US visit: a media showpiece
THIS has been quite a visit by President Musharraf to the US. I do not recall any other presidential visit from Pakistan that has aroused greater interest or garnered more media coverage. This should, therefore, be a matter of satisfaction for Pakistanis and especially for the president’s admirers. But sadly, this publicity was not on account of any substantive movement in Pakistan-US bilateral relations in either the political or economic spheres.
Nevertheless, the president’s “media handlers” must be complimented on having chosen his unusually long sojourn in the United States for the launching of his autobiography. The media hype created by selected leaks from the book was done with skill and understanding to whet the curiosity of Americans. But the book can be the subject of appraisal on another occasion. Here, I shall confine myself to the visit and what it portends for our relations with Washington.
There is no doubt that General Musharraf’s meeting with President Bush went off well. This was evident from the speeches and remarks made by them at their joint press conference. Some journalists have laid stress on what they characterise as “body language”. While not an exact science, it can reveal some of the “atmospherics” surrounding the talks. For example, not only was the Islamabad visit by Bush virtually devoid of substance, even the choice of remarks by the American president at the press conference was at best inappropriate and at worst simply rude. Bush had embarrassed his host by stating that one of the reasons that led him to undertake the visit was to ascertain whether the Pakistani leader remained as committed to the war on terror as in the past.
This conveyed the impression that Bush was not only unhappy with Musharraf, but highly sceptical of his assurances regarding our role in the war on terror. Bush’s remarks on democracy and human rights, too, appeared to have caught Musharraf off-guard, as evident from his long and convoluted response.
The ambience on this occasion was, however, different. Not only did the two leaders appear to be at ease with each other, they engaged in what may be described, not too elegantly, as “a love fest”. They were extremely generous in their praise of each other, with hyperbole and exaggeration being the order of the day. Calling the president “a strong defender of freedom and the people of Pakistan”, Bush added: “I admire your leadership. I admire your courage. And I thank you very much for working on common strategies to protect our respective peoples.”
Musharraf, in his response, simply went overboard, praising Bush “for doing his best to bring peace to the world.” Calling Bush a man of peace was an unwarranted exaggeration that many of Bush’s supporters would have been surprised to hear. For the tortured souls of Palestine, this must have been especially painful and must have reminded them of Bush’s no less outrageous remark when he called Sharon a “man of peace”.
The other remarkable difference between the Islamabad and Washington meetings was a conscious effort by both leaders to demonstrate that they had succeeded in building “a relationship of trust and confidence”. This was important, given the fact that Hamid Karzai, the Afghan leader, notwithstanding Pakistan’s assurances of its good intentions, continues to hold Islamabad responsible for the growing turmoil and instability in his country and has been especially critical of the North Waziristan peace deal.
While Islamabad has claimed that this agreement represents a major victory in its efforts to keep the Taliban and foreign fighters from using the border areas as launching pads against Afghanistan, the deal has come in for sharp criticism in the western media as well and even some Nato and International Security Assistance Force officials are reported to have expressed misgivings about it. Their claim is that this deal has been reached to reduce Pakistani military casualties, ease domestic pressure on the president and satisfy elements in the Pakistani intelligence that continue to harbour sympathy for the Taliban. Nato’s supreme commander, General James L. Jones, while advocating patience by all sides, has warned that he will monitor carefully “if the border gets better, worse, the same or whatever”.
Notwithstanding the reference to “trust and confidence” between the two leaders, the issue of the Taliban continued to figure in the various engagements. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, no less active on the American media circuit, continued to cast doubts about Pakistan’s degree of commitment to the war on terror, even though Musharraf travelled to Kabul to personally brief the Afghan leadership.
When pressed, Karzai gave mixed signals of the extent to which he was willing to accept Pakistan’s side of the story, On occasion, he could not restrain himself from accusing the Pakistani leadership of both complacency in the war on terror and involvement with the Taliban. In one of his interviews, Karzai even ridiculed Islamabad’s efforts to apprehend the Taliban leadership. In his joint press conference with Bush, the Afghan leader, while diplomatic in his remarks, continued to express his scepticism about the Waziristan peace deal, conceding only that he would adopt “a wait and see attitude”.
Given all these doubts, it must have been a relief for Musharraf to hear Bush endorse Pakistan’s rationale for the agreement with the tribal elders. In the press conference, Bush confirmed that he had raised this issue with the Pakistani leader, who had “looked me in the eye” and given the assurance “that the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanisation of the people and that there won’t be a Taliban and there won’t be Al Qaeda and I believe him.”
The issue of Osama bin Laden also caused momentary confusion between the two sides, with US officials claiming that American forces would cross over into Pakistan should it be necessary to capture or kill the Al Qaeda leader. President Musharraf, on the other hand, insisted that any operation against Bin Laden would be handled by the Pakistani authorities.
