Issue No 86, April 4-10, 2004 | ISSN:1684-2057 | satribune.com

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'Power Struggle After Musharraf Will be Very Fierce': Ahmed Rashid

By Sharmeen Obaid

LAHORE: Ahmed Rashid is an internationally known Pakistani journalist and an authority on Muslim extremist groups. He is a correspondent with the Far East Economic Review as well as the author of Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia and Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.

In an interview with Frontline/World, Rashid traces the roots of Pakistan's internal struggles to Musharraf's contradictory policy toward extremist groups that he once supported but now has outlawed.

"He has banned them and restricts them," Rashid said. "At the same time, the intelligence services have worked with them very closely, especially in Kashmir and backing the Taliban.... I think all these chickens are coming home to roost now."

Do you feel that the peace talks with India this time around are different?

Well, I hope they are different. I don't know if they will be different ... . I think there is a realization here, in the military, that the gap between India and Pakistan is growing so much now that unless there is an accord over Kashmir, then India is going to out-trump Pakistan in every conceivable field. I think there is also a realization in India that this continued conflict with Pakistan is hampering India's acceptance into the world market, into the United Nations as a global player. So I hope that there is a realization on both sides, but of course we are just starting out in this process. It's going to take a very long time.

Who is trying to kill Musharraf now? And why now?

Since 9/11, Musharraf has had a very contradictory policy toward these extremist groups. He has banned them and restricts them. At the same time, the intelligence services have worked with them very closely, especially in Kashmir and backing the Taliban. But I think what has happened now is that some of these extremist groups have realized that in the long term what Musharraf has been forced to do -- as they see it, [forced] by the Americans -- is a threat to their own existence and beliefs. And I think some of them have put together a suicide hit squad to try and eliminate him. They see his departure as being a signal for the army ... perhaps radical elements in the army to come forward and not to pursue these pro-American policies. I think what we are seeing is a mixture of local extremist groups [and] elements of al Qaeda, who are still in Pakistan. And I think a silent grid of ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's military intelligence agency] officials; some of the scientists, perhaps, in the Kahuta laboratories; some Islamicist intellectuals; people in the army; ... [a] grid of very hard-line radicals right up there in the top of the establishments who I think would like to see Musharraf go.

What kind of pressure do you think Musharraf is under right now?

Musharraf is under enormous pressure right now. ... He has tried to play this balancing act for the last two and half years. Since 9/11, he has tried to satisfy the West, the United States, the liberal critics inside Pakistan and also the fundamentalists. I think all these chickens are coming home to roost now. I don't think you can walk two high wires at the same time.

Do you think that Musharraf faces any threats from within the army?

I think certainly these two assassination attempts had people inside the army supporting them. I think given what he has been forced to do on the nuclear issue and on making peace with India and on other things ... that there is an increase ... within the midlevel ranks of the army of anti-Musharraf feeling.

I think there certainly are security elements inside the military and intelligence that have been providing the extremists who are trying to assassinate him with information. I think that threat is pretty serious.

Would you comment on the military alliance with the maulvis, the religious clerics? Why is the Pakistan army in cahoots with these people?

The military has used the mullah, or the maulvi, alliance ... to achieve two foreign policy aims. One is to continue the fight in Kashmir and to tie down the Indian troops over a long period of time, which of course has happened. And the second is to pursue a foreign policy in Afghanistan which is a support for the extreme Pashtun elements, whether it was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [Afghan warlord and leader of the hard-line Hizb-i-Islami party that advocates attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan] or Taliban. ... The mullahs have served the military's interest over the last two decades really well. But I think ... post-9/11, the army really did not understand that you could not at the same time back the Americans, crack down on terrorism and ... continue this policy [of support for extreme elements]. Now what we are seeing two and half years down the road is all these elements coming together and real pressure. Now Musharraf has to cut his losses with the militants.

The Kashmiri jihadis -- do you think that they have a religious agenda as well or are they simply freedom fighters?

I think it is a mixture of both. I think a lot of them are mercenaries, by the way, and a lot of them been brainwashed -- young kids who have been through the madrassahs [Islamic religious schools], who have no idea about Islam or jihad or the history of Indo-Pak or the history of Kashmir. They have no idea about the Kashmiri people or anything like that.

