Foreign policy in the line of fire

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHEN an army general, who seized power through a coup to become the head of state, goes on to write a book — wearing all three hats at the same time — what does he produce? A book that brings him in the line of fire of friends and foes alike.

President Pervez Musharraf, whose memoir In the Line of Fire was launched with great fanfare in New York on Monday, may now find that the principle of academia, “publish or perish”, does not really hold true for a sitting president.

If anything, for a person holding high office to write a say-it-all (but selectively) autobiography can prove to be quite indiscreet given the sensitive nature of his position. After all he has several options available for letting the world know what he wants to say — the media, the diplomatic channel, public meetings, his spokesperson and direct interpersonal communication. These are better options as they do not have the air of finality about them as a book has. They also allow a leader to retract his words without loss of face. So why write a book with all the hazards that the act of putting pen to paper incurs (even if the services of the best ghostwriter, in this case Humayun Gauhar, have been enlisted)? The printed word seems to be so irrevocable.

President Musharraf’s rationale, as he records it, is not too convincing. “I decided to write my autobiography after Pakistan took centre stage in the world’s conflicts, including the war on terror. There has been intense curiosity about me and the country I lead. I want the world to learn the truth.”

But in telling the “truth” the author has many readers questioning the veracity of what he writes. He spills many beans that should not have been spilled at this stage when he is still in a position of power and his words can create foreign policy problems for his government in an ongoing phase of our contemporary history. The controversy has already begun. The by now famous quote from the US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, in the wake of 9/11 warning Pakistan to be “prepared to be bombed back to the stone age” has evoked denial from several American quarters. According to the author “our director general of Inter Services Intelligence, who happened to be in Washington, told me on the phone about the meeting with {Mr Armitage}.” The author terms it the “most undiplomatic statement ever made”.

Now we have Mr Armitage denying having said that. “I had a very strong conversation with the intelligence chief. I told him that for Americans this was a black or white issue. Pakistan was either with us or against us. I have no doubt that the intelligence chief was quite inflammatory in the language he used with President Musharraf,” he told Reuters. President Bush has already said he first learnt about this from newspapers reporting the CBS interview with President Musharraf in which he had brought up the matter first and then referred to the book for more information. Who is to be believed? This has come down to pure semantics which cannot be ignored in an age when body language is supposed to decide the destinies of nations.

There is also the question of the language used by the various people involved. Obviously Mr Armitage spoke in English but did Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed, the ISI DG, report his conversation in idiomatic Urdu? All this has created a needless stir and the author might be wasting more time explaining the finer points, as he is now being accused of caving in to a rude threat.

The world also knows that Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan has been an ambiguous one of “playing both sides of the fence, saying one thing but doing another, closing militant training camps in one area and reopening them in another” to use Kathy Gannon’s words (in I is for Infidel). She also reports how the hawkish, pan-Islamic chief of the ISI, General Mahmood, who was sent to Kandahar after 9/11, urged Mullah Omar to resist the US and thus ensure its own annihilation.

A report in Karachi’s monthly Newsline (Feb 2003) confirmed that the ISI chief “had met with the Taliban leader without any aide for several hours and later informed the President that he was hopeful that Mullah Omar would cooperate”. It also stated how General Mahmood “who had earlier, in Washington, signed on the dotted line [when summoned by Armitage on Sept 12, 2001], showed reservations on the decision to pull out support for the Taliban regime”.

It adds, “Some highly placed sources believe that General Mahmood may have been playing a double game. President Musharraf was also not very happy with Mahmood’s arrogant style, and for not consulting him before agreeing to Armitage’s seven-point demand. President Musharraf acted swiftly and replaced the hard-line General Mahmood.” What is one to make of these accounts made more confusing by General Musharraf’s disclosure?

Then there is the case of Pakistan’s Kargil adventure about which our army is so sensitive. The president presents a sanitised version of what happened in May-July 1999. The author glosses over the Pakistan Army’s role in skilfully using the “freedom fighters” as a proxy which has been brought on record by India’s ex-foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, in his book A Call to Honour. He cites verbatim the taped conversation between General Musharraf and General Aziz in which it clearly emerges that the freedom fighters were controlled by the Pakistan Army.

In this context, our author’s claim that “whatever movement has taken place so far in the direction of finding a solution to Kashmir is due considerably to the Kargil conflict” could be damaging to the India-Pakistan dialogue that has moved by fits and starts since it started in 2004. Small wonder the author has shown deep interest in the Hindi translation of the Kargil chapter. There is much room for misunderstanding.

We have already heard quite a lot about the 1999 events from Bruce Riedel, special assistant to President Clinton, who has written an insider’s account of the summit in Blair House between Mr Nawaz Sharif and the American president. Mr Riedel doe not project Pakistan as an innocent party in Kargil as Musharraf does.

Given the sensitivities involved in a head of state/government writing a book while in office, one can understand why President Ayub Khan was one of those rare exceptions who became an author while governing the country. He did not have the patience to wait for his twilight years to pen his life experiences that are recorded in his Friends Not Masters. Besides, being an army man he did not expect to be questioned on what he wrote. General Musharraf probably feels the same way. Since he is not a leader who feels his hands are tied by the constraints of a democratic system, he does not have to worry about the repercussions of his words.

Other world leaders who have written best-sellers either did them before they entered the august office that brought them fame or after they were out of it. Nelson Mandela’s Long Road to Freedom was published after he was released from Robben Island prison and before he was elected to the presidency. Margaret Thatcher’s Path to Power and Bill Clinton’s My Life kept them busy after they had left 10 Downing Street and the White House respectively. One may well ask: what was the hurry Mr Musharraf?