Dangerous Ground

17 minute read
Anthony Spaeth/Islamabad

The 1964 edition of Rising Crescent, the yearbook of the Pakistan Military Academy, is filled with nicknames, in-jokes and adolescent digs. Graduating cadet Pervez Musharraf, 20, is teased for his hearty appetite and a preference for a center hair part. (“Has the habit of splitting hairs.”) But this slim volume is more than a collection of collegiate memories; it’s also a testimonial to the camaraderie whipped up during two arduous years of grunt training in the foothills of the Himalayas. Musharraf’s classmates concluded his entry: “Quite a guy to be with, especially when in a fix.”

Which was a valuable kind of classmate to have: within months of graduation, the newly minted officers saw action in Pakistan’s 1965 war against India over Kashmir, and Musharraf won a medal for gallantry. When war with India came again in 1971, he led a squadron of commandos from the Special Service Group (SSG), Pakistan’s equivalent of the Green Berets. “I was always a risk taker,” the 58-year-old Musharraf recalls, and he trained his men not to flinch at danger. Seated in the parlor of his army residence in Rawalpindi, surrounded by 18th century muskets and gilded sabers, Pakistan’s President described for Time a favorite training exercise. He would order a soldier to lie as close to a set of railroad tracks as possible, facing an oncoming train. “The train will definitely not touch you,” he would tell the soldier. “But you have to keep your head up and eyes open.”

It’s lucky for Musharraf that he has had ample experience of dealing with danger. No leader in Asia, perhaps in the world, has survived the number and magnitude of political crises that he has endured in recent months. After Sept. 11, Washington embraced Pakistan as its closest ally in the war against the Taliban—a group cultivated by the Pakistani government. Musharraf acceded, forcing the country into a gigantic policy U-turn. In December, India moved 500,000 troops to its border with Pakistan and demanded that Musharraf stop the infiltration of militants into Kashmir—many of them covertly trained and armed by Pakistan’s army. After six months of tension—with the hourly threat of nuclear war—Musharraf backed down, cutting off the flow of insurgents. He’s also cracking a whip on the country’s madrasahs, religious schools that often preach sectarian violence and hatred of the West.

All of this has come at a perilous price. By going moderate, Musharraf has alienated many of his supporters and fomented a bitter sense that he is merely America’s lackey. Some extremist groups, possibly linked to al-Qaeda, want Musharraf’s whole Yankee-loving crowd eliminated, and they have brought terror to the commercial capital of Karachi, setting off bombs to kill foreigners and murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl. Musharraf “has crossed all limits,” declares an active member of Jaish-e-Muhammad, an extremist group implicated in numerous attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir. “There will be a backlash. There will be more suicide attacks. We are ready to sacrifice our lives.” The biggest score for such extremists would be Musharraf, whose security is extra tight. (Last week the government announced it had foiled an April assassination plot against the President by extremists who had the help of a traitor from Musharraf’s paramilitary police force.) The general, who has been known to carry a gun, shrugs off the danger. Says wife Sehba: “I do the major worrying.” But a friend of Musharraf’s confides, “He should be scared—he is scared.”

The world is counting on Musharraf to help steer South and Central Asia from local chaos to regional security, from the brink of Armageddon to Pax Pakistana, and from fundamentalist fervor to secular moderation. Nisar Sarwar, a retired army colonel who was at the military academy with Musharraf, notes, “The SSG motto is ‘Who Dares, Wins.’ And he dares to win.”

But the question today is whether he has dared too much. Musharraf now faces the gravest challenge of his life, having to hold firm in the face of a maelstrom of conflicting forces: pressure from the U.S., Indian saber rattling that could lead to war, seething fundamentalists and extremists scattered throughout his own land—and now the demands and intrigue of Pakistani politics, an arena Musharraf openly despises. Musharraf himself is under no illusions about the enormity of the task before him. Asked if his is the world’s toughest job, he replies with quiet bluntness: “I think at the moment, yes.”

