It was a diplomatic kerfuffle of an unusual sort: Pakistani president Gen. Pervez Musharraf had been warmly welcomed to the White House by George Bush this past September as a close and valued ally of the United States. Two days later, Musharraf appeared on CBSs 60 Minutes and revealed that after September 11 a U.S. official, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, had threatened military action against Pakistan if it did not cut its ties to the Taliban. Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age, said Armitage, according to Musharraf. Nonsense, said Armitage. Musharraf insisted the threat was made, but seemed coyly to suggest that Americans would need to buy his new memoir, In the Line of Fire, to learn what really happened. The White House played down the incident, but there is little doubt Musharraf raised the ire of his American hosts. Meanwhile, after appearances by Musharraf on CNNs Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the book sold enough copies to reach number three on Amazons bestseller list.
In the Line of Fire (a nod perhaps to the title of a Clint Eastwood film of the same name), presents Musharraf as an Eastwoodesque charactersomeone who shoots from the hip, talks tough, and is willing to take a bullet for a friend. In a passage describing an assassination attempt on him in 2003, Musharrafs tone is simple and gruff: All hell broke loose. There was smoke; there was debris; there were body parts and pieces of cars. Vehicles had been blown to smithereens, human beings ripped to pieces. Much of the memoir has the same swaggering tone. Readers who might doubt his mettle are told how Musharrafs childhood, army career, presidency, and vision all contribute to make him, well, the ideal leader of Pakistan. We are informed that, from a young age, Pervez has always been liked by his peers. (Since I got involved in boyish games and pranks and often did things that other boys wouldnt or couldnt do, I became very popular in my neighborhood.) Those wondering how he became a general need only read about his life with a gang of childhood friends. (Even at that age I was very good at making strategies and planning tactics to ambush and trap other gangs.) As to whether he has put Pakistan on the correct course or not, one need only read Part Four, Rebuilding the Nation, in Musharrafs memoir. Overall, In the Line of Fire reads like a 368-page stump speech, aimed at shoring up foreign (i.e., American) support ahead of Pakistans 2007 general elections.
Of course, what Americans most want from Musharraf is for him to capture Osama bin Laden, who many assume is hiding, along with thousands of other al Qaeda and Taliban forces, in Pakistans tribal region. In response to U.S. pressure, Musharraf sent 80,000 troops there in 2002 and has since rounded up several high-profile members of al Qaeda. In the process, he has come under significant domestic pressure for policies seen as subservient to America. Still, some in Washington remain skeptical about Musharrafs commitment to catching terrorists. The general, therefore, dedicates more than a quarter of his book to divulging details of al Qaeda manhunts conducted under his watch. These chapters, with their straight narrative and incisive analysis, make for good reading, offering a welcome break from the cocky, self-congratulatory tone Musharraf uses throughout much of the rest of the book.
Musharraf admits that when he took power in 1999 following a bloodless coup detat, Pakistan stood at the brink of being declared a failed state, a defaulted state, or even a terrorist state. The question is just how far it has come away from that brink. According to a ranking of 148 nations in a Foreign Policy magazine survey this spring, not far; Pakistan fell somewhere between Haiti and Afghanistan, cited for its vulnerability to violent internal conflict and social dysfunction. I admit, its hard to imagine, sitting on the terrace of my home in calm, leafy Islamabad, someone putting Pakistan in the same league as Haiti or Afghanistan in anything. The Pakistani government immediately assailed the reports conclusions as absurd, asking how a country with a sophisticated nuclear-weapons program could be compared to war-torn Afghanistan or poverty-stricken Haiti. But the fact is, large parts of Pakistan are embroiled in tribal and religious conflict and off-limits to all but the most brazen journalists. Foreigners wishing to travel in large parts of the country are required to take along a government-appointed armed guard. Pakistans numerous intelligence agencies are a brooding, malevolent presence in the nations life. President Musharraf has survived a couple of assassination attempts (the first in December of 2003, when Musharrafs convoy was attacked twice within two weeks. The second one, on Christmas Day, left 14 people dead and dozens injured). Does this constitute a failed state? Maybe not. But it does bespeak a nation whose integrity and unity are- challenged on a daily basis.
