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Published in the 16-30 Apr 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Musharraf is fighting America's war
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

The recent full scale military action by a combined force of Pakistan Army and para-military troops in Pakistan's semi-autonomous, Azad, Tribal Area in the country's North-western Frontier Province, against the tribes allegedly sheltering Al-Qaeda 'terrorists' has ended in a huge embarrassment for General Musharraf. It puts Pakistan's self-proclaimed 'strong man' in a quandary, vis-à-vis, not only his own people but, more disquieting for him, before his mentors in Washington on whose behalf he undertook to 'punish' the hardy tribals.

That General Musharraf has been the most steadfast and over-weaning 'front line' soldier in Bush's 'war' on terrorism is implicit in the policy the military dictator has pursued with great perseverance since the morning after 9/11. He wasted not a moment to hitch his wagon to that of Bush and recast the whole focus of his foreign policy within minutes of Colin Powell calling him long distance. From a die-hard mentor of the Taliban he turned 180 degrees to become a comrade of the Americans and a tormentor of his erstwhile protégés.
The recent testimony by the CIA Director, George Tenet, before the Commission investigating intelligence failures of 9/11 revealed that General Musharraf tried even earlier than 9/11 to ingratiate himself with Washington. According to Tenet, Bill Clinton had asked Musharraf to intercede with the Taliban, in June 2000, to expel Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan. Until then Clinton had been keeping Musharraf at arm's length as a virtual pariah. So great was Clinton's allergy to Musharraf that when he visited the sub-continent in March, he condescended to spend just 4 hours in Musharraf's Islamabad; that little time too was used by him to address the Pakistani people on the state television.

So when Clinton gave him a chore, Musharraf simply lapped it with alacrity. But his 'embassy' as Clinton's messenger was in vain as, according to Tenet, Taliban's Mulla Omer refused to oblige him. Musharraf had better luck with Bush and became his blue-eyed boy, a blessing in disguise for him from the fallout of 9/11. Since becoming Bush's most trusted and eager ally, he has carried out every mission assigned to him with great élan, including a virtual freeze on Pakistan's nuclear programme.

However, the two-week long Wana military blitz, in the South Waziristan area of the Tribal belt, which started on March 16-exactly 24 hours before Musharraf's mentor Colin Powell was due in Islamabad-has petered out rather inconveniently for Pakistan's military command. The official mouthing of 'all targets achieved' mantra notwithstanding, not much seems to have been achieved to show on the plus side of the ledger. By contrast, the mere fact that a division-size force, backed by heavy artillery, couldn't account for a ragtag band of 500 to 600 Al-Qaeda 'terrorists' and their followers doesn't speak too well for the military 'genius' of the Pakistani generals and military strategists. 
The consensus of opinion in the outside world, especially in U.S. where the spotlight on Wana was sharpest, is that the operation was botched. The Chicago Tribune, a chip off the American establishment, summed it up as " the biggest battle yet against the Al-Qaeda fighters on Pakistani soil has fizzled into a major embarrassment for the government of President Pervez Musharraf."
Which only begs two questions. One, that General Musharraf overplayed his hand and under-estimated the adversary. Two, that he bit more than he could chew.

The first question belongs to military strategy. Wana brings back the memory of Kargil, five summers ago. There, too the General had overplayed his own perceived strength and advantage and under-estimated the enemy response. The outcome was a deluge that very nearly triggered a nuclear Armageddon in South Asia. It was only the desperate intervention by the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who sued for peace and pleaded with Clinton to bail him out, that averted a major holocaust between India and Pakistan. Nawaz had apparently no fore-knowledge of what Musharraf and his cohorts in the army had planned behind his back. But Musharraf used Nawaz's tactical retreat against him, toppling him from power three months later.

The second question is more ticklish because it is anchored in politics. It is there that the General's political acumen and strategy was tested to its hilt and found wanting.
There was never a doubt that the Wana operation had no 'made in Pakistan' stamp on it. It was Washington's operation from the word, go, and George W. Bush's limitless 'war on terror' was writ large over it. Its strategy was rooted in Bush's re-election campaign. 

Bush had thought Iraq would bring him glory and a certain shoe-in into the White House a second time around. But the tables have turned on him in Iraq and Baghdad is becoming as much a liability and handicap for him as it was for his 'dad' back in 1992. 

Interestingly, as the Wana operation spiraled out of the Pakistan army's control, Bush's beleaguered political fortunes also took a major hit from Richard Clarke's public accusation of his administration being found sleeping at the helm in the fight against terrorism. Clarke was the anti-terrorism Czar under Clinton but was demoted under Bush. His disclosure in his current best seller, Against All Enemies, has Bush and his neo cons running desperately for cover. Never before in the Bush presidency was there a greater rush to damage control and need for a tactical diversion to shore up the 'war-president's' sinking fortunes.

All the more reason, therefore, for a Bush on the ropes to have a trophy sent to him from somewhere else, and that could only be Afghanistan or the Tribal belt of Pakistan where the 'trophy' most coveted by him was perceived to be hiding.

That General Musharraf accepted the challenge-a contract, in raw political terms-readily, and with obvious relish without debating its pros and cons, speaks volumes for his current status as America's most valuable asset outside NATO. Little wonder that Colin Powell brought glad tidings within hours of the commencement of Wana operation, that Pakistan would, henceforth, be treated as a close non-NATO ally fighting in the forward trenches of U.S. global 'war' on terrorism. 

