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Current Affairs ( 18 Aug 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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On Musharraf’s exit: The fox who cut deals

So who do India, America and other countries do business with in Pakistan now?


By Kanwal Sibal


August 19, 2008


He, who had strutted on the international stage with great confidence, enamoured of his own ability to make persuasive pleas, convincing the audience of his sincerity and his earnestness in partnering them to resolve common problems, had begun to look like an actor past his prime mouthing his lines. He could not be easily persuaded to leave the stage. The all-powerful figure of yesterday that toyed with the constitution to suit his political needs spoke now of reconciliation, of cooperation, of dutiful adherence to his reduced role. As happens to dictators in decline, for Pervez Musharraf the medals shone brighter than his reputation.


Musharraf had become very unpopular, and so had the army. In his hubris he had committed many political mistakes, especially the decision to sack the chief justice not once but twice, in an unseemly and crude manner. The handling of the Lal Masjid episode had left many puzzled about its apparent procrastination; the eventual loss of life caused anguish. The killing of the Baluch leader, Bugti, was not calculated to enhance Musharraf’s political reputation or his popularity in that restive province. Most importantly, it was his military action against religious extremists in the tribal areas that touched a raw nerve as he was seen as killing his own people at the behest of the Americans. Pakistan’s economy also took a downturn, denting his claims about how efficiently the country’s affairs were being managed.


Musharraf lost ground heavily within and without Pakistan recently. The plan to restore democracy in controlled conditions, with bargains struck in advance, was derailed by Bhutto’s assassination. The Americans began to question his continuing utility after the elections, working eventually not so much to save him as to obtain a dignified exit for him so that civil-military relations in Pakistan were not strained dangerously. The exit has not been dignified enough as Musharraf has left under threat of impeachment. Timing is important; he left it too late in the day. He has now made it look like he has quit not to protect the country but to protect his own skin. Until the last he was defiant about his record. His farewell song was full of the music of his achievements, but it is doubtful anybody was listening. The audience was interested in the final sentence, not the plea of the accused, as he had been judged guilty already.


What he did not say was that he was wily as a fox, nimble on his feet, managed the Americans astutely, extracted economic and military aid from them for his cooperation, tried to protect Pakistan’s interests to its west by differentiating between al Qaeda and the Taliban, aiding the latter surreptitiously in order to protect Pakistan’s long-term interests in Afghanistan. He played his weak hand well. He persuaded India that Pakistan was equally a victim of terrorism, reversing the entrenched Indian position on Pakistan’s complicity in promoting terrorism in India. We failed to distinguish between the source of the terrorist threat in Pakistan, which was a backlash of his policy of cooperation with the United States, and the source of Pakistan-inspired terrorism against us. He achieved the objective of not having to fight on two fronts by scaling down tensions with India.


Musharraf’s exit makes the political situation in Pakistan more uncertain in the short term. Until now the two main parties had a common “enemy” and confrontation with it required a united phalanx. With Musharraf’s exit, competition between the PML(N) and the PPP will begin in earnest. It is generally believed that if fresh elections are held, the PML(N) would improve upon its previous performance, opening the doors of the prime minister’s office to Nawaz Sharif.


Musharraf’s exit is certainly a big blow to the prestige of the Pakistan military. He acted in the name of the military, with its full backing until near the end. General Kayani, considered an enigma by many Pakistanis, is inclined to withdraw the army from the foreground so as not to further damage its reputation. But while the civil-military equation might change to some extent, any radical transformation will not occur. Policy towards India and Afghanistan will require consultation and consensus with the military. Pakistan’s nuclear policies will continue to be framed by the armed forces. The Americans would much rather rely on the military to protect Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from extremists rather than untrustworthy politicians. In combating the religious extremists in the tribal areas and stemming the rise of the Taliban that so perturbs the Americans and NATO forces, the role of the military will be critical as they will be the instrument of any action. The politicians will not be able to resolve the problem through political deals. Outside pressure to take action will not let up; there is widespread consensus in Pakistan that the Americans are putting in less than needed effort themselves by way of troops and want the Pakistanis to fill in the shortfall irrespective of long-term costs for them.


The peace process with India has lost its momentum. The last round of the composite dialogue was held in an atmosphere qualitatively different from the previous one because of the Kabul blast. Musharraf was no longer mentoring this dialogue and so his departure introduces no change. The dialogue has its own raison d’etre and responds to the needs of both countries. Democracy and dialogue, they say, go together. Pakistan’s exiled leaders were exhorting us not to settle with Musharraf, and to wait for a democratic government to take over, as a settlement with the peoples’ representatives would be more durable. We expressed our faith in Musharraf’s commitment to the dialogue and to keeping a lid on terrorism. There is less confidence about the capacity of the civilian government to deliver. Such a practical view of things places us in the company of those who have always believed it is easier doing business with the generals! So much for our faith in the goodness of democracy! In any case, on Siachen and Sir Creek, the ball is squarely in Pakistan’s court. In Siachen what the Pakistan military would not agree to while they were in charge, they are unlikely to agree to with civilian prodding. Sir Creek is doable if the civilian government wants an early achievement. The current turmoil in Kashmir, of course, damages many short-term prospects. One always lives on hopes with Pakistan!


Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary


Source: Indian Express, New Delhi