Frontline World

PAKISTAN - On A Razor's Edge, March 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "On a Razor's Edge"

Assessing Musharraf's Predicament

The Brink of Peace

Reporting on the Nuclear Scandal

Background, Government, Issues

India/Pakistan Relations, Islamic Fundamentalism, Media Resources




VOICES FROM THE WHIRLWIND: Assessing Musharraf's Predicament

Sherry Rehman: Opposition Parliamentarian

Sherry Rehman Sherry Rehman, a liberal Parliamentarian and outspoken critic of Musharraf, discusses Pakistan's need to move beyond military rule to full democracy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you think General Musharraf is walking on a tightrope right now?

Oh, absolutely. He is on a tightrope for various reasons. One is that there is a sense in Pakistan that he's under pressure from the international community over several issues of national security, such as the nuclear question. Also, people feel that he's been negotiating with India ... at an extremely fast pace without taking the elected representatives of the country into his confidence. So that has put him into a bit of a tight corner domestically as well as internationally -- because now he's in a situation where he's also conducting operations against ... al Qaeda in the western and eastern parts of Pakistan, certainly the tribal areas. So he's not in an enviable situation by any stretch of the imagination, and things are looking a little, I would say, uncomfortable for him at home.

But don't you think that no other president has ever had to do so many things on so many fronts -- that he's in a difficult position and he's doing the best that he can?

I don't like to personalize things as either an attack or a sense of right or wrong here. The point is that ... the country would be confronted with these realities, whether they are grounded realities or emerging realities ... . Certainly after September 11, the position [Musharraf] took was, I think, something we all had national consensus on. But having said that, ... his policies after that ... have been nationally and domestically divisive, and to maintain security ... you always have to have a sense of stability in your home front. Now, if you are not stable at home, [you're] not going to be able to put out fires on your borders.

So yes, I do realize that he's confronted with extraordinary challenges. But ... we all were perfectly happy to stand behind any Pakistani leader who wished to work in the national interest. But that was a temporary situation. We have an elected parliament and we have a parliamentary system, so we do feel that the time has come for the parliamentary system and for the prime minister and for the cabinet to be taking the forefront in such decision making. Because that really is the process through which the people of Pakistan represent themselves. It is not through a presidential or army channel that the aspirations and the wishes of Pakistan are represented. If you have a sensitive policy, for instance, on the nuclear proliferation issue, it is much easier to carry the nation with you if you are doing it through the elected representatives, through the normal system.

[Pakistan has] never been an established democracy.

I think that is a very self-defeating argument to make -- that if we are not an established democracy, we should not take steps to become one. Given our geo-strategic location and the fact that we have used our geo-strategic location to put ourselves in a front-line position doesn't mean that we become forever what I call a garrison state -- always under siege from within or without -- and that we completely barter away our democratic rights as a sovereign country to choose a system and an entire spectrum of governance for ourselves. Pakistani people are not stupid.

So I find it actually a burden when I'm told that we are somehow in this sensitive position, it's a transition and we have to look to our national security. Well, that's been happening for 55 years and I think the time is absolutely right for us to move on, grow up and stand up and say, "Look, we are mature people. We are not democratic adolescents, and we want to make our own decisions." Now, those decisions ... may be responsive to domestic pressure, which they always have to be if they are to be maintained in the long run. If you make decisions that are contrary to domestic pressure and domestic interests, then you always have a situation.

Why do you have this Taliban phenomenon now? These kinds of decisions were made without recourse to ... popular public opinion. Most of us did not want the Talibanization of Pakistan. We did not want our civil prime ministers etc. not to be in charge of foreign policy. We wanted our entire civilian establishment to resume control and be accountable.

Who's trying to push Musharraf off this tightrope? There have been two assassination attempts in one week recently, and he has [stepped] up security. Why do you think this president is being targeted?

I think anybody in this situation would ... to some extent be targeted. He has taken some tough, unpopular decisions. Had it been a civilian prime minister, I'm not sure it would have been different. You have had assassinations, say, of Indira Gandhi [prime minister of India, 1966-1977 and 1980-1984; assassinated in 1984]. You have Rajiv Gandhi [son of Indira Gandhi and prime minister of India, 1984-1989; assassinated in 1991] killed across the border. So this does happen. It is something that comes with the territory of being in that position and, as I said, taking tough decisions.

