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ANNIVERSARY GIFTS
- Musharraf is getting better at pulling the wool over American eyes

As the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon drew closer, it seemed as if the United States of America was being haunted and hunted by images from a smaller, distant land: Pakistan. Turn on the television and you could be certain of clips from two lands. America, naturally, was one. The other was Pakistan. On the front page of every mainstream newspaper there would be at least one story about certain al Qaida men who had found a haven in Pakistan or about some terrorist half way across the globe who had a link in Karachi or in Peshawar.

It was against this backdrop of unbelievably negative public opinion that Pervez Musharraf arrived in Boston ahead of the 57th United Nations general assembly in New York. To add to his woes, Indian-Americans, New Delhi’s friends on Capitol Hill, Indian lobbyists and an assortment of groups campaigning for democracy worldwide have been single-mindedly targetting the General for virtually writing a constitution to keep himself in power.

It is to Musharraf’s credit that by the time he left New York, he had turned this depressing scenario into one of advantage for himself and for his devious agenda for Pakistan. So confident was the General that he publicly challenged authoritative briefings by Bush administration officials about his talks with the US president. Just before his journey home, Musharraf told reporters that George W. Bush had not asked him to stop cross-border terrorism into India when the two men met in New York.

The version of their talks, which Bush aides had given the international media, was quite the opposite. That version had been corroborated by top officials of the administration in their feedback to the national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, on the Bush-Musharraf parleys. Musharraf senses it when he is nearing the end of the long rope which Washington has extended to him on a particular issue. But for someone with his baggage and limitations of manoeuvre, the General has become adept at turning the Americans around his little finger to suit his priorities.

Musharraf gambled on having his side of the story about talks with Bush being accepted by Pakistani domestic opinion without the challenge of a denial. And he won handsomely on Wednesday when the White House spokes- man, Ari Fleischer, was forced to doctor facts for the sake of expediency. Fleischer was bluntly asked who was telling the truth about the Bush-Musharraf talks. But the White House could not be seen as contradicting Musharraf. At the same time, it could not tell a lie that cross-border terrorism was not discussed. So, the Bush spokesman chose words carefully to suit his version of the truth. “On both the meetings with president (sic!) Vajpayee and — prime minister Vajpayee and president Musharraf, they talked about the importance of bringing peace to the subcontinent. And this is always an important issue. As you know, almost twice in this past year, it resulted in escalations almost to the point of hostilities. So this is a very abhorrent issue. They discussed a number of issues in their meetings”.

Only a fortnight ago, the tribe of those who were willing to write off Musharraf was growing in Washington. After all, he had failed to deliver any of Osama bin Laden’s top aides, most of whom are known to be in safe houses all across Pakistan. With Osama’s wives known to be in Karachi, it was becoming increasingly clear to the White House that Musharraf was running a dual state in Pakistan — one in which the General, his Inter-Services Intelligence chief and other four-star generals were with America. In the same set-up, most of the ISI’s 12,000 operatives on active duty were still with the taliban and al Qaida.

With each passing day, there were more and more people in the corridors of power in Washington and London who felt that this situation was no longer tenable. As Musharraf journeyed to Boston, the big question was not if, but when, the Americans would pull the plug on the chief-of-army-staff-turned-chief-executive-turned-president of Pakistan. Ten days later, few people in America’s capital are now giving off-the-record briefings expressing doubts about Musharraf having outlived his usefulness. One week, goes the saying, is a long time in politics. It is, going by Musharraf’s example, a long time in diplomacy too. Almost overnight, there is all-round praise for the General. If he was “tight with us”, as Bush put in on a day when Musharraf drove one more nail into the coffin of Pakistani democracy, he is now “tighter” if anything.

The reason: Ramzi Binalshibh. By “capturing” the Yemeni aide to bin Laden and four others on the anniversary of September 11, Musharraf did with the Americans the equivalent of taking a dip in the Holy Ganges to wash away his sins. He knew only too well that the Americans would fall for his ruse — and shed all doubts about him. This time, the Americans have welcomed him not merely as the leader of a frontline state which is sincerely contributing to the anti-terror coalition, but have also accepted him as a frontline leader who has usurped power and intends to indefinitely deprive his people of any say in how their country is governed.

When Musharraf is overthrown, he ought to move to Washington, if those who successfully plot against him do let him leave Pakistan. He would have no difficulty getting a green card because his brother, Naveed, is a US citizen. Musharraf would make one of the best lobbyists in the entire history of lobbying business on K Street. Few Americans who are in the lobbying trade have shown as much savvy as Musharraf in their ability to play the tunes that rock Washington, under circumstances which are complex and disagreeable. Those in Washington who exult in Binalshibh’s arrest and extradition forget that Musharraf had done exactly the same thing in February this year just before he met Bush. Then too, the General brought along a gift to the White House. That gift was the arrest of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the mastermind in the plot to kidnap and kill the American journalist, Daniel Pearl.

It turned out later that Sheikh was never arrested by the Pakistanis. He surrendered before one of his long-time minders — Ejaz Shah, Punjab’s home secretary and former ISI chief in Punjab — nine days before his arrest was announced. The announcement was carefully timed to make Musharraf welcome in the White House as a staunch ally in the fight against terror. With each interaction, Musharraf seems to get better in pulling the wool over the American eyes.

T he former ISI chief, Hamid Gul, the man who created and equipped the taliban to take over Kabul, said last month that “America should concede defeat in Afgahnistan. All it controls is Kabul, and even there, it is shaky. The country is slowly and surely coming back to [taliban] control”. In order to extend the rope which the Americans have given him, Musharraf needed to perform a dance in the US, which would mesmerize the Americans, and keep them mesmerized at least until his so-called elections in Pakistan.

It is not a coincidence that he spent most of his stay in the US hobnobbing with newspaper editors, TV anchors and a few think-tanks from Boston to Chicago and New York. He is clever enough to see where opposition to his chicanery is building up. It was just as well that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s aides turned down every single request for a newspaper or TV interview in New York. Unwittingly, as in Agra last year, Vajpayee would have played into Musharraf’s hands as the American media juxtaposed one president against another prime minister. By refusing to appear on the media, Vajpayee prevented an Indo-Pakistan dialogue in the US through the press and television. The question begs an answer. Should India be concerned about Musharraf’s tactics, especially since the US is once again beginning to send arms to Pakistan, albeit under the excuse that such arms are needed to fight al Qaida'

Vajpayee’s national security adviser recently told the writer and journalist, Selig Harrison, that “so far the US has not taken any action involving Pakistan that hurts India. Our belief is that you want to stay in Pakistan and central Asia for two reasons: to put pressure on Iran and to assure access to the petroleum potential of the region. If that is true, if you are looking westward and northward from Pakistan we have no cause for worry, but it would be another matter if you decide to strengthen Pakistan against us”. India shouldn’t care less as long as Musharraf is merely ensuring his survival in office by playing hide-and-seek with the Americans, as he has been doing consistently since September 11.

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