Late in June, President Pervez Musharraf was on a charm offensive in Los Angeles. The objective was to improve Pakistan's image with investors and the Pakistani-American community. An unstated objective was to improve his image at home.
On Friday (June 27), he spoke to the World Affairs Council over dinner. On Saturday, he had breakfast with a round table of business leaders and academics, lunch with experts at the Rand Corporation, tea with the Pacific Council on International Policy and dinner with several hundred members of Pakistani-American community along the West Coast.
Many who came to hear the general had been following his activities ever since he gained notoriety with the Kargil adventure in 1999. They had watched him take power in a coup, reverse Pakistan's foreign policy toward the Taliban after 9/11, fire generals who were believed to be supporters of the Taliban, threaten India with a nuclear war, and begin handing over al Qaeda suspects to the U.S. His beaming face was hard to miss on the evening news, and his name would often flash across the Web and in newspaper headlines. But very few had had a live encounter with the general.
During his meetings with American business leaders and academics, he spoke of Pakistan's economic development, its opposition toward terrorism and its desire to live in peace with India. During his speech to the Pakistani-American community, he focused on the economy, poverty alleviation, good governance and political restructuring.
He gave the kind of wonderful overview on Pakistan's economic achievements that would put many professional economists to shame for its clarity. He spoke proudly that Pakistan's GDP growth of 5.1% was the highest in South Asia and the fourth highest in Asia. Inflation was running at a low rate of 3.3% and foreign exchange reserves of $10 billion were equal to a year's worth of imports. Pakistan's foreign debt was down from $38 billion to $35 billion against a trend line forecast of $44 billion. When he took over, debt servicing was consuming 64% of annual revenue; that figure was now down to 36%. The Debt/GDP ratio had stood at 110% and was down to 90%, with a target of hitting 70% in a few years. Exports were approaching $12 billion and the Karachi Stock Exchange had gone up from 1,000 to 3,300. He said that his government, unlike its predecessors, had not fudged the numbers. He conceded that investment was not quite at the level where it needs to be.
By placing high priority on domestic issues, General Musharraf may well be Pakistan's first military ruler to accept the notion that the challenges facing Pakistan's national security are mostly internal. They cannot be remedied with a single-minded focus on military security and territorial integrity.
In response to a question from Stanford University Professor Scott Sagan, Musharraf said that war was unlikely between India and Pakistan as long as there was a balance of power in the conventional forces. He said that he was an avid student of military history, and wars only happen when one side thinks it will prevail over the other.
He said there were some in the West who were skeptical of Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism. Pakistan was fighting terrorism not because it was being asked by the West to do so, but because it was in its national interest to combat the al-Qaeda, Taliban and domestic extremists. However, he did not have a whistle, which he could blow to stop terrorism and political violence. It would take time to solve these problems.
He welcomed the peace initiative of Prime Minister Vajpayee, but said that relations between the two nations would have to be established on the basis of sovereign equality. India would not be allowed to dictate the terms of peace to Pakistan. He reminded everyone that the only issue of contention between the two countries was Kashmir.
In his address to the Pakistani-American audience, he used Ayubian diction to say that the nation was on the verge of an economic "take off" which would come via the industrial sector. He counseled the audience to shun negativism and to view the glass as being half full, rather than half empty. Surveying the turbulent political history of the past half-century, he said that civilian failures had plunged the country into three martial laws between 1947-1988. The subsequent eleven years of civilian rule had seen two individuals rotating as prime ministers, presidents and chief justices and army chiefs being fired, and rampant political and financial corruption. Using Zia's words, he said the nation was on the verge of bankruptcy when he took over.
He justified the creation of a National Security Council by saying that "You have to bring the military in, in order to keep the military out." He explained how the Legal Framework Order had been put forth to create functional democracy and concluded by saying that the audience now knew more about the LFO than several members of the National Assembly.
The general was given a standing ovation and his remarks drew thunderous applause many times during the day. At times, he was able to inject drama into the otherwise dry subject of economics. While describing his by-now famous flight from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, he displayed the kind of stage presence that would befit a Shakespearean actor. There was even a flourish in the style of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto when he commented on those who said that the amount of aid being given to Pakistan was small. Saying he did not want to beg, he said in Urdu, "Yar, lay lo jo bhee day rahain hain.""
While most people who heard him have accepted the "ground reality" of Musharraf's presidency, there continue to be vexing questions about its political legitimacy. The serving general spoke about having given up two of the four hats with which he had come to power, but the fact remains that he cannot easily give up the COAS hat and still stay on as president (Zia's predicament). One may even argue that he is still holding onto the other two hats, since he is the real Chief Executive and since the CJCS has historically never been senior to the COAS in Pakistan.
Musharraf's unspoken message, "Trust me, I am a sincere and competent leader," is used by politicians the world over to get elected. He would be well advised to do the same. Thus far, he has only been elected by the formation commanders. Democracy is about separation of powers, not about unity of command. The time has come to toss away the COAS hat.
Ahmad Faruqui, an economist, writes frequently on security issues in the Middle East and South Asia.