Under U.S. pressure, Musharraf has kept to his promise to end one-man rule through national elections this October. He’s already appointed himself President, but he’ll share power with an elected National Assembly, a Senate and four provincial legislatures—all packed with wheeler-dealers who harbor competing agendas. According to Pakistan’s constitution, the President must give up control of the military, which would mean ceding the army’s might—and his power base—to another general. Musharraf has given no indication that he is willing to do so. And he is currently rewriting the constitution to counter this threat to his power and ensure that he does not become a lone figure without regiments or a political party behind him.

The key to understanding how Musharraf will navigate this minefield is his background as a military man. Pakistani soldiers learn all about the art of survival, and Musharraf remains a soldier to his core. Indeed, he still bids farewell to civilians and even foreign journalists with a crisp salute. The trouble is, politics—both local and international—requires a different set of skills: the art of compromise, the popular touch, Machiavellian guile, a rare gift for persuasion. Those are skills they don’t teach at the military academy.

Musharraf is a natural charmer: hospitable and humorous, eager to share delicate samosas and cloying sweets from the kitchen of Army House, prepared to venture anywhere in a conversation—and compulsively eager to convince you that he means what he says. A lot of his public support since October 1999 has been based on that palpable sincerity. A Musharraf speech on television—the most memorable came last January when he explained why he had to crack down on Islamic fundamentalism—is an emotional appeal to the people, a for-Allah’s-sake-understand-me entreaty. A good proportion of the populace responded to the aura of a military man who seemed neither haughty nor deceitful.

He was never the brightest boy, even in his own family. His mother, Zohra, predicted grand futures for bookworm older brother Javed, a Rhodes scholar who now works at the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, and younger sibling Naved, who practices anesthesiology in Chicago. Hearty Pervez, she decreed, should be a soldier. “For all of us,” Musharraf says today, “she selected the right profession.” Zohra lives with Musharraf in Army House, breakfasts with him most days, reading headlines aloud and checking if her son looks overly stressed. Says Musharraf: “She sees me off in the morning.”

The partition of India in 1947 forced Musharraf, then age 3, from the bustling, cosmopolitan center of New Delhi to a refugee ghetto in Karachi. A seven-year posting in Turkey secured his father’s future in the foreign service and the family’s rung in the middle class. For the short, pudgy Musharraf, who was nicknamed “Gola” (which means ball), finding his own avenue for achievement would prove more challenging. But at Forman Christian College, a Presbyterian boarding school in Lahore, he discovered competitive athletics. Nasrullah Khan, a schoolmate who now heads the botany department, remembers Musharraf entering a bodybuilding competition in freshman year in which students struck poses before a panel of teachers in the gymnasium. Gola’s baby fat had melted away: he took third place.

The brawn-over-brains pattern continued through his career. At the military academy, someone else won Best in Class, but Musharraf carried the flag at graduation, an honor awarded to the cadet who best combined academics with physical training and drilling. In the early ’90s when he was anointed a three-star general and head of the Mangla army base, located at the most sensitive stretch of the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, he was famous for speeding through work by 2 p.m. so he could spend the rest of the day canoeing or playing Ping-Pong, tennis or squash with the men. “There wasn’t a game he couldn’t learn,” says Major General Rashid Qureshi, who served with Musharraf at Mangla and is now his official spokesman. “We found him everywhere the troops were. He was able to inspire them.”

It’s a refrain you hear often in military circles: Musharraf was excellent with “the men.” Kind, fair, engaged, disciplined. Of course, the men were trained exactly as Musharraf was: to look up to their officers, admire them, and obey.