I think there is another element that is religiously motivated and has interpreted jihad in a very narrow way, in a very one-dimensional way and believe that they have to conquer India -- not only Kashmir -- in order to fulfill the tenets of what they believe is jihad.

I think the third element is the leadership, which is largely politicized leadership and very corrupt. They make a lot of money out of this, if you see the way that they move around in their four-wheel drives, their lifestyles, the houses they live in. They have made a lot of money out of Kashmir and they have a political agenda. And they certainly don't want to see peace between India and Pakistan because they know that it means an end to their economic lifestyle.

So would these Kashmiri jihadis resist if Kashmir is brought onto the table now that the peace talks have begun? And what form of resistance do you think they can have?

I think they will resist. You should understand that a lot of these militant groups have an enormous amount at stake here -- not only their lives and future but also economic stakes, political stakes. Their entire image in society, their whole self-esteem is based on these parties and what they are doing with this jihad. So I think a lot of them will continue resisting and fighting. And then it's really going to be up to the military -- what actions do they take? Do they actually crack down hard on these militants who are still their allies and have been their allies for a long time?

What effect would the recent allegations about Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan have on Musharraf and on Pakistan?

Well, I don't think the story is going to go away. There has been a huge attempt to whitewash this by the army and by the Americans and particularly by the Bush administration. But the fact of the matter is that no Pakistani believes that Dr. AQ Khan single-handedly proliferated to three countries over 27 years. Everybody knows that this program was under the military, was run by the military. And if there has been a case of proliferation, then it is carried out by the military. I don't doubt that the Americans in their heart of hearts also know this extremely well. I am sure their intelligence is telling them the same. It is convenient right now to whitewash Musharraf, but I think the story is not going to go away. The silence of the Americans today may not continue six months or in a year's time. What if there is a different administration? Will Pakistan suffer sanctions from tougher policies? Even if the Americans have whitewashed it, then what would be the reaction from the European community? From the Japanese who are very sensitive [about] proliferation, for example, in North Korea? From the international atomic agency? From the U.N. Security Council? We don't know. I think this proliferation is going to unleash a whole series of questions for countries around the world. ... What links did they have with Pakistan?

There were allegations against General [Mirza Aslam] Beg [former chief of staff of the Pakistani army], in terms of the proliferation, that he assisted in it and turned a blind eye. In your opinion, was General Beg or military leaders at his level involved in any way?

I think that the military was certainly involved. A proliferation at this level cannot have been done single-handedly by a small group of scientists. The military had to be involved. I mean, the simple fact is that when we are talking about a barter deal with North Korea, it's fairly obvious ... who is going to benefit ... from the Pakistan side. General Beg, as army chief, I am sure was involved ... . It was an institutional commitment that the army had and unfortunately it has been tragic. In the long term, it is going to be devastating for Pakistan.

Do you think that the general public in Pakistan is happy with General Pervez Musharraf? Do you think that there is a sense that he is failing the people or are people accepting his policies?

I don't think he has [ever] been as unpopular as he is right now. He is hugely unpopular, I think, from both ends of the spectrum. From the Islamicists, he is seen as toeing the American line, making peace with India, blaming the scientist for this nuclear proliferation etc. He is very unpopular with the middle-class liberals, the democrats, with the opposition parties because he can't be seen to be doing enough. He is trying to run two horses at the same time. He is playing with the fundamentalists and with the Americans at the same time.

The whitewash of the nuclear issue by blaming the scientists -- people are angry at this. And they are angry at the military, and I think what is happening is, unfortunately ... , that his unpopularity is rubbing off very strongly on the army. I think some of the thinking generals and officers understand that very well -- how unpopular the army is becoming with the public. And not just because of these issues but because of the corruption that people see: the perks and privileges that are going to the army; the enormous amount of benefits that the senior officers have reaped from this martial law ... the lack of democracy; the fake elections last year; the parliament that has no powers; a dummy prime minister. And people are very angry.

But don't you think that Musharraf [is in] a hard place? Do you think that anyone else would have been able to do a better job or he is doing the best that he can under the circumstances?

