January 19, 2020
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Three Cheers

Amid all the gloom, the surgical removal of an overweening ISI chief and two others holds out the promise of liberalism

Three Cheers
Three Cheers
They said it could never happen. But it did and that too at a mere stroke of the pen. The infamous 'state within a state', one of the aliases of the all-powerful Inter Services Intelligence (isi), has been finally reined in. With it, amid all the enveloping gloom, there is renewed hope of the Pakistan army regaining the liberal ethos it had during the reign of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Indeed, as fighter jets relentlessly bombed Kabul on Sunday night, President Pervez Musharraf was waging a little war of his own in Rawalpindi. And ducking for cover were several generals.

The reshuffle in the army was swift and spectacular, if not so entirely bereft of logic that you couldn't decode it in hindsight. Heads began to roll. And how! The first to face political guillotine was the 'Amreeka-returned' director-general of isi, Gen Mehmood Ahmed, whose overweening ambition lulled him into believing that his American yatra, post-September 11, had secured him the White House's approval. Argues Shakeel Sheikh, defence correspondent with The News, "Musharraf would have emerged an even bigger statesman, and who knows, he could even have prevented the bombing of Afghanistan, had the isi chief not let him down."

Sheikh, who was beaten up brutally earlier this year by Gen Ahmed's goons for his fearless reporting on military affairs, says it was the isi chief's recalcitrance that had prevented the president-general from visiting Kandahar and personally meeting the Taliban supremo, Mullah Mohammed Omar. "Had that happened, Musharraf could've established a rapport with Mullah Omar and convinced him about handing over Osama bin Laden," he argues.

Army circles in Islamabad feel that Musharraf could have employed his now-famous persuasive powers to convince Omar about the futility of confronting Washington. "After all, if a serving army chief could enter the enemy's den in Agra and extract a promise from Vajpayee to visit Pakistan, who is Mullah Omar?" asks an isi officer who is, if truth be told, quite relieved at the change. As things stand, the bombing of Afghanistan has created a domestic problem for Musharraf—something a personal trip could've prevented.

But Gen Ahmed had become a law unto himself. For one, he hadn't even communicated to his colleagues Musharraf's desire to close down terrorist camps inside Afghanistan, something even deposed premier Nawaz Sharif had attempted. Indeed, so hot-headed had this Punjabi isi chief become after his Washington visit that his brusque behaviour towards the soft-spoken foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, and a senior air force figure had not only shocked the two but also irked Musharraf.

Insiders say Musharraf had no inkling about the manner in which Gen Ahmed had been terrorising politicians who wished to participate in the recently-held local body elections. A former member of parliament, Adnan Aurangzeb, told Outlook, "Nawaz Sharif's close aide Khaqan Abbassi wanted to contest the local body elections but the isi warned him that he would be put in the slammer if he dared to. Abbassi had just been released from Karachi jail, where he was under trial with Sharif for taking part in the plot against Musharraf two years ago. No wonder his family told him to forget about the election."

Gen Ahmed's contempt for politicians saw him use the isi as an instrument to marginalise them and prevent a working relationship between them and Musharraf. Observers cite this as one reason for the existing political void, which has allowed extremist and religious parties to hold sway over the streets of Pakistan.Sheikh points out, "Gen Ahmed didn't attend a single meeting Musharraf had with the politicians over several issues."

The decision to remove Gen Ahmed will effectively curb the isi's role in domestic politics and in fanning violence, at least in the short term. Says a senior official, "For the first time, after a very, very long gap, politicians will be allowed to breathe and the isi will not become instrumental in toppling governments. Now that the isi has been effectively brought under the ghq (General Headquarters, the Rawalpindi-based seat of operations of the Pakistani military), it will no longer influence the mujahideen and religious organisations who will be asked to adhere to the regime's new policies. The fact is, their godfather is politically dead." Which may not entirely be bad news for Pakistan's tormented polity.

Other key army commanders who found themselves in the firing line were deputy army chief Lt Gen Muzaffar Hussain Usmani (who resigned after he was superceded), Lt Gen Mohammed Aziz Khan and Lt Gen Mohammed Yusuf, both of whom were kicked upstairs. The new members in the Musharraf team are Lt Gen Ehsanul Haq as isi chief, Lt Gen Mohammed Yusuf as vice-chief of army staff, a post Gen Ahmed was known to have coveted, and Lt Gen Abdul Qadir Baluch as corps commander in Quetta.

Ethnicity is a key factor here, a pointer to Musharraf's political savvy. The appointment of Gen Ehsanul Haq, a Pashtoon, has been especially welcomed by the populace of nwfp, who had gone virtually unrepresented in the higher echelons of the army after Gen Ali Kuli's resignation. The new isi chief is greatly admired both inside and outside the army and is considered a liberal to boot. His elevation is a sure indication of the sort of officers who would enjoy Musharraf's trust. The Quetta corps commander too, as the name itself implies, would be on home turf.

So, what does this change mean for the future? Is the army actually on its way to becoming more secular and liberal? Says Gen (retd) Talat Masood, "Musharraf has brought in a team loyal to him. Its members are committed to the new direction that he wants to take Pakistan to, in these very uncertain times. This new team is committed to that cause and Musharraf is ensuring that, among colleagues, he is not on slippery ground. Now he has men who are on the same wavelength as he."

Gen Masood says his old team, which had members who were close to Musharraf, was too identified with the old policies on Afghanistan and Kashmir. "I also see some changes in the middle ranks of the army. Those who are tolerant and not known for extreme views and religious orientation will be promoted," he adds.

But there are many who feel Musharraf might not be able to survive the stark U-turn he has effected on the Afghanistan front, despite the massive endorsement it has among the silent majority. Says Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, ex-isi chief, "It's essentially a problem of power and prejudice, which began when he took over the administration. The tension was always there. Those who had helped Musharraf oust Sharif were demanding better postings. But I think the decision to go in for the change came after Mehmood's US trip. In the past, too, high-profile visits led to dramatic changes in the army."

Gen Beg then asks the question: can Musharraf really survive the upending of policy? "The Taliban will never give up, they will emerge successful because they have popular backing.No matter what changes Musharraf makes, he cannot wish away the new generation of Afghans, as they found out in Iran. Today, Musharraf does not know where he stands."

Others beg to differ. Prof Khalid Mehmud of the Institute of Regional Studies says: "Musharraf may well be advised not to lose sight of some crucial dos and don'ts in his dealings with the Americans. We should neither fully trust Washington's vows of friendship, nor rely on its support for a just deal for Pakistan." Critics already cite the fact that US President George W. Bush has contradicted, in a rather undiplomatic manner, Musharraf's claim that the strikes inside Afghanistan will be short and swift.

The military regime's Kashmir policy, another delicate area, is also expected to change. Says Gen Masood, "The change will be in the form of an increased preference for political instruments to resolve the Kashmir issue. In the midst of last week's fury, Musharraf invited the Indian prime minister for talks. Earlier, he had raised eyebrows when he condemned the attacks on j&k assembly and the loss of civilian lives. It was a first. Had he ever said before that terrorism can in no way be termed as a fight for freedom?"

Some things, though, never change in Pakistan. Musharraf has shown, as had Gen Ayub Khan and Gen Zia-ul-Haq—the figures who had set the precedents for him—that military rulers never relinquish power on their own. For all the liberal twists he has imparted on the polity, that aspect of Musharraf's Pakistan will stay.
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