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Making Sense of Musharraf's Volte Face

An indepth critical and analytical look at what explains the Pakistani General's recent moves.

Making Sense of Musharraf's Volte Face
Making Sense of Musharraf's Volte Face
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

(Please also see the author's earlier paper titled Afghanistan: Pakistan's Black Hole of April 17,2001)

Though many US analysts project General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's self-reinstated Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), self-styled Chief Executive and self-promoted President, as a liberal-minded Muslim, throughout his career he was known for his proximity to the Islamic religious parties, a proximity which was strengthened during the Afghan war of the 1980s.

After seizing power in October, 1999, he showed himself to be amenable to pressure from Islamic parties and conceded, one after the other, their demands. Even independent Pakistani analysts admitted that the religious parties won more concessions from the General during his first 18 months in office than they could during the first 18 months of Zia-ul-Haq.

The Pakistan Army in general and Gen. Musharraf, in particular, looked upon the role of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment in contributing to the defeat of the Soviet troops before 1988, the overthrow of Najibullah in 1992 and to the capture of large areas of Afghanistan through the Taliban in post-1994 as major success stories, which, in their perception, had restored the morale of the establishment shattered by the defeat in East Pakistan in 1971. They hailed the perceived success in Afghanistan as the triumph of their long pursued quest for a strategic depth in that country which could be exploited to their advantage in the event of another military conflict with India.

They also projected the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as providing Pakistan with what they described as an Islamic depth, by making Pakistan (a hope which was belied), through Afghanistan, a gateway to the external trade of the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and an ideological pole of attraction for the Islamic organisations of the CARs.

On May 25, 2000, Musharraf, for the first time, explicitly articulated Pakistan's reasons for its continued backing of the Taliban. He stated that in view of the demographic and geographic pattern of the ethnic Pashtuns, who constituted the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan (40 per cent of the total population of 20 million) and the second largest after the Punjabis in Pakistan, it was in Pakistan’s national interest to support the predominantly Pashtun Taliban regime.

Subsequently, speaking at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs in Karachi in the third week of June 2000, Musharraf maintained that Pakistan could not afford a two-front threat to its security -- from India and Afghanistan. He said that it was wrong to believe that the Mujahideen groups which had sprung up in Afghanistan since the war against the Soviet troops (in the eighties) were 'terrorists' even though some of their factions might be involved in terrorist activities.

He added that Pakistan would not do anything to jeopardize the future of the Pashtuns and claimed that he already discerned signs of moderation on the part of the Taliban, as against its extremism of the past. Musharraf asserted that the Taliban had brought peace to the country and had also managed to disarm the people. He also emphasized Pakistan's Muslim identity as one of the determinants of his government's foreign policy.

Strongly criticising the statements of Musharraf, the Rome-based ex-King, Zahir Shah, stated that Musharraf was delineating an ethnic Pashtun policy in Afghanistan and was violating the fundamental notion that the 'Afghan nation is composed of different ethnic groups united and indivisible with a recognized Afghan national identity. ' He termed Musharraf’s comments as 'interference and aggravation of the national unity of Afghanistan'. The Northern Alliance accused Pakistan of imposing on Afghanistan, through an ethnic tribal group, a political system, which suited its national interests, and described it as a violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and independence and of recognized international norms.

Large sections of the Pakistani civil society were not in agreement with Musharraf's perceptions of the so-called success story of the military-intelligence establishment in Afghanistan. They started worrying that the so-called strategic depth was inexorably turning into a strategic black hole from which Pakistan might have difficulty in extricating itself, if it did not do so immediately.

But the military-intelligence establishment did not heed their warnings and continued to live in a make-believe world of its own, as it did in East Pakistan in 1971, thinking that its policy had started paying dividends. It was blind to the creeping deleterious effects of its involvement in Afghanistan on Pakistan's own future as a nation. Among such effects before September 11, 2001 were:

  • Pakistan's diplomatic isolation.

  • Its serious economic difficulties to which its involvement in Afghanistan too contributed considerably. In an article in the Nation of December 29, 2000, Mr.Ahmed Rashid, the well-known Afghan expert of Pakistan, described the economic price being paid by Pakistan for its involvement in Afghanistan as follows: 'The present Taliban war budget is estimated to be around US$100 million. Of that, 60-70% is derived from the revenues of the smuggling trade, some 30-40% from the drugs trade and about 5-10 % from direct financial aid. Pakistan has been paying some US$ 10 million a year for the salaries of Taliban administrators in Kabul and other aid, while until 1998 Saudi Arabia was also a major financial contributor. Terrorist groups also help fund the Taliban. Bin Laden funds an Arab brigade and helps fund Taliban offensives against the Northern Alliance. Pakistan and recently Turkmenistan provide other indirect aid such as fuel, technical help in maintaining airports and aircraft, restoring electricity in major cities, road construction and military supplies to keep the Taliban war machine functional.' This estimate did not include the pay and allowances of the serving and retired Pakistani military and civilian officers serving in the Taliban-controlled territory which were directly being paid to them by the Islamabad government and incorporated in the budget of the General Administration Department of the Pakistan government.

