BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 6(3) November-December 2003


Musharraf’s Strategy

M. Sarangpani Iyengar

If one looks beyond the repeated assertions of General Musharraf’s capacity for quicksilver tactical thinking, one sees the silhouette of a well formulated strategy. This strategy relies on three basic elements;  

  1. General Musharraf’s and the Pakistani Government’s vast knowledge of the political landscape of the United States,
  2. Prevailing perceptions about Pakistan in the minds of US policymakers, and 
  3. Deep knowledge of the inner workings of the Jihadi movements all over the globe and most importantly, the deepest secrets of the Islamist movements in Pakistan.

Largely friendly US-Pakistani ties have permitted Pakistani military officers to travel across the United States for almost fifty years. In every academic establishment dealing with the Indian subcontinent, Pakistani scholars with personal ties to the Pakistan military have established a strong presence. A very large number of retired Pakistani military officers have settled in the US and along with several Pakistani businessmen, they have built a small but highly effective `Pakistan Lobby’. Many serving Pakistani officers have been to the US on training programs and have cordial or friendly ties with their American colleagues. Pakistan has been the recipient of several large American arms transfers and consequently Pakistani government officials have been able to maintain contact with key players in the US US military industrial complex. A direct consequence of this contact is that the Pakistanis have an exceptionally keen sense of political awareness of the US. They are able to see political thoughts and processes develop in the minds of US policymakers. There is also a large class of interlopers, former employees of the US Government who carefully facilitate a strategic dialogue with the Pakistani Army. The end result is almost total awareness in Pakistan of the major outline of strategic thought in the US Government. The Pakistan Army understands the psychological needs of many US policymakers and they know what is politically unfashionable in Washington DC. Perhaps no Pakistani officer is as current on these issues as General Musharraf, given his long history of contact with US Government this should be no surprise at all.

This sort of people-to-people contact is not unusual among countries with friendly ties. However this is not a friendship between equals. In the case of Pakistan’s military, Pak-US ties are a source of immense power. Over the past fifty years the Pakistan Army has used these ties to repeatedly legitimize its stranglehold on power in Pakistan. In return for US support, Pakistan has offered unstinted help for US strategic ventures in the Indian subcontinent. The Pakistanis are also extremely personable in their interaction with American visitors. This results in a very positive albeit false image of Pakistan in American eyes. The class of interlopers referred to in the earlier paragraph also serves to shape perceptions of Pakistan in the US Government and the US Media. As most of these interlopers routinely place themselves at the disposal of their Pakistani military handlers, their view of Pakistan is skewed. A direct result of this is that today the Pakistan Army and General Musharraf in particular is perceived in the US Government circles as being a viable modernist alternative to an Islamist government in Nuclear Armed Pakistan. This perception is not based on fact. The bulk of assessed intelligence in the US most probably contradicts this notion but the presence the interlopers and sweet-talking Pakistani generals in Armani suits simply makes key US policymakers blot out the unfavorable reports emanating from their intelligence services. General Musharraf and his Pakistan Army colleagues are well aware that projecting a `Modernist Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ is the key to retaining US support. Many Americans also believe that the should General Musharraf be forced out of power, the likelihood of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaida terrorists is very high.

The Jihadis terrorizing the world today most probably began their careers as borderline psychopaths employed by the Pakistan Army to fight the American funded anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. After the war ended, US interest in this venture waned. However, the Pakistani Army recast these hired killers into the `Army of Islam’, a secretive Islamist army of the night, funded by rich Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia, and ready to fight a Jihad on a global scale. Thus the Jihadi army which had been raised to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, morphed into an anti-Shia domestic counter-subversion force in Pakistan, into a `Kashmir Liberation’ army, and finally into Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida. At every step of this process, from its birth as an anti-Soviet militia in Afghanistan to its current form as Osama Bin Ladin’s Al Qaida, the Army of Islam was chaperoned by the Pakistani Army. Most major terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam bear the fingerprints of the Pakistan Army. On the domestic front the Islamist parties in Pakistan, which are in some sense the political end of the Army of Islam, were built up by Pakistani Army officers. Given General Musharraf’s meteoric rise in the Pakistan Army, and his ties to the Taliban and several religious groups in Pakistan, it is impossible to ignore that General Musharraf or people loyal to him know more about the Army of Islam than anyone else in the world.