I have been living in Musharrafs Pakistan for a year and Ive witnessed a country simultaneously full of optimism, pessimism, extremism, and moderation. What most Americans think about Pakistan is not always true, just as what Musharraf says about Pakistan is not always true. Take, for example, the media. Musharraf writes that many private television stations have opened since the liberalization of our media. In fact, new TV stations have multiplied, nearly all of them during his tenure. And indeed people are openly critical of the regime. Musharraf, and Western analysts who drop into the country for short periods, tout this as evidence of an open society. But investigations of any corruption in the government are off limits and can end a journalists career. You can say anything you want on the editorial pages, one newspaper reporter told me, but dont try and dig up anything juicy.
The conventional wisdom in Washingtonwhich is probably trueis that the United States could do a lot worse than having Musharraf as the leader of Pakistan. So what would happen if the general were ever really caught in the line of fire? One possibility is that religious parties would kick down the door of parliament and usher in a scary, fundamentalist government. That is certainly a legitimate fear, one that Musharrafs own government shares. Pakistanis are undoubtedly a religious bunch. But, as one prominent journalist recently told me, they arent ready to accept morals police in their cities. Ninety-nine point nine percent of Pakistanis, from their heart of hearts, are happy to see Taliban creating problems for Americans in Afghanistan and for Musharraf in Waziristan, said Hamid Mir, a renowned TV correspondent and newspaper columnist. But 100 percent of them wont accept the Taliban in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, or even Karachi.
A second possibility is another military coup by restive officers uncomfortable with Musharrafs tilt to the West. This too is unlikely, though a couple of recent incidents have caused much speculation here. On Sept. 24, with Musharraf out of the country promoting his book, nationwide power and phone outages sparked rumors of a coup. Ultimately, by sunset, the lights were back onwith no sign of tanks in the streets. Then a couple weeks later, dozens of mid-ranking Air Force officers were arrested in connection with rockets that were discovered near Musharrafs home and a bomb blast that occurred in a nearby park.
Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent defense analyst in Islamabad, scoffs at talk of Musharraf being tossed out by his own men. Americans seem to forget that this army is a disciplined, hierarchical, British-inspired army, she told me. And Musharrafs nine corps commanders (all top-ranking generals) are his guys. Moreover, since 1999, Musharraf has retired dozens of generals whom he couldnt trust; those left are far junior to him. Siddiqa added: A Bonapartist would never appoint a Bonapartist around him.
A third possibility is the return of a democratic civilian government. About every 10 years, military governments replace civilian onesand vice versa. The first coup happened in 1958. A countercoup followed in 1968. 1970 marked the first free election. Another coup ocurred in 1977. The dreadful decade of democracy (Musharrafs expression) started in 1988. Finally, Musharraf launched a coup in 1999. The pattern in my country has been repetitive, Musharraf writes, Elected officials have been vulnerable to corruption and create conditions that lead to an army takeover.
Towards the end of every previous period of military rule, the armys name gradually turns to mud, people start agitating for elections and civilian leadership, and the pendulum swings the other way. That hasnt happened yet under Musharraf, though it might. What is truly different now, however, is that the military has taken over myriad civilian institutions. Retired generals, admirals, and air chief marshals have been appointed chancellors of universities, hold ambassadorships to dozens of countries, and even preside over the Pakistan Squash Federation. A cover article in the July 2006 issue of the Pakistani publication Newsline argues that the military have become the countrys new land barons. Both retired and active duty personnel run banks, bakeries, oil and gas companies, cereal manufacturing plants, and cinemas, just to name a few. The army has always played a role in politics. Now, should it ever relinquish the top spot, its interests will be preserved in the economic and private sectors as well. In other words, a civilian government probably wont spell the end of military rule.
Ill conclude by admitting that Musharraf, in spite of those who consider him a cocksure megalomaniac, actually has a pretty hard job. In early July, he and I attended a polo festival (not together) in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The weekends festivities dovetailed perfectly with Musharrafs soft image campaign for Pakistan. Twenty-five thousand people had camped out to watch three days of polo in a beautiful natural setting, 12,000 feet above sea level. The general showed up on the last day, wearing the floppy, woolen hat worn by locals and carrying his trusty Glock pistol in a holster on his belt. During the trophy ceremony following the final match, local musicians and dancers struck a beat. Before long, Musharraf had joined in. Spectators cheered and applauded.
Suddenly, Musharrafs security detail began waving their arms and bum-rushing the press section. The guards yanked cameras away from people and shoved television camera lenses into the dirt. I stood there befuddled. So much for soft image, I thought. I asked a journalist what was going on. If pictures of him dancing get out in the press tomorrow, he explained, the religious parties will have a field day.
The kill-joy mullahs consider dancing un-Islamic. Such is life in Musharrafs Pakistan.