But did the General and his military colleagues calculate the political cost of biting this bullet, both internally and internationally is, at the tail-end of a botched military operation the most deserving question to ask. 

The British, even at the apogee of their power as world's prime empire-builders, knew exactly the cost of putting their hand into a hornet's nest. They dubbed the area 'the prickly hedge' and decided that discretion was the better part of valour. They left the hardy Pathans largely to themselves but shrewdly used their lions' lair as a buffer between themselves and the predatory Russians. 

But General Musharraf and his military minions have learned neither from the British example nor from their own debacle in East Pakistan, today's Bangladesh.

The massive mishandling of the 1971 political crisis was a spin-off of the Pakistani generals' gross arrogance. They thought they could fix the political problem in East Pakistan by using brute force. That didn't work and backfired. There is fear of that horrible history repeating itself in the notoriously independent Tribal area of northwest Pakistan. South Waziristan is the largest but least developed area of the tribal belt. Its inhabitants are known for their pugnacity, as well as for their tradition of hospitality. The people General Musharraf is now targeting as foreign terrorists have been living as guests of the tribals since the end of the Afghan 'jihad' in the late 80s. General Musharraf may feel no pang of conscience branding the former mujahideen as terrorists to parrot the line of his American mentors but he shouldn't expect the tradition-bound tribes to follow suit.

The Americans, straining to become more imperialistic than the British, learn neither from their own mistakes of the past nor of others. Learning is not their strong suit because they don't think they are ever wrong. Their faith in the quantum superiority of their firepower is such that failure doesn't figure into their vocabulary. But they have failed miserably to snuff out the remnants of Taliban from Afghanistan, or track down the elusive Al-Qaeda bigwigs in more than two years of being in Afghanistan with so much of military muscle.
But unlike the British imperialists who led from the front, the Americans believe in using others to do their dirty work. They used the South Koreans in the Korean War against the North Koreans and the Chinese. They did the same with Laotians and South Vietnamese in the onerous Vietnam War. Where they couldn't find the locals to become their scavengers, as in Lebanon or Somalia, they simply put their tail between their legs and ran home for cover.

Now they are counting on Pakistan to become their cat's paw to pull their chestnut out of the Afghan fire. And they are going about it with characteristic aggression, riding roughshod over Pakistani sensibilities. They couldn't care less about the fallout of a mangled Wana operation on Musharraf. Instead, they have been raising the ante all the time, expecting ever more from their Pakistani surrogate. 

General Musharraf has himself to blame for adding to his problems when he gratuitously spoke of his troops having cornered a 'high value target' in Wana in his interview with CNN's Aaron Brown. That juicy morsel of intelligence from an obliging client eager to please his mentor, vastly whetted the American appetite. That the General's imagination was eventually found to be wild off the mark is much the cause of embarrassment now being heaped on Pakistan.
Another cause of Pakistan getting bad publicity for its inept military offensive against a putative bunch of non-Pakistani terrorists is because it tried to borrow a leaf from the Americans in Iraq. Gulf War II, last year, was fought by the Americans under a shroud of secrecy. The independent news media was kept largely out of the loop and only 'embedded', supine and non-bothering factotums of the establishment media were fed highly filtered news from the Pentagon. 

The same prescription was administered in the Wana operation, mingled with mindless rhetoric, by the Pakistani military spokesmen. The media was kept away from the operation theatre and the quarantine was never lifted. In the end it reflected poorly on General Musharraf's claim of running a transparent government and hiding nothing. 

Obviously, the government's cupboard must be bulging with lots of skeletons of the backfired Wana operation. The military has accepted the loss of at least 50 soldiers and officers; the losses on the beleaguered terrorists were, understandably, higher but not much in terms of proportional imbalance in the relative numbers of the combatants.

By the same token, it is hard to take at its face value, in the absence of any independent verification, the government's claim that it has broken Al Qaeda's back in South Waziristan and other parts of the Frontier region. This claim is not validated by the official spokesmen's own admission that many Al Qaeda quarries, hotly sought by Washington, managed to sneak out of the cordon thrown against them. How could you incapacitate an enemy that managed to delude your dragnet? 

It is not only Al-Qaeda thumbing its nose at the botched Pakistani attempt to deliver on its Washington-dictated agenda but an increasingly skeptical world too is jeering Pakistan. Coming on the heels of all the recent bad publicity focused on the saga of Dr. Qadeer and his alleged nuclear shenanigans, it seems like the last proverbial straw to break the back of Pakistan's global credibility. But, then, it is an entirely self-inflicted wound that the Pakistani ruling clique might be condemned to lick for a long time to come.

In the immediate aftermath of the failed military operation, General Musharraf should be concerned with its political fallout on the people of the tribal areas now in the sights of his military adventurers. There has been a massive upsurge among the tribals of hatred against the Americans since the blitz against the Taliban more than two years ago. General Musharraf donning the American mantle and pursuing a policy of military aggrandizement as America's vassal is not endearing himself with his own irate people. 

But the biggest tragedy is that General Musharraf is showing no sign of being repentant. His bombastic has increased manifold since the botched Wana operation; he is threatening to pursue it to its logical conclusion. What is his definition of a 'logical conclusion' only he knows best. But it certainly has shades of the tragedy of 1971. The Pakistani generals seem to crave a death wish. «

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