While interviewing Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf after the 1999 military coup that brought him to power, I was struck both by his plain-spoken honesty, and doubts this rather eccentric general turned politician would survive. Running turbulent, unstable Pakistan, is one of the world’s toughest, most dangerous jobs.
I felt at the time Musharraf was not in the same league as his predecessors, Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, both of whom I knew well and respected.
But seven years and two assassination attempts later, Musharraf still runs Pakistan, and still talks like a soldier.
During last week’s US media blitz to promote his new book, Musharraf claimed soon after 9/11, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage warned Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, head of ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the US would `bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age’ if it did not immediately turn against its Afghan ally, Taliban, and allow the US to use military bases in Pakistan to invade Afghanistan.
Musharraf’s claim provoked an uproar in the US and Pakistan, making one wonder if his goal was getting on the Oprah Show or explaining Pakistani policy to confused Americans.
Armitage denies threatening war on Pakistan. But a reader, Prof. John Yardley, reminded me that in my 2002 book, `War at the Top of the World,’ I had indeed revealed the US threat to bomb Pakistan.
I met with Gen. Mahmud, before 9/11. He and Lt. Gen. Mohammed Aziz were Pakistan’s top military officers who put Musharraf into power. After 9/11, they were ousted under US pressure for being `too Islamist.’
After 9/11, I learned indirectly from Mahmud that Armitage indeed delivered an ultimatum to him threatening war if Pakistan did not swiftly bow to US demands.
Pakistan’s efforts to make the Bush Administration understand it was supporting Taliban to maintain order in Afghanistan, keep the Russian-backed Afghan Communist Party in check, and to block Indian and Iranian influence there, fell on deaf ears.
So was ISI’s insistence that Taliban had no knowledge or part in the 9/11 attacks, and bore no ill will towards the United States. Quite the contrary, many Taliban commanders were originally armed, financed and trained by CIA in the 1980’s. But enraged Americans were demanding revenge for 9/11. They wanted targets, not explanations.
I’ve heard various versions of Armitage’s exact words. But I know whatever he said put the fear of god into Pakistan’s military leadership.
ISI sources say the Bush Administration threatened to bomb faithful old ally Pakistan, cut off its oil, collapse its banking system and call in its loans. More frightening, Washington also threatened to `unleash’ India against Pakistan, either allowing India to conquer the Pakistani-held portion of disputed Kashmir, or give Delhi a green light to invade all of Pakistan, possibly with American assistance.
Leaked cabinet documents from 10 Downing Street show three months before invading Iraq in 2003, President Bush told British PM Tony Blair that once he finished off Iraq, he planned to `go after’ Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan was in America’s cross hairs.
Gen. Musharraf thus faced a horrible choice: abandon Pakistan’s national interests in Afghanistan for which it had faced down the mighty Soviet Union in the 1980’s. Allow a hostile regime to be established there dominated by Pakistan’s blood enemies, the Afghan Communists, Iran and India. And abandon Pakistan’s most cherished national cause, the 50-year struggle to free Kashmir of Indian rule.
Or else stab anti-Communist ally Taliban in the back, give military bases to the US, abandon the struggle in Kashmir, bow to Washington’s commands, and face the wrath of Pakistanis crying out that Musharraf had sold out to the Americans. This is, of course, what has happened, leaving Musharraf increasingly isolated and unpopular.
Pakistan’s media bitterly noted that Taliban’s tribal warriors resisted US B-52 carpet bombing for two weeks. Pakistan caved in after a single threatening phone call.
Musharraf claimed he `war gamed’ a US attack and concluded his nation would lose. Pakistan might have resisted a US attack, but certainly not a joint US-Indian offensive. So he had little choice.
But many Pakistanis believe Musharraf was far too eager to comply with Washington’s diktat and to turn against Pakistan’s old friends and allies. But $4 billion of US aid and secret CIA stipends distributed to Pakistan’s ruling elite rented cooperation.
Every time Pakistan got into trouble with Washington, it would suddenly discover `one of al-Qaida’s top commanders’ and deliver him to the Americans. So far, almost 700 have been sent, in each case for rewards of millions of dollars, as Musharraf unwisely boasted.
The biggest trouble Musharraf has gotten into is the still murky Dr. Abdul Kadeer Khan affair. Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, the father of its nuclear arsenal, was caught red handed selling centrifuges and other nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya.
Even though US satellites saw Pakistani Air Force C-130’s delivering equipment to North Korea, Musharraf denies he or anyone else in government knew about this extensive black market operation. Such claims sound totally implausible, given all nuclear operations and material are under tight military control. Musharraf has rejected US demands Khan be turned over. The scientist is a national hero in Pakistan.
Last Wednesday, President George Bush hosted a tense dinner for Karzai and Musharraf, who detest one another. As the Afghan War goes increasingly badly for the western powers, Karzai keeps blaming Musharraf for allowing Taliban to operate inside Pakistan and launch cross-border attacks on Afghanistan. Musharraf fired back that Karzai was a figurehead who had no control of his country. Both accusations are true.
Tribal politics lie at the heart of their dispute. The 30 million Pashtuns (or Pathans), the world’s largest tribal society, are divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan by an artificial border, the Durand Line, drawn by divide and conquer British imperialists.
Pashtuns account for 50-60% of Afghanistan’s 30 million people. Taliban is an organic part of the Pashtun people. The western powers and their figurehead ruler, President Karzai, are not just fighting `Taliban terrorists,’ but a coalition of Pushtun tribes and other allied nationalist movements. In effect, most of the Pashtun people.
The other half of the divided Pashtuns live just across the Durand Line in Pakistan, comprising 15-20% of its population. Pashtuns occupy many senior posts in Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Pashtuns, including anti-western resistance fighters, never accepted and simply ignore the artificial border bifurcating their tribal homeland.
Washington keeps demanding Musharraf crack down on Pakistan’s pro-Taliban Pashtuns. But Washington fails to understand that too much pressure on these fierce warriors could quickly ignite a major historic threat to Pakistan’s national integrity: a Pashtun independence movement seeking to join the Pashtun of Afghanistan and Pakistan in a new state, Pashtunistan.
Growing tribal unrest in Pakistan’s strategic province of Baluchistan, where support of Taliban runs high, further threatens to destabilize the fragile nation.
President Musharraf has bent over so far backwards to comply with Washington’s highly unpopular demands that he has deeply angered his people, who increasingly call him a tool of the west. Karzai is seen the same way by many Afghans. Yet US (and now Canadian) policy depends on the survival of these two colorful but increasingly isolated leaders.