JEDDAH, October 23, 2006 — Pervez Musharraf is a daring storyteller, and he tells many stories in his much-discussed, well-crafted and highly controversial memoir, "In the Line of Fire." The challenge for the reader, however, is to separate fact from fiction in his account of events that initially led to his coup and then to his complete consolidation of power in Pakistan.
Interestingly, at no place in his 352-page memoir does Musharraf call himself an absolute ruler — which is precisely what he is. He labels his seizure of power a “countercoup” instead of a coup. The dust jacket proclaims: “Musharraf became president in a dramatic confrontation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.” It was, however, a coup, plain and simple. An elected prime minister with an overwhelming majority in Parliament was removed at gunpoint.
Musharraf is apparently a man who cares little for the consequences of his writing. This may be because the people of Pakistan are not his political constituency. He derives his strength from his military constituency; he does not have to stand for election so he does not have to worry about his image. He makes full use of this fact to label anybody whatever he wishes.
It is slightly shocking but extremely bold for the head of a Muslim nation to write what he has written about his parents. “Both my parents loved music and dancing, especially ballroom dancing. My father was a very elegant, very graceful dancer. During the coronation of the queen of England, there was a dance competition in which many of our embassy people (in Turkey) participated and my parents won first prize for ballroom dancing.” Westerners might rightly say: What’s the big deal?
Musharraf elaborates on his romances, first with the girl next door and then with a beautiful Bengali girl who, he writes, is now happily married and lives in Bangladesh. “I went so far as to get my Nani Amma, my maternal grandmother, into the act (of delivering love letters) without her realizing it. She was a lovely woman who wore a burka as conservative Muslim women do. I would tell her that she must visit the neighbors and then direct her to the girl’s house as an unwitting courier with a romantic letter in her pocket.”
Musharraf describes Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a fascist. “He ruled like a despotic dictator. He was really a fascist — using the most progressive rhetoric to promote regressive ends, the first of which was to stay in power forever.” Musharraf has completed seven years in power and nothing moves without his nod; the government, though technically elected, remains completely under his control.
Perhaps the most disturbing chapter in the book is the one that deals with Musharraf’s overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Nawaz Sharif. The common perception thus far has been that the entire army was behind the coup. If one goes by Musharraf’s own account, however, that is not the case. The leaders behind the coup, as it turns out, were loyal Musharraf supporters.
“Consider the cast of (coup) actors and their relationship to me,” writes Musharraf. “Apart from being their chief, I played squash with the two commanding officers, Shahid Ali and Javed Sultan. Mohammad Aziz Khan was my appointee. The commander of the Rawalpindi Corps, Mahmood Ahmed, had been my regimental commanding officer when I was in charge of an artillery brigade in 1986-1987. The DGMO (director general of military operations), Shahid Aziz, is my relative. The commander of the Triple One Brigade, Brig. Sallahuddin Satti, was my brigade major when I was brigadier. The officers critical to the countercoup in other cities, Lahore and Karachi, were also my appointees. Only the head of our premier security service, the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ziauddin, was close to Sharif. The deck was stacked against the prime minister.”
The way Sharif was arrested will remain one of the dark chapters in Pakistan’s history. In democracies the world over, elected representatives are removed by ballot — not by bullet or the threat of bullet. Musharraf’s men acted because they were angry that Sharif was concentrating power in himself and because he had dared to remove Musharraf from his post as army chief. Sharif had named Lt. Gen. Ziauddin as the next army chief but Musharraf’s men feared the worst after their friend’s removal. Thus, they made sure the removal never took effect.
Musharraf asserts that the Kargil operations were a landmark in the history of the Pakistan Army. “As few as five battalions, in support of the freedom fighter groups, were able to compel the Indians to employ more than four divisions. I am ashamed to say, our political leadership insinuated that the achievements of our troops amounted to a debacle.”
According to the deposed political leadership, Pakistan suffered heavy casualties. And that led to uncomfortable questions for Musharraf which in turn led to differences between Sharif and Musharraf. In his book, Sharif claims that 2,700 Pakistani men died in the conflict, a number he claimed was “more than those martyred in the wars of 1965 and 1971.” Musharraf does not talk about Pakistani casualties at all, but he does mention the Indian ones. “The Indians, by their own admission, suffered over 600 killed and over 1,500 wounded. Our information suggests that the real numbers are at least twice what India has publicly admitted,” writes Musharraf. Whatever the figures, there can be no disagreement with Musharraf that Kargil led to a rethinking about Kashmir within the Indian establishment. For the first time since 1947, India was on the defensive.