As military dictators go, Musharraf is exactly the type for these liberal times. To begin with, he took power reluctantly. In 1999, he was on the outs with Prime Minister Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif—the kind of conflict that always spells danger in Pakistan. Earlier that year, Musharraf as Army Chief of Staff had engineered the Kargil campaign, the capturing of a few mountain peaks on the other side of the Line of Control, which was essentially a mini invasion of India. Bill Clinton forced Nawaz Sharif to pull Pakistani troops out, infuriating the military. On Oct. 12, following an army visit to Sri Lanka, Musharraf boarded a commercial flight to Karachi with his wife by his side. Nawaz Sharif waited for the general’s plane to take off, then signed his dismissal papers. He ordered the flight diverted to a smaller airport, where police were waiting to arrest Musharraf, and later to India, where Musharraf would have been delivered to his country’s enemies, who hated him for his role in Kargil. Sensing something amiss, Musharraf strode into the cockpit and ordered the pilot to stay on course to Karachi. His loyalists on the ground rapidly engineered a coup. Musharraf later claimed that Nawaz Sharif could have killed him, along with 198 fellow passengers on the plane. The message: he was the victim of political shenanigans, and that’s why the coup happened.

Musharraf suspended the constitution and had the Prime Minister arrested. But that was about as tough as he got. The print media were allowed almost complete freedom, and Musharraf vowed to hold elections within a few years. Unlike Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the last politician to be ousted in a coup, Nawaz Sharif escaped execution and was sent into comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia. He wasn’t missed: Pakistanis were sick of civilian governments that had done little for the country for the previous 11 years. They were willing to give Musharraf some time to clean things up. The general has since lived up to his reputation as an honest man who would never steal from the till. Since taking power, he hasn’t awarded fat government contracts to relatives, and the only salary he takes is the army chief pay he earned before the coup. He still uses commercial flights rather than commandeering aircraft for foreign trips.

Musharraf, who tends to rely on the advice of a small circle of army commanders, bureaucrats and provincial governors, remains ill at ease in the political realm he now occupies. The people he appears to trust least are other politicians. They play by different rules, gaining power through the popular vote—not by taking orders from superiors, patiently climbing the ranks or winning medals. “He can’t understand democracy,” says a longtime friend. “In the army, you live in your own world.”

It’s acid test day at the pakistan Military Academy, an event dreaded by every student. For nearly two years, the cadets have learned to run a six-minute mile, perform endless rounds of push-ups, climb into a boxing ring to beat up their buddies. The Acid Test is the most grueling exercise of all. The academy is in the Himalayan foothills north of Islamabad, but the weather is still brutal: 35C by midday. First, the cadets have to traverse a mountain carrying logs on their shoulders. Then they run 14.5 kilometers wearing full gear to an obstacle course that forces them to swing over ditches, haul themselves over walls and slosh through an artificial swamp fed by a guy hosing water from a truck. Some recruits complete the course in two-and-a-half hours. Others collapse along the way. Those who reach the finish are allowed five rounds to hit a target at 22 meters beneath an inscription that reads, “Verily the power

A soldier’s attitude toward politics springs from his training days at the academy. All cadets receive lectures on governance. Arts majors take a political science course studying constitutions of six nations and the political theories of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Indian strategist Chanakya, Arab historian Ibn Khaldun and Pakistani poet Muhammad Iqbal. But the average soldier learns more in the mess hall and the boxing ring than from this tutoring in political theory. “Phfft,” sniffs Major General Hamid Rab Nawaz, the academy’s commandant. “I never studied political science myself.”

This is the environment that molded Pakistan’s political leader—and that’s cause for concern. The Pakistani military considers itself the country’s only functioning institution. What it steadfastly fails to admit is that military rule for 28 of the country’s 55 years of existence kept the other democratic institutions, such as a parliament and a judiciary, from maturing. Musharraf shares this mind-set, displaying a self-serving indifference to democratic niceties, while also portraying himself grandiosely as the shepherd of “real democracy.” In a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last February, he boasted, “I am more democratic than any government [that] ever existed in Pakistan.”

Musharraf bases this claim on the fact that he is allowing elections, ceding power, and personally overhauling the constitution to reduce the clout of untrustworthy politicians. He sees nothing wrong with one man’s rewriting the rules of the democratic game and appropriating a prerogative that formerly belonged to a two-thirds majority of an elected National Assembly. “Thank God it has been allowed,” he tells TIME. Anyway, he adds, the people gave him a “massive mandate” in a referendum he held on his rule in April. He ignores the criticism that this referendum was merely a democratic charade marred by voting irregularities.

