Pakistan’s Musharraf is portrayed as an indispensable sentry against terrorism. But is he doing more harm than good?

MICHAEL PETROU November 26 2007


Pakistan’s Musharraf is portrayed as an indispensable sentry against terrorism. But is he doing more harm than good?

MICHAEL PETROU November 26 2007



Pakistan’s Musharraf is portrayed as an indispensable sentry against terrorism. But is he doing more harm than good?


When the going gets tough, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf likes to strap on a gun. In his 2006 memoir In the Line of Fire, Musharraf notes that his favourite side arm is a Glock 17 pistol, which he always keeps handy. “I am cut out to be in midst of battle—trained, prepared, and equipped,” he writes. “Fate and the confluence of events have seen to it that Pakistan and I are in the thick of the fight against terrorism. My training has made me constantly ready for the assignment.” Musharraf’s memoir contains some passages he now no doubt regrets. At one point, the man who just recently clamped down on his country’s political opposition by declaring a state of emergency—in advance of a court ruling that was widely expected to declare his October re-election illegal—gravely remarks that martial law is never an answer to political malaise. But the bulk of his autobiography reflects the image that he has carefully cultivated ever since September 2001,

when he abruptly ended Pakistan’s support for the Taliban government in neighbouring Afghanistan and threw his country behind U.S. President George W. Bush’s war on terror. Musharraf portrays himself as a frontier sheriff holding the line against terrorists who threaten not only Pakistan, but the entire world. Without him, the implication is, alQaeda would grow in strength and, in the most apocalyptic of scenarios, Islamists might take control of a nuclear-armed state.

The fact that in the six years since Sept. 11, 2001, numerous terrorist plots have been linked to Pakistan, that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is fed with recruits from Pakistani madrasas, that Islamist extremists now thrive in much of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, and that al-Qaeda’s top leadership is suspected to be hiding on Pakistani soil, simply demonstrates the intensity of the struggle Musharraf is leading, rather than any failing or lack of effort on his part.

“Pakistan is the one country in the world

that has done the maximum in the fight against terrorism,” Musharraf writes. “It is disappointing that despite our deep commitment and immense sacrifices, some people continue to tell tendentious stories casting aspersions on our counterterrorism operations and on the contributions we have made. We have lost more men than any other country—and we fight on.” Musharraf has been just as defensive in person, dismissing any suggestion that Pakistan is abetting the insurgency in Afghanistan in which dozens of Canadians have died. “So you suffered two dead, and there’s a crying and shout all around the place that there are coffins,” he said in a Canadian radio interview last year. “Well, we’ve had 500 coffins. So you think we are not fighting?”

The United States clearly believes that Pakistan is fighting terror and has stood by its ally. Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 military coup, hardly lived up to Bush’s rhetoric about spreading democracy in the Middle East, even in the early days of his presidency. But Musharraf’s co-operation in Afghanistan was judged too valuable to risk losing, and his military rule was rather mild by the standards of other leaders in the region.

This month, however, Musharraf cast aside most of the trappings of democracy that had existed in Pakistan. Blaming the threat posed by Islamist extremists and a lack of cooperation from the judiciary in the fight against terrorism, he declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and effectively imposed martial law. Thousands of lawyers and opposition political activists were arrested, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was sacked and placed under house arrest, critical television stations were shut down, access to foreign news networks such as CNN and BBC was blocked, and at least three foreign correspondents were ordered to leave the country.

The U.S. and its allies now face a stark decision. Is it worth it to support Musharraf in the face of authoritarian thuggery that mocks any pretense of democracy and the rule of law? Does the security he allegedly provides justify our hypocrisy when we speak about the virtues of democracy? Are the alternatives too dangerous to risk?

