Lesser of two evils
16 June 05 Greg Sheridan The Australian
HERE'S a nice irony of timing. On the day Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was telling Canberra's National Press Club about his wonderful program to empower Pakistani women - and hailing the presence of two Pakistani female politicians in the room as evidence - The New York Times was editorialising on the travel ban Musharraf's Government has placed on another Pakistani woman, Mukhtaran Bibi.
She is a Pakistani teenager who was sentenced by a tribal council to be gang-raped, allegedly because her brother had a relationship with a woman from the wrong caste.
After the gang rape was carried out, Mukhtaran was forced to walk home, nearly naked, to the catcalls and taunts of a crowd. With incredible courage, she brought charges against her attackers and achieved some international fame. She was invited to the US to discuss women's rights but Musharraf's Government, fearing she would "malign Pakistan", had her arrested instead. Her attackers, on the other hand, were set free.
The Howard Government is right to sign a memorandum of understanding on counter-terrorism with Pakistan, and to offer it some scholarships. Presumably it sees this as part of the US-led effort to bring Pakistan more fully into the Western camp and the war on terror.
This is a hard-headed choice. Often international relations offer you only the lesser of two evils. Musharraf is certainly a lesser evil than the al-Qa'ida style terrorists he is fighting. But the tributes that both John Howard and Kim Beazley offered Musharraf are a bit rich when you consider his record. On nuclear proliferation, support for terrorists, support for rogue states and the suppression of democracy, Musharraf has one of the worst records in the world.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, has been exposed over the past few years as perhaps the greatest nuclear proliferator in the history of the human race, selling advanced nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. He also had intimate and extensive nuclear contacts with Saudi Arabia. And, as my colleague Paul Kelly wrote on this page yesterday, Pakistani nuclear officials certainly had meetings with al-Qa'ida.
When all this was revealed Khan went on Pakistani television, confessed his guilt, exonerated his government of complicity and is now under house arrest. Musharraf has formally pardoned him - Khan will not face any trial - and will not allow US officials to interview him.
There are only two explanations of Khan. One is that he managed to deceive his own government, despite using a vast network of supporting officials, countless international trips, the shipment of large quantities of materials and so on. Musharraf repeated this line in Canberra. Of course, were it true it would mean that Pakistan is the most incompetent nuclear state in the history of the world.
The other possibility is that the Pakistani Government, in which Musharraf has been a critically influential military figure for many years, knew all about it. That would mean that Islamabad's deliberate actions have been the single most important factor spreading nuclear weapons around this planet.
Then there is Musharraf's record on terrorism. At his Press Club speech he bewailed the formation of Afghanistan's Taliban in the mid-'90s and said Pakistan was not to blame. Yet many analysts describe the Taliban as precisely a creation of Pakistan, especially of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. The Taliban was a perfect expression of Pakistan's long-term strategic aim to hold Afghanistan as a sphere of influence.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, Musharraf made the most dramatic play of anyone, turning 180 degrees and helping the US destroy the Taliban. Until then, Pakistan had had extensive links to al-Qa'ida as well. Certainly in recent months it has been active in battling al-Qa'ida, rounding up a number of its leaders and handing them over to the US.
Musharraf has earned endless US, and even Australian, praise for his post-9/11 switch. This is understandable. The war on terror needs all the allies it can get. But in truth the switch may owe less to vision and more to desperation. Given the mood of the US in reaction to 9/11, it is not at all clear that Musharraf would have survived had he remained allied to the Taliban.
It all raises the question of Musharraf's real ideological commitments. He was perfectly happy to go along with the radical, nasty Islamisation not only of Afghanistan, but of many of the institutions of Pakistan itself, before 9/11. Even now, intelligence reports suggest Pakistan is not taking serious action against the Taliban forces that have regrouped in Pakistan. Similarly, the infiltration of Pakistani-based terrorists into the Indian territory of Kashmir continues.
This is an old game for Musharraf. In 1999, when then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was holding a peace summit with his Indian counterpart, Musharraf was secretly infiltrating troops into Kashmir for what nearly became a full-blown war. And of course Musharraf came to power in a coup and has a tame-cat parliament to endorse him. Within that parliament he relies mostly on the support of Islamist parties even while he proclaims himself an opponent of Islamism.
What is he doing in Australia? The only logical explanation is that Pakistan is obsessed with India and tends to make an effort wherever it sees India doing well. And the Australia-India relationship has been growing in leaps and bounds.
While it's sensible to encourage Musharraf in the right direction, the Australian system should not make any false equations between a semi-rogue nation retreating from the brink, such as Pakistan, and Asia's largest democracy in India.