The benevolent dictator

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2008, 12:00am

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gets a bad press; Benazir Bhutto a too kind one. Which of them is the real rogue?

When Mr Musharraf, as army commander, tried to engineer war with India over Kashmir in 1999, he demonstrated his roguish side. However, many of his opponents in Pakistan will concede that, since he deposed Nawaz Sharif and assumed power, he has been largely a benevolent dictator.

Compared with the last days of the Shah of Iran - and many in the American foreign policy establishment are falsely comparing what happened then with what is happening today in Pakistan - the country has been, until Bhutto's assassination, rather stable. That is, except in its lawless frontier provinces that border Afghanistan - a problem area even in British colonial days.

Until now, Mr Musharraf has rarely cracked the whip. His riot police act with relative moderation. His jails are not full. Executions are rare and never for political offences. When one sits down and talks to Mr Musharraf, one get answers rather than bluster. Pakistan today is not Iran of yesterday, neither in the type of leadership nor in its degree of religious fervour: the Islamist parties have never gained more than 11 per cent of the vote in an election.

Bhutto and her husband seem to have been manifestly corrupt. The one chance of nailing her lay in Switzerland where she had stashed cash in quantities she could never have earned honestly. At the time of her death, she was appealing against a Swiss conviction for money-laundering. Many believe she was implicated in her brother's death.

Certainly, she quarrelled with her brothers and her mother, all of whom competed to have the lead billing in the family's political drama. She was also estranged from her husband. Yet now, according to her will, her husband is her chosen successor. For Bhutto keeping the family - namely her 19-year-old son - in the line of power was more important than developing a democratic, openly competitive party. We still don't know if her father was blameless in the political murder that saw him hanged. Nor must we forget that it was her father who started the nuclear weapons project and swore that if need be 'the people will eat grass' in order to make that possible.

In comparison, Mr Musharraf has done no great favours for his family, nor earned excessive wealth.

It was under Mr Musharraf that Pakistan extended the olive branch to India over Kashmir. Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, praised Bhutto as someone who had wanted to break the 'sterile patterns of the past' that had brought them to war three times over the disputed province of Kashmir. But this was a gratuitous back-handed slap at Mr Musharraf.

Dr Singh knows as well as anyone that the Kashmir dispute is grounded due to a lack of Indian resolve to go the last mile. He also knows the militancy that plagues the region, spreading its infection into Afghanistan and to the frontier provinces of northwestern Pakistan, originates in large part among the fighters who first engaged in violence in Kashmir in an attempt to oust the Indian presence.

There is no doubt that the Pakistani military was, in large measure, responsible for developing this infection when it built up the strength of the mujahedeen in Kashmir. It provided training. It helped with logistics and provided military materials.

However, apart from clandestine, illegal work by some local Pakistani military and intelligence officials, this support network has been closed down by Mr Musharraf. This doesn't stop the militants drawing their military requirements from elsewhere, nor stop them organising a big bombing in India from time to time. Nor does it stop them working with the Taleban and the other militants of northwest Pakistan. In their eyes, India has designs on Afghanistan and is the enemy to all Islamic militant movements.

A peace agreement on the lines proposed by Mr Musharraf - which most western diplomats will tell you is as handsome an offer as they ever imagined - would shut down Kashmir-grown militancy once and for all. The militants are no longer as popular as they were inside Kashmir, and the proposed peace deal would finally pull the carpet from beneath them. And it would be a singular contribution to lessening all Pakistani-based terrorism.

Why doesn't Dr Singh do it? Because of pressures from his own military. Because of the aspiring great power role of the foreign policy establishment that can't bear to treat Pakistan as an equal. Because of the chauvinism of Dr Singh's coalition partners, the Communist Party. Because their priority on policy is to agree to the pending nuclear deal with the United States.

But now that Mr Musharraf is losing political strength, all bets are off. Pakistan may be consumed by this infection of militancy.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist