Release Date: March 9, 2000
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

General Musharraf's Three Front War

by Eric Margolis

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN -- Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's new military leader, looked weary and preoccupied when I met him at his residence at army headquarters in `Pindi.' Small wonder. Musharraf and his military colleagues are locked in a bitter three-front war against daunting odds.

India and Pakistan are edging towards open war over Kashmir, the beautiful, divided Himalayan mountain state they have battled over for the past 53 years. The two old foes, now both nuclear armed, are exchanging heavy artillery barrages and infantry raids in Kashmir. India just announced a staggering 28% increase in defense spending and granted its field commanders the right of hot pursuit of Muslim Kashmiri independence-fighters fleeing into the Pakistani portion of Kashmir - precisely the scenario CIA warns is most likely to trigger a nuclear war. In response to India's defense increase, China just hiked its military budget 13%.

`Tensions with India are mounting daily along the Line of Control,' Gen. Musharraf told me, referring to the 1947 cease-fire line that divides Kashmir. `India is increasingly frustrated,' Musharraf continued. `The Indians thought we would be isolated over the Kashmir issue?.but I'm positive the US understands our position.'

Indian leaders are indeed extremely frustrated over Kashmir, yet they are also sounding more cocky and belligerent towards Pakistan - a dangerous combination. Gen. Musharraf may be too optimistic. India and its friends in the United States have mounted an intense campaign to portray Pakistan as a supporter of Islamic terrorism, drug-running, and airplane hijacking. None of these charges are accurate, but they have struck a sensitive nerve in Washington, which remains dismayed by the overthrow of the civilian regime of former PM Nawaz Sharif by the Pakistani army and Pakistan's nuclear arsenal - while turning a blind eye to India's far larger nuclear force. As a result, President Clinton will only make a brief airport stop in Pakistan when he visits India and Bangladesh from 18-25 March.

India has already won the propaganda war in Washington. Yet the Indian government remains so nervous about events in Kashmir and Clinton's visit, in an almost unprecedented act, it just denied me entry into India, in spite of many previous visits that included interviewing a prime minister, many senior foreign policy or defense officials, and decades of writing about India. New Delhi apparently does not like my new book on Kashmir, War at the Top of the World, which details widespread human rights violations by Indian forces in Kashmir.

On the second front, Pakistan's military triumverate is accused by foes of being dangerous Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, Gen. Musharraf, and his two key supporters, Chief of the General Staff, General Aziz Khan, and General Mahmud, Director General of ISI, Pakistan's crack intelligence service, are nothing of the sort. Aziz is soft-spoken but intense and determined. Mahmud is a more typical Northwest frontier warrior, ferocious, brilliant, equally able to quote Shakespeare at length or do a high-altitude nighttime parachute drop into Delhi for a nasty surprise visit. All three were associated with SSG, Pakistan's elite special forces, who often work with ISI. I've been with the SSG `boys' in combat in Afghanistan and on the 22,000 ft Siachen Glacier.

The three generals, and their very bright spokesman , Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, may be observant Muslims, yet in no way Islamic firebrands. They are hard men, professional warriors, and ardent nationalists, driven by a desire to free the Muslim majority of Indian-ruled Kashmir and to cleanse their nation of 144 million of the toxic corruption that has infested its entire body. These soldiers remain pro- western, though they feel Pakistan, an old and loyal American ally, has been betrayed and wronged by the US. Musharraf's son lives in Boston.

Just as Judaism provides a national ethos for secular Israel, so Islam plays the same role for Pakistan and its military leadership. Islam is, in fact, the only glue that holds together this inherently unstable yet highly strategic nation. Pakistan's military has no truck with some of the wilder Islamic `jihadi' factions in Peshawar, though it supports Kashmiri mujihadin fighting Indian rule. Pakistan has very limited influence with Afghanistan's fiercely independent-minded Taliban. In fact, Pakistan's regime is far less influenced by religious fundamentalism than is India's ruling BJP, whose inner councils are dominated by the shadowy, extremist Hindu nationalist movement, the RSS.

There are growing signs India may be planning to attack Pakistani Kashmir after Clinton's visit in revenge for Pakistan's raid into Indian-held Kashmir last May that succeeded in internationalizing this 53-year old dispute. India and Pakistan were then two days from full-scale war, according to US intelligence. Pakistan is outnumbered two to one by India, which can sustain a major conflict far longer than Pakistan. All three generals told me they were ready to repel any Indian attack. But in a long war, India would almost certainly defeat Pakistan, unless the Pakistanis used their nuclear arsenal.

The third front facing the generals is Pakistan's extraordinary and horrifying domestic mess. For the past five decades feudal landowners and industrial barons pillaged and looted the country. Pakistan had only a sham democracy, in which politicians were bought and sold like bags of Basmati rice.

Benazir Bhutto's administration collapsed under a tidal wave of corruption charges. Bhutto insists she is totally innocent and was framed. Benazir's successor and chief tormentor, Nawaz Sharif, sought to become a civilian dictator. I found him a deeply shallow man, yet cunning and vicious. Pakistanis greeted his ouster with joy.

`Our first priority,' Gen. Musharraf told me, `is to rectify what has gone wrong in this country,' adding, `we will return to civilian rule but I can't give you a precise timetable.' Musharraf's says he will build democracy by grass roots elections and prosecute the big-time crooks who raped Pakistan. The military has set up accountability bureaus that monitor civilian government for efficiency and honesty, and fight corruption at all levels, from electric meter readers to airlines and banks. Civilians hold most of the top positions in the new government, though true power remains with the armed forces.

`Massive corruption here is a mind set,' says Musharraf. `I'll root it out at the government level, where billions are involved.' Many Pakistanis see the military as avenging angels come to exact deserved revenge on the feudal aristocracy that never paid taxes and sneered at `the little people.'

Gen Musharraf's chief advisor, Javed Jabber, described to me how state-run television and radio are being privatized, a democratization Canada should follow - as well as a ban on government ministers flying first class and staying in suites. Pakistan's feisty newspapers remain free and often highly critical of the military regime.

This is Pakistan's third military regime. Previous ones began well, but soon became infected by corruption and inertia. Why won't this happen again, I asked. Musharraf's answer: the military is going to truly clean house, build real democracy from the ground up, then return to barracks. The generals, and many Pakistanis, respect the military as their sole national institution that is honest and that functions properly. If Pakistan's new rulers were not soldiers, the outside world would likely hail them as progressive social revolutionaries.

Whether the military can clean Pakistan's Augean stables remains to seen. Seizing power is easy; relinquishing it is exceptionally difficult, particularly in a nation given to revenge and political vendettas. Yet it's clear Pakistan is broken, and desperately needs fixing.

The man with the best mind in Pakistan, legendary former Foreign Minister Sahabzada Yaqub Khan - the Pakistani Talleyrand - expressed his deep worry to me over growing tensions with India. When Sardar Yaqub worries, we should, too. Pakistani and Indian regular and nuclear forces are on high alert. There's a smell of war in the Himalayan winter air.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and author of the just released War at the Top of the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet.]

Copyright © 2000 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
back button