At last week's UN General Assembly in New York, most of the world's attention was focussed on the dramatic statements made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mamoud Ahmadinejad, who not only exhorted the other delegates to oppose the American war on terrorism, but also went on mini-speaking tours within the permitted radius of the UN Headquarters. Emboldened by their success with the Non-aligned movement the week before, these socialist oil-producing presidents went on to dominate the UN meeting, or at least the media's coverage of it.
Whatever the results of these performances may be, a subtler, and more serious rebuke was to come from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Taken at face value, Musharraf used his trip to the United States to promote his new book and get himself re-elected next year. On a deeper level, however, Musharraf's autobiography, "In the Line of Fire," and his media strategy signal a sea change in Pakistan's foreign policy, and the balance of power in Central Asia may follow.
Musharraf began his tour with an interview on CBS "60 Minutes," where he dramatically revealed that the day after the attacks of September 11, 2001, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) chief Mahmoud Ahmed that Pakistan would be bombed back into the stone age if it did not cooperate with the U.S. in its campaign against the Taliban. Then off to the White House. At a joint press conference, George Bush denied the charge and barely let the Pakistani leader speak. Musharraf, looking a bit intimidated, coyly suggested that anyone interested in the subject should buy his book, which would be released in a few days. And so it was, with dramatic effect.
The autobiography instantly became a best seller in India, where it was "rubbished" by persons ranging from former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill to K Subrahmanyam, who headed the Kargil Review Committee appointed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Indeed, no issue strikes at the heart of Indo-Pak relations more than the status of Kashmir and the details of the Kargil campaign in 1999, which nearly led to nuclear war. Musharraf also wrote in his book that the Indians obtained their nuclear centrifuge plans from the notorious proliferation network of A.Q. Khan. In a part of the world where nuclear weapons are considered a benchmark of technological achievement, this could only be meant to offend the Indians. A semi-official reaction came from the Indian police, who took the opportunity to announce that the ISI and the outlawed pro-Pakistan group Lashkar-e-Taiba were responsible for the July 11th bomb attacks in Mumbai that killed 186 people and injured more than 800.
Perhaps the highlight of Musharraf's tour was his appearance on Daily Show, an American TV comedy about politics which is normally critical of the Bush administration. Musharraf was served Twinkies and jasmine tea, imported from Pakistan, and immediately asked "Where is Osama bin Laden?" Musharraf didn't know, but came across as charismatic and likeable, in counterpoint to the defensive stance he'd taken in talks at Georgetown University and the Council on Foreign Relations. At Georgetown, the General was pressed to declare his opposition to the "Talibanization of Pakistan," to condemn hudad laws, and proclaim his determination to win the war on terrorism. Perhaps it was the change of venue, or perhaps Pakistan's foreign policy has actually changed in the last week. In more recent interviews, Musharraf appears far more confident and independent.
This became evident when the President General crossed the pond to meet privately with Tony Blair. In an interview with BBC radio afterwards, Musharraf announced that "you will be brought down to your knees if Pakistan doesn't co-operate with you. That is all that I would like to say. ... Remember my words: if the ISI is not with you and Pakistan is not with you will lose in Afghanistan." One can assume the meeting with Blair did not go well.
Musharraf's book release coincides with war of words that has erupted between himself and Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan. The main subject of debate has been the rather nonsensical one of whether Osama bin Laden is hiding in Afghainstan or Pakistan. Another point of contention is the wisdom of the agreement the Pakistani government has reached with tribal elders, which Musharraf says will enlist their aid against foreign insurgents sheltering in Pakistan's tribal belt, and Karzai says will provide for a safe haven for them. The two leaders were invited for a special dinner and fondue at the White House in order to make amends, with George Bush acting as peacemaker. But whatever political effect this bizarre event was intended to achieve was overshadowed by Musharraf's other engagements. And it's hard to imagine that Afghanistan is truly the master of its foreign policy, particularly watching Hamid Karzai and George Bush share the podium. Not looking intimidated at all, Karzai clearly plays a supporting role, the lone member of a chorus in a tragic Greek play.
Whether Musharraf himself has any choice is also hard to say. The Pakistani President has been pushed to the wall by an endless series of demands and threats. On September 20th, when asked on CNN whether he would send ground troops into Pakistan to capture bin Laden, Bush replied "absolutely." This fell on the heels of the accusation by NATO commander James L. Jones that the Taliban had openly set up their headquarters in the Pakistani city of Quetta, prompting calls to bomb the city. Yet those promoting the idea of taking direct action in Pakistan seem unaware of the instability in Baluchistan, a province that has always had some degree of autonomy from the central government. And unable to comprehend the likely reaction by the Pakistani people should the U.S. attack. A recent Pew survey showed that only 30% of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the US.
It appears that the staged battle of personalities between Karzai and Musharraf is really an expression of Musharraf's rebellion against Washington. It's being done with humor and tact, but the subject is deadly serious. A direct confrontation between Musharraf and Bush could quickly get out of hand, and could lead to irreversable changes in the relationship between the two states.
In the last weeks the President General has done an about face, realizing that the appeasement of Washington has its limits. Casually-made threats to bomb Quetta or send in ground troops to capture Osama bin Laden are in fact threats to the stability of the government of Pakistan. Pakistan has made dramatic economic progress in recent years, which could easily be ruined by involvement in the Afghan insurgency. Aside from conspiracy theories about the ISI, there is no reason to believe that Pakistan has any interest in destabilizing its western border.
If Pakistan is pushed to take further measures against the tribals in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it will have little choice but defiance. Pakistan may have little choice but to take shelter in the long term relationships it has built with China and Iran. This would greatly complicate American efforts to pacify Afghanistan. No doubt Musharraf would prefer to avoid a confrontation, but it's far from clear that appeasement of Washington's demands, and accepting the blame for the disaster caused by the hated occupation of Afghanistan, will accomplish that.
About the author: Paul Wolf is an attorney in private practice in Washington DC, working in international law, humanitarian law, and human rights. He is creating an online history of Pakistan based on declassified US government documents on file at the US National Archives. See www.paulwolf.org and www.international-lawyers.org for more information.