Musharraf Plays His Hand Craftily

It is being said that Gen. Pervez Musharraf, America's favourite dictator, may have miscalculated American reaction to his declaration of a state of emergency. On the contrary, in calling Washington's bluff, he has calculated the odds only too well.

The United States, Canada and other NATO allies have left themselves little choice but to keep backing him to let him continue his war on terror, however intermittently.

Critics may be equally off base in saying that the changed situation in Pakistan may complicate the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Arguably, it could help.

The third theme to emerge in the wake of the general's dismissal of senior Supreme Court judges, suspension of media freedoms and the arrests of key opposition figures has been that democracy has been dealt a death blow.

One could say that with a straight face only if one believed that the recent soap operatic return of Benazir Bhutto from exile and her participation in a national election from which she would re-emerge as prime minister were something other than a U.S.-orchestrated plan to give a democratic gloss to the eight-year-old military rule, with Musharraf remaining as president, albeit in civilian clothes.

The only thing that did not run according to script was that Condoleezza Rice and some U.S. officials got carried away with their rhetoric on democracy, warning Musharraf against declaring an emergency. He answered them by declaring one.

He did so to subvert a pending Supreme Court verdict invalidating his recent re-election as president by the national parliament and the four provincial assemblies.

Washington would not have wanted him toppled either, having given him $10 billion, so far, for joining the war on terror.

In his midnight televised address over the weekend, he was thoroughly unpersuasive posing as the saviour of the nation from Islamic militants, on the one hand, and, on the other, activist judges who had been freeing suspected terrorists, citing the right to fair trial.

But that's about what U.S. President George W. Bush has been saying, too, in pursuing the politics of fear and suspending the rule of law in dealing with terrorist suspects.

Bush is also not well placed to attack Musharraf for imposing emergency rule that'd probably be a lot tamer than the one under which Hosni Mubarak, that other great American ally, has been ruling Egypt with an iron fist since 1981.

There are further complications.

The peace deal that Musharraf made last year with the pro-Taliban Pakistani tribal leaders in the border areas along Afghanistan was not much different than the deal the Americans have made in Anbar province in Iraq with the Sunnis who were once sympathetic to anti-American insurgents.

That the latter arrangement has worked and the former hasn't doesn't detract from the logic underlying both: that there is no military solution to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Then there's the other irony that if Musharraf were to do what the American hawks, and their acolytes in Canada, want him to, namely, kill the Taliban and Al Qaeda faster than the U.S. and NATO allies, including Canada, have been doing in Afghanistan, he'd be even more unpopular and face nation-wide street protests.

Pakistanis - especially lawyers, journalists and human rights activists - do dislike him for being too slow in delivering on his promises of democratization (he did hold national and municipal elections, ensuring one-third women councillors, by imposing a quota).

But Pakistanis dislike him even more as an American puppet, `Bush-arraf,' in popular parlance.

Now that he has freed himself of the constraints of the courts and public opinion and, more important, of the paralysis gripping his government for months trying to hang on to power, Musharraf could retry his hand at a military solution to eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda. There's no guarantee he'd succeed, for the real problem lies in Afghanistan. So long as there's a war there, there can be no peace in Pakistan's border region.

As for Bhutto, she is not a good ad for democracy.

She was dismissed as prime minister, twice, for being both incompetent and corrupt - not by the military but two civilian presidents, one of whom was her former ally.

She was in self-imposed exile for nine years, in her mansions in Dubai and London, dodging graft charges that predate Musharraf's rule. She returned only under an amnesty, orchestrated with the help of a Washington lobbying firm.

Bhutto has been angling for yet another deal, to let her serve a third term as prime minister.

The Supreme Court judges Musharraf has fired for having had the temerity to question his rule may also have had something to say about altering the rules to accommodate her. So she can't be unhappy over their dismissals either.

The Bhutto name still counts for a lot in Pakistan, especially in her Sindh province, given the legacy of her "martyred" father, Zulfiqar Ali, a feudal lord and a former prime minister, hanged by another dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, for alleged complicity in murder.

Bhutto is perhaps the only politician who could galvanize the anti-military, anti-Musharraf mood into a mass movement to force him out of office.

But she's clearly too compromised to try. If she were to, she would be violating her backroom deal with Washington that she can regain office but not power, which shall belong to General, now Mister, Musharraf.

Given these conflicting realities, politicians and pundits in Canada and the United States are merely striking poses of their own for their respective constituencies.

-- Haroon Siddiqui

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