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|November 20, 2002||
T V R Shenoy
Musharraf, devil, and the deep sea
Given all the controversies in Gujarat --- and these have only begun --- this may not go down well with many people, but let me say it nevertheless: secularism is a vastly overrated virtue in the modern world. And if you seek proof of that statement, look no farther than Iraq.
About halfway through the last Gulf War, even as the United States began girding up for the liberation of Kuwait, President Saddam Hussein began spouting the rhetoric of Islam. Remember his reference to 'the mother of all battles'?
This was a sham; neither the Iraqi leader nor his Ba'ath Party has ever been anything but resolutely secular (in the true sense of that word, which is to say 'worldly to the point of being utterly divorced from true faith'). For instance, Prime Minister Tariq Aziz (foreign minister during the Gulf War) is no Muslim, but a Chaldean Christian.
This was one of the reasons why the US was reluctant to get rid of Saddam Hussein in 1991. Simply put, loathsome as Americans found the Iraqi dictator, they could not come up with any better alternative. Because, much as they may deny it, Washington and other Western capitals are none too comfortable with 'non-secular' governments.
But if that is a saving grace, albeit a very minor one, for Saddam Hussein, it is also currently the major talking point for the US 'frontline ally' in the 'War on Terrorism' --- Pakistan. Or, more specifically, for Pervez Musharraf. And just now the dictator of Pakistan cannot decide whether he wants war to break out between Iraq and the US.
The point to be remembered is that no nation, not even the US, can fight a war both in Afghanistan and in Iraq simultaneously. So, if conflict breaks out against Iraq, American attention on Afghanistan dwindles. That is bad news for Pakistan, which has parleyed its 'support' for America's war into solid cash. (The country has received over a billion dollars both by way of grants in aid and in loans that have been, effectively, written off.) And, of course, rebuilding Iraq will consume even more dollars. All of which means that much less for Pakistan.
Every dictator depends on carrots as well as on the stick. And Pervez Musharraf has done little to prevent the pervasive corruption in the military-bureaucratic structure. (The records show that General Musharraf is a very wealthy man in his own right, having received valuable packets of land during his years in the army.) But a bankrupt nation --- Pakistan is often on the verge of defaulting --- cannot afford such goodies. If the flow of American dollars is abruptly squeezed, poor Musharraf could find his colleagues less amenable.
So, why should General Musharraf be happy at the thought of US attention shifting elsewhere? Because it shall, hopefully, lessen the pressure on him.
The Pakistani dictator is under pressure from his American masters to deliver more than he has been doing. According to a testimony by the Central Intelligence Agency to the US Congress, Osama bin Laden is supposed to be hiding in the mountainous terrain on Pakistan's frontier with Afghanistan. The area mentioned most often is the semi-autonomous 'Tribal Territory' on the Pakistani side of the border.
American intelligence also suspects, even if it will not say so publicly, that the US's 'Most Wanted Man' could not continue hiding if not for the tacit support of the Pakistani Army, specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence. Finally, there is also the small matter of the reputed exchange of Pakistan's Chinese-inspired nuclear technology for North Korea's skills in missile engineering....
Let us just say Pervez Musharraf is no longer the hero he used to be scant months ago in Washington. If he continues to be tolerated, it is because (as in Iraq) the US suspects his replacement will be worse. The success of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal in Pakistan's national election lends strength to that theory.
The men who voted for the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal would be happier if American soldiers weren't prowling around their country. They want General Musharraf to take steps to have them removed. If war with Iraq led to those soldiers moving out of Pakistan, the dictator would get some breathing space.
It is a tough call for Pervez Musharraf: should he attract American wrath today, or that of his homegrown militants tomorrow?
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