Angelina Jolie is doing to Pakistan what Ben Kingsley did to India 25 years ago. But her effect is the exact opposite of that of the English icon. If Kingsley’s Oscar-winning performance as Gandhi showed India in a new light and drew reverential attention to the Mahatma’s philosophy worldwide, Jolie’s role as Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart, a movie about the kidnapping and murder of the journalist, Daniel Pearl, may succeed where New Delhi’s lobbyists engaged to influence the American media and the public have made very limited gains.
Jolie, albeit inadvertently, is drawing the attention of Americans to the mess that Pakistan is with her screen portrayal of Pearl’s widow in the movie, which was released in theatres in the United States of America more than a month ago. And thanks to Hollywood’s mega-machine for publicity, the state of General Pervez Musharraf’s moth-eaten, double-dealing regime is finally dawning on both ordinary Americans and the country’s intellectuals.
Why else would Foreign Policy magazine, founded by Samuel Huntington and published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have carried an interview with Jolie as the main story on its web portal in the same week that it ranked Pakistan in the 13th place in a print edition cover story on “failed states”' Or why would Newsweek have put Jolie on its cover and carried a slew of articles on Pakistan, including a column by the Indian-American, Fareed Zakaria, entitled “The Real Problem with Pakistan”, which also focusses on A Mighty Heart'
It is one of those eerie coincidences of history that a Hollywood enterprise with mass appeal, which happens to focus attention on the dysfunctional state of Pakistan, has appeared before the American public at a decisive time for Musharraf since he changed colours in 2001, abandoned his wards across the Durand Line and joined George W. Bush as a pretender ally in the fight against terrorism. There is further irony that at a time when Americans are getting a fairly accurate picture of Pakistan’s mess through their most powerful medium, Hollywood, their government has been forced — after a year-long hesitation, introspection and exhaustive internal debate — to swim with Musharraf and not throw him to the sharks in order to continue the fight against global terrorism, of which, the fountainhead is, of course, Pakistan.
Many liberals have written off Musharraf. That perception was reinforced last week when a 13-member bench of Pakistan’s highest court reinstated the supreme court chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, against Musharraf’s diktat. But the view in Washington, Beijing, London, Canberra or Tokyo, where Musharraf enjoys greater support than probably at home, is that his onslaught on Lal Masjid once again conclusively demonstrated that the General is someone they can bank on in times of need. Liberals in India and elsewhere may shed tears for Pakistan’s democracy — or lack of it — but in these world capitals, restoration of civilian rule in Islamabad is not a priority: indeed, it will be viewed as a liability.
Musharraf’s biggest achievement in the Lal Masjid episode has been to demonstrate that come what may, he still has Pakistan’s army in his iron grip. There were predictions that the army would refuse to kill their brethren, especially religious brethren, in view of the steady Islamization of Pakistan’s armed forces initiated by Musharraf’s equally wily predecessor in uniform, the late Zia-ul Haq. All such predictions turned out to be wrong. The vital chain of corps commanders stood by Musharraf in his latest hour of need and the army dutifully executed his orders down the line like any other professional army would under the circumstances. That is proof for Musharraf’s biggest backers in Washington and elsewhere in the world that he is the man they need and trust.
An immediate effect of Washington’s clear show of support for Musharraf this month will be to stop the loss of security personnel in Pakistan’s tribal areas — which are now home to a resurgent taliban and al Qaida — on account of demoralization and casualties.
There have been credible reports lately that of the of 35,000 police personnel in the North West Frontier Province and the 7,000 policemen in the Federally Administered Tribal Agency, many had proceeded on long leave or were refusing to wear uniforms to work for fear of being identified as Musharraf’s collaborators and targeted by jihadist forces.
Among the many questions that must be crossing Musharraf’s mind this week, as he plots yet another strategy for survival, must be some focussing on whether he has done enough to retain his Western support that is important in terms of money, material and strategy for Pakistan’s military junta. The unclassified version of the latest US national intelligence estimate, which was released in Washington last week, makes interesting reading in this context. The message between its lines is that six years after the Americans threw out the taliban from Afghanistan, inflicting grave damage on al Qaida in the process, both the terrorist outfits are back in business to the point that they threaten America itself.
Opinion has been divided for at least a year among Musharraf’s Western backers whether this is the result of the General’s perfidy or that it happened in spite of Musharraf.
Some one-and-a-half years ago, Musharraf convinced the Americans that everyone was better off suspending the Pakistan army’s high cost operations against foreign militants in Waziristan. In retrospect, the truce with tribal leaders under which the army left the area led to the birth of what is now known as the Pakistani taliban, creation of a safe haven for al Qaida in Pakistani territory bordering Afghanistan and the genesis of what has since become a state within the state of Pakistan which threatens to eventually overwhelm and overrun that country. A charitable view is that the Pakistani military was simply ill-prepared and ill-equipped for dealing with what was essentially a tribal insurgency and that under pressure from some corps commanders, Musharraf allowed the army to work out a face-saving retreat.
All this is cold comfort for the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, as for the unpopular Bush, who must show some results in Afghanistan and Pakistan to offset the looming disaster in Iraq. In December 2001, Osama bin Laden escaped being caught by the Americans in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains because the Pakistanis were allowed to evacuate their men among the taliban: Osama fled Tora Bora with the fleeing taliban. In 2006, the Americans once again put their faith in Musharraf and now find themselves confronting a resurgent taliban and al Qaida in parts of Pakistan across the Afghan border. While they still prefer to have Musharraf in power in Islamabad rather than an elected leader who reflects the will of the Pakistani people, the Americans, this time round, are unlikely to give Musharraf a free hand. They will intervene directly and forcefully inside Pakistan in the coming months, and take the issue of confronting terrorists in Pakistan into their own hands. What impact it will have on that country is a factor that is directly tied to questions about Musharraf’s future. One certainty, though, is that Musharraf will do anything to survive, even if that task is getting harder by the day.