  • Aggravation of sectarian clashes in Pakistani territory, the Sunni terrorist groups operating from sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the complicity of the anti-Shia elements in the Taliban.
  • Dangers of a possible Talibanisation of the Pakistani society.
  • The setback to Pakistani hopes of emerging as the gateway to the external trade of the Central Asian Republics and of benefitting from energy supplies from there.
  • Setback in relations with Iran.

Despite the active involvement of serving and retired Pakistani military personnel in its militia, the Taliban was not able to overwhelm the militias of the Northern Alliance and dislodge them from the 10 per cent of the territory controlled by them. Though much inferior in numbers and poor in equipment, the militia led by Ahmed Shah Masood (since assassinated by two cadres of bin Laden's Al Qaeda) fought an intrepid war of attrition and made the Taliban militia bleed.

What stood in the way of the Northern Alliance reversing the Pakistani colonisation of the rest of Afghanistan was the lack of support from the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan. It would be incorrect to view the entire Pashtun population of southern Afghanistan as supporting the Taliban. There were undercurrents of anger against the Taliban amongst the Pashtuns which manifested themselves in at least one abortive attempt to overthrow the Taliban after the US bombing of the terrorist training camps in October 1998, and a failed attempt to assassinate Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban, in Kandahar in August 1999 by exploding a car laden with explosives outside his house. Some of his relatives were killed, but the Amir escaped.

The angry anti-Taliban sections of the Pashtuns were reluctant to co-operate with the Northern Alliance, which consists largely of Tajiks and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups. They did not want to be projected by the Taliban and its Pakistani masters as traitors to their community.

Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment controlled effectively not only the Taliban militia, but also the newly-established intelligence agency of the Taliban, as the successor to the Khad, whose headquarters were established in Kandahar. Qari Ahmadullah, who was heading the newly-established Taliban intelligence agency and was designated as the Minister for Security, was actually an officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan and worked in the Taliban under the cover of a mullah. He used to work in the Afghan Division of the ISI under Lt.Gen. Mohammed Aziz, former Deputy Director-General of the ISI before March 1999, who subsequently became the Chief of the General Staff (CGS). He is now Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

Through its control of the Taliban intelligence agency, the ISI was able to detect in advance and frustrate the efforts of the anti-Taliban sections of the Pashtuns to organise themselves and rise against the Amir.

In the absence of support from the Pashtuns, the Northern Alliance was thus not in a position to reverse the Pakistani colonisation and restore the lost independence of Afghanistan. But it was able to make the Pakistani involvement a costly adventure for Pakistan as a nation.

It was said that growing sections of Pakistan's civilian bureaucracy, particularly those in the Foreign Office and in the economic ministries, were convinced that the Afghan involvement was proving to be counter-productive and that Pakistan's economy would never be able to come out of its present comatose state, and the Pakistan state would never be able to come out of its diplomatic isolation unless and until the military-intelligence establishment's involvement in Afghanistan and its use of the Taliban was ended.

During a conference of Pakistan's regional ambassadors held in Islamabad earlier this year, most of them, including, surprisingly, Riaz Khokkar, its ambassador in Beijing, known as a hawk, were reported to have strongly called for a re-consideration of the Afghan policy, but their advice was rejected by Gen.Musharraf and his corps commanders. Lt.Gen. Mahmood Ahmad, the then DG of the ISI, was reported to have told the ambassadors: 'I have no doubt in my mind that Pakistan's policy will prevail because Allah is on our side.'

This was typical of the wishful-thinking mindset, which prevailed even amongst those senior officers of the military, not generally identified with religious fanatics. This mindset made them believe that Allah was on the side of Pakistan, whether it be in Jammu & Kashmir or in Afghanistan or in dealing with their economy. And that what they lacked in intelligence, perspicacity and vision, they could make up by invoking the name of Allah to convert failures into successes.

By March 2001, there were indications that even some corps commanders had started feeling that the time had come for Pakistan to break with the Taliban and bin Laden and that it should co-operate with the US in its efforts to have bin Laden arrested and deported to the US for trial.

Amongst the corps commanders, who gave strong expression to this view was Lt.Gen.Imtiaz Shaheen (a Punjabi), who was the then Corps Commander, 11 Corps, at Peshawar. He strongly criticised in the corps commanders' conferences the terrorist activities of the Taliban and bin Laden. He also criticised the ISI's links with bin Laden and its action in providing medical facilities to him and his family in the military hospital in Peshawar.

He had earlier incurred the displeasure of Musharraf and Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) by vigorously taking action against the arms smugglers market in Darra Adam Khel in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), many of whom contributed funds to the Taliban and the JEI.

Before his posting to Peshawar, Lt.Gen.Shaheen, who was Director-General of the Pakistan Rangers,had headed a Task Force on the unauthorised arms-manufacturing industry in Darra Adam Khel, which was the main supplier of arms and ammunition to Islamic terrorist groups in India and other countries. He strongly expressed the view that if Pakistan continued to tolerate these smugglers, who enjoyed the protection of the Islamic organisations, there could ultimately be a serious threat to Pakistan's own national security.