But again, at the expense of repeating myself, I'm going to say that if you ... have an electoral base, then by dint of your roots in the public, you are protected somewhat from at least a national groundswell against you. I'm not suggesting that will prevent even a popularly elected leader from [terrorist] attacks because such attacks normally come from fringe groups.

But these [fringe groups] are actually something that Musharraf's army has been cultivating. These are the very people that they have been using as proxies in Afghanistan, even in Kashmir to some extent ... . Yes, I understand we've got an unstable border on the west. We've got problems on the east. We have to be a little more than extra careful. And yes, we do watch very carefully, for instance, what goes on in Afghanistan. Because ... we've got a long border with them -- the Durian line -- and it's quite porous. And we've had a history of penetration from there, instability coming in from that area. So Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan naturally have to be protected. That does not justify bringing home a culture of guns and narcotics, and now, of course, a kind of new fascist version of Islam that simply has very little to do with the kind of Islam that Pakistan is familiar with.

Do you think that Musharraf is a shaken man now [after] two assassination attempts? Do you think he's changing his policies rapidly?

Well, ... I don't routinely check under his collar, but from what we see of him -- yes, he seems to be pretty shaken. But again, very much in control and enjoying the attention lavished on him. He sees a national policy through the prism of his personal kind of reality, which is: "... things are so good for Pakistan I can talk directly to Colin Powell on the telephone." That is no reflection of how things have improved for Pakistan in my book.

He kind of [used] instability in Pakistan continuously [as a] justification for staying in power. He said, "Look, Pakistan is under siege; it's under siege from this al Qaeda element ... and you really have to prop me up." So anybody who's hysterical about this -- which, of course, is the entire world -- is going to say, "Right, OK." We have a joke running around in our circles that ... routine Osama sightings are created in south Waziristan or somewhere to keep this kind of hysteria going.

But it has taken very long since September 11 for Musharraf to shut down the offices of well-known militant organizations. People are still at large who have been identified both by the national and international media, who are involved in groups who openly defy ... [the] Pakistani government and say, "We don't recognize your policies for shutting down militancy, and we don't recognize democracy. We don't recognize even the boundaries of this sovereign state." I don't understand how a military government allows this to go on. I don't understand how even a civilian government would allow this.

Peace with India -- you have seen it so many times before in history. Is anything different now?

Well, ... we have good reasons to believe things are moving in the right direction. Certainly peace with India has been a project that all sensible and rational people in Pakistan have been lobbying for a long time. My party has been in the forefront of all the moves that are now at least being promised ... from [the] Pakistan side ... . And I feel that really it's a question of, in the end, political will, of what the political parties here have done and can do [to] create a constituency for such a peace. And we have been very active. I, in fact, was a part of the first parliamentary delegation that went to India as a kind of icebreaker when the government ... was bristly and wasn't quite sure what to make of such a situation, of such initiatives.

So there have been several tracks that have been working on this issue. One is obviously the state, which [is] what we call the first track. Then the second track, which is civil society and NGOs, informing people, discussing various options and confidence-building measures etc. And of course the third track, which has not been given enough importance -- but I think has really turned things around over the last years -- has been ... people-to-people contacts, which includes traders, lobbies, students, parliamentarians, civil rights activists, women's activists. We have a bus coming in, I think, next month from India. There is now almost every month a delegation of some sort or other ... . Of course, the flights and the planes and the trains are running. So we have some relief on that account.

So I wouldn't undermine and put the skeptic shroud over it, which we all tend to do with almost our entire [peace] initiative. I hope that it goes forward. I hope that the Indian election doesn't derail it. We have a reason to believe and we are assured by the Indian government and the informal sector that may not be the case. And I think it's also Mr. Vajpayee's [prime minister of India] very personal interest in making such overtures that has paved the way for ... what we hope is a long-term thaw and a continued uninterrupted process. Because that is very important ... we see summits coming and summits going. There is a lot of hype and sometimes you even see concessions on both sides being given. It usually just takes one nasty incident to spark off [animosity] from both sides and allegations that are counterproductive.

Let's talk about Dr. Qadeer Khan and the nuclear fiasco that has been going on in Pakistan. Do you think his apology was humiliating for the country?

I think the whole episode has been [a] traumatic one for the country. By suggesting that nuclear proliferation occurred in several countries -- I'm not condoning it, but it is something that has actually gone on over the years in most countries. ... But for Pakistan, it has been a very traumatic episode. [This has] been a program [that has cost] dearly in terms of missed opportunity for children, schools, and people having more meat and more food on their plates. ... For it to be exposed ... in such a fashion has been I would say quite a shock to the system of all Pakistan. ...

