KARACHI - Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf seized
power in a military coup in 1999 and, as commander-in-chief of the armed
forces, still in effect rules as a military dictator.
Musharraf's firm grip on the affairs of state has until now served Washington's
interests well, as he has been able to steer the country into the US camp as an
ally in the "war on terror".
However, with the Taliban nowhere near defeated in Afghanistan and Osama bin
Laden and al-Qaeda still unbroken (the two major reasons that the US solicited
Pakistan's assistance in the first place), the US is looking at its allies in
Islamabad in a new light:
Musharraf may be more the problem than the solution.
An indication of how things have slipped in the region is news that Afghan
President Hamid Karzai has openly called for a truce with Taliban leader Mullah
Omar. This was not how events were supposed to play out.
According to sources close to the power corridors in Washington who spoke to
Asia Times Online, the administration of US President George W Bush is now
convinced that a weaker Pakistani army is as necessary now as a
powerful one was when Islamabad did a U-turn on its support for the Taliban
soon after September 11, 2001.
This realization has taken root over the past few months, and developments
since last November have been enough to set alarm bells ringing among the
military leadership of Pakistan.
Goings-on in Balochistan
Rebellious tribesmen in the restive but resource-rich province of Balochistan
have for decades challenged the writ of the central government in Islamabad.
The Baloch insurgents have traditionally received weapons via Kandahar in
Afghanistan, and via sea smuggling routes.
The Pakistani army has engaged in a number of operations in Balochistan over
the years, and the most recent is continuing. The involvement of the
military is highly unpopular not only among Balochis, but also among many
segments of Pakistani society.
What is new in Balochistan, and which is causing concern in Islamabad, is the
emergence of two sons of insurgent tribal chief Nawab Khair Bux Muri as
organizers of a strong financial network to fund the insurgency.
"The whole operation of financing the Baloch insurgency is directed from Qatar,
although this is a very unlikely place. One of the sons of Khair Bux Muri -
Gazn Muri - has been shuttling between Qatar and the UAE [United Arab Emirates]
and is the main financial link between the insurgents in Balochistan, where
command is in the hands of a brother, Balaach Muri," a top Pakistani security
official told Asia Times Online.
"The real question, though, is not the transmission of money, but from where
Gazn Muri is getting this kind of huge money. The answer lies in the activities
of another brother, Harbayar Muri, who is based in London."
Although the official would not spell it out in as many words, he was
questioning how Harbayar Muri could raise funds in Britain, where there is a
negligible Balochi expatriate community. It was a clear hint at the
involvement of Western intelligence agencies, which have strong centers of
operations in Qatar-UAE and London.
The US is also making some backroom political moves in relation to Pakistan's
interests in the region.
According to a contact who spoke to Asia Times Online, a person close to the US
Central Intelligence Agency paid a low-profile visit to New Delhi in the third
week of December and briefed strategic planners on Washington's plan to try to
curtail the role of the Pakistani army, while at the same time renewing support
for democratic forces in Pakistan.
India's cold shoulder on the diplomatic front toward Pakistan and a policy
statement against the military operation in Balochistan was an immediate
outcome. Islamabad promptly responded by accusing India of meddling in
Balochistan, charges that Delhi strenuously denied.
The same person then visited Islamabad and held high-level meetings with
political personalities. On his return to the US he stopped over in Dubai in
the UAE and held detailed meetings with former Pakistani premier Benazir
Bhutto, who lives there.
A sudden upsurge in the activities in Pakistan of the Alliance for the
Restoration of Democracy - which Bhutto supports - followed.
The US first made contact with Musharraf in a meaningful way when he was still
Corps Commander Mangla and he approached the Americans through a Pakistani
mediator. Musharraf had no particular request, but the move was seen as
"unusual and meaningful".
The US concluded first that he was ambitious and only wanted power, and that he
had a flawed, "split" vision.
US officials noted that to build a constituency in the Pakistani Army,
Musharraf embraced the Kashmir issue and enthusiastically supported the
liberation movement there.
Last year's earthquake in Kashmir, in which the extensive jihadi influence in
Pakistan-administered Kashmir was made clear (they played a significant part in
relief operations), convinced the Americans that the Pakistani army would never
back out from its strategic activities in Kashmir through supporting the
armed struggle in the Indian-administered part of the Valley.
Musharraf, who derives much of his legitimacy from the army, simply cannot
afford to abandon this cause. The militancy will continue.
In this regard, the US noted the ill-fated Pakistani army venture into Kargil
in Kashmir in 1999, which was conceived by Musharraf shortly before he took
power. Pakistan believed that India would respond to the aggression by going to
the peace table, but instead it launched its troops in a full-out assault,
quite ready to go to all-out war. Pakistan pulled back its troops from the
On the domestic front, the Musharraf administration in essence facilitated the
formation of the the six-party alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA),
which made impressive political gains in the general elections of 2002.
The aim was to scare the Americans by pointing to the emergence of Islamic
fundamentalism in order to garner US support for Musharraf's uniform.
Similarly, the sweeping defeat of the MMA in local elections late last
year amid widespread claims of fraud was to show the Americans that Musharraf
had the ability to outwit fundamentalism. In this game, Musharraf's split
vision does not allow him to visualize what kind of a message he is really
passing on to Washington.
According to Asia Times Online information, Washington has now decided that the
best outcome would be for a new man to replace Musharraf, 64, as chief of
army staff, and at the same time to encourage liberal democratic forces to take
As for Musharraf, the ideal way out for him is to become a civilian
constitutional head of the country.