoritarian governments over freely elected ones. Giving the Musharraf government carte blanche will only likely drive the country further into its long spiral of corruption and economic malaise. In the interests of Pakistani stability and South Asian security, the EU and the U.S. should pressure the military to withdraw to barracks and persuade Musharraf to allow the Pakistani people to express their will through free and fair polls.



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