Like the old country song says, I dug Musharraf when Musharraf wasn’t cool
I’m glad Gen. Musharraf was able to take time out of his hectic book tour to meet with President Bush at the White House. As far as I know, the plug-circuit-cum-state-visit is a new phenomenon on the international scene: the Queen didn’t attempt to squeeze in her golden jubilee events in between promoting “Diana & Me: The True Story” on Oprah and Barbara Walters. But Pakistan’s head of government looked more comfortable with Jon Stewart than he did at a clenched teeth Washington dinner with Hamid Karzai. Even more impressively, he showed more respect for his contract with Simon & Schuster than he did for the Pakistani constitution, rolling out the book’s explosive revelations on his publicity team’s schedule with the same poise and discipline as old hands like Bob Woodward: if it’s Tuesday, it must be the disclosure that on Sept. 12,2001, the Bush administration threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age.” It wouldn’t have surprised me to discover that he’d captured and executed Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2002, but that due to his book deal he wasn’t allowed to disclose it until the publication-day interview with Katie Couric.
In the event, that’s not in the book. But In the Line of Fire is still full of fascinating material, and it begins with possibly the coolest opening of any memoir: a matter-of-fact catalogue of the general’s brushes with death over the years, from a bad childhood fall out of a mango tree, through the many plane and helicopter crashes that seem to afflict the senior ranks of the Pakistani military, to the now routine assassination plots of disaffected Islamists. Musharraf was close to being
aboard Gen. Zia’s C-130, which went down on Aug. 17,1988, taking the country’s then strongman, plus the U.S. ambassador and sundry other bigwigs, to a “fiery death,” as the author puts it. “The crash was never fully explained,” notes Musharraf blandly.
These days, he’s an old hand at the terrorist whack-job rituals: “As my car became airborne I immediately realized what was happening,” he writes. “But unlike most leaders, I am also a soldier, chief of the army staff, and supreme commander of my country’s armed forces. I am cut out to be in the midst of battle.” Which is just as well. Eleven days later—Christmas 2003, in fact—and here we go again: “I took out my Glock pistol, which is always with me, and shouted to Jan Mohammad in Urdu, ‘Dabaa, dabaa’—‘drive, drive...’ Human flesh and blood were all over the cars.” I don’t know whether Simon & Schuster are planning on launching a series of memoirs by Commonwealth heads of government, but one can’t help feeling that, say, Joe Clark would have a hard job competing with this stuff: “Our first clue was found in the inner compound,” he writes of the Christmas Day attacks, “in the form of the sheared-off face of the first suicide bomber. It had been propelled over and across the building. It was like a mask made of human skin, like something in the movie Face/Off.
The skin had been peeled off the facial bones and the skull... It was lying flat on the ground, face up.” And, indeed, in among all the grip ’n’ greet snapshots with the Bushes, the Blairs, John Howard and Jacques Chirac, the general includes a fascinating photograph of the sheared-off face.
Like the old country song says, I dug Musharraf when Musharraf wasn’t cool. When he staged his coup (or “counter-coup,” as he calls it) in 1999,1 welcomed it in the National Post at a time when Lloyd Axworthy, our foreign minister (if you can believe it), was huffin’ an’ a-puffin’ about getting Pakistan suspended from the Commonwealth. What on earth for? The deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was a disgusting incompetent presiding over a kleptocrat regime staffed in large part by relatives driving around in colourcoded Mercs. By comparison with the Sharif clan and most of the “democratic” alternatives, the army was one of the least squalid institutions in the country. “Gen. Musharraf,” I wrote seven years ago, “is supported at home because he’s promised to end corruption; he should be supported abroad because, by removing Sharif, he’s made the region safer.”
Don’t get me wrong. I think the very creation of Pakistan was one of the worst legacies of the British Empire: had Lord Mountbatten not decided to bring forward independence by a year, Jinnah would have been dead by 1948, and who’s to say whether a leaderless
Muslim League could have mustered enough support for partition? But then, having signed on to the carve-up, the British made things worse by telling the nawabs and maharajas of the nominally sovereign “princely states” (comprising a third of the subcontinent) that the jig was up and they had to choose which of the two new nations they wanted to belong to. In Kashmir, the ruler was Hindu and the majority of his subjects were Muslim, but the British let him choose India, and as a result we now have a nuclear standoff over some botched bit of post-imperial housekeeping. Even the ISI, the deeply sinister Pakistani intelligence service that helped create the Taliban, was a typically cynical British creation that just as typically backfired on them.
But, beyond all these specifics, in stringing
along with Jinnah’s rejection of modern, pluralist, secular, democratic India, Mountbatten and Co. licensed Pakistan’s evolution as the precise negative of its neighbour: backward, narrow, Islamist, dictatorial.
So Musharraf is about as good as good news gets in Pakistan: certainly the nuclear brinkmanship of2002 between Delhi and Islamabad might have gone very differently with Sharif still in charge. For that reason, the general’s account of the “shockingly barefaced” Bush threat to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age makes for interesting reading. On the morning of Sept.12, 2001, writes Musharraf, “I was chairing an important meeting at the Governor’s house when my military secretary told me that the U.S. secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell, was on the phone. I said I would call back later.”
Powell wasn’t in the mood for any he’s-
COLIN POWELL WASN’T IN THE MOOD FOR ANY HE’S-WASHING-HIS-HAIR BRUSH-OFF AND DEMANDED MUSHARRAF TAKE THE CALL
washing-his-hair brush-off and demanded Musharraf take the call. Afterwards, Pakistan’s leader “war-gamed the United States as an adversary,” and asked himself “whether it was in our national interest to destroy ourselves for the Taliban. Were they worth committing suicide over?” Richard Armitage, Powell’s deputy, told Islamabad that “we had to decide whether we were with America or with the terrorists.” But that’s easy for Armitage to say. Musharraf was with America, but 99.99 per cent of his crazy citizenry were with the terrorists, including a big chunk of his military and intelligence services.
So the general has spent the last five years taking a wild ride on the tiger and he’s still in the saddle. This book is part of that act. Anyone who’s met Musharraf knows his penchant for the locutions of the Raj—“these Qaeda chaps” is how he’s wont to refer to his would-be assassins—and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that in the book: it’s a lively read but in a slightly anonymous voice. And then you realize that, of course, some dreary New York editor has drained all the life out of the authorial voice. Musharraf has written this for a North American audience, not for the chaps back home, and you wonder whether he’d be quite so upfront about equal rights for women and repealing Gen. Zia’s über-Islamist laws if he was chit-chatting with the lads in Waziristan. Sept. 11 may no longer be “the day the world changed,” either for the world or even America, but it certainly changed Pakistan: it knocked the general off his reform timetable and recast him in the domestically problematic role of Washington’s ally against all the local pin-ups.
Still, no one would burden himself with the thankless task of governing Pakistan unless he had something in mind for it. In 1949, young Pervez sailed on HMS Dwarka from
Karachi to Basra and thence by train to Ankara, where his father had been posted to the Pakistani embassy. In other words, the formative years of Pervez Musharraf’s childhood were spent in Turkey. I had high hopes when the general came to power that he might prove to be Pakistan’s Atatürk. So I think did he, though at times he seems, reasonably enough, more preoccupied with getting through the day without the whole powder keg going up. Nonetheless, he remains Pakistan’s least worst hope. And in what Washington calls the “long war,” one sign that it’s truly over will be when Musharraf’s seething cauldron of cockamamie imams is a sane functioning free society. M
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