Knowing the General

back to issue

I assumed charge as India’s Ambassador to Pakistan a little more than a decade ago in May 1989. My initial weeks in Islamabad and Lahore were spent in making acquaintance with not just governmental and political figures or senior civil servants and army officers but also authors and senior journalists, particularly those with a feel for the history of the subcontinent and a rational approach towards India. One of the most enlightened and sober among these was the late Mazar Ali Khan, friend of Jawaharlal Nehru and a host of our national leaders who, though a participant in the Indian freedom movement, had nevertheless adjusted to the realities of the Partition without bitterness or prejudice.

Benazir Bhutto had become prime minister and democracy stood revived in Pakistan after a long gap of eleven years. There was an atmosphere of hope about Pakistan emerging as a liberal democracy. I spoke to Mazar Ali Khan about this sense of hope and optimism which India shared. His response surprised me because his prognosis about the prospects for democracy in Pakistan was negative. With the benefit of hindsight and the passage of nearly ten years, I now see just how perceptive and farsighted he was.

In the autumn of 1989 he told me that while feeling good about democracy in Pakistan was welcome and desirable, it would take another generation or two for democracy to take root. He said that there were three characteristics of the Pakistani polity which would handicap democracy: First, the Pakistani leadership had little experience of a mass movement or a freedom struggle. Therefore, there were limited psychological or emotional linkages between the masses and the leadership. Second, the power structure of Pakistan had come to be dominated by the military, bureaucracy and the feudal elite, and the entrenched interests of this elite were unlikely to survive the establishment of representative democracy.

Third, successive Pakistani governments were deliberately averse to basic economic reforms like land reforms, structuring of fiscal policies aimed at distributive justice and so on. Khan expressed the view that given this context, democracy in Pakistan was likely to remain an interim phenomenon which would be replaced by military regimes whenever the Pakistani state faced situations of crisis of confidence or major economic difficulties. This assessment is valid if one looks into the circumstances of the Ayub Khan takeover in 1958, Zia-ul-Haq toppling Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and now, Pervez Musharraf ousting the elected government of Nawaz Sharif.

Mazar Ali Khan did not refer to an additional dimension of this recurrent phenomenon, that of the Pakistani armed forces assuming a supra governmental role as the articulator of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ and as the supreme protector of the Pakistani state – a self-assumed role which transcends constitutional arrangements, laws or accepted norms of democracy. A comparative study of the public pronouncements made by the four military supremos of Pakistan over the last 41 years (Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf), shows one common and assertive claim – that the army took over power because of the ineptitude, corruption and venality of civilian governments, to preserve Pakistan’s unity and integrity and to provide good governance to the people of Pakistan.



Even when democracy was permitted a revival in Pakistan after the death of Zia-ul-Haq, the then armed forces chief, General Aslam Beg, had laid down three preconditions to Benazir Bhutto before she was allowed to take the oath of office as prime minister. First, that she would not interfere in any manner in the organisational and administrative work of the armed forces; that she would abide by the advice of the armed forces chiefs. Second, that she would not make any changes in Pakistan’s foreign and defence policies and take any decision reducing defence expenditure without the consent of the defence chiefs. Third, that she would not interfere with Pakistan’s nuclear weaponisation and missile programmes. She accepted all the three preconditions, as did her successors, both temporary and permanent, like Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, Nawaz Sharif and Moin Qureshi.



It was Nawaz Sharif’s attempt in his most recent tenure to move away from these preconditions which resulted in his ouster by Pervez Musharraf. He interferred with the organisational and administrative aspects of the armed forces, leading to the resignation of two service chiefs, General Jahangir Karamat and Admiral Bukhari, and attempted the dismissal of a third one, General Pervez Musharraf. He also experimented with foreign and defence policy initiatives without the consent of the army chief. He gave indications of wanting to assume apex level executive control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missiles policies. His willingness to enter into a dialogue with India, to put in place strategic confidence building measures after the Pokhran-Chagai tests, and his agreeing to the withdrawal of Pakistani troops behind the Line of Control during the Kargil conflict, were decisions which the Pakistani armed forces establishment did not endorse.

There were additional reasons contributing to Nawaz Sharif’s overthrow and the revival of military rule in Pakistan. But regardless, the prospects are that India will have to deal with Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, whatever be the labels assumed by the Pakistan government. It would be impractical as well as irrational for India to refuse to deal with the Musharraf government because Pakistan is India’s most important South Asian neighbour in some respects. This cannot be wished away. Second, the people of Pakistan themselves have welcomed the Musharraf government. Apart from a section of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, there is general support for the new military regime. Third, it is likely that General Musharraf will remain in effective power for at least three to five years, unless some unforeseen crisis or event results in his removal.



