Toppling Musharraf: Heat rises on Pakistani leader

His critics call him a Western poodle, the cartoons have fanned the flames, and now Bush is coming to town. Katherine Butler reports from Islamabad on the attempts to unseat the President

Monday 20 February 2006 01:00

Minutes after India's cricketers beat Pakistan in Lahore last week, a casually dressed man with a moustache strolled confidently across the ground and was handed a microphone. Relaxed and smiling, Pervez Musharraf looked every bit the modern politician, delighting the crowd with jokes about India's star batsman's long hair. The style was more Bill Clinton than military dictator. And there was scarcely hint that this was a man who had survived two assassination attempts, or that he is struggling to hold his turbulent Islamic nation together and is now facing renewed threat as Pakistan hovers on the edge of an anti-Western implosion.

Just 24 hours after the cricket international the centre of Lahore was in flames and dead bodies lay on the streets, as the crisis over the "blasphemous sketches", as Pakistanis call the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, moved into a new, violent and for Musharraf, treacherous phase. After a week in which protests spread like a rash across the country, many of them violent, Musharraf intervened yesterday to ban a mass rally planned for the capital, Islamabad, and ordered the detention of hundreds of ringleaders.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, the religious party that called yesterday's rally, was placed under house arrest. Just hours earlier he had warned of a nationwide campaign to unseat the President if Musharraf were to hinder the protests. "We will not stop till we achieve our objectives against the present rulers," he said. "General Pervez Musharraf is acting as the representative of western civilisation and is fighting a battle against Islamic values."

For Musharraf to crack down with force is therefore a high-risk strategy, giving his opponents a pretext to raise the temperature further. He now faces his toughest 10 days in power as the countdown begins to a visit from George Bush. Unless Musharraf can quell, or at least contain, the dissent before then, the visit looks set to be engulfed by the "rolling campaign" of street protests that Pakistan's religious parties have warned they can deliver.

This crisis is no longer just about cartoons. It has become entwined with the desire by Musharraf's Islamist enemies to destabilise him by fanning a much wider uprising against what they see as his traitorous alliance with America.

The Pakistani leader is also the army's chief and still, as far as we know, has the most powerful wings of the military firmly on his side. But Pakistan is also still a hotbed for al-Qa'ida-affiliated extremists and jihadi militants hiding out and training in the wild ungovernable provinces along the border with Afghanistan. Twice, they have tried to blow up the President.

The Taliban, who fled here after being driven from Kabul, have not gone away either. Musharraf's removal, by elements who believe he is not Islamic enough, could open the way for dramatic regional instability, the threat of jihadists getting hold of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, or provoking a nuclear war with and India, and what Bush himself once warned would be "the worst form of Islamist militancy" in South Asia.

The American flag and branches of Kentucky Fried Chicken have already been burned in most street protests. In Peshawar, crates of Pepsi Cola and DVDs of Hollywood films were ransacked from shops and symbolically destroyed, and posters appeared showing not just the Danish Prime Minister but George Bush beside him, their grinning faces superimposed on the bodies of a pair of dogs.

How the protests tipped into deadly clashes with a wider political focus and the potential to topple Musharraf is murky. But then since Pakistan's birth in 1947 its politics has been murky and violent. And its leaders have a history of meeting violent ends variously ending up exiled, jailed, or ousted in coups. One was hanged and one died in an unexplained air crash.

There is genuine anger about the cartoons. It is on the lips of everyone, from carpet sellers in Islamabad's Melody Market, to the ruling elite. In recent days it has been difficult NOT to encounter a protest by some group or other in the capital with traders, lawyers, doctors, professional groups, parliamentarians and women all out in force, watched from a distance by police carrying long sticks.

Muzaffarabad, the devastated town nearest the epicentre of the Kashmir earthquake last year, looks as if it has suffered aerial bombardment and most people are still housed in tents, but even here feelings run high. On Thursday, aid workers arriving as part of the huge relief effort still under way were ordered by the army to wait at the makeshift airfield. It was inadvisable for Westerners to be anywhere near "the procession", they were told.

That the Danish cartoons are seen as evidence of an "orchestrated" attempt to humiliate Muslims might explain why protests have widened beyond Scandinavian targets. But senior Pakistani intelligence sources interviewed by The Independent in Islamabad are emphatic that a handful of extremist Islamist groups Musharraf proscribed after 9/11, and suspected of trying to assassinate him (perhaps with the complicity of sympathisers in the army) on at least two occasions, are manoeuvring behind the issue in Pakistan. Their aim is to bait the government into a clampdown that will radicalise opinion further.

Farhat Ullah Babar, a senator for Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan's Peoples Party, the most secular of the opposition parties, said the cartoon anger was wide open for exploitation by those who see Musharraf as the West's poodle. "It [the anger] is genuine, but the religious parties have identified an issue on which the Pakistani people are very agitated and which they can exploit to destabilise Musharraf."

The struggle between Musharraf, a liberal whiskey-drinking Muslim, and the forces of radical Islam, has been simmering since he seized power in a coup in 1999 and began promoting a modernising agenda. According to this vision, which carries the Orwellian name "Enlightened Moderation", Pakistan, a society so religiously conservative that a mixed-sex marathon last month caused uproar, would be transformed into a tolerant progressive state. It would still be an Islamic republic: the government ministry currently trying to rein in the madrassas (religious schools) for example, is also in charge of organising pilgrimages to Mecca, and the national airline plays taped prayers alongside safety announcements before takeoff, but a moderate one.

