The dictator’s new clothes

                                        By Brahma Chellaney

                                        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
                                        the world.

                                        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
                                        democratic voices.

                                        Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies
                                        at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.