If one assumes these three basic elements as valid in a post 9-11 world, a conceptual core to General Musharraf’s strategy follows naturally. This core can be summarized as follows:

General Musharraf is acutely aware of US strengths and weaknesses. He is thus able to predict what the US will want from him. When any US policymaker meets him, General Musharraf simply promises exactly what he knows with certainty to be what the visitor wants. General Musharraf also knows that US perceptions of Pakistan are very different from Indian and Chinese perceptions, so once a promise is made the US will await General Musharraf’s attempt at keeping to his word. This buys General Musharraf the time to affect a subterfuge. General Musharraf subsequently reaches into the Army of Islam, and with his enormous dexterity produces an outcome that exactly mimics what his visitor from the US wants to see. Upon viewing such a startling performance, the American visitor leaves in awe of General Musharraf’s ability and the cycle continues.  

While it is trivial to say that General Musharraf reaches into the `Army of Islam’ and conjures up a security solution which the American visitor desires, in practice this involves a very critical dynamic in General Musharraf’s magician act. This dynamic can be crudely described as `deflection’.  In order to keep doing this trick General Musharraf must be able to `deflect’ the blame for the action. He has to be able to convincingly deny that he was in some way responsible for creating the security crisis that is bothering the US and he must be able to convincingly deny that he was personally responsible for selling out the Army of Islam.

In order to deflect blame from the US for creating a security crises that is causing it much bother, General Musharraf falls into reciting the sweet tunes of Western greatness and Pakistani wretchedness. He carefully uses the poverty, the lack of modern education, and the general failure of Pakistani society to craft an image out of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry. By resorting to self-hate to describe his fellow Pakistanis, and then espousing lofty ideals to change everything to a `real democracy’ and `a modern republic’, General Musharraf paints himself as a modern day `Gunga Din’ who rushes in at great personal cost, to save his Colonial master and in doing so depicts his personal dedication to a higher calling (c.f. Louis Untermeyer’s Anthology of Modern British Poetry). Perhaps it is the landscape that inspired Kipling that has something to do with it, or perhaps it is merely the startling wealth gap between Pakistani’s elite and the average Pakistani, but this `deflection’ works. News sources and visiting Americans routinely spout out that General Musharraf is an `honorable man’ working under `difficult circumstances’ to wipe out `Al Qaida terrorism from Pakistan’s lawless frontier’. Of course when asked about the legions of the Army of Islam amassing in Pakistan’s developed Sindh and Punjab provinces, Musharraf describes their activities as being related to `sectarian extremism’  or the `Kashmiri Freedom Struggle’.

Deflecting blame for doing bodily harm to the Army of Islam (merely to appease an American audience) proves a lot harder to do. In the early days after September 11, it may have been possible to sell out the non-Pakistani parts of the Taliban, and to periodically `arrest’ a wanted `Arab’ Al Qaida terrorist, but it is very difficult to shop out a Pakistani citizen connected with the Al Qaida terror machine. Even in Afghanistan, a number of Pakistanis were killed in US bombings and their funerals in Pakistan resulted in massive rioting. So General Musharraf employs a sectarian `glove’. General Musharraf has carefully surrounded himself with Shia officers of the Pakistan Army. These officers hold key positions in the Pakistani national security structure and lacking any real power base within the Sunni dominated Pakistan Army, they are beholden to General Musharraf’s power and instruction. The author feels that General Musharraf channels his more unpopular decisions regarding the Army of Islam through these officers. This creates a buffer between him and the Army of Islam and no single act can be directly attributed to him. General Musharraf has also crafted a civilian cabinet out of several Pakistani feudal lords with close ties to the US. He uses this civilian cabinet to challenge the Islamist groups in the political sphere. In this fashion the “King’s Party’” cabinet of Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali is able to save General Musharraf the trouble of having to negotiate directly with the Islamist political groups on routine matters.

