Source: Times Online
“I read in your papers that I am here on a charm offensive — yes, I am.” That was the opening gambit from President Pervez Musharraf yesterday, delivered with a grin, in the final hours of his week-long tour of Europe. His circuit of Brussels, Paris, Davos and London was designed to repair the damage done by a year of constitutional crisis and by eight years of military rule. It is hard to say that it did.
True, he delivered all the reassurances that the West could want: on the immoveability of the February 18 parliamentary elections; the protection of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal; his willingness to work with an elected government; his belief in freedom of speech. But he qualified these to the point where they were suspect, or skated over objections.
Yesterday’s performance before the mirrored walls of the Dorchester Hotel’s Orchid Room showed why he was once such a tempting candidate for the West to back, and why it has been disappointed. “We are for democracy, human rights, anything that you have and maybe we don’t have,” he said. But asked about the independence of judges, whose challenge to his military rule triggered the crisis, he said, “We are not living in London, we are living in Pakistan, in a very turbulent area,” and derided purists who “think that it is important to be theoretical”.
He certainly looks the part of a Western-friendly leader. He was poised, cordial and joking, in an immaculate dark suit, part of a wardrobe of impeccable urbanity on display since he was forced to step down as head of the Army and shed his uniform. His aides are always attentive to his staging; on a previous trip they had rejected the Dorchester’s blue-and-gold armchairs as inappropriately floral. This time, as police sniffer dogs scrabbled over the parquet floor, a dozen men looked in a troubled way at a crimson chair, regal but low-seated, before summoning a higher one.
But any impression that the President might be above the fray was dispelled by the handout of 13 pages of accusations against Iftikhar Chaudhry, Pakistan’s former Chief Justice, whom he suspended in March. It included a five-page letter to William Neukom, president of the US Bar Association, complaining that Mr Chaudhry had been guilty of “misuse of a large fleet of official cars” and “use of large cavalcades of protocol vehicles not allowed under the rules which were a constant cause of inconvenience to the public”. Mr Musharraf maintained that the “judiciary is totally independent”, despite sacking Mr Chaudhry and eight other Supreme Court judges in November when they refused to back the state of emergency. Critics say that he acted to pre-empt the court’s decision that his re-election in September was unconstitutional. “The judges who are there are the same that there were, except that there are a few individuals who are not,” said Mr Musharraf.
Challenged on why leading lawyers remain under house arrest, he said: “They are all free, no problem. But if any person wants to use his freedom for anarchy and agitation, no, that person will not be free.” Referring to the protests on his British visit, in which Imran and Jemima Khan took part, he said that Britain ought to crack down more on terrorists.
The most valuable parts of Mr Musharraf’s tenure since he seized power in a 1999 coup have been his action against terrorism and promotion of social development, which he speaks about with passion. This is why Britain and the US backed him so warmly. But although he maintains that he is tackling terrorism “holistically . . . with a military element, a political element, and a social element”, his weakness has been in choking off the political.
He boasted of “multilayered controls” over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and argued that the only way extremists could get control would be if they won elections or if they defeated the Army; the chance of either was zero, he said. But it isn’t. Pakistan’s strength has been that religious groups have had little support, but it is rising. He also skated around army extremism.
He rejected the “aspersions and insinuations” that his military had played a part in Benazir Bhutto’s assasination on December 27. “Someone had the audacity to say it in public — that I had blood on my hands — and I had to control myself, which of course I did.” He maintained — at odds with Ms Bhutto’s doctors — that she was killed by “an injury to the skull”.
That may be unproveable, despite the efforts of Scotland Yard detectives, which he said he appreciated. But it was tasteless to rebut charges that he had given her inadequate security by pointing to the length of time she survived on the day she was killed. “She came to the location — safe! She addressed the crowd there — safe! She got into her bullet-proof car — safe!”
Mr Musharraf himself has survived a long time, from the extremists who want to kill him and from the roiling pressures of September 11. Yesterday, as he extended his talk with a final diatribe (against an unpleasant provincial chief) to the point of jeopardising his meeting with Gordon Brown, the sense was of a leader who wanted a modern future for Pakistan, but has been so easily provoked by personal dislikes that he lost the perspective to deliver it.