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Home > News > Columnists > Ramananda Sengupta

Musharraf defies the odds

February 27, 2003

Speculation about a possible coup against Pakistan strongman Pervez Musharraf started circulating within days of his taking over in Islamabad in October 1999.

Facing international condemnation, sanctions and pressure to restore democracy, the general initially struggled to dispel growing concerns about the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radical elements.

A cartoon that year in The New York Times portrayed a mullah with a nuclear weapon, saying 'Let's see how loud a bang this baby makes!'

Musharraf reacted by projecting himself as the only person who could prevent this from happening.

But in March 2000, US President Bill Clinton (after a will-he, won't-he visit Islamabad dance) had a terse message for Musharraf and Pakistan: US-Pakistan friendship would continue only if Pakistan decided to restore democracy, end confrontation in South Asia, withdraw from the nuclear arms race by signing the CTBT and cooperate on crushing terrorism.

'I hope you will be able to meet the difficult challenges. If you do not, there is a danger that Pakistan may grow even more isolated, draining even more resources away from the needs of the people, moving even closer to a conflict no one can win,' he said on public radio in Islamabad.

September 11, 2001 changed all that.

Sensing the way the wind was blowing, and under intense US pressure, Musharraf did a U-turn on his pro-Taliban position and pledged total support to new President George W Bush's war on terror.

On October 7, hours before American B52s began their bombing runs over Afghanistan, Musharraf effectively neutralised his trusted coup buddies, ISI chief General Mahmood Ahmad and Lieutenant General Mohammed Aziz Khan.

Ahmad chose retirement after a junior, Lieutenant General Ehsan-ul-Haq, corps commander of Peshawar, was named the new ISI director general.

Ahmad, then corps commander, Rawalpindi, had ordered his troops to secure Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's house and Pakistan Television on that fateful day in October 1999. He was in the US during 9/11, and after his return to Pakistan, he led two delegations to Afghanistan, ostensibly to convince the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden. Both failed. In fact, during the second mission, ulemas who went with him to meet Mullah Omar publicly lauded the Taliban's policies and abused America.

Aziz, corps commander of Lahore, was promoted to general and named chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee. This is a largely ceremonial post, and denies him access to the crucial meetings of the corp commanders

Another radical, Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General M H Usmani, also chose retirement after Lieutenant General Muhammad Yusuf, then chief of general staff, was made a full general and named vice-chief of the army staff. In October 1999, Usmani defied then prime minister Sharif's orders and ensured that Musharraf's plane was allowed to land safely at Karachi's international airport.

Musharraf also replaced the commanders of five of the nine corps in Pakistan with loyalists.

The newcomers are all known to be moderates, or as moderate as one can get in the Pakistan army. And they are all grateful to Musharraf for the out of turn promotions. Their leader's pledge to share part of the massive American aid flowing into the country with them ensured that they have a personal stake in his survival.

'When Musharraf ordered a major reshuffle in the Pakistan army on October 7, he was fundamentally assuaging growing concern both in the country's national security circles and abroad,' said The News, Pakistan.

The general-president then backed this up by with a crusade against fundamentalists opposed to his rule, in the process earning brownie points from Washington.

As for nuclear weapons, on September 23, 2001, Pakistan's then ambassador to the US Maleeha Lodhi told a cable news channel that Islamabad had placed 'multi-layered custodial controls with very clear command structure.'

A month later, The Washington Post reported that Musharraf had hurriedly moved the country's nuclear weapons, missiles and aircraft to various secret new locations to prevent unauthorised access.

Despite all this, rumours about a possible coup by fundamentalists failed to subside, surfacing with every little incident that indicated a threat to his rule.

Of these there were many. The bombings in Karachi, in which French engineers were killed. The nationwide attacks on American interests, forcing the closure of the US consulate in Karachi. The gruesome murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The frightening revival of the zealots. The general anti-US mood in the country.

As the US strike on Iraq looms, the rumours have surfaced once again.

While some analysts assert that such speculation usually emanates from New Delhi, others are not so sure.

The former say India hopes that at best such rumours might prompt the US to take some hasty action against Musharraf. Or that a frightened Musharraf might purge a few more loyalists in the army, thereby undermining his own position.

At worst, these rumours might be ignored by both Washington and Musharraf. Either way, India has nothing to lose.

The question, of course, is that given that Musharraf has sewn up the opposition in the army and perhaps even in the ISI, who will bell the cat?

In Pakistan, no one can hope to run the country without army (and ISI) support.

Which might explain Musharraf's reluctance to restrain the ISI from its Kashmir operations. 'He hasn't compromised on Kashmir,' says former ISI chief and retired lieutenant general Hamid Gul. That means 'Musharraf does enjoy the support of the army and the ISI.'

So while there were rumours that Mohammed Aziz Khan, upset at having been neutralised, was surreptitiously offering himself as a contender for army chief in case Musharraf was toppled, he is yet to find any takers.

But others point out that Musharraf's personal security has been tightened to unprecedented levels, and that his paranoia has led to senior officers being asked to divest their sidearms before being allowed to meet him.

They also point to the fact that during the October election, the vehemently anti-American six party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or MMA, emerged as the third largest party in the national assembly, and swept to power in the North West Frontier Province which borders Afghanistan.

Apart from the fact that this severely restricts American -- and the Pakistan army -- attempts to track down Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters in the NWFP, a major confrontation between Musharraf and the elected government over support to the US seems all but inevitable.

The impending US attack on Iraq might spark off this confrontation. Though Musharraf has publicly voiced opposition to any unilateral US action against Iraq, this hasn't satisfied the radicals who want strong action against the US.

The outcome of such confrontation will determine how the anti-Musharraf lobby in the army and ISI play their cards.

Another school of thought -- seen by many as wishful Indian thinking -- predicts that the US, after it is done with Iraq, might turn its attention to Pakistan.

After ensuring Musharraf's demise -- remember the mysterious crash in August 1988 that killed Zia-ul Haq? -- the Americans might use it as an excuse to move in to 'secure' Pakistan's nuclear arsenal against the mad mullahs, goes this argument.

Musharraf himself acknowledged such fears, saying Pakistan had to learn to stand on its feet, and could not expect help from Muslim nations.

The analogy to Iraq is hard to miss. But Musharraf was also telling Washington he had prepared for such a contingency, and that it was unlikely to be pleasant for the US.

Despite the odds being heavily stacked against him, despite the repeated refrain that he was about to become history, general and self-appointed President Pervez Musharraf has consistently stayed one step ahead of the opposition. And if reports of at least three assassination attempts are to be believed, he also seems to have providence on his side.

Those predicting a coup against him anytime soon shouldn't hold their breath.


Ramananda Sengupta

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