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Victoria Schofield

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Pakistan: the multi-faceted challenge ahead

19 February 2000, Dawn, Karachi


Following an exclusive interview with Pakistan's chief executive, General Pervez Musharraf, Victoria Schofield assesses his position four months after he assumed power.

Four months down the road as a soldier turned administrator, General Pervez Musharraf still appears  to be enjoying what he calls the 'top job'. When, in reaction to his own dismissal as chief of army staff  by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, this 57 year-old artillery officer staged a counter-coup and overthrew the Prime Minister, he was not just getting rid of the man but also the  political system. 'Pakistan today stands at the cross roads of its destiny, a destiny which is in our  hands to make or break,' he said immediately after the coup. There was to be no immediate return to civilian rule and the constitution was set aside. As Chief Executive, Musharraf assumed the  responsibility of 'turning darkness into light' by instituting a programme of far-reaching reforms. Four months later people are asking how long will he stay and what has he achieved?

Musharraf's reasons for instituting Pakistan's fourth military rule in fifty-two years sounded all too familiar: rampant corruption, misuse of power and economic collapse. But, despite general awareness that the allegations against the government of Nawaz Sharif might have some substance, the international community at once condemned the new regime and called upon Musharraf to set an immediate timetable for elections. The Commonwealth suspended Pakistan's membership and President Clinton is refusing to visit an 'undemocratic' country during his South Asian tour at the end of March. There are also persistent - although at present not very visible - calls from all the political parties in Pakistan to return the country to elected civilian rule.

In an attempt to demonstrate a semantic difference between military dictatorship, such as Pakistan experienced under General Zia-ul Haq from 1977-1988, General Musharraf immediately involved a number of civilians into his National Security Council, which effectively runs Pakistan as an umbrella organization, monitoring the activities of the various ministries. At the time of the coup, there appeared to be general acceptance of Musharraf's action within Pakistan, but concern remains as to how successful he will be in carrying out his programme of reforms and what will happen if he fails to address issues of key concern. Pakistan, which has been ruled by the military for nearly half of its existence, now appears like the proverbial cat with nine lives, which are rapidly being utilised. 'If he cannot cure the country's ills, who can?' asked a Pakistani businessman who does not like the idea of his country being ruled by a non-elected general, but who is frustrated at the continuing failure of Pakistan's political leadership to complete a full term in office before triggering its premature dismissal.

Musharraf's strategy is to try and eliminate corruption by setting an example at the top, but there is also considerable scepticism amongst Pakistan's disillusioned middle class about how much will change. 'Corruption is endemic,' stated a senior government official in Karachi. 'It will be impossible for him to change the system.'

The key to any success lies in Musharraf's ability not to overstay his welcome and to make good his promise to take steps to institute a more transparent form of democratic governance. If he can show that he is initiating a slow but sure return to elected civilian rule, then the clamour for immediate elections may be less strident and he might be able to get on with some of the necessary economic and social reforms. Preparatory work is already under way for local elections to be held and Musharraf has promised these will take place by the end of the year. He is also attempting what he claims is a new step in local government by giving fiscal autonomy at district level. 'In the past people had no such powers; the members of the assemblies were controlling finances and so any work which had to be done had strings attached,' he explains. 'Once we have decided what the district wants in terms of devolution of powers and autonomy, then we ought to think of what should be given to the provinces and what ought to be retained by the centre.' On paper his initiatives sound admirable. But  the question remains, will they be effective?

An even greater turnaround will be needed to revive the economy. 'Revenue collection is at the core of changing this environment,' Musharraf explains. 'We have to make sure that we broaden the base and reduce the taxes.' According to assessments made by the Central Revenue Board, there is the potential to increase revenue by Rs600 billion, if a greater number of people would agree to pay their taxes. Musharraf also talks optimistically about reducing public expenditure which is 'totally  disproportionate to our requirements. People have been inducted mercilessly into the system for political reasons.' Streamlining the administration will, however, cause unemployment and the  government is going to need to think carefully about how to absorb the unwanted workforce if he doesn't want trouble on the streets.