It would, therefore, be pertinent to take note of the professional background and orientations of Pervez Musharraf to make an assessment of likely policies that he may follow and to understand how he might manage Pakistan’s internal or external predicaments and concerns. To analyse the last point first, Musharraf’s public pronouncements do indicate some clear directions. He has repeated, more than once since 12 October, that he will not provide any definite timeframe for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. He has affirmed this not only to the domestic media, but without any inhibitions to the bbc and the cnn.

Second, he has clearly indicated that he will undertake a systematic neutralisation of other power centres in Pakistani society which could oppose him. He has imprisoned Nawaz Sharif and charged him with high treason and corruption; indicated that legal prosecutory actions against Benazir Bhutto will continue and refused her safe passage back to Pakistan; arrested a number of prominent politicians, both from the Pakistan Muslim League and the People’s Party of Pakistan on charges of corruption and serious financial fraud. He has frozen their bank assets and threatened others with imprisonment and legal action if they do not make good their illegal acquisitions by paying back the banks and financial institutions.

Musharraf has announced an agenda for governance in which restoring economic probity, elimination of corruption, restoration of a clean administration, ensuring national cohesion and discipline enjoy top priority. His proclaimed national security and foreign policy objectives are along expected lines – desiring strong and expanded relations with the major powers, working for peace and stability in the region, sustaining Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile weaponisation policies, and strengthening ties with the Islamic countries.



As far as India is concerned, his intentions can, at best, be read as the maintenance of a posture of political and diplomatic confrontation and, at worst, as a sustained campaign of subversion and military intrusion. He does not attach much importance to the discussions held and decisions taken at the Lahore meeting of Prime Minister’s Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif in February 1999 and feels that Indo-Pakistan dialogue would be useful only if India discusses the Kashmir issue with Pakistan in a meaningful manner (which means India should accept Pakistani suggestions about a solution to the issue). Finally, he has clarified that his pulling back Pakistani troops from the Indo-Pakistan frontier will not extend to the loc in Jammu and Kashmir.

As for the international reaction to his assumption of power and his policies, he does not seem perturbed about criticism from the Commonwealth or other sources. He stands reassured about having a working relationship with powers which are important to him – namely, the U.S., China, the Islamic countries, Western Europe and Japan. His only point of concern at this stage relates to the sanctions imposed on Pakistan by multilateral financial institutions and indications that President Clinton might bypass Pakistan during his intended visit to South Asia in early 2000.



More relevant than taking note of these policy orientations is the need to interrogate his professional background and persona, since we have to cope with him as the head of government of a country with which our relations have been difficult and tense for nearly half a century. Pervez Musharraf belongs to a U.P. Muslim family. His grandparents and parents were residents of Delhi in the period immediately before Partition. Born around 1943, he migrated to Pakistan at the age of four. He grew up in Karachi and then in Gujranwalla, ultimately being commissioned into the artillery branch of the Pakistan Army in 1964. He had a comparatively routine career till President Zia-ul-Haq took notice of him because of his reputation as a devout Muslim officer and his linkages with a num-ber of Islam-pasand politicians of Pakistan. Like Zia-ul-Haq, General Musharraf has strong links with the Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan.

His first significant assignment from Zia-ul-Haq was to take charge of the training of mercenaries recruited from various Muslim countries for fighting against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the concerned Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence. It is reported that during this period he built contacts with Osama bin Laden, who was originally brought into Afghanistan by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for constructing bunkers and tunnels for Afghan mujahideen in different theatres of the conflict in Afghanistan.

As part of his assignment of training the mercenaries, Musharraf was also involved in financing their operations with the assistance of Pakistani narcotic smugglers operating in the nwfp of Pakistan. An interesting sidelight to this phase of his career is that while the intelligence establishments of both U.S.A. and Pakistan valued his services, the narcotics control establishment of the U.S. Government was not enamoured of the General. This was one of the reasons that General Musharraf remains an exception in the Pakistani officer cadre, in that he did not train at any U.S. military institution, attending training courses only in the U.K.



The year 1987 marked a watershed in Musharraf’s career. He was made brigade commander of the newly raised Special Services Group tasked to push back Indian forces from the heights of Siachen. He was responsible for a major attack on the Indian military post at Bilafond La in the Siachen sector in September 1987. His forces were decisively defeated by the Indian troops. In summer 1988 he was specially assigned to suppress a Shia revolt against the Sunni dominated administration in the Gilgit region. For this operation, in which hundreds of people were massacred and displaced, General Musharraf supplemented his troops with tribesmen from nwfp and Afghanistan.