These, however, appear to be mere semantics. Most likely, the security and intelligence agencies of the two countries have already agreed on standing operating procedures on how this problem is to be tackled, should the occasion arise. Bush confirmed this when he declared: “We collaborate and we strategise and we talk a lot about how best to do this. This is a person (Musharraf) with whom I have now had a close working relationship for five and a half years. I believe him and we will allow the tactics to speak for themselves after it happens.”
But the Bush administration could not afford to let this public bickering between its two major allies in the war on terror continue unabated. In a major diplomatic move, Bush invited both Musharraf and Karzai to an “iftar-dinner”, with the express purpose of telling his two guests that he had had enough of their public sniping. With the Republicans being hammered on Iraq in the weeks leading to the November congressional elections, Bush would hate to see his Afghan strategy also being called into question. While details of the meeting are not yet known, White House sources confirmed that Bush, assisted by Vice President Dick Cheney and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urged the two allies to sink their differences and work on common strategies for the success of their mission.
There can be no doubt that the outcome of the Waziristan deal could have a powerful bearing on US operations in Afghanistan. Washington considers Pakistan’s role in the global war on terror as immensely important and recognises that failure to wipe out Al Qaeda from Afghanistan could unravel US plans for the region.
Senior US officials have emphasised that what Pakistan does in the northern areas will not only have a direct bearing on the future of Afghanistan but that of global terrorism as well. In the war against Al Qaeda, Pakistan not only enjoys the support of the US, but of other major powers as well, but it also means that Pakistan’s policy towards the tribal areas will remain under sharp scrutiny.
Admittedly, recent resurgence in Taliban activity in Afghanistan is causing the US and its allies great concern. Nato as well as the ISAF commanders have acknowledged their surprise at the skill and determination demonstrated by the Taliban. But most observers acknowledge that Karzai has failed to establish his writ in the outlying provinces, and many of his recent decisions, specially with regard to the appointment of senior officials, have added to the fears of Afghans that their president is giving in to political expediency by appointing highly corrupt warlords to senior positions.
Some of his allies are also suspected of active involvement in the narcotics trade. Incidentally, this year Afghanistan is likely to produce over 6,100 tons of opium, which amounts to 90 per cent of the world’s total opium production and raises frightening prospects for the country and the region.
Another aspect of the visit that appears to have escaped media attention has been President Bush’s remarks on Kashmir. While the US has been very supportive of the Indo-Pakistan normalisation process and reacted positively to the Musharraf-Manmohan Havana meeting, for Bush to confirm that he had “raised the Kashmir issue with the Pakistani leader” and ask how “we can help you, if you so desire, to achieve peace?”, is an important development.
Does Bush now recognise that without a resolution of Kashmir, there can be no genuine peace in the subcontinent? If so, it is something that we need to build on, so as to encourage greater American involvement in the normalisation process. But this is not without its flip side. Islamabad has to be careful that the US uses its influence to promote a genuine resolution and not to tip the balance in India’s favour.
Musharraf has every reason to feel satisfied with his visit, though many Pakistanis may feel aggrieved that he should have used the occasion to promote his book. But these are considerations that have rarely bothered our leaders. More importantly, he appears to have succeeded in restoring his relationship of “trust and confidence” with Bush, which is what matters most to him. He also appears to have convinced Bush that he remains an invaluable ally in America’s war on terror.
On other issues of importance to the US, whether these include the Middle East, Palestine or normalisation with India, the Pakistani leader is pursuing policies that are in consonance with Washington’s interests.
For those in Pakistan, who may have hoped that the Bush administration would use its influence to urge the Pakistani leader to shed his uniform and ensure a genuinely free and fair election, the visit would have been a disappointment. But this is very much in keeping with the manner in which American foreign policy is conducted. Democracy must be paid lip service, but never allowed to impinge on America’s global interests.
The writer is a former ambassador.
Musharraf’s new image
GENERAL Pervez Musharraf has staged yet another coup. He has ousted the Musharraf who was always worried about his image and concerned over support within Pakistan. The new Musharraf now stalks the world stage as a confident dictator and feels that his stature abroad will help him correct the uncertain opinion prevailing at home. He will need the mullahs less and scrupulously distance himself from what the ISI does in India or Afghanistan.
The general realised some time back that a new Musharraf would have to be ushered in. But his problem was how to introduce him, when and where. Every actor, demagogue or politician, has to make his “entry” carefully because he knows it is the timing that determines whether the different robe he dons or the role he assumes will go down well with the people.
Musharraf sensed that the timing was right when his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was fixed in Havana. His appointment with President Bush had already been arranged. He then told his publishers in America to postpone the release of his book, In the Line of Fire — a Memoir. This was his way of launching a new Musharraf.
His calculation was that the meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush would provide the ambience he had been looking for. He was determined to make both meetings a success because he had only to find words to mollify them. His information was that the two leaders were disappointed, not disillusioned.