General Musharraf also recognises that 'creating an investor friendly environment' is essential to economic revival and stability. He is first attempting to approach the rich Pakistani individuals and companies who are resident in Pakistan. 'I want to motivate them - it's their country too and I am sure I can evoke their patriotic sentiments to invest in this country.' He recognises that they will have to be given the opportunity to invest in viable projects without the government crowding them out. Next  come the wealthy Pakistanis abroad and Musharraf draws parallels with China. 'If Chinese living overseas have developed China, why cannot overseas Pakistanis develop Pakistan?' He claims that the response so far from consultations with Pakistanis living in the Middle East has been 'excellent'.

Attempts to attract foreign investors, who are already wary of Pakistan's unstable political track  record, will be much harder. Despite his non-elected status, Musharraf is trying to convince potential investors that their investments will be safer under a stable non-democratic government than one where rules and regulations can be changed at political whim. Musharraf also rejects the argument that potential investors in Pakistan are being asked to give their stamp of approval to martial law. 'I keep telling everyone there is no martial law. I may be a military man, but the courts function, there is freedom of the press, fundamental rights have not been usurped at all.' Even so, whilst there is a definite difference of approach compared with the early years of General Zia's dictatorship in the late  1970s, there is the fear that, without any political checks and balances, there are few safeguards to prevent a gradual erosion of fundamental rights.

High on the list of public concern is how 'accountability' is carried out. Each of the four times a  government has been dismissed in the past decade, a process of 'accountability' has been initiated against former government members. It has never made much headway because the cases have either appeared to be politically motivated, and hence the charges have not been believed, or the government has changed and the charges have not been pursued. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is now overseeing hundreds of cases, mostly against Nawaz Sharif and members of his  government but with a carry over from the government of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. As Musharraf admits, the process has been slower than he would have liked mainly because of the difficulties of turning allegations into concrete evidence. 'This is white-collar crime. Alleged criminals have covered their tracks cleverly. We need capable investigators and good prosecutors who can fight cases in courts. The courts also have to speed up.'

In a climate of perpetual scepticism about how independent the judiciary is, General Musharraf is careful to stress that he will not interfere personally with the outcome of any of the accountability cases and will leave judgment up to the judges. But, already there is anxiety that the independence of the judiciary has been undermined by the military regime's insistence on a fresh oath of allegiance. Musharraf reacts to any inference that he is attempting to control the judiciary. 'We had information that the government 's liberty of action was to be curtailed. It would have been most tragic for Pakistan.' What he means is that he believes that if the government had not swiftly secured the allegiance of the justices, somebody else, by alternative means, would seek to do so. The oath of allegiance has, however, created the impression that, behind the benign face of his regime, may be yet another government which is going to attempt to use the courts to its own advantage. Likewise although freedom of the press has been assured, journalists watch warily lest directives from the Ministry of Information turn into subtle censorship.

Externally, the toughest problem, which General Musharraf has inherited from his predecessor, is the continuing hostility with India. For this Musharraf bears some responsibility. As he now admits, both he, as chief of army staff, and the former Prime Minister were 'on board' in sanctioning the movement of Pakistani forces up to the line of control near the Kargil sector of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. 'We saw the historical examples of intrusion in Siachen in 1984 where the Indians had entered areas not occupied by anyone and when we got reports that India was bringing up a brigade, we thought we must plug the line of control.' Musharraf still insists that the only people on the other side of the line of control were mujahideen 'fighting for the liberation of Kashmir', who, in an unprecedented action had apparently succeeded in occupying the Kargil mountains in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir without any assistance from the Pakistani military. This explanation has not, however, been believed either by Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, or by foreign governments and observers, including the United States. The Indian government still talks of 'betrayal' following the dialogue held between Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif at Lahore in February 1999 and relations are at an all time low. Although Musharraf denies that there was any 'betrayal' on the grounds that India never  had any intention of 're-opening the debate' on Kashmir, Pakistan's credibility has been badly damaged by Kargil. As chief executive of Pakistan, Musharraf now has to reverse the negative  publicity arising from the operation which means persuading India to return to the negotiating table.

In order to present a less belligerent face to the world and in view of the fact that the United States is  under pressure from India to declare Pakistan a 'terrorist state', Musharraf has started by actively condemning acts of terrorism, such as the hijacking of the Indian airlines plane at the end of December 1999 as well as the recent 'diversion' of the Afghan Ariana plane to England. 'Pakistan is sandwiched in between two countries where extreme elements can have a destabilising effect,' he says. The extremism in Afghanistan 'has negative connotations for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.' He has  already announced his intention to visit Mullah Omar, the Taliban chief, in Kabul in order to see 'what can be done' about Osama bin Laden, the Saudi extremist, wanted by the United States for his alleged part in the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi. Most recently he has called upon Afghanistan to close down its militant training camps in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. If Musharraf can achieve some measure of success in dealing with Afghanistan, his position may be improved internationally, especially with the United States, which has no way of dealing with Afghanistan's Taliban movement and would not like to see its extremism take root in Pakistan.