In the book’s second half, Musharraf takes great pains to describe Pakistan’s role in the war on terror. He seems upset with certain elements in the US and the West which blame Pakistan for not doing enough. “Since shortly after 9/11, when many members of Al-Qaeda fled Afghanistan and crossed into Pakistan, we have played cat and mouse with them. The biggest prize of all, Osama Bin Laden, is still at large but we have caught many, many others. Those who accuse us of ‘not doing enough’ in the war on terror should simply ask the CIA how much prize money it has paid to the government of Pakistan.”
Musharraf provides some interesting insights into Al-Qaeda’s courier system. “As we went into the mountains of Waziristan and smashed Al-Qaeda’s communication network in Pakistan, we discovered that its courier system is very well-established. It is four-tiered, with distinct layers for administration, operations, media support and the top hierarchy.” The operational courier network deals with passing operational instructions. “Here, greater care is exercised in selecting couriers. The procedure ensures maximum security through a code-word and cutout system; that is, unwitting couriers are substituted for knowledgeable people wherever possible.” Musharraf states that the top Al-Qaeda leaders try not to pass written messages except when unavoidable. “Normally, the leaders make their best, most trusted, diehard couriers memorize messages and then convey them verbatim.”
The book also provides some interesting facts about Taleban chief Mullah Omar and his rise to power. According to Musharraf, Pakistan invited Omar several times after he gained power but he always refused. “We also offered to send him for Umrah, the small pilgrimage to Makkah, but he refused that, too. He always met delegations from our intelligence agency but never allowed any of his field commanders to interact with us; he said they were continuously involved in operations.”
Musharraf says dealing with Mullah Omar was like banging one’s head against the wall. “How do you negotiate with such a man? He was (and still is) caught in a time warp, detached from reality. We have two entirely opposite world views. Whereas I believe that one must exhaust every avenue to avoid war and the death and destruction it entails, Omar thinks that death and destruction are inconsequential details in a just war. People like Mullah Omar believe that worldly possessions, including life itself, are secondary to their principles and traditions. One of those traditions is the protection of anyone who has been designated a guest. Therein lay the difficulty.”
Musharraf confirms the story that the Taleban chief escaped on a Honda motorcycle in the first week of December 2001. He said he told the then Japanese prime minister that the best advertisement for Honda would be a campaign depicting Mullah Omar fleeing on one of its motorcycles.
There is no question of Mullah Omar’s being in Pakistan, writes Musharraf. “Ever since he came into the limelight in 1994, Mullah Omar has not once visited Pakistan. How could he now be comfortable in our country? Today, the Taleban strongholds are the southern provinces of Afghanistan. All rural areas and most cities there are under the influence of the Taleban. They also dominate most movement at night. Mullah Omar would find it most convenient and safe to live and hide with his followers in his own area.” Admittedly, this is very feasible.
Musharraf holds almost all political opponents in utter contempt and tries to discredit them by portraying them in the worst possible light. But the man he seems to hate the most is Dr. A.Q. Khan, “the father of the Islamic bomb.”
The issue of proliferation gives Musharraf the perfect stick to beat the nuclear scientist with. “A.Q. Khan was not, in fact, the sole scientist in charge of the entire (nuclear) effort, yet he had a great talent for self-promotion and publicity and led the public to believe that he was building the bomb almost single-handedly,” writes Musharraf.
He also describes his decision to send Dr. A.Q. Khan into retirement after it became clear he was actively fostering nuclear proliferation. “He had no further role to play in our weapons program. He was such a self-centered and abrasive man that he could not be a team player. He did not want anyone to excel beyond him or steal the limelight on any occasion or on any subject related to our strategic program. He had a huge ego, and he knew the art of playing to the gallery and manipulating the media.”
Any well-informed reader of the book will likely come away with the impression that the author is a man of contradictions — a man in uniform in favor of democracy who is certain that his vision for the future of Pakistan is not only the best but the only one possible. Perhaps the greatest coup here is the extent to which self-serving rationalization can become justifications for extremely controversial moves which unfortunately have their roots in militarism as opposed to democracy.
The autobiography is important — albeit one-sided — because it throws light on a number of issues. Musharraf supporters will enjoy the book as much as Musharraf detractors will dislike it — but the book is definitely worth reading if only to see how people in power become addicted to it.