The referendum made Musharraf look insincere and manipulative—much like the military leaders who preceded him. His planned changes to the constitution have deepened that sense of betrayal and have whittled away support among the educated middle class. And there’s already a strong whiff of a fix for the Oct. 10 parliamentary elections. A new rule dictates that parties must have unique names, a possible killer blow to Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League split into two wings with near-identical names. Another regulation says no one can be Prime Minister three times—both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto have served twice.

No matter who is elected to the National Assembly, they’ll find that Musharraf has devised a whole new ball game. He plans to give himself the power to dissolve the assembly or fire the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He’ll shorten parliamentarians’ terms from five years to four, but not his own. (That way he’ll be in power to pull strings between parliaments.) He wants a new constitutional center of power, a National Security Council, which will give all three armed service chiefs a role in government. Musharraf insists his altered constitution will check the abuse of power—by civilian politicians. “How were they governing in these 11 years?” he asks, referring to Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s governments. “They were looting and plundering and misgoverning.” Responds Ejaz Shafi, a former Pakistan Muslim League solon: “He is no different from any other dictator.”

Musharraf hasn’t yet made the one constitutional change he’ll need if he’s to survive under the new system. At the moment, the constitution says he can’t hold the army chief’s job along with the presidency—but he is widely expected to reverse that restriction. It would be an understandable act of self-preservation, because his power derives not from civilian politics but from the military, and any general who could fill the seat might later be tempted to betray him. After all, even with the backing of his new constitutional powers, Musharraf knows that no individual is a match for an army that can take over a government in half an hour, or for political parties that can bring millions to the streets—a power retained by both Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf has described his constitutional fiddlings as Reform Package No. 1—leading many to believe a second round will be announced at the last minute to allow him to maintain both political and military supremacy. One telling sign: his wife, Sehba, says she isn’t planning to pack—she intends to continue living in Army House, the residence of the military’s top dog.

But as one-man rule slides to an end, the chorus of Musharraf critics is getting louder. His newfound moderation over Kashmir has particularly enraged hard-liners. “He abandoned Afghanistan, claiming it was necessary to save other Pakistani interests, including Kashmir,” rails Farhan Bokhari, a member of the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. “Now he’s abandoning Kashmir, presenting it as yet another necessary loss.” As for India, its leaders distrust Musharraf utterly and its battalions remain poised on the border, waiting for an excuse, such as a terrorist attack on Indian soil, to punish Pakistan militarily.

In Pakistan, Musharraf’s alliance with Washington has earned him the sneering nickname of “Busharraf.” Yet Washington seems eager to distance itself somewhat from the tarnished general, figuring that if he falls off the high wire, a suitable successor will emerge from the military. “There are other people who have high skills and political savvy,” says a State Department official, who compares Pakistan to Egypt after Anwar Sadat was assassinated—and replaced by Hosni Mubarak, who has since held power for 21 years. “It doesn’t all rest on this one individual.”

The old soldier is beginning to show the strain. Musharraf still exercises every evening, briskly striding around the tightly guarded Army House compound. But he’s suffering from a bum shoulder. He can’t lift his arm—”See?” he says, failing to raise it fully above his head. “That’s as far as it goes!” His daily tennis game, played with security guards, stopped a few months ago.

In Army House, Musharraf has hung a plaque with advice to get him through these tough times, an excerpt from the 2,500-year-old Taoist classic Dao De Jing by Chinese sage Laozi:

When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

Asked what kind of leader he is, Musharraf answers instantly, “Loved. A leader is no leader if he is not loved.” He continues, “They must follow you because they love you, because they think that you are the greatest. That is what a real test of leadership is.” That’s how it was when Pervez Musharraf brought his men into action in the past. But in his current battles, Musharraf is going in alone.

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