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Friday, February 19, 2010

Musharraf’s comeback

For the briefest of moments, again within the ambit of power politics, Citizen Pervez Musharraf told (two) jokes, set out his stall to succeed Asif Zardari, and proposed a Shaggy reading of Pakistani history: It Wasn’t Me. All this while speaking at Chatham House and the Georgian St James’s townhouse where once lived Gladstone and Pitt the Elder.

It is one of a pair of engagements, for a general on a visitor’s visa whose London residence was meant to be short. Next Tuesday, he follows his July parliamentary appearance in the House of Commons with a sequel, in the Lords, as guest of Conservative life peer Lord Sheikh.

On Monday, when Musharraf spoke, the overflow room was overflowing. To say that the audience was fawning would be inaccurate – it was along the spectrum between ‘obsequious’ and ‘obeisant’. Speaking for an hour from infrequently consulted handwritten notes, the talk seemed like an interview for two positions: the one he has already held, and Pundit-Supreme interpreting Pakistan to Anglo-America.

Musharraf was always going to be described as the Pakistan Army’s ambassador to London. Now, though, he can flesh this penchant into a political theory and justification of (past and prospective) rule. Democratically elected governments, he says, have been failing to perform the objectives of government, offering good governance, and ensuring the well-being of the people. If these aren’t being achieved, governments, whether democratic or military, must be changed.

Compared with civilians, Musharraf adds, the military are possessed of “better trained minds, and better administrative capacity.” But the general concedes that the civilian government must learn to perform. Musharraf has no doubt – he does not seem a man much given to self-doubt – that Pakistan’s way forward lies in the “integration of the political forces, political parties, army, and bureaucracy,” and “unity of thought” between these entities.

And then he sets out his wares: “Clearly, I love my country. I would do anything for my country. I took an oath when I passed out of the military academy to go anywhere when ordered to serve Pakistan, even at threat to my life.” The ungenerous might see a nod at Benazir Bhutto in that comment. “I want for the people of Pakistan to understand – I am a civilian now, I am not a military man. I cannot take over anything.” There is laughter, then the pay-off: “Electorally, I think I will have that legitimacy I never had. Then if one unites army and bureaucracy, with legitimacy of political process … that is for the people of Pakistan to decide.”

In Musharrafland, perhaps it all seems possible. He did, after all, encourage nazims facing the unemployment queue in Zardari’s local government reforms to visit him abroad last year, declaring he would advocate for their continuance in office. It may be telling that he traces Afghanistan’s bloodshed to the elimination of its monarch, a glue that held an ethnically fractious people together.

In general, the West ought to have listened to the general: “In 2003, when I was going down a political path, all the West said I was double-crossing and double-dealing.” They still have their chance to hear Musharraf out, with him now conveniently in London. He trots out his credentials for punditry: Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan are the centre of gravity for all extremism and radical thought, from the Maghreb to Somalia and Yemen to western China. British and American telly viewers can come aboard, says Muhsarraf, inviting you to (and here his second joke) “the most happening place in the world, where there’s never a dull moment.”

Without such a sound local guide as him, he tut-tuts, western adventurers will make blunders; for example, treating all Pathans as Taliban – “I always said there was a need for a policy change.” His prescription for Afghanistan betrays a presumption that there is only one sector to an economy: the military. He advocates for the arming of lashkars and building up of the Afghan National Army, underneath a government more responsive to Pathans, and buttressed by an Anglo-American military commitment tied to results rather than timeframe. “When we create lashkars and the ANA,” he says, “we create jobs – these people need jobs.”

Kashmir, meanwhile, is a hat-trick: Musharraf demonstrates first-name affability with a world leader (complimenting Manmohan Singh on his vision and sincerity), states he was close to resolving the long-standing dispute, and (in a backswipe at his successor) he argues that a leader capable of doing so would possess the three qualities of “sincerity, open-mindedness, and boldness.”

Musharraf concludes that the unsolved wound of Kashmir, wanting a leader’s suture, together with a militia-arming caused by the West’s blundering abandonment in 1989-2001 of Pakistan(’s army), is the root of all Pakistani extremism. It wasn’t him, indeed.

Perhaps it is as a Pakistani immigrant in Britain that Musharraf never seems quite at ease with the first person plural: ‘we’ fluctuates, for Musharraf-the-public-speaker, between Pakistan, the West, and “the free world, with Pakistan at its lead.” In September, the Guardian’s Declan Walsh profiled Musharraf in his “unassuming three-bedroom flat” beside Edgware Road’s shisha bars and kebab joints. It seems the former general has now made it to Westminster. It wasn’t me.


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