The Bush administration has made its choice. It condemned Musharraf’s impos-

ition of emergency rule, as did Canada. But American Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told Congress that Musharraf is an “indispensable” ally in the war on terror. American aid to Pakistan, which has totalled more than US$10 billion since 2001 and is mostly of a military nature, will almost certainly continue, as will Canada’s package of $50 million a year, which is directed at humanitarian projects.

President Musharraf is either indispensable in the fight against terrorism, in which case his support is arguably worth that kind of money, or he’s a very clever actor who has fooled everyone who’s backed him for the last six years.

According to Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, supporting Musharraf is the

right decision. The risks associated with losing his friendship are simply too great.

“He has been willing to co-operate with us in the counterterrorism effort in a way that probably few other Pakistanis would,” Tellis said in interview with Macleans. “Now, he came to this position reluctantly, and he has performed imperfectly. But when you weigh him relative to many of the alternatives, I think the view in the administration is that it could not get the kind of co-operation that we are currently getting from other leaders in Pakistan.”

Tellis believes there are three likely alterna-

tives to Musharraf. The first is another military leader, similar to Musharraf himself. The second is a civilian leader, such as Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister whose recent return to Pakistan was marred by an assassination attempt that killed 150 people. The third possible alternative is the ascension to power of religious extremists. Tellis believes this third outcome is the most unlikely, and would only come to pass as a result of some sort of national catastrophe, such as defeat in war.

Tellis says that it is in the best interests of the West that a civilian leader governs Pakistan “at some point.” However, “if that civilian leader does not enjoy the confidence of the armed forces, then it’s very difficult for that leader to make decisions of the kind Musharraf can make very easily—decisions about what kind of assistance ought to be

offered for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, what sort of operations ought to be conducted on the frontier, or within Pakistan itself. Right now the problem is there are no civilian leaders on the horizon who one could comfortably say would be trusted by the military and therefore would be able to do what Musharraf is doing in counterterrorism operations.” This leaves a final option: another military general. The problem here, Tellis says, is that there are no guarantees that a different strongman would be any less “imperfect” in opposing terrorism than Musharraf. Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies backed the Taliban since its inception in 1994 and have been reluctant to sever these ties. They see the Taliban as a means to project power in Afghanistan and harass the government of Hamid Karzai, who they see as an ally of their enemy, India.

“These kinds of concerns would be things that would afflict any replacement of Musharraf,” Tellis says. “Anyone who replaces him is going to be a victim of the same set of compunctions.” And, Tellis adds, “What you have here is a record of eight years’ investment in this one guy. So if you confront the choice of the devil you know, versus the alternative, which is someone who may or may not be as co-operative and may turn out to be worse, that’s when people

retreat into the tried and true and the tested and say, ‘Okay, for all his failings, let’s just stay with him.’ I think that policy is the best of the worse choices.”

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department specialist on South Asia, agrees. He says that Musharraf the man is not indispensable, but Pakistan is. And as long as Musharraf is running Pakistan, the United States needs a close relationship with him. “The cost to Washington of shifting away from Musharraf while he still retains power is too high,” he told Maclean’s.

Markey says that many Pakistanis believe America’s friendship is a cynical fair-weather alliance. Any hard measures the United States might take against Musharraf now would simply reinforce that perception. “If you want the Pakistani army to really go after

militants, and you want to convince them that working with militants, which is something they’ve done historically, is a bad idea and doesn’t serve their purposes long-term, and that the United States is going to be around to help them achieve security and will be a partner for as far as the eye can see, then you’d better not jeopardize the confidence-building that you’re trying to do by threatening to cut off assistance,” he says.


Tellis and Markey advocate a stance toward Musharraf that stresses security and practical results rather than democratic ideals. Such a philosophy was neatly summed up by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who reportedly referred to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza as a son of a bitch, before adding: “but he’s our son of a bitch.”

But what if sticking with Musharraf despite his crackdown on civil liberties is not only morally distasteful, but also against the interests of the United States and its allies, including Canada?