But if nudging Pakistan into the 21st century while avoiding the fate of the Shah of Iran was already a challenge before 9/11, Musharraf's partnership with Bush's "war on terror" has made the balancing act almost impossible. The agenda to transform Pakistani society is now seen by Musharraf's critics as complicity in a greater American plot to extend secularism.

Hafiz Hussain Ahmad, a hardline cleric and a senator for an opposition Muslim coalition also targeted by the clampdown, has an unequivocal view of why Musharraf has to be removed. "His total policy is against Islam."

Musharraf is, as one Western diplomat put it, "between a rock and a hard place, caught between accommodating the US's demands and preventing the further radicalisation of Muslims". His demand for example, that the madrassas, for long the recruiting grounds for jihadi terrorists, expel foreign students, provoked a fierce reaction, so he has backed down. Even compelling the madrassas to register with the government or teach science and other "worldly" subjects, is a painfully slow process. Asked this week how many such schools there are, the Religious Affairs Secretary, Vakil Ahmad Khan, answered: "It is anybody's guess." Six years after Musharraf came to power Pakistan appears as fragile, radicalised, and unmodernised, as ever.

At army headquarters in Rawalpindi, Musharraf's uniformed chief spokesman, Major-General Shaukat Sultan Khan, admitted: "We will not be deflected from our course, but events mean it is a case of one step forward and two steps back."

Jamaat-e-Islami advocates an Islamic revolution, including the imposition of Sharia law. Its leadership denies any involvement with violence, but are, according to diplomats, "winding it up". As riots raged last Thursday, Khurshid Ahmad, a senator for the party, spoke to The Independent in the lounge of the Soviet-style Parliament House in Islamabad. He declared of Musharraf: "He is an extremist, he took power by force, he has manipulated politics and law. He can never meet the expectations of an Islamic nation." To this bearded man in a linen shalwar kameez and felt hat, the cricket-loving general might as well be an apostate. But while most Pakistanis are not so hardline, the religious figures know they can exploit the current tensions to devastating effect against Musharraf.

"Weak and mute" Khurshid Ahmad insisted, sums up Musharraf's handling of the cartoons crisis. "He is weak because he is trying to co-operate with the US in its so-called war on terror ... There is a groundswell of opposition now, and it could derail the government."

Last month's air strike by the US on a Pakistani border village, a failed attempt by the CIA to take out al-Qa'ida's top men, radicalised opinion against the Americans. Aimed at Osama Bin Laden's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the missile killed more than a dozen villagers. The country is now awash with the rumour that Musharraf had advance knowledge of the air strike.

A violent separatist struggle meanwhile, is under way by tribal chiefs and their private armies in Baluchistan, which has been wracked by shootings and small-scale bombings and suspicions hover that India is encouraging the separatists in revenge for the Pakistan's covert backing for jihadist militants in Kashmir.

Musharraf meanwhile, has 70,000 troops hunting terrorists in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, a vast region where Pakistani law does not even apply, but the price, in terms of casualties and domestic opinion is high. Intelligence sources say up to 50 Taliban members were recently captured but Pakistan has been unable to take credit because the domestic political fallout would be so damaging.

Pakistan's 1,700-mile border with unreconstructed Afghanistan means it remains vulnerable to the instability there, but also stands accused of failing to secure the border. And despite a tentative "peace process" the spectre of war with India over Kashmir remains real. Officially Pakistan has ceased sponsoring militants to carry out attacks on India, but these groups have probably affiliated to al-Qa'ida.

These pressures have left Musharraf little space, or willingness, to address a fundamental contradiction about his position. He seized power illegally vowing to restore "true democracy", but six years on is still reneging on his promise to "doff the uniform" - return Pakistan to civilian rule at least before elections in 2007. The absence of democracy is not the only contradiction about Pakistan. Despite its strict religious identity, it remains one of the most corrupt places on earth, where more than half the population is illiterate and average annual income is $600.

Even the urbane Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, a former chief executive of Citibank, finds it hard to dispute the perception of Pakistan as a failed state. At his Islamabad residence, set in acres of lawns and fountains, he admitted: "Yes, we have an image issue. Tell people you are going on a trip to Pakistan and they will ask you if you are feeling alright." Musharraf's failure to grow a democratic political culture meansmore turbulence is guaranteed if he were to be swept from power. As one Islamabad insider put it: "There is no Plan B."

At a turning off the main road close to the Islamabad-Lahore highway stands a replica of a nuclear warhead and a sign pointing to the Khan Research Laboratories, founded by AQ Khan the "Father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. This is where uranium is enriched for Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme. Khan is now in disgrace after selling nuclear technology to Iran and Libya, but fears about the programme's security persist. If Pakistan's Western-friendly General were to be ousted, could the West prevent jihadist groups, or their sympathisers getting near the nuclear weapons?

Shaukat Aziz insists that the fact both India and Pakistan have a nuclear deterrent is a guarantee of peace: "Peace is achieved through strength not weakness. We must have the punch to defend ourselves." But if Musharraf is swept away, who will control the punch?

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