Countering terrorism on Pakistan's north-eastern frontier is a far more difficult issue for Musharraf. There lies the coveted state of Jammu and Kashmir whose 'liberation' movement against the Indian government runs parallel with Pakistan's own longstanding determination to include the majority Muslim state as part of Pakistan. The government's official position has always been that its support is only moral and diplomatic and that the issue of the state's future should be decided by a plebiscite as recommended by the United Nations in 1948/49. The problem, which General Musharraf faces, is that, in the decade since the insurgency in the valley began, acts of terrorism have increased and, by association, so has Indian annoyance and mistrust of Pakistan.

The recent hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane at the end of 1999 once more highlighted the role which Pakistan is playing as a base from which the militants can operate. It is no secret that the group believed to be responsible for the hijacking, Harkat-ul Mujahideen, is based in Pakistani-administered Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as are a number of other militant organizations operating in the valley of Kashmir; the Indian government therefore regularly condemns the Pakistani government for aiding andabetting cross-border terrorism. In order to defend the 'liberation' movement, Musharraf makes a distinction between 'terrorist' acts and 'freedom fighters'. 'In Islam, we have the concept of jihad:   where Muslims are under threat, Islam does not recognize national frontiers and so if Pakistanis are fighting in Kashmir, they are fighting a jihad, just as other Muslims assisted the Afghans in their struggle against the Soviet Union.' Thus although he has said that he would take action against the hijackers of the Indian airlines plane as 'terrorists' if they were found on Pakistani soil, the three men who were freed from Indian jails in exchange for the release of the hostages on the plane, are called 'freedom fighters' and have been allowed to find safe haven in Pakistan, much to the annoyance of the Indians.  On a recent visit to Muzaffarabad, in order to demonstrate 'solidarity' with the disaffected Kashmiris, Musharraf called on the various militant groups to unite to fight India more effectively. In reality, however, even if he wanted to, Musharraf would find it difficult to counter the actions of the militants based in AJK. Not only are they backed by influential supporters within Pakistan and in the Middle East, but the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which so effectively pursued the war in Afghanistan, has an obvious vested interest in securing a favourable outcome for Pakistan in the Kashmir insurgency.

Although the US has agreed that the Kashmir dispute is more 'complex' than simply being about  international terrorism, the issue of 'terrorists' being able to operate from Pakistani soil is the most  inflammatory aspect of Indo-Pakistani relations; Vajpayee has so far refused to return to the negotiating table with Pakistan until there is an agreement that Pakistan will take steps to counter  'cross border terrorism'. And yet, as Musharraf correctly assesses, unless and until the two countries do sit down and work out their differences together, there will be no genuine peace in the subcontinent and consequently no end to cross-border terrorism. The war of words between the two countries,  which is sustained by hysteria in the media combined with the knowledge that, without even  contemplating the insanity of a nuclear exchange, India and Pakistan are quite capable of resorting to    conventional war, makes dialogue even more essential.

Pervez Musharraf, a family man who enjoys sport and music, but now has little time for either, regards the 'top job' as a challenge. 'Throughout my military career I always took up challenges,'he says, as though the task he undertook four months ago bears any resemblance to his previous career as a  soldier. The problem is that the areas where Pakistan most needs to make progress - reviving the  economy, eradicating corruption, guaranteeing justice, instituting good democratic governance, defusing tensions with India, stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan - need a radical change of heart from its neighbours and a revolution in its body politic. Musharraf insists that Pakistan is not a 'banana  republic' where there could ever be a coup within the army, but as a non-elected leader with no  proven popular mandate, he inevitably has rivals, looking over his shoulder, evaluating his achievements and watching as time passes. If he cannot 'make' rather than 'break' Pakistan's destiny, there is the danger that someone else, less committed to 'turning darkness into light', might seek to  take his place; if this happens, Pakistan could well be close to expending another of its nine lives.


 © The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2000

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