Any judgment of Musharraf’s worth to the West must begin with an evaluation of Pakistan’s fight against Islamist extremists such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The results are mixed, but disappointing. Most analysts believe that Musharraf has hit hard against

al-Qaeda, whose cadres are often non-Pakistani Arabs and Central Asians, but is reluctant to confront the Taliban—either the homegrown variety, or those from across the border in Afghanistan who find safe haven in Pakistan.

In the Pakistani frontier city of Quetta, “you can see the Taliban,” says Frederic Grare, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For him, it’s perfectly fine to trade off international terrorists, who can be arrested and traded for Western goodwill, in exchange for some leeway in Afghanistan. That’s the kind of policy he’s been pursuing since 2001. It’s never stopped.”

Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes Musharraf’s efforts against Islamist extremists as sporadic. “He has collaborated with the West selectively, giving up jihadis when necessary to placate Washington,” he says. “Those who get out of line and attack his regime obviously get dealt with. But there is no will to deal with the infrastructure of extremism in Pakistan. He is closing down liberal television and radio stations,

while pro-Taliban radio stations are operating in Pakistan, calling people to jihad.” Pakistani security forces have captured several high-profile international terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected planner of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, among several other atrocities. “Those who habitually accuse us of ‘not doing enough’ in the war on terror should simply ask the CIA how much prize money it has paid to the government of Pakistan,” Musharraf writes in his memoir. But Pakistan’s efforts against the Taliban have yielded fewer results. Not only do Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan habitually seek and obtain refuge in Pakistan, but Pakistani Taliban now hold sway over much of Pakistan’s mountainous Tribal Areas that border Afghanistan. And their reach is spreading.

This reporter spent several weeks travelling in and around the Tribal Areas of Pakistan less than a year before the Sept. 11,2001 attacks. The Swat Valley, with its fruit groves, clear rivers and cool, pine-covered hills, was one of the most relaxing places in the country. An innkeeper waxed nostalgic about the hippie trekkers, especially the women, who came to stay in the valley during the 1960s and ’70s. In the frontier town of Dara Adam Khel, famous for the expert production of illegal guns and assorted weaponry, a cheerful guide showed us around the various workshops and indulged our request to test-fire the merchandise.

Today, much of the Swat Valley is under

the control of a radical pro-Taliban cleric,

Maulana Fazlullah, whose followers have

ransacked girls’ schools and captured or

killed Pakistani soldiers sent to confront

them. At least four police officers have been

publicly beheaded in recent weeks. Dara

Adam Khel is now also controlled by the

Taliban, who have reportedly banned music

and television and demanded that women

wear burkas. The town still sells guns, but DVDs of

beheadings are also for sale in the bazaar. The victims are accused of being spies for the American or Pakistani governments. Dar Adam Khel is no longer a pleasant destination for Western backpackers.

“Musharraf has promised a great deal in the war against terrorism and delivered very little,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s

Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “I think it’s well understood that the resurgence of the Taliban that we’ve seen in the last several years is the direct result of the government of Pakistan turning a blind eye to their recruitment, their fundraising, and their political and propaganda activities in places like Quetta and Baluchistan.”

Daniel Markey at the Council on Foreign Relations agrees that Pakistan was slow to turn against the Taliban, but argues that it is finally doing so and faces a monumental challenge. “Now they’re realizing that this job is going to test them, their army and intelligence services, to the core,” he says. “It’s not just a lack of will. Their capacity to deal with this insurgency—because that’s what it’s turning into in Pakistan—is in question.”

Markey says this explains why the Pakistani army has been so eager to cut deals with Pakistani Taliban in the Tribal Areas of the country—much to the frustration of Canadian and other coalition troops who face these militants across the border in Afghanistan. The army isn’t sure it can militarily defeat tribal fighters, and is reluctant to launch large-scale offensives against fellow countrymen and Muslims. Instead, it’s tried

to bring development assistance to the region and negotiate peace with local partners. “And that hasn’t worked,” Markey said. “It hasn’t worked in the near-term, and they know it. But they don’t have another great solution. And neither do we.”