Annoyed over the repeated criticism by Shaheen of his pro-Taliban and pro-bin Laden policies and faced with pressure from the Qazi to transfer him out, Musharraf transferred Shaheen to the GHQ, Rawalpindi, as Chief of Logistics Staff in April, 2001, within 14 months of his taking over as Corps Commander, Peshawar.

The "Far Eastern Economic Review" of Hong Kong (April 26, 2001) commented as follows on his abrupt transfer: 'Musharraf has replaced Lt.Gen. Imtiaz Shaheen, the corps commander in Peshawar, after he had served less than a year in the post. The Peshawar corps headquarters is considered the primary support and logistics base for economic and other aid to Afghanistan's Taliban. Shaheen was considered an outspoken officer who, in internal meetings of the Corps Commanders, was critical of the Army's continued support to the Taliban, and sought greater curbs on the activities of extremist Islamic parties in Pakistan. Retired military officials say he was also urging Musharraf that the Army should make a quick exit from running the country.

Pakistan denies it is giving military aid to the Taliban and says it is fully implementing January's UN sanctions, which forbid the supply of arms by any country to the Taliban. A five-man UN monitoring team arrived in Islamabad on April 14 to evaluate the effect of the sanctions and whether Pakistan is still supplying military aid. Western diplomatic sources say that Russia and France have provided evidence to the UN in New York that Pakistani aid is still getting through. Shaheen's replacement is Lt.Gen. Ehsanul Haq, the former Director-General of Military Intelligence. The government described the change as a standard personnel reshuffle.

Lt.Gen.Ehsanul Haq was previously the DGMI and was sent by Musharraf, on his promotion as Lt.Gen., to Peshawar to continue with the policy of backing the Taliban and bin Laden. His posting was also meant to placate the Qazi to whom Ehsanul Haq was close. After Lt. Gen. Fazle Haq (January 1978 to March 1980) and Lt. Gen. Mumtaz Gul (May 1994 to October 1996), Lt. Gen. Ehsanul Haq was the third Pashtun Army officer from the NWFP to head the 11 Corps since it was established in Peshawar in April 1975. He is from Mardan, which along with Kohat and Karak districts, constitutes the so-called martial belt in the NWFP and provides the bulk of the Pashtun soldiers to the Pakistan Army from this province.

Lt. Gen. Ehsanul Haq, like the NWFP Governor Lt. Gen. (retd) Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, belongs to the Air Defense Command of the Pakistan Army. In fact, he had served as the second-in-command to Lt. Gen. (Retd) Iftikhar earlier.

Lt.Gen. Ehsanul Haq, who has now been moved out of Peshawar within five months of his taking over as corps commander, to take over as the DG, ISI, from Lt.Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, has been projected by Pakistani and foreign analysts as a liberal-minded officer like Musharraf. But, like Musharraf, he was known in the past for his proximity to the Islamic parties and particularly to Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the JEI.

When the Qazi initially opposed Musharraf's going to India in July 2001, for the summit with A.B.Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, and rejected Musharraf's invitation for pre-summit consultations, it was Ehsanul Haq, who met the Qazi and persuaded him to meet Musharraf and support his visit to India.

It was Ehsanul Haq who was used by Musharraf to create a split in Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) through Mian Azhar and to pressurise Mohammad Rafique Tarar to quit as the President of Pakistan and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to administer the oath of office as President to Musharraf on June 20 2001. He was also being used by Musharraf to create a split in Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

On the advice of Ehsanul Haq, Musharraf set up a task force headed by Lt.Gen. (retd) Hamid Gul, former DG, ISI, to recommend the revamping of the Taliban's state and administrative machinery and to transform the Taliban's religious militia into a professional standing Army with a suitable rank structure. Ehsanul Haq and Hamid Gul attended the first ceremonial parade as a professional army held by the religious militia at Kabul in August 2001. Amongst others, who attended this parade, were bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, his No.2 in the Al Qaeda and Ayman-al-Zawahiri of the Al Jihad of Egypt.

In the last week of August 2001, following the death of Lt.Gen. Ghulam Ahmed, Chief of Staff to Musharraf, in a road accident, Musharraf appointed Lt.Gen. Hamid Javed, who was serving as the managing director of the Heavy Industries, Taxila, as his chief of staff, and Lt.Gen. Mohammad Akram, DDG, ISI, as his military secretary. Maj.Gen. Ihtasham Zameer was posted as DDG, ISI. Zameer was closely involved in the past in networking with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. Around the same time, in the face of continuing pressure from the US on the bin Laden issue, Musharraf sent Lt.Gen.Mahmood Ahmed, the then DG, ISI, toWashington DC for talks with George Tenet, Director, CIA, and State Department officials.

Thus, till the terrorists struck New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 Musharraf stuck to his policy of supporting the Taliban and bin Laden and making use of them for training the jehadi groups meant for use against India in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere and resisted US pressure to help in the arrest and deportation of bin Laden.

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