Musharraf began his meeting on the premise of letting bygones be bygones. This reportedly disarmed Manmohan Singh. He carried with him facts and figures about terrorist training camps and the inflow of infiltrators. But he was averse to using the data when Musharraf himself requested for a fresh start. The joint anti-terrorism mechanism was Musharraf’s idea. But he did not say at that time that Pakistan would also “test” India as he did in response to Manmohan Singh’s statement that the joint anti-terrorism mechanism was Pakistan’s best chance. There was no discordant note during the hour-long talks because Musharraf’s eyes were fixed on the entry of the new Musharraf.
When he met President Bush, Musharraf was on familiar territory. Americans have a strange fascination for strong men who “keep things under control” and assure them that democracy will be restored once the job is done. They have no time frame. The Pakistani president knew exactly how to placate Bush (Washington’s worry was over Musharraf’s deal with the tribal leaders to stay away from North Waziristan which provided shelter to the Taliban prowling around Afghanistan all the time).
Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently sought Pakistan’s help to repel the insurgents’ attacks and to provide Kabul with information on the location of Taliban training camps and the telephone numbers of their operation people. “Our friends (from Pakistan) come back to us to say this information is old,” said Karzai. “Maybe, but it means they were there.” Bush was reportedly satisfied when Musharraf explained that he had reached a temporary truce with the tribal leaders to concentrate on fighting terrorists within his country. Bush could not have asked for more when his whole operation, from Afghanistan to Iraq, was primarily against the terrorists.
The venue was the other essential part. Musharraf had already arranged for the book’s release by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the UN building. Once Musharraf had Manmohan Singh and Bush in tow, he informed Annan about the date of the book’s release. There could not be a better forum than the UN building, representing 168 countries. The world media was there in full strength. He was all sugar and honey or “smooth and slippery,” to use the words of The New York Times. Even his critics in Pakistan concede that Musharraf’s PR was superb.
The new Musharraf is more articulate, in fact more indiscreet, even at the expense of tailoring facts. For example, his version of Kargil is different from what foreign experts say. India removed the Mujahideen and Pakistan army personnel from the Kargil heights they had occupied. This could not be interpreted as Islamabad’s victory.
But then Musharraf knew how to project the book that represented the new Musharraf. It is selling like hot cakes the world over but not many in Pakistan have even heard about Nawaz Sharif’s book Who is the Traitor? Sharif, who was prime minister at the time, has a different version: Pakistan was defeated at Kargil.
Most disclosures that Musharraf has made are old hat. One knew them after visiting Pakistan. But his information that Washington had threatened to crush Pakistan after 9/11 has given a new edge to anti-American feelings in Pakistan. True, people are incensed that Musharraf caved in less than 24 hours after the threat, but they are upset with America. The feeling that the US is dead against Islam has also got mixed up on this point.
The new Musharraf has emerged stronger than before. Many Pakistanis have come to recognise him as an astute person compared to the brand of politicians they have. Pakistanis also applaud him for being in full control of the army that gives them a sense of security. A day before the release of his book, news went around in Pakistan that there had been an attempted coup to replace him.
A countrywide power outage fuelled the rumour. It was Musharraf who declared confidently from New York that there could be no coup, even though he had been absent from the country for two weeks.
Why he wanted the old Musharraf to quit and the new Musharraf to enter is not difficult to comprehend. He wished to end the discussion on shedding the uniform. It appears that the debate has already lost heat.
Yet Musharraf’s eyes are fixed on elections in 2007. Although polls in Pakistan are not above board, it helps if there is less estrangement among the electorate. Opinion in favour of Musharraf, however limited, is not going to wear out between now and the elections. But the scenario can change if either of the two leaders, Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif, return to Pakistan. The new Musharraf may be talking to them behind the scenes.
India faces a piquant situation. How far can it trust Musharraf is its predicament. His book conveys a message that is different from what Manmohan Singh had gathered from the meeting with Musharraf. Will bygones be bygones and will Pakistan start afresh without prejudice or rancour? It all depends on whether the new Musharraf has abandoned the old ways of doings things.
The writer is a leading columnist based in New Delhi.
Declassifying the obvious
THE judgment of the National Intelligence Estimate partly made public this week — that “the Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists” — did not unveil an especially novel viewpoint or theory. So why has the report, assembled by US intelligence agencies in April, caused such a sensation?
Partly it’s the official pedigree of the document; partly it’s the unconvincing attempt by President Bush to explain it away. In announcing Tuesday that he would declassify parts of the report, he testily suggested that the actual language would discredit “speculation” that it had linked the war in Iraq to a heightened terrorist threat. But the material released to the public came to essentially that conclusion (though it also backed Bush’s contention that if jihadists failed in Iraq, they would recruit “fewer fighters” in the future).
Yet even before Bush declassified parts of the report, the document exerted a fascination that cannot be explained solely by its conclusions. Some of the report’s mystique stems from the fact that, until Tuesday, it had been a secret.
Several of its observations — not just about the relationship between the US presence in Iraq and the growth of “a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world” — are by now conventional wisdom: Jihadism is fostered not only by the Iraq war but also by corruption and repression in Muslim societies; countering the movement will require more than a military response.
—Los Angeles Times