April 1, 2013 | National Post

What Pakistan Needs is a South Asian Anwar Sadat

Power is an addictive drug. And like all addictions, it can drive men to reckless, even suicidal risks.

Of this, there is no better example than Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s President from 2001 to 2008 — during which time he was the target of at least four assassination attempts, including a massive bomb blast that blew up a bridge in Rawalpindi mere moments after his convoy passed over it. For the last five years, he has been living a cushy retirement in London and Dubai. Yet now, aged 69, he has decided to try for a comeback amid Pakistan’s chaos and car bombs.

His plane landed in Karachi on Sunday. And the jihadis who spent the post-9/11 years trying to kill Musharraf now will get another chance. To them, the returning ex-president must seem like one of those carnival shooting-gallery ducks that crosses back and forth until someone pops it with a pellet gun.

Perhaps Musharaf misses the celebrity status he attained in the West during the 2000s. As the United States ramped up its war effort in neighbouring Afghanistan, Musharaf was seen as a sophisticated military-trained moderate who could prevent the whole region (including Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal) from falling into the hands of jihadi hordes. “After me, come the men with beards” was the subtext to all of his dealings Western leaders.

George W. Bush and everyone else took him at his word. And an uncountable number of newspaper editorials appeared demanding that Musharraf “rein in” the Taliban-enablers — both within his own military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and otherwise. But he never did, because he never could.

As the 9/11 Commission Report made clear, no one in the West really paid much attention to the region in the years following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. And it was only when NATO troops started getting killed by a Taliban guerrilla army headquartered in Quetta and Waziristan that we began realizing that Pakistan wasn’t a normal country — in the sense that its central government doesn’t even pretend to exercise full autonomy over much of its northern hinterlands.

In his 2011 book, The Long Way Back, the Canadian ambassador to Kabul at the time, Christopher Alexander (who went on to work with the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, and is now a Conservative MP) describes the frustrating, eye-opening trips he took to Pakistan during the Musharaf period. Again and again, Alexander pressed the Pakistani military to stop the flow of weapons and men who were tearing Afghanistan apart. That flow has continued, in one form or another, to this day.

The favorite to win the May 11 presidential election is Nawaz Sharif (a former prime minister, whom Musharaf once ousted as part of a bloodless 1999 coup). Other candidates include former cricket star Imran Khan. But no matter who wins, there is little faith in the West, or even in Pakistan itself, that the new government will be able to bring law, order and peace to the country’s Taliban-infested northwestern region, let alone tamp down murderous anti-Shiite violence, separatist agitation in Balochistan and elsewhere, and the ordinary street crime that has turned Karachi and other major cities into gated enclaves surrounded by teeming slums.

As we know now, even if we didn’t in the period immediately following 9/11, Pakistan’s problems are existential, and go way beyond its current leadership.

The nature of that existential problem was captured incisively in an op-ed published last month by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid in The New York Times. That piece began with a chilling vignette: “On Monday, my mother’s and sister’s eye doctor was assassinated. He was a Shiite. He was shot six times while driving to drop his son off at school. His son, age 12, was executed with a single shot to the head.”

As Hamid writes, it is not just Shiites who are under threat, but also Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians, secularists, liberals, mystics — or anyone who happens to be traveling with the wrong accent in the wrong region. Hate and intolerance are a problem in all parts of the world. But Pakistan is a place where every single form of identity politics — regional, religious, ethnic, sexual — has become a pretext for mass murder.

“At the heart of Pakistan’s troubles is the celebration of the militant,” Hamid argues. “Whether fighting in Afghanistan, or Kashmir, or at home, this deadly figure has been elevated to heroic status: willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, able to win the ultimate victory, selfless, noble.” During the Cold War, these militants — jihadis deployed to border regions, with support from the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment — were seen as “equalizers” in the battle against India, Pakistan’s larger, richer, stronger neighbour. But this cult of Pakistani violence and martyrdom is now a far greater threat to Pakistan itself than it ever was to India.

Hamid correctly concludes that, in the long run, the only way to “starve Pakistani militancy of oxygen” is a Pakistani leadership with the ability and courage to normalize relations with India — a sort of South Asian version of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel through gritted teeth in the mid-1970s.

Sadat, of course, died because of his brave decision: In October, 1981, Egyptian Islamic Jihad terrorists jumped out of a military parade and annihilated Sadat and much of his entourage. Then again, Pervez Musharraf — who engineered the Kargil mini-war with India in 1999, but also made some tentative peacemaking efforts during his tenure a decade ago — already is a man who travels Pakistan in terrorists’ cross hairs. If he is going to risk his life anyway, he might as well try to save his country in the process.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. This article originally was published by New Europe.

Read in National Post


Afghanistan Pakistan