Whether the primary problem is a lack of will or ability, or the enormity of the task, the end result is that Islamist extremism has flourished in Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf’s watch, which calls into question his image as an irreplaceable sentry standing guard against roving outlaws in a wild and dangerous part of the world.

“It’s time to call his bluff,” says Frederic Grare. “We could probably do without Pervez Musharraf. It will not stop the co-operation with the Pakistani army. There have been chiefs of army stafifbefore Pervez Musharraf, and there will be chiefs of army staff after Pervez Musharraf. It’s one thing to say we need the co-operation of the Pakistani army in the war on terror. It’s another to say that Pervez Musharraf is indispensable.” Grare believes that the United States should insist that Musharraf restore the judiciary, including the fired Supreme Court chief justice—a move that would likely result in a ruling against the legality of Musharraf’s October re-election. “I don’t think we’ll ever get a better opportunity than the one we

have now. There is a Pakistani constitutional process. All the U.S. has to do is make sure that nobody spoils the process,” he says.

Perhaps ironically, some analysts, and many Pakistanis, believe that the West’s firm support for Musharraf frustrates progress that Pakistan might make against Islamist extremism in the country. “The Achilles heel of Musharraf’s efforts against terrorism, that has been a problem since the beginning, is

that most Pakistanis don’t see it as a war for Pakistan’s interests, they see it as a war for a dictator’s interests, and for America’s interests,” says Riedel. “If you portray the war on terrorism in Pakistan as a war on behalf of Musharraf and Bush, you’ve chosen the two most unpopular people in your country as sponsors.”

Irfan Husain, a columnist at the Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, told Maclean’s that many Pakistanis resent the United States because of its support for a military dictator, and they resent Musharraf because they see him as an American pawn. “Everybody calls Musharraf Bush’s poodle and says he is fighting Bush’s war,” Husain says. He describes Pakistan’s fight against Islamist extremism as “our war too,” but doesn’t think Musharraf is the one to lead it. Husain says that Musharraf’s anti-democratic crackdown has alienated secular liberals who might have otherwise supported firm measures against Islamist extremists. Indeed, Musharraf has trampled on civil society,

arresting lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists—people who, Grare points out, “have a lot of shared values with the West. So I don’t see why we should accept that they be victimized when they are in effect our best allies in Pakistan.”

Bruce Riedel believes that the West’s support for a military dictator will eventually polarize Pakistani society. “Sooner or later that will rebound to the benefit of Islamic

extremists,” he says. “Ifyou weaken the political centre, if you destroy the judiciary, if you destroy the free press, you’re going to create a situation in which the Islamic alternative becomes the only alternative.”

Owais Aslam Ali, the secretary general of the Pakistan Press Foundation, told Maclean’s that Musharraf’s clampdown on the media has resulted in a news blackout, especially for illiterate Pakistanis who rely on television for information “Press freedom was achieved in Pakistan after a long, hard struggle. And now a stroke of the pen has taken us back 40 years,” he said. “It’s a terrible blow.” And Husna Ali, a freelance journalist in Karachi who has been protesting Musharraf’s emergency measures since they were imposed, told Maclean’s that Musharraf’s allies should reconsider their support for the general. “I would like to tell the West, especially the masses who pay taxes, that terrorism is flourishing under the dictatorship that you are supporting,” she said, urging the West to stand beside Pakistani democrats.

According to Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College, this is the policy the United States and Canada should ultimately pursue. “There is going to come a reckoning at some point regarding the West’s relationship with Pakistan,” he says. “I have always thought there would come a time when we say we’re going to take the longer view and push for real democracy, real economic development, real development of civil society. But that requires both a longer-term view and a willingness to tolerate some short-term strategic difficulties, which I don’t think anyone in Washington or Ottawa is terribly comfortable with.” M