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In the Line of Fire: A Memoir

In the Line of Fire: A Memoir

Writing memoirs has always been a favorite pastime of military and political leaders if only because the exercise provides an opportunity for defining one’s place in history. Usually, however, a memoir is composed either when the memoirist is traversing a desert in his career or long after he has retired from active life. In that sense, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf is an exception. He has published a memoir while still in power and with no hint of an early retirement.

The first question that comes to mind is: why did Musharraf want to write this book? It is unlikely that he did it for the money, although he is likely to sell quite a few copies. Nor was he subject to any literary urge as he admits that he has always found books hard to read, let alone to write. One other possible explanation is that Musharraf wanted to settle a few political scores, especially with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the man who promoted him to the top of the Pakistani armed forces and then became his nemesis. However, even that explanation would not sustain scrutiny. For it soon becomes obvious that Musharraf is offering a largely fictionalized, and highly readable, account of the power struggle that pushed him to the edge of perdition before propelling him o the apex of power in 1999. The best option is to ignore Musharraf’s possible motives in commissioning this book.

” In the Line of Fire” is a valuable book if only because it offers some insight into the psychology of a man who has ruled Pakistan for almost seven years and, unless he is voted out next year, may continue to do so for some time yet. The book reveals Musharraf as an atypical Pakistani ruler.

Unlike his predecessors who hailed from feudal or grand bourgeois families in one or other of the four provinces that constitute what is left of Pakistan, Musharraf is the son of a family that immigrated into the new Islamic state from the heartland of India. Musharraf refers to this background on several occasions, notably by accusing Nawaz Sharif, a rich-man’s son from Punjab, and Benazir Bhutto, daughter of a rich feudal clan in Sind, of somehow looking down to him because of his humble social origins. In a sense Musharraf is an example of the Pakistani army’s success in transcending class and ethnic barriers and molding a new national identity that acknowledges individual merit.

Musharraf’s family emerges as a largely westernized one that clung to its Muslim identity more for cultural rather than religious reasons. This is highlighted by the fact that all three sons of the Musharraf family were given Persian pre-Islamic names.

Beyond that Musharraf appears as one to whom things happen rather than one that authors his own destiny. He is brought to Pakistan by his parents at the age of four. Aged seven, he is taken by his parents to Turkey for seven where his father works at the Pakistani Embassy. Back in Pakistan aged 14, he is admitted into a Catholic school because his younger, and more studious, brother, Naved, has impressed the missionaries who think that Pervez, too, could become a scholar. The story of Pervez joining the army and rising through the ranks, confirms the trend. Even in 1998 when he is appointed Commander-in-Chief by Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf owes more to the wheel of fortune than his own career enhancing efforts.

The supreme turn of the wheel of fortune came in 1999 when Nawaz dismissed Musharraf as army chief while he was aboard an aircraft bringing him back home from a conference in Sri Lanka. By the time the ‘plane finally landed at Karachi, the Pakistani high command had defied the Prime Minister and put him under house arrest. Suddenly, Musharraf found himself in charge of Pakistan’s destiny not because he had wanted it but because his fellow generals pushed him into it.

The narrative of events that d to the coup d’etat provides the most enjoyable part of the book. Although a one-sided account, Musharraf’s narrative provides much insight into the mentality of the small elite of senior officers who dominate the he Pakistani military machine. One reason two key officers decided to state a coup in favor of Musharraf rather than arresting him as Nawaz had ordered was that both had been the general’s tennis partners.

Musharraf devotes several chapters to the Taliban and Al Qaeda but offers little that is new. On Taliban, he is simply disingenuous. He wants us to believe that the Taliban came into being as a genuine product of Afghanistan’s post-Soviet chaos. The truth, however, is that the Taliban were recruited, trained, armed and deployed by the Pakistani military intelligence to challenge the Tajik-dominated government of Burhaneddin Rabbani. Presenting the Taliban as men who fought against Soviet occupation is bizarre. The Taliban came into being in 1994, more than five years after the Red Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. In 1995, Pakistan’s Interior Minister General Nasirallah Babar referred to the Taliban as “my children” while General Hamid Gul, then head of the Pakistani military intelligence, makes no secret of the role he played in creating the movement.

