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In the line of embarrassment

September 29, 2006


HEADS of state are usually not into the business of ghost-writing their memoirs while in office, much less hawking them in the course of leisurely foreign visits. But stranger things have happened in Pakistan where it is not unusual for the bizarre to become the norm.

There is the precedent of Field Marshal (self-appointed) Ayub Khan’s ghost-written attempt at autobiography, ‘Friends Not Masters’. It made a splash as long as he was president. But it ended on the footpaths where second-hand books are sold when he left office. In time it was sold as raddi, the more evocative Urdu word for rubbish, for wrapping meat, fruit and other items of daily use.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised if another soldier-president has fallen for the same temptation although as patriotic Pakistanis we should hope that Gen Musharraf’s book, ‘In the Line of Fire’, doesn’t meet a fate similar to that of Ayub’s unfortunate memoirs.

Understandably, the general’s American trip has been divided almost equally between diplomacy and book-promotion. Accompanying him was an entourage of about seventy, including a clutch of cabinet ministers, only going to show that in the matter of foreign travel Pakistani leaders like to do things in style.

The title, In the Line of Fire, evokes the image of a leader surrounded by danger, battling huge odds and coming out on top. But it is not beyond the usual cynics to think that more than the leader it is the people of Pakistan who have been in the line of fire for the last seven years that the general has been in power.

After all, the general consulted no one when he came to power. He has since done things much his own way, consulting his convenience rather than anyone else’s. Even now if there is any roadmap for Pakistan’s future, it revolves around his wishes.

But this is not a great problem. The people of Pakistan are used to uninvited rulers. What rubs them the wrong way is something else: the constant insulting of their intelligence when they are expected to believe that night is day and darkness incandescent light. Not only that, they are also expected to applaud the fiction.

The attitude of our American friends, however, is instructive. They know how to drive a hard bargain. Simon and Schuster, the publishers, are said to be paying Gen Musharraf upwards of a million dollars for his literary labours. Impressive perhaps in Pakistan but not a huge sum by American standards where presidential memoirs — ask Bill Clinton — fetch much more.

Even so, the general has been more than loyal to his side of the bargain, not allowing false modesty to come in the way of book promotion. On CBS’s “60 Minutes” (CBS being a sister company of Simon and Schuster) the general set off a minor explosion when he said that then US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, had threatened to bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age unless it cooperated in the “war on terror”. Asked about this revelation at a joint press appearance with Bush, Musharraf famously replied: “I am launching my book on the 25th and I am honour-bound to Simon and Schuster not to comment on the book before that day.”

A book promo can’t get any better than this.

As for the substance of the book, it is an extended tribute to the art of spin, the inconvenient filtered out, the rest seen through rose-tinted glasses. Understandably we hear nothing about broken promises, such as the general’s public pledge to take off his uniform by this and this date. Kargil of course figures but as victory not defeat. Or at least it is presented as a military victory which turned into a political defeat when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the army to vacate the heights it had captured.

This is self-serving history, the awkward truth being slightly different. As even unbiased Indians admit, our troops showed great valour but by end June ‘99 they were getting no supplies and were not being relieved. Pushed into the jaws of death (this not being a melodramatic statement), they were left to fend for themselves. They did not flinch. The army high command lost its nerve, realising belatedly it had taken on more than it could handle. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the Indian army had started retaking the lost heights one by one.

The expected masterstroke turning into a fiasco, the high command more than the political leadership was desperate for a way out. Nawaz Sharif dashed to Washington for a meeting with Clinton on July 4, American Independence Day. Withdrawal had become unavoidable but he wanted to put a respectable face on it by giving an impression of American involvement. This was not undermining the army. It was covering up for it. (How Sharif was repaid for his pains is another story.)

It takes some audacity to put such a spin on events. But it is wholly in character and hardly surprising, no one yet accusing Gen Musharraf of timidity when it has come to giving his version of history.

The Stone Age remark (since denied by Armitage) presents a problem of its own. Was it because of that threat that Pakistan changed direction and decided to become a US satellite as the US prepared to attack Afghanistan? Perish the thought. “I wargamed the US as an adversary,” we are assured. “The question was: if we do not join them, can we confront them and withstand the onslaught? The answer was no...our military forces would be destroyed....”

This is strong stuff because no one has ever suggested Pakistan should have taken on the US. That wasn’t the question at all. It was, and still is, whether Pakistan should have swung to the other extreme and bowed to US pressure so completely. There was a middle way. Without incurring the risk of being bombed into the Stone Age, we could have turned our backs on the Taliban, cut all ties with them, but excused ourselves from providing military bases and becoming a pawn in American hands.

This would have required some courage. What we were getting was a meltdown. Maleeha, our ambassador in Washington, and Lt Gen Mahmood, the ISI chief, who happened to be visiting the US, went to meet Armitage, little realising that an elephant likely to go on the rampage was best avoided. They got a rough handling, Armitage, by his own account, telling them, “...for Americans this was a black and white issue. Pakistan was either with us or against us, that US-Pakistan relations would begin on that day...if they agreed to help, I would give them a list of requirements that were not negotiable... So it was a strong presentation.”

Strong? A Mafiosi would have been proud of it.

Maleeha can be tough as nails when she wants. Mahmood (one year my senior in Lawrence College) was the person who, at the head of an army contingent, marched into the Prime Minister’s house on October 12, ‘99, and spoke in a threatening tone to Nawaz Sharif. Neither showed much toughness in Armitage’s presence, in fact crumpling in the line of fire. When their panic was transmitted to Islamabad, Army House was ready to crumple. Colin Powell didn’t have to do much persuading when he made his famous telephone call to Gen Musharraf. The pitch had already been queered.

‘Line of fire’ suggests standing up to fire. We see precious little standing up, a lot of falling down. But we are expected to believe it was all worth it because Pakistan was ‘saved’.

On “60 Minutes” Musharraf says Armitage made a very “rude remark”. That he may have but it did not prevent him from being warmly welcomed during his several trips to Pakistan, each time being received by the president.

The A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation saga is regurgitated. It may sell the book but it is a moot point how Pakistan’s interests are served by reminding the world once more of our reputed irresponsibility in this field? Or how national honour is enhanced when the President of Pakistan says that his country has received millions of dollars (in bounty money) from the CIA in return for handing over Al Qaeda suspects? The book may be good for the president’s image but out of its pages Pakistan comes out looking poorly. After reading it the average American may come away thinking that Pervez Musharraf is a hell of a guy standing up to all these dangers but he is likely to take a dim view of a country which has so many dangerous people running around.