Pakistani newspapers and magazines like the Dawn and Herald reported that Musharraf’s troops invaded the Gilgit district along the Karakoram highway, destroyed crops and houses and killed a large portion of the rural population. He followed this up by bringing in Punjabis and Pathans and settled them in Gilgit and Baltistan in order to reduce the majority of Kashmiri Shias, the original inhabitants of the area, thereby changing the demography of the Gilgit region. Musharraf spent seven years with the Special Services Group in two separate assignments and sees himself as the most knowledgeable expert on mountain warfare in the Pakistani armed forces. He values his identity as a commando more than as a gunner.



The culmination of his field assignments was his appointment as force commander, Northern Areas, placing him in charge of all military and subversive operations against Jammu and Kashmir. This assignment also brought him in close touch with senior officials of the isi and extremist Islamic groups dealing with Afghanistan and subversion in j&k. It was during the late ’80s that Pervez Musharraf established close links with groups like the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Lakshar-e-Taiba and Tabligi Jamaat. It is reported that Pervez Musharraf also forged links with Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for jehad against the U.S.A. and Israel.

Interestingly, Pervez Musharraf reportedly was directly involved with an unsuccessful attempt at a military coup against Benazir Bhutto in the autumn of 1995. The attempt was allegedly led by Major General Zaheer-ul-Tslam Abbasi, who had succeeded Musharraf as force commander Northern Areas. Pakistani media reported that had the coup succeeded, General Musharraf would have been the favoured candidate to become head of state. Both Abbasi and General Aziz, who was Musharraf’s chief of staff in 1999, were reported to be part of this coup. Throughout the ’90s, Pervez Musharraf and his senior associates were involved in arranging finance and arms to various secessionist groups and mercenaries intruding into Jammu and Kashmir.

Coming to more recent developments, Pervez Musharraf was not enthusiastic about the Lahore meeting between Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee. Even while the meeting was taking place, Pervez Musharraf had finalised plans for attacking India along the loc in the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir. He was the principal architect of the fourth major military conflict between India and Pakistan. Musharraf was confident about success in the Kargil venture because in his assessment India’s establishment was plagued by political uncertainty and that the morale of the Indian armed forces was low due to the poor leadership of Defence Minister George Fernandes and soft leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. In fact, during the initial stages of the Kargil conflict, the former chief of the isi, Lt. General Assad Durrani, went to the extent of asserting that George Fernandes ‘was perhaps the best Indian defence minister that Pakistan could hope for?’



A study by the Indian Institute for Topical Studies summarises Pervez Musharraf’s approach towards India and the Kashmir question as follows:

* The bjp is a party of paper tigers, known more for its ‘verbosity’ than action.

* Pakistan’s nuclear and missile capability has ensured that India would not retaliate against Pakistan for occupying the ridges in the Kargil area.

* A fear of the possible use of nuclear weapons would invite western intervention, thereby internationalising Kashmir.

* Pakistan should agree to a ceasefire only if allowed to remain in occupation of Indian territory. There should be no question of a restoration of the status quo ante.

Further, through interviews and speeches given by General Musharraf since October 1998, his thinking seems to indicate that:

* The acquisition of Kashmir by Pakistan can wait. What is more important is to keep the Indian Army bleeding in Kashmir, just what the mujahideen did to Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

* Even if the Kashmir issue were to be resolved it cannot result in normal relations between India and Pakistan because Pakistan, by frustrating India’s ambition of emerging as a major Asian power on par with China and Japan, would continue to be a thorn in India’s flesh. And, so long as it does so, Pakistan would continue to enjoy the backing of China and Japan.



It is obvious that Musharraf’s predictions went wrong and his Kargil exercise proved to be a misadventure. This defeat probably rankles and thus the motivation for avenging this set- back will underpin his policies unless the assumption of supreme power forces him to be more realistic and responsible.

India should be conscious that it is an assertive, theologically committed, military figure with whom she will have to deal with as the head of state of Pakistan in the foresee- able future. Practical considerations demand that we should be willing for a dialogue with him. The exercise, however, should be based on a clear understanding of his ideological and political orientation and his antagonistic mindset keeping in view his professional background.

For the present, we should make haste slowly. The timing, substance and nature of the dialogue should be calmly determined keeping our national interest in view. Neither hostility nor anxiety should inform our policies towards Pakistan.