Musharraf’s increasingly desperate attempts to appease the West

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Pakistan appears headed for more turbulent times as General Pervez Musharraf runs out of policy options in his desperate attempts to appease his foreign masters. Internally, bush fires are burning in three of the four provinces; in the fourth–”the Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province–”Musharraf is fighting a rearguard action to outflank supporters of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom he replaced in a coup in October 1999. At the international level, foreign leaders are no longer as polite as they were immediately after September 2001, when Musharraf hitched his fortunes to America’s “war on terrorism”. Pointed questions are being asked about Pakistan’s lack of success in curbing either the Taliban or ‘infiltration’ across the border into Afghanistan. Protestations of innocence and the fact that Pakistan’s losses in soldiers and civilians far outstrip those of any other country seem not to matter.

Although there is little Musharraf can do, short of deploying his entire army along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to appease the West (an impossible task, given the uneasy relationship with India to the east), it is on the domestic front that he has to produce some rabbits out of a hat. His immediate challenge is to secure the presidency in the elections next year without shedding his military uniform. This requires a delicate balancing act in which he must appease or keep at bay a number of forces. Far from playing the political game (a farce at the best of times in Pakistan), he has unleashed the Sindh-based Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the Punjab to undermine Sharif’s support, much as the previous military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, did in the mid-1980s to undermine the People’s Party in Sindh. MQM members have been given carte blanche to dispense favours as a means of winning support in the Punjab. Other parties look in awe at such blatant abuse of state resources to secure the presidency for a military chief.

This, however, is the soft side of Musharraf’s political game. He has decided to come down hard on those who dare to expose the military’s misdeeds in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Balochistan and Sindh, where insurgencies are raging against the regime’s oppressive policies. Journalists reporting from the frontlines have been kidnapped or targeted for elimination. The latest to suffer the regime’s wrath is Dilawar Khan Wazir, who was abducted from a taxi in Islamabad on November 20. He was fortunate to survive the ordeal despite a severe beating, to come out alive barely 24 hours later.

Four other journalists–”Hayatullah Khan, Muhammad Esmail, Maqbool Hussain Sail and Munir Ahmed Singi–”were murdered after they reported on military operations the regime did not want the world to know about: the worsening situations in South Waziristan and the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh. Wazir works for the BBC Urdu Service as well as the Karachi daily Dawn. On November 22, Islamabad-based journalists protested outside the National Assembly and demanded protection for journalists and punishment of culprits. Alarmed at the threat to press freedom in Pakistan, the International Federation of Journalists has described the country as “rapidly skidding toward lawlessness.” In order to appease the anger of protesting journalists, the military regime’s media pointman, information minister Muhammad Ali Durrani, came out of the assembly hall promising to apprehend and punish the culprits responsible for such abductions.

The minister’s promise lacked both sincerity and credibility because it is widely known that the kidnappers are in fact agents of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency that is commonly referred to as the “invisible government”: answerable to no one, not even Musharraf. This is not mere speculation; the cases of the four murdered journalists remain unsolved, as do those of a number of others abducted and tortured by the ISI. The younger brothers of another two journalists were murdered as a warning to their elder brothers, who had been critical of policies, especially in areas deemed sensitive by the regime.

Why are journalists being targeted in what Amnesty International has referred to as “enforced disappearances” at a time when Musharraf does not tire of repeating the mantra of press freedom, that he tolerates divergent opinions, including those critical of him personally? While the English press is relatively free, it is read by a dwindling number of Pakistanis who are already enamoured of Musharraf’s so-called enlightened moderation. Most columnists and editorial writers exercise self-censorship and are even more opposed to Musharraf’s critics than the general himself. So he has nothing to fear from this band of armchair revolutionaries, who are fond of discussing Pakistani politics in lavish drawing rooms over glasses of whiskey in the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan.

What irks Musharraf and his military henchmen are those reporters who file stories from the frontlines in the NWFP, Balochistan and Sindh. In the first two, the military is facing full-fledged insurrections against which extreme force is being used. Hundreds or thousands of people have been killed in indiscriminate firing by the military. The Americans have also jumped into this free-fire zone; they do not care for any lives other than their own but, as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, even this is changing. More Americans have been killed in Iraq (2,871 as of November 23) than were killed in the attacks of September 2001 (2,823), but nobody in the US has called for punishment of the warlords on the Potomac who are responsible for so many American deaths, not to mention the estimated 655,000 Iraqis done to death since March 2003.

