An unsafe labyrinth awaits the General

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Safe distance: Musharraf does not have the gumption to risk a return to Pakistan until his safety is guaranteed, Photo: Reuters

SO, WHAT do you think of Musharraf’s return to Pakistan?” I wanted to confirm it with a US diplomat; a country considered one of the three ‘A’s that run Pakistan — Army, America and Allah. “Oh, we turn down the volume when he speaks.” The diplomat reinforced what I had heard from so many places. A few days ago, a prominent television anchor talked about how Gen (retd) Parvez Musharraf calls channels and begs them to take his comments but no one complies. For Pakistan, its media and the people, the former army chief is now irrelevant. He is a thing of the past who will not have another reincarnation.

Perhaps, the only place where the former dictator remains relevant are certain circles in New Delhi that still remember him for the concessions he offered in solving the Kashmir issue. Thus, a lot of minds in India got excited to hear that he was about to announce his return to Pakistan. However, he eventually did not announce any return date, but just said that he plans to return after a caretaker set-up is sworn in.

People in Pakistan were not even remotely interested when the news came of his press conference in Dubai in which he would take the media into confidence about his return to the country. After all, it is not the first time he has talked about his possible return. It is like the general crying wolf and losing attention because the wolf never came. While in the story the wolf does come, people are generally clear about one thing: Musharraf does not have the gumption to risk a return to Pakistan until his safety is guaranteed.

On 3 March, the anti-terrorism court in Islamabad turned down his wife’s request to forgive him and release the frozen accounts in Pakistan. There is a red warrant out for his arrest in connection with his alleged involvement in Benazir Bhutto’s killing in December 2007. Furthermore, there is a long list of people eager to teach him a lesson, starting from the Baloch nationalists, who are angry about his military operation in their province and the assassination of Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, to the Lal Masjid clerics and many more. The multiple threats to his life is one of the reasons that the military does not want him back, to avoid the embarrassment of not being able to protect a former army chief.

A couple of years ago, former ISI chief Lt Gen (retd) Ahmed Shuja Pasha had flown to Dubai to advise Musharraf about the wisdom of not returning to Pakistan. Many believe that Musharraf certainly cannot return as long as Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani remains the army chief. After all, Kayani had manoeuvered carefully to push Musharraf out of power and the country to become the army chief himself. Since Kayani’s term is almost over in 2013, unless he gets an extension for a year, Musharraf could plan to return. However, this will certainly not be after the caretaker set-up is sworn in because Kayani will still be there until the end of this year.

But even with Kayani gone, Musharraf does not have much of a chance in the army or in political circles. I remember gate-crashing into one of his meetings in Washington, DC, in 2010 and asking him what was so different about him and others like cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan who had also promised change for Pakistan? Musharraf did not have much of an answer. Nor did he have much to say to the question about what would be his policy on gender if he ever got power, especially when he thinks that Pakistani women get raped to obtain US and Canadian visas.

Nearly five years have passed since Musharraf left the country. He may have contacts but has no first-hand knowledge of politics, and other forces have created space for themselves and made it difficult for him to manoeuvre. In fact, he would be safer sitting in the UK and thinking of his 2 lakh likes on his Facebook page as actual followers or potential voters.

One wouldn’t blame Musharraf either for his shenanigans like holding sudden press conferences and creating dramatic effect mainly because he has grown old and possibly restless and bored in London, where he doesn’t even have the same nuisance value as the Muttahida Quami Movement leader Altaf Hussain. Currently, one of the rare places he has some traction is India where members of the elite policy-making circles tend to view him as a moderniser.

I remember being told off a few years ago by a senior retired Indian diplomat about how Musharraf was good for Pakistan. All I did then was show my profound amazement at the diplomat’s perception of a man who had cost thousands of precious lives of Pakistani and Indian soldiers during the 1999 Kargil War. In fact, it is amazing to see the same media houses giving Musharraf space when they deny the same advantage to Ajoka theatre or actors and musicians from Pakistan as if they were the ones responsible for all the killing and mayhem.

THERE ARE two other things that the Indian audience must realise. First, the opportunity of Pakistan making the same offer as Musharraf did once would not happen in the foreseeable future even if the general returned to the seat of power by some miracle. He had found an opportunity and wanted something to materialise. The basic impediment then was India’s concern for its own domestic politics and the worry that the Opposition might not see the ruling party as conceding more space to Pakistan than it ought to. The opportunity vanished very soon. Although people like Mani Shankar Aiyar insist that Musharraf had the entire army’s support behind him, this was never the case in reality. They certainly did not wait for something to happen for too long.

Second, the former general may not even have the inclination to rub the military the wrong way again. Though Musharraf might whisper in Aiyar’s or someone else’s ears now, the fact of the matter is that he has become wiser and would not rock the boat too hard for the army even if he were to return to power again.

The best use that Musharraf can be put to at this point in time is to be turned into a case study (probably along with Bangladesh’s Gen Mohammad Ershad) to see what kind of men, especially military men, will undertake a coup. Such a study along with the sample could then be used at various military academies to teach what attitudes and inclinations to avoid.

Meanwhile, as a Pakistani, one hopes that India would one day understand that the whisky-guzzling general has played his innings and has nothing to offer now to both India and Pakistan. His recent press conference in Dubai brings back to memory scenes from neighbourhood cricket matches in which a young bully would refuse to leave the crease even after he had heard a loud knock on the wickets.

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of  Military Inc

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