It may have been a coincidence, but Musharraf’s take on the Taliban was contradicted in a dramatic manner almost at the same time that his book came out. In a testimony to the US Congress on 21 September, General James Jones, Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) announced that the Taliban’s principal headquarters was in Quetta, in Pakistani Baluchistan. NATO has identified five command-and-control centers used by the Taliban. Of these three are in Pakistani territory. NATO has also amassed a great deal of information extracted from captured Taliban fighters in recent months. This shows that the majority of new recruits for the Taliban come from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.

One may wonder why Pakistan, which is serious when it comes to fighting Al Qaeda, is hesitant when it comes to dismantling the Taliban’s networks in its territory. The answer may well be related to geostrategic calculations. Musharraf may be thinking that the NATO powers do not have the stomach to stay the course in Afghanistan and will soon opt for some version of cut-and-run. And, if that happens, Afghanistan would once again become an open field for rivalries among regional powers, notably India, Iran, Russia and China. And in that case, the revived Taliban would be the card that Pakistan can play against its regional rivals in Afghanistan.

Musharraf tries to present Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, as a puritan figure. However, he also quotes Saudi Arabia’s Crown prince Abdullah (now King Abdullah) as saying in 2000 that the Afghan mullah was “a liar who should not be trusted.” Those who have studied Mullah Omar more closely would tend to agree with the Saudi assessment of his character.

Musharraf’s contribution to understanding Al Qaeda and its supposed leader Osama bin Laden offers nothing but endlessly re-hashed fables. We are told that the bin Laden family financed the Jihad against the Soviets, while it is clear that they did no such thing. The fable about bin Laden leading a battle against the Red Army in a place called Jaji is repeated by Musharraf, although it is now established that the event never happened. Nor is there any evidence that the bin Laden clan engineered the murder of Abdullah al-Azzam, a Palestinian-Saudi militant who led the so-called “Arab Afghans” in Peshawar. The claim that the Al-Jazeera television channel is part of the Al Qaeda media structure is also debatable.

The most annoying part of the book is the section dealing with Abdul-Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Musharraf wants us to believe that Khan had organized a rogue network of smuggling nuclear technology and materiel to other countries, notably Iran and North Korea in exchange for money, without the Pakistani military’s knowledge. It is unlikely that for almost two decades, the Pakistani’s did not keep an eye on matters pertaining to their most sensitive military secret. More incredibly, Musharraf even suggests that the Indians may have advanced their own nuclear program by stealing some centrifuges from Pakistan.

Musharraf blames the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for the 1971 war and the dismemberment of Pakistan. The truth, however, is that at the time of the Bengali revolt, which led to the war and the creation of Bangladesh, Bhutto himself was in prison because of his opposition to General Yahya Khan’s military dictatorship. Bhutto was forced into power after the Pakistani army had lost the war and thrown out of East Pakistan.

Musharraf’s claim that Nawaz Sharif had a plan to declare himself “Emir al-Momeneen” (Commander of the Faithful) may be a good anecdote for diner tale conversation. However, there is no evidence that there was any such plan or that Nawaz Sharif, a crafty politician, was stupid enough to think that he could sell himself as a religious leader.

Te most enigmatic part of the book consists of Musharraf’s account of how he decided to side with the United Sates in what President George W Bush has called “the war on terror.”

He says he decided to abandon the Taliban and Al Qaeda and side with the US not because he thought this was the right thing to do but because of a cold calculation of Pakistan’s “national interests.”

“I war gamed the US as an adversary,” we are assured. “The question was: if we do not join them, can we confront them and withstand the onslaught? The answer was no…our military forces would be destroyed.”

One must also disagree with Musharraf’s presentation of the Baluch agitation against Pakistan as part of the war on terror. The Baluch have quite different cultural and political grievances that successive Pakistani rulers have tried to ignore or crush.

Although he never belonged to the fundamentalist wing of the Pakistani officers’ class, Musharraf is strangely soft on the late General Zia ul-Haq, And yet Zia was the dictator who promoted the most radical of Islamist groups, including those that have tried to murder Musharraf on at least two occasions. “In Line of Fire” is at times annoying because it exaggerates Musharraf’s achievements while belittling that of others, including some of his closest associates such as Shaukat Aziz who must get the credit for turning the Pakistani economy around.

I must admit that I had a better opinion of Musharraf before I read this memoir. Even then, I still think he is better than most rulers Pakistan has had since its creation, if only because he has not exploited his position for self-enrichment and, so far at least, kept his nation out of ruinous adventures.