General Musharraf has got the unique distinction of leading this country at a time that may be recorded by future historians as the most critical period of its existence. Ever since its creation, Pakistan has been facing one crisis after another, but the one confronting it at the moment is by far the worst. The General had the misfortune of suddenly finding himself standing on the horns of a dilemma, reminding his people of the proverbial snake of a famous Urdu saying which very aptly describes a situation of this nature. Roughly translated, it goes something like this: "A snake with a lizard in its mouth; if he swallows it, he dies of poisoning, and if he lets it go, he becomes blind." In this particular case, the General preferred to go blind, rather than losing his life. Not only that. Had he opted for the worse of the two courses open to him, his choice could have led to national suicide.
Now that the die has been cast, there is a dire need for maximum damage control, both at home and at the international level. The General cannot afford to sit back and feel happy merely because his country's pre-September 11 isolation has miraculously disappeared, as proved by an unending stream of VVIP visitors and the glare of the world's mighty cameras focused most of the time on Pakistan. He need not get flattered by the patting he has been receiving from distinguished visitors and the promises of financial help pouring out from their loquacious tongues.
Actually he should be worried about the reason why these gentlemen, most of whom were our country's relentless critics, if not its virtual enemies, till yesterday, have turned so friendly overnight. What is the guaranty that this entire hullabaloo is not a second trap meant to make him have a bite at another lizard?
There is no doubt that the General's choice of siding with America in its fight against international terrorism is praiseworthy, but the manner in which America has started executing its arbitrarily prepared plan of war on terrorism has forced Pakistan to tread a perilous path on which every single step needs extreme care and calculation. One wrong step, and the whole nation may find itself rolling down a precipice, lock, stock, and the nuclear assets. Hence, the need for the General to beware of the risks involved in keeping company with America and its allies in their expedition. As it is, the very first phase of their escapade has brought Pakistan face to face with a number of serious problems that have the potential of shaking the very foundations of this country.
As a forced ally, General Musharraf must stubbornly resist making any further commitments or acceding to any more demands on the part of the United States or its partners. By allowing the use of Pakistani airstrips and air corridors to the Americans, and providing them valuable intelligence, thus facilitating military operations against a brotherly Muslim neighbour, he has already stirred a number of hornets' nests. The prolongation of military operations in Afghanistan, particularly through Ramazan, is liable to make things even more difficult for him. With the two main political parties forced to withdraw to the sidelines due to various reasons, and religious parties siding with the Taliban almost without let or hindrance, the latter's vote bank is increasing beyond all expectations. Under these circumstances, any more concessions to the Americans or their allies are bound to result in more furious public reaction which may be difficult for the government to handle.
The American public hates to see the coffins of their own soldiers pouring in from Afghanistan in case ground operations are launched. No wonder George Bush has been trying desperately to persuade the allies to contribute ground troops for the next phase of war. Most of America's European allies as well as Russia have apparently seen through the American game and have, therefore, been feeling rather hesitant to commit their troops. So far, only Britain and Turkey have agreed to provide token contingents while Germany has promised about four thousand soldiers. America is also very keen that more Muslim countries provide troops for these operations so that the general impression about the current war as a continuation of the Crusades is dispelled. It is quite likely that Musharraf may be given some temptation, perhaps a substantial economic and military aid package, to make him agree to send Pakistani troops to fight against the Taliban. This will be tantamount to national suicide and must not be agreed upon under any circumstances. Apart from creating a massive upheaval within the country, it will isolate Pakistan in the comity of Islamic nations. That will have a catastrophic effect on the solidarity of the Muslim Ummah.
The General must also remember that in spite of their apparent gestures of friendliness, the Western powers can never reconcile themselves with the continuation of Pakistan as a nuclear state. They will not hesitate to deprive Pakistan of its nuclear assets and capabilities at the first available opportunity. In this context, a number of quite ominous indicators have surfaced during the past couple of weeks. At first there were speculations about the possibility of Musharraf's ouster from power at the hand of the extremist religious parties and our nuclear assets falling into the terrorists' lap. Then certain quarters in the West started expressing doubts about Pakistan's ability to safeguard its nuclear assets against slipping into undesirable hands. America was quick enough to believe in this new fiction and to capitalize on it by offering its own services to protect Pakistan's nuclear paraphernalia.
Such offers, howsoever sincere these may appear to a simple, straightforward soldier like Musharraf, must not be accepted under any circumstances. It is gratifying to note that the General succeeded in convincing the highest US authorities that we are quite capable of doing what the Americans had offered to do for us. However, the mischief did not stop there. Now we read reports to the effect that George Bush thinks Osama, Al-Qaida, and Taliban are in desperate search of nuclear weapons. Such malicious hogwash could have no other motive than to make Pakistan look suspect in the eyes of the world. Anybody reading these reports would look upon Pakistan as a collaborator that can stoop to the extent of allowing terrorists to use its nuclear assets. Once the idea takes roots in the paranoiac minds of the Western powers, it can equip them with a reasonable excuse to deprive Pakistan of its nuclear assets and capabilities in one go.
Judging from the large number of wrong targets hit by Americans in Afghanistan, we should not exclude the possibility of a few bombers or missiles conveniently losing direction in flight and hitting Pakistan's nuclear assets. If such an unfortunate mishap does occur, all our American friends would do is to regret the error and attribute it to technical reasons or mistaken identity on the part of the pilots. After all they did destroy the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by mistake. We must, therefore, keep such an eventuality in view and take appropriate precautionary measures to reduce the damage to the minimum, if a situation of that sort arises.
Another subject on which the government should stick to its present stand is that of a new wave of Afghan refugees who are flooding the Pak-Afghan border in search of a safe haven. There has been persistent pressure on Pakistan to allow a free flow of these refugees on humanitarian grounds. The government must resist that pressure at all costs. We have a very bitter experience of accommodating millions of refugees who came here during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and have virtually become an integral part of our own population. Add to them the large number of refugees who have crossed our porous borders illegally during the last few weeks. Apart from being an unbearable economic burden, they can become a serious security risk for Pakistan.
We can afford to be humane only up to a certain limit and not beyond that. If there are countries among the allies who consider themselves to be more humane than us, let them accept a sizeable share of these refugees and settle them permanently within their own borders. They should also convince America to stop aerial operations against Afghanistan so that the civilian population of that country is not uprooted any more and the refugees return to their homes.
Published in Jung, Pakistan. The writer is a retired Colonel and freelance columnist. US is threatening Musharraf and Musharraf is dancing to US tunes. But how long this new romance will go on..?? A big question!