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Commentary

Musharraf Is as Good as Gone

January 03, 2002|SIMON HENDERSON | Simon Henderson is a London-based adjunct scholar of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has written extensively on Pakistan's nuclear policy.

As the tension between India and Pakistan appear to ease, the days of Pakistani military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf as president are probably numbered.

Confronting India to liberate the Muslims of the divided state of Kashmir is a basic ethos of the Pakistani army. Before Sept. 11, supporting the Taliban had ensured that Pakistani rather than Indian influence was dominant in Afghanistan. Since Musharraf is now tainted with failure, his brother officers are almost certainly already selecting his replacement from among their ranks.

Unless Pakistan's current thinking can be changed, the next leader has a single card to play and only a short window of opportunity in which to play it. As the U.S. government knows but is careful not to say, Pakistan's small arsenal of atomic bombs is superior in design and efficiency to India's.

Pakistan's Hiroshima-size bombs will work while India's might perform disappointingly, as did the bomb it tested in 1998. Furthermore, Pakistan's missiles work better than the Indian equivalents.

Pakistan achieved this temporary advantage by, from India's perspective, cheating. While India took pride in the largely indigenous development of nuclear weapons and missiles, Pakistan struck nuclear deals with China (India's regional rival) and arranged missile sales from North Korea (probably just for money).

Musharraf's logic was to raise tension and so force international intervention in Kashmir, leading to a referendum among its people to choose between Indian or Pakistani sovereignty. Confidently (perhaps overconfidently) expecting Kashmiris to choose Pakistan would strengthen the Islamic republic while deepening schisms in the Indian confederation.

If such tactics require encouraging Al Qaeda-linked Kashmiri militant groups to carry out terrorist outrages in India--as in the attack on the parliament in New Delhi on Dec. 13--then, from Pakistan's point of view, this was legitimate.

In tolerating the activities of the militant groups (perhaps even knowing their plans), Musharraf seems to have completely misread the messages he has received from the U.S. since Sept. 11. Although not reported, CIA chief George Tenet was already lecturing the visiting head of Pakistan's feared Inter-Services Intelligence on U.S. exasperation with Islamabad's effective patronage of Osama bin Laden before the jets crashed into the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon. Washington promptly organized another three days of meetings to ram home the message, "Don't play with terrorism."

President Bush has limited policy options while U.S. troops are still hunting down Bin Laden, Mullah Mohammed Omar and residual Al Qaeda cells and needs Pakistan's help to do it. But having U.S. military commanders now regularly visiting Pakistan will enable Washington's message to be passed on directly to Pakistan's top generals. British Prime Minister Tony Blair can say the same when he visits the region.

Part of the message should also be that Pakistan cannot afford to engage in an arms race with India. Pakistan has a population of about 145 million compared with more than 1 billion Indians. India's gross domestic product of $2.2 trillion is eight times that of Pakistan's, and its industrial base is far more extensive. In such a race, Pakistan is cast in the role of the Soviet Union, which was bankrupted and forced into collapse in its effort to match U.S. military spending.

Washington also must restrain India's military posturing as the immediate crisis abates. In coming months, both countries may feel tempted to carry out more nuclear tests to iron out the glitches in their arsenals, as well as to conduct more flight tests of missiles. Beijing's assistance might be useful to the U.S.; two weeks ago Musharraf went for talks with the Chinese leadership and seems to have received less than a green light for his strategy.

Is there anyone in the Pakistani leadership ready to recognize reality?

The post-Sept. 11 arrest, under U.S. insistence, of two retired nuclear scientists--top experts in reprocessing plutonium who had been meeting Bin Laden--shows the extent to which the country had been playing with fire. Could U.S. pressure be applied for allowing political parties--banned since Musharraf's 1999 coup--without releasing the genie of anti-American street sentiment?

In the short term, the U.S. may have to acquiesce to the emergence of yet another military leader. Musharraf no longer has the standing to offer concessions in the talks with India that he is seeking. Combined with a more constructive policy on Kashmir by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, tensions could be eased, giving time for the Afghanistan campaign to finish. India and Pakistan must be persuaded that their conflict is not a zero-sum game.

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