Wed, Aug 01, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Musharraf under pressure on many fronts

Some see him as a reformer and an ally of the West, but others believe he's a dictator who secretly supports the Taliban. Either way, the general finds himself under siege

By Jason Burke  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A few days after taking power in October 1999, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf called his first press conference in the garden of Army House, the colonial-era mini-mansion which is the residence of the commander of the world's second-largest Muslim state's land-based armed forces.

The general walked out of his home in his army khaki, campaign medals, paratrooper's wings and commando flashes proudly on display, and advanced across the perfect lawns toward the media. Suddenly, he was intercepted by his media officer. A swift exchange, the general returned indoors and five minutes later, now clad in light brown slacks and a striped shirt, he gave his first interviews.

The question over which habit best suits Musharraf has been posed many times throughout his eight-year rule. Is he a ruthless military dictator desperately clinging to power? Is he a successful general seeking the stability that will allow his troubled country to make a successful transition to true democracy? Indeed, should he instead, as his fiercest detractors in the US and in India claim, be wearing the black turban of the Taliban?

The question is now more pertinent than ever. Last week's visit of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to Pakistan attests to Musharraf's status as a key global player. After bloody violence at a mosque in the center of Islamabad, riots in Karachi, a slap administered by Pakistan's courts after a clumsy bid to get rid of the nation's top judge, approaching elections and a string of failed assassination attempts, the 63-year-old career soldier and president is looking more fragile than for a long time.

Not that he would admit it.

"The president does not do `fragile,'" one official who worked closely with Musharraf said. "He was a commando after all. He's all about keeping the momentum, keeping his enemies on their toes. He's in perpetual motion. Frankly, it's exhausting."

Musharraf was born in New Delhi, four years before the bloody partition of 1947 that saw the former British imperial South Asian possessions split into India and Pakistan.

outsider

His family, lower middle-class, educated, comfortable but not rich, were among those who, passing the corpses along the train tracks and roads, were sufficiently fearful of their future in a majority Hindu state to move to the new Islamic Republic of Pakistan. He was thus a mohajir, not a native of Pakistan, and so something of an outsider in his new homeland.

Musharraf's first interviews that afternoon in 1999 in the grounds of Army House were to the BBC and to Turkish television -- in fluent Turkish. Musharraf spent much of his childhood in Ankara, where his bureaucrat father was posted, and learned both the language and a profound admiration for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who, through persuasion, wily politics internally and externally, physical force and sheer strength of character, created the modern, secular state of Turkey.

Returning to Karachi at 13, Musharraf, something of a tearaway with a taste for firecrackers, was enrolled at a Catholic missionary school where, according to the autobiography In the Line of Fire published last year, he learned to fight.

"I became known as a tough guy whom you don't mess with," he wrote.

Unsurprisingly, his memoir recounts that