The most recent American outrage in Pakistan was perpetrated on October 30, when the Zia ul-Uloom madrassa in Bajaur Agency, bordering Afghanistan, was bombed. About 82 children were killed as they prepared for early morning prayers. The Musharraf regime immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming that the madrassa, which had been under observation for almost a year, was a training ground for “terrorists” and that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two man in al-Qa’ida, had reportedly been seen there.

Zawahiri was also cited as the reason for the American missile-strike last January on a house in Damadola village in the same tribal agency that left ten members of a single family dead. When asked whether any weapons had been recovered from the bombed madrassa, a military spokesman said that the “terrorists” did not need weapons to train with! There were massive protests against this outrage, and a week later a suicide bomber killed 42 army recruits in Dargai town to avenge the Bajaur attack. Ordinary people–”children in the madrassa and recruits in Dargai–”paid the price for the regime’s follies and subservience to the US.

It is the truth behind events like these that the regime wants hushed up, and that has led to the abduction and killing of journalists who dare to report them. Dilwar Khan Wazir is from North Waziristan; he was on his way home when he was abducted. He has exposed the military’s wrongdoings in Waziristan, American and NATO forces’ operations inside Pakistani territory, and the murder of civilians. After two years of military operations against the tribesmen in North Waziristan, in which more than 600 soldiers and hundreds of Waziri and Mahsud tribesmen and their families were murdered, the government was forced to enter into a peace agreement with them in early September. It agreed to withdraw its military checkpoints, returned the weapons seized from the tribesmen, and allowed them to administer their own affairs as they have done for decades. Gone is Musharraf’s brave rhetoric of teaching them a lesson or imposing the government’s writ. It was only then that the area became relatively peaceful. As a face-saving formula, the regime said the tribesmen would not allow foreigners to operate in the area or use it as a launch-pad for attacks inside Afghanistan. A similar deal is now being negotiated in South Waziristan through the governor of NWFP, Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai, a retired general who belongs to the Orakzai tribe that resides in the mountains further north of North Waziristan.

Although the Frontier region has become relatively quiet despite the Americans’ disquiet and their allegations against Pakistan, the situation in Balochistan is quite uncertain. Since the murder on August 26 of the tribal chief, Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti, tensions have escalated in this volatile province, with the Americans–”General Musharraf’s friends–”talking openly about its becoming ‘independent’. Maps of an “independent” Balochistan have been circulated in moves reminiscent of events leading up to the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

In a long article in Le Monde Diplomatique (October 2006), American writer Selig Harrison has written about Sindhi separatists joining hands with the Balochis to secure their rights. He lists numerous grievances, some real, others imagined, to stoke Balochis’ resentment against Pakistan, no doubt aided and abetted by the shortsighted policies of the Pakistani military regime. Harrison says: “the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) is driven by memories of Pakistani scorched earth tactics in past battles.” In the current turmoil that started in January 2005, Pakistan has deployed some 25,000 troops in and around the Kohlu mountains and is using F-16 planes and Cobra helicopter-gunships to strafe Baloch guerrilla positions.

There are other allegations as well: that Pakistani forces have rounded up hundreds of Baloch youths on unspecified charges and taken them to unknown locations. The military regime has hit back by accusing the BLA of receiving arms and training from India. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but the fact is that the regime itself has given India the opportunity to meddle in Pakistan’s affairs. While Pakistan is accused of involvement in “terrorism” in Kashmir by supporting the Kashmiri activists to gain their legitimate rights, India gets away with its meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs without arousing international opprobrium. Why this double standard? Because India is an emerging power being courted by the US and the West, while Pakistan is a two-bit player that has to beg for favours even for its legitimate concerns.

This is often the fate of those who rely on the non-existent goodwill of outsiders, especially the Americans, instead of harnessing the energies of their own people. Unless this mentality is changed, Pakistan will continue to lurch from one crisis to another without any relief for its oppressed masses. This is a great pity because it has immense potential to become a respectable Muslim power.

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