Hollow alliance with Musharraf yields only empty promises

March 28, 2002|By Timothy Towell

WASHINGTON - Since claiming to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism nearly six months ago, Pakistani ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf has publicly recast himself as a leader committed to routing out extremism at home and abroad and to dedicating his government to the establishment of a "democratic, Islamic welfare state."

If true, this would be an impressive turnaround after a military career spent pursuing an opposite agenda.

The gruesome attacks this month against Americans in Pakistan and those between the country's long-feuding Muslim sects are clear indications that, despite ambitious pledges, little has been done to stem the tide of extremism in Pakistan.

General Musharraf won international praise in January after a speech in which he promised to reform the madrassas, or religious schools, that have turned out a generation of Islamic extremists, to round up all active Islamic militants and to ban the activities of five fundamentalist groups that, with past help from Pakistan's military-intelligence complex, have exported jihad to the Islamic battlefronts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Based largely on these promises, the general was awarded a victory lap through Washington and various European capitals, where he collected nearly $2 billion with which to carry out his ambitious plans.

But if such resolute action was taken by its military leader, why has Pakistan continued to slip toward anarchy? What has changed since May 1999, when Indian intelligence intercepted a telephone call from General Musharraf to his then-deputy, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Aziz, in which the former boasted, "We have them [Islamic militants] by the scruff of the neck, and whenever desired we can regulate the situation."

Regrettably, the Western argument that General Musharraf, as a moderate and respected military ruler, is the best hope for reining in the militants in his country coincides neither with his portrayal of himself as a victim of their crimes nor with his competing claim of combating these groups.

In an interview with The Nation, Pakistan's largest English daily, a month after General Musharraf's landmark speech, his minister for religious affairs, Mehmood Ghazi, seemingly overturned the general's education reform plan by countering that "Western countries either lack information or lack sincerity about madrassas. ... It is absolutely clear that no religious school is involved in the training of terrorists."

And while the government has touted the closing of several of these schools, it is loath to admit to a general increase in enrollment in other parts of the country.

Most disturbing has been the decision this month to offer a "conditional amnesty" and release nearly all of the 2,000 hardened militants rounded up during the government's highly publicized and widely applauded crackdown last month.

In a secret directive issued March 7 and made public 10 days later in Pakistan's regional press, Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider instructed the governors of Pakistan's four provinces to release those detainees on the condition that they sign a statement in which "they declare that they will give up militancy for good" and "pledge to stay away from active politics for two years." To enforce this toothless fiat, local police have been instructed to keep certain militants "under observation to ensure that [they] fulfill [their] promise of good conduct."

Is this what General Musharraf meant by reforming the system? Should we forget that Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the principal defendant in the killing of American Daniel Pearl, was also under "observation" by Pakistan's intelligence service when he committed his crime?

Despite U.S. diplomatic pressure and a growing military presence in the country, General Musharraf's loyalty to these groups and their cause clearly remains strong and will prevent him from adequately reining them in. U.S. officials should realize this and no longer put American lives at risk by continuing to accept and reward the empty promises of Pakistan's military ruler.

As the situation on the ground worsens, Pakistan's leaders should be held strictly accountable for the acts of violence they unofficially sanction.

These events should serve as a lesson to U.S. policymakers that alliances conceived through coercion are as hollow as the promises that support them.

Timothy Towell was an ambassador to Paraguay under President George H.W. Bush and deputy chief of protocol and deputy director of the Peace Corps under President Ronald Reagan. He recently returned from a research trip to South Asia.

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