As far as Dr. Qadeer Khan is concerned, he was ... the father of the atomic bomb. He was [a] kind of national [hero], appreciated in public ... . So when this kind of extreme syndrome or cult is built around [scientists] they become very unshakeable icons.

Do you think [the army was] involved in any way? Do you think they knew of the nuclear leaks? Can one man ... really do this?

This is a very pertinent question, and one asked across the country. As you say, can one man really do this? And Kahuta, our research laboratories ... is under such tight security that even ... [the] prime minister [was] often not allowed access to it. So if you keep something under this kind of watertight seal and then say, "...X did it and Y did it, and we didn't really know what was going on," then even so you are showing an acute responsibility.

... I think parliament should be conducting inquiries ... . At the end of the day ... , if you have responsibility for a program, then you have a responsibility for the program -- everybody's neck is on the line. That's how it works.

... The public sentiment here [is that] this whole episode will not quite end here. There is also a sense [that it will] be used against Pakistan in the future, rightly or wrongly ... at some future convenience or ... for some expedient date, by the United States or the international community, as a roadblock to defang Pakistan's nuclear capability. And that will, I think, invoke a huge tidal wave of public reaction. I think that is something that sovereign Pakistan is not willing to do. If we want to roll back our programs, then it should be our decision. It should not be on the say-so or the pressure of an international body.

It's been said that the younger members of the Pakistani army who were part of the Kashmiri struggle and [who] supported the Taliban in Afghanistan are very radical and quite a force vis-a-vis President Musharraf ... .

There has been somewhat [of an] Islamicization of the Pakistani army in some senses ... . When you mention young officers I assume you are referring to [those] who have come up in the past 20 years ... [during] the era of one of the worst dictatorships Pakistan has seen [military dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled from 1977-1988]. ... Dictatorships leave a blowback because they don't hold themselves accountable. And this dictator particularly took us back ... many years back. The Islamicization that took place, it took society back; it took culture away from us, our local sense of who we are, by infusing it with a kind of international fundamentalism. This happened in the army as well: There was this kind of very right-wing neo-fascist kind of Islam being perpetrated ... .

And when people [have] no employment ... they have ... nothing really to look up to. They see no democracy; they see no system; they see no way in which their aspirations [are] reflected or ... how they can affect their own social and profession mobility. Then this kind of thing tends to take root, when you have dangerous vacuums ... as it has to some extent in the Pakistan army as well.

But having said that, I still do believe that the Pakistan army is a highly professional army. It is one of the best-organized forces in the world. And it may be a great drain on our resources, but it still knows its job ... which is pretty much stay in the barracks and organize itself on the border where it needs to when it [is] needed -- not try to run the country.

How big is the ... problem of [homegrown] terrorists for Musharraf?

Of course, it's just not the thorn in one man's side; it's a thorn in the entire country's flanks. ... Homegrown terrorism is something that could have been curbed if we had consistent, uninterrupted civilian democratic government. And when I say civilian democratic government, I'm talking about government that [is] in control of key foreign-policy making areas, that [doesn't] have runaway security agencies. ... There have to be clear lines of control, clear lines of who reports to whom and ... a proper chain of accountability.

Now you've got ... a Frankenstein situation. The military has created a monster that [it] is unable to control ... . Why doesn't [Musharraf] get rid of them? What is the point of having a military dictatorship sitting around for four years? I mean, either the military dictatorship is incompetent or the homegrown [terrorists] are so impossible to control that [the president says], "I can't do it." I would suggest [Musharraf] let the civilian government be entirely in charge of that operation. We will clean it up in six months. ... Homegrown [terrorists] who are out there with Web sites, with registered parties changing names every night -- you just can't put padlocks on their offices and say, "We got rid of them." You've got to arrest them if they are openly defying the government. Give me the home ministry -- I'll take care of it.

Ahmed Rashid: Critical Journalist
Jugnu Mohsin: Newspaper Editor
"Shahzad": An Underground Militant
Lieutenant General Hamid Gul: Defender of Islam
General Mirza Aslam Beg: Former Army Foe of Musharraf
• Sherry Rehman: Opposition Parliamentarian
Sami ul-Haq: Powerful Religious Leader

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