The move by Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military
ruler, to legitimise and cement his grip on power
through a referendum today to extend his
self-declared Presidency for five years is likely to
see him emerge far weaker politically and more
vulnerable on the legitimacy question.
And instead of the political consensus he needs to
rally his nation behind the US -led anti-terror war,
the increased divisiveness in Pakistan over the sham
referendum will further constrain his ability to
dismantle Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure.
In reneging on his pledge to return Pakistan to
democracy, General Musharraf has attacked the
main political parties and their leaders but
mollycoddled Islamic groups, freeing from custody
many extremists in the run-up to the vote.
Also, by alienating the very constituency that
supported his bloodless coup — the secular civilian
elites — he has turned on the domestic allies
necessary to his regime’s attempt to contain
terrorism and virulent fundamentalism.
The consequences of General Musharraf’s
referendum for regional peace will be equally
dangerous. There is little prospect now of an early
demobilisation of the nearly one million Pakistani and
Indian soldiers that, for more than four months,
have been positioned and ready for war along the
In the past, whenever a Pakistani dictator has
employed a referendum to strengthen his rule,
tensions with India have risen.
The difference is that General Musharraf is riding
high internationally, having transformed his image
from a virtual pariah to an ally of the West following
his post-September 11 desertion of the Taliban.
He has used that American-compelled turnabout in
Pakistani policy and his assistance in the anti-terror
war to reap major benefits, including significant
Western aid to save Pakistan from another debt
He has also kept Washington happy through certain
concessions, like giving permission to the US forces
to join Pakistani troops in hunting for the Taliban
and al-Qaida elements within Pakistan.
In turn, General Musharraf has taken advantage of
the friendly attitudes of the West not only to break
his democracy pledge but also to shrink back from
promises he made in January — under India’s threat
of war — to clamp down on Pakistani terrorist
With India preoccupied internally by Hindu-Muslim
clashes in Gujarat and the US’ attention diverted to
the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, General Musharraf has
quietly released most of the 2,000 militants he
arrested as part of his much-publicised anti-terrorist
They include leaders of two Pakistani outfits tied to
al-Qaida — Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad
— the latter group being implicated in the murder of
Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter.
Many of the detainees were picked up for their links
with terrorism, but they were freed on little more
than their promise not to associate themselves
again with an extremist group.
The ugly fact is that Pakistan has become the main
sanctuary of the al-Qaida and the Taliban. The
capture a month ago of Abu Zubaydah and some
important al-Qaida members in Pakistan showed that
such terrorists have moved from Pakistan’s western
tribal regions to areas adjacent to India and that
these groups may be infiltrating Indian Kashmir, with
the possible support of Pakistani military
The US is perhaps too preoccupied with other crises
to demand that General Musharraf keep his word
even while he is quietly moving backward on
terrorism. For months, he has been telling the West
what it wants to hear, and at times it seems that
Washington is lulled into believing the military ruler is
a trustworthy ally.
Yet he will even publicly fib, as he did on his last
American tour when he surprised his hosts by
claiming India had secret plans to conduct a nuclear
test and may have been involved in Pearl’s murder.
While Washington does need to work with General
Musharraf, given the lack of a credible alternative in
Pakistan, the US policy also needs to realise the
long-term risks of giving General Musharraf
legitimacy and support.
As the leader of the international fight against
terrorism, the US has to make sure that it does not
repeat the very mistakes of the past that have
come to trouble its security and that of the rest of
General Musharraf oils his dictatorship with American
aid, as did the previous Pakistani dictator, General
Zia ul-Haq, who spurred on the rise of the forces of
jihad. Yet General Musharraf continues to place
limits on American anti-terrorist operations, barring
American forces from making independent
hot-pursuit raids from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
He is willing to hand over Arab and Afghan terrorist
suspects to the US but not Pakistani militants. Not
one of the thousands of Pakistani jihadis who
returned home from Afghanistan has been charged.
And his broad releases of jailed Pakistani militants
have helped banned terrorist outfits to regroup
under new names.
The backsliding is hardly unexpected. The scourge
of Pakistani terrorism emanates not so much from
the mullahs as from whisky-drinking generals who
reared the forces of jihad and fathered the
Yet by passing the blame for their disastrous jihad
policy to their mullah puppets, General Musharraf
and his fellow generals have made many outsiders
believe that the key is to contain the religious
fringe, not the puppeteers.
The reality is that without the military’s grip on
power being loosened and the rogue Inter-Services
Intelligence agency being cut to size, there can be
no real, sustained movement in Pakistan toward
democracy or against terrorism.
As for stability on the sub-continent, the only
occasions when India and Pakistan have come close
to peace have been during the brief periods of
democratic rule in Islamabad.
Today’s referendum will make strong anti-terrorism
efforts in Pakistan even less possible. Washington
needs to insist on a twofold reform process —
dismantling the jihad structures in Pakistan and
restoring democracy there — and link aid to
progress on those fronts.
A key lesson of September 11 is that terrorism
springs from religious and political extremism
nurtured by autocracy and the suppression of
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies
at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.