No doubt that he is in a hard place. But unfortunately, since 9/11, when he got a new lease on life, he has not been genuine about a single policy that he has pursued. He was not genuine about backing the Americans after 9/11. There was a resurgence of militancy in Kashmir and a re backing of the Taliban after they were defeated.

There has been no real national assessment by the military. There has been no real thinking carried out by the military. Musharraf has played politics by the seat of his pants. There have been day-by-day tactical moves. Today we have to satisfy the fundamentalists; then it's the Americans. That's the way it has been played, and it has been tragic. There were huge opportunities after 9/11 ... if he had pursued [other] policies, it would have dramatically altered the political makeup of Pakistan. And the key to that was to bring in the civilians in a genuine power-sharing agreement. [But] he has consolidated the military power more than ever.

Do you think that the assassination attempts have had any effect on Musharraf? That he is a changed person?

He is very shaken, and the people close to him have told me that he is shaken. He was very glib and thought that he could get away with this kind of a policy. But after these attempts, he has realized that he cannot. ... It has a very profound personal impact on him. But how [will] this translate into policies, how [will] this turn into a crackdown on the militant groups? ... Not a convenient crackdown ... for two or three months, [but] a real strategy to deal with tens and thousands [of militants who will] become redundant if the peace talks in Kashmir succeed. What is the army going to do with them? Is there going to be re-education of them, a demobilization process? All this has to be thought through, and I am not seeing that level of thought process at the moment.

Is there reason to believe that Pakistan might be attacked by the United States in the next two or three years?

I think even under the current situation, under the Bush administration, there is a secret deal. There is no way, given its policy on Libya, on Iran and, of course, against Iraq and North Korea, ... that we could have been let off the hook if it were not for major concessions. We are going to see increasing concessions by Pakistan on other safeguards, not only on nuclear programs and weapons. This would also be the demand of the U.N., the International Nuclear Agency, of other countries ... . I don't foresee invasion, but I do see enormous pressure on Pakistan to concede some kind of control over its nuclear program.

Do you think that there would be a power vacuum if Musharraf were to go tomorrow?

The real issue in Pakistan under a military regime has always been that of grabs for succession -- very uncertain and mercurial. We saw that after the death of Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. General Aslam Beg wanted [to] declare martial law and take over. President Ishaq Khan prevented him from doing that, and then we had an election, fortunately. Whoever comes in next in power, I necessarily don't see these policies taking a U-turn. I don't see a radical general coming in and combating the US. I don't see anything like that.

I see that the struggle after Musharraf would be very fierce. He has not strengthened the political system. ... Succession in a military regime is always uncertain.

The issue of Kashmir: Is it going to be resolved any time soon, in your opinion? Is there a genuine effort to resolve it?

It's not going to be resolved soon. In this dialogue between India and Pakistan is [the understanding] that Kashmir would be put on the back burner for a few years and there would be talks on other fronts, where we would be working on trust, confidence etc. It would be disastrous if the Kashmir issue were negotiated right now because the level of trust and confidence is so bad that it just would not work.

Do you think that opening up the borders with India and having ... people-to-people contact [will diminish] the idea that India is the enemy?

I think the people-to-people contact has been critical. It's totally underestimated by the foreign media and by the Pakistani establishment. People have been fed up on both sides of the border by this continuous situation. They want their peace. They want talk, and they want to come and go, trade, business, every kind of interchange and exchange ... . What is happening now is unstoppable.

Within the army itself, how do you perceive the hierarchy and the structure? Do you think it has changed over the years or since the war with Afghanistan or since the rise of the Taliban started?

There is a great degree [more] of Islamicization in the army than what you had before because so many officers have been involved in Afghanistan and Kashmir and there has been a radicalization of the military. After 9/11, a long-term program was needed to reassess the education of ... military officers. That has not happened so far. What exists are a lot of middle-level officers who were inducted during the 1980s at the height of the Afghanistan jihad. Many of them were inducted from the religious schools. They became more radical during the 1990s in the Afghan and the Kashmir war. These officers are also looking at the corruption of the generals, the perks and privileges, the plots, houses etc. where Musharraf is just buying them off ... there would be resentment on that front too. Certainly they will form a critical element against what Musharraf's policies are right now.

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