As General Musharraf successfully pulls this magic act each time around, a lay observer sees the following pattern. On the domestic front, the Jamali cabinet is completely paralyzed in Parliament; the Islamist parties have taken to huge displays of street power which have galvanized a greater number of people for their cause. They are also able to successfully argue the case that General Musharraf, and the Jamali cabinet is an American plant. This is adding to anti-Americanism and support for Al Qaida in Pakistani society. There are also more direct sectarian implications. The Sunni dominated Jihadi community now identifies the Shias in Musharraf’s government and more generally in Pakistani society as American agents. This is emerging as the prime reason for sectarian strife in Pakistan. The patterns of sectarian violence are slowly becoming more and more vicious.  On the global front, terrorism is depicting an ebb and flow pattern. Despite all attempts by Musharraf’s media managers to the contrary, Pakistan is unable to deny that Al Qaida and Taliban leadership are `sheltering’ in Pakistani territory.  

General Musharraf isn’t always able to affect this magic act. Very often an American comes by who simply asks for too much. It is at this point General Musharraf resorts to two very flashy displays of strategic defiance. The first display of defiance comes out of open consort with the Saudi Arabian and Chinese leadership. General Musharraf either receives a visitor from these places or personally travels to these countries. A recent attempt was also made to add Russia to this list but it appears to have failed. The result is a controlled show of disdain for whatever American official visited him and asked for too much. By carrying out this display, General Musharraf holds out the prospect of engaging other great powers in the region. It is unclear to the author who this strategic defiance really affects; perhaps it is just something General Musharraf needs to do to keep his self esteem high.

The second display of strategic defiance is affected by brazen show of Pakistan’s poor record on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation to North Korea or Iran. The idea of WMD going to states in President Bush’s Axis of Evil scares people in Washington D.C. and when the visiting American official comes by to Islamabad, again General Musharraf assures him that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is `500% in safe hands’ and that is the end of that.

A discussion of General Musharraf’s strategy would not be complete without a mention of Kashmir as it pops up in every one of his speeches. To General Musharraf, Kashmir is a place of catharsis, a place to vent all his troubles. If ever General Musharraf has to get some over-enthusiastic Jihadis off his hands, he sends them into Kashmir with all the guns and bombs he can spare. There the Indian Army eliminates them. The General promptly declares the dead men as `indigenous innocent Kashmiri freedom fighters’ who were killed by the `forces of the cowardly Hindu tyrant’ and every single Jihadi newspaper in Pakistan echoes his words. If the Jihadis become too demanding, General Musharraf appeases them in the context of Kashmir, by giving them money for the Kashmiri Jihad or by telling them some drivel about how they are helping bring India to the negotiating table. This sort of `appeasement’ is then coupled with some `accommodation’ with the Islamist political parties (Hisba Act, Shariat Act etc…) and that one is told `saves the day’ as Musharraf’s government survives a fundamentalist threat.

In conclusion, it is important to see two natural consequences of General Musharraf’s strategic approach to the post September 11 world.

·         General Musharraf’s continuation in power relies on a policy of accommodation with the Islamist political parties and a policy of appeasement of Jihadi groups. This results in a steady growth of Islamist fervor in Pakistani society. This feeds the ranks of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida and sectarian violence in Pakistani society.

·         By incentivizing Pakistan’s participation in the US led War on Terror, the US has created a self-defeating dynamic. It is very much in Pakistan’s interest to ensure a steady supply of Jihadi manpower to continually threaten US interests, and thereby ensure a steady supply of US funds to fight the very `terrorism’ it has created.

Copyright © Bharat Rakshak 2003