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THE UNFOLDING UNIFORM
- Musharraf is important in the new game in central and south Asia

'Pakistan is inherently unstable. Dealing with them is like playing with matches in a forest.' ' Larry Pressler

That statement from Larry Pressler, made during his recent visit to India, coincided with the fifth anniversary of President Musharraf in army uniform and a pledge to remain in uniform, as the head of state, for another five years, to safeguard the future of Pakistan. This event needs to be seen in the context of Pakistan being a closest ally of America and as its bulwark against terrorism, bin Laden and al Qaida. President Musharraf is totally reassured and confident of this relationship with the United States of America, no matter who occupies the White House. Musharraf could not have taken the decision to renege on his promise to his people and remain in uniform on his own. More than his closest advisors, he would have sought and received permission and encouragement from his US mentors, given the ground realities in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Events in Pakistan during the Clinton presidency years are succinctly narrated in the eminently readable book on the contemporary history of south Asia, written by Strobe Talbott, Clinton's point man for the region.

Pervez Musharraf is an exceptionally able, clever and intelligent dictator. He is, however, in a continuous state of mortal fear, being the prime target of the extremists in his own country and those who lurk amongst his fellow officers. Although he had promised, nobody really expected Musharraf to appoint a successor to head the Pakistan armed forces, jump into civilian togs and live safely and happily ever after in Islamabad as just the president of Pakistan. As the head of a chaotic and a failing state, Musharraf seems to be saddled with an impossible and thankless job; yet he must be admired for the bluff and bluster with which he carries on with his role and deals with the rest of the world.

Let us first understand the state of Musharraf's internal problems. Amongst the elected legislators, he has a handful of 'trusted' hangers-on while the remaining bide their time to extract their pound of flesh. Amongst the latter category are 'Bhuttoists', 'Sharifites' and various segments of religious fundamentalists.

Next, there is the formidable ISI power centre, probably more independent and powerful compared to any other group in Pakistan. They are the hardcore anti-India group who will never forgive India for the creation of Bangladesh while continuing to fan the paranoia about India's secret agenda to break up what remains of Pakistan. ISI runs a more or less independent anti-India operation, with the help of surrogates whom it has cultivated and supports in Bangladesh, Nepal, Kashmir, Burma and, until recently, in Bhutan. As long as its anti-India activities keep it engaged and help the larger Pakistani cause, any ruling head in Pakistan acquiesces to ISI activities. Benazir Bhutto did so when ISI was building the taliban in Afghanistan and Nawaz Sharif derived inspiration from it to start the Kargil misadventure. Similarly, Musharraf must consider ISI as an important resource, as long as it remains engaged with issues outside the country. ISI's achievements are indeed impressive. For example, building the ruling party in Bangladesh, led by Khaleda Zia and her followers, who remain nostalgic about their Pakistani origins and hence a ready and loyal partner of the ISI.

Thirdly, there are the armed forces of which Musharraf is the chief. One of the reasons he cannot abandon his uniform is, obviously, because there is no one amongst his deputies he can trust with his own life and future.

Finally, there are the people of Pakistan. It has become less arduous to meet and talk to Pakistani journalists, scholars, sports personalities, businessmen and middle-class tourists who visit India in growing numbers. Not surprisingly, they are in their outlook, personal hopes and aspirations very similar to their counterparts in this country. One gets the impression that the person on the street in Pakistan is reconciled to the political/military power structure in that country, believing that this combination is possibly the least painful way to protect his identity and independence. Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif having thoroughly discredited themselves with middle Pakistan, Musharraf is safe with this lot, at least for the time being, and for whatever it is worth.

Given the conditions as they obtain in Pakistan today, it is understandable why Musharraf is reluctant to mothball his military uniform in a hurry. While none of the revelations regarding the state of affairs in Pakistan and Musharraf's personal circumstances is novel, they do provide a backdrop to unfolding events in India's dealings with Pakistan in spheres ranging from Kashmir to the north-eastern states in the country.

Given that an imploding civil society as a neighbour is undesirable, Pakistan can take solace from the fact that India cannot afford an open confrontation against Pakistan's undeclared war, both in the west as well as in the east of India. As Strobe Talbott describes in his book, in spite of realizing that Pakistan was a progressively failing state, the Clinton regime could not let Pakistan unravel without hurting America's interests in the region. While keeping Pakistan propped up was hurtful to larger American interests as well, Clinton decided to settle for a tolerable balance of relative discomfort. The American-Pakistani bond, if anything, has grown stronger since 9/11 and can be expected to remain so, no matter who is at the helm of affairs in Pakistan.

India's dilemma is not dissimilar to that of the US. India understands the predicament President Musharraf faces with the different Pakistani constituents. From Musharraf's point of view, it would be the stuff of a soporific dream sequence, in which snatching Kashmir from India and breaking up parts of the North-east of our country would provide him the ultimate safety-net to jump out of his uniform, get permanently into a 'sherwani' and lambswool cap and lay claim to the title of Quaed-e-Azam the Second.

Musharraf, being a bright and intelligent man, of course, knows that this is a dream which, if not kept on a leash, can quickly turn into his worst nightmare. But why not let the dream sequence play out for as long as it can be milked, as indeed he plays out l'affaire bin Laden and al Qaida, to sustain his indispensability with the Americans.

Russia and China are not disinterested bystanders in the unfolding events in south Asia. China may not feel economically challenged by a sluggish India today; but does not discount India's long-term competitive challenges. Keeping India pinned down by its old ally Pakistan, therefore, cannot be such a bad thing from China's point of view. Russia is more interested in stability in the central Asian region, so it sees south Asia as a threat with Pakistan acting as a surrogate of US and the EU.

Russia and India have a common purpose of mutual interest, albeit somewhat different from the Cold War era. Strangely, America and India also have growing common interests, based on mutual threat perceptions. The new game in central and south Asia is just beginning to unfold and General Musharraf will remain an important pawn on the fragile chess board.

Finally, the trillion dollar nuclear question. The doomsday scenario is one in which Musharraf is either assassinated or toppled by a group of fundamentalist generals, who then take over the leadership of Pakistan and decide to fix India once and for all. The total regional annihilation scenario may appear to be far-fetched and crazy but cannot be entirely discounted. Why Musharraf could not bring Abdul Qadeer Khan to heel for his misadventures remains a mystery. This was an early signal of different power centres in Pakistan. Fear of Pakistan turning into a rogue nuclear state keeps America and India engaged, in their own ways, with Pakistan.

Besides the nuclear reality, it is in the region's economic interest to see Pakistan return to the rule of law and restore the essence of a civil society. However, it must be recognized that the majority of the common people in India, today, have a much better understanding of the realities which guide our relations and dealings with Pakistan. It will no longer be enough to depend upon Confidence Building Measures, which may turn out to be half-measures on a path to an unknown future. Which leader will carry the empty match box and which the loose matchsticks in our journey through the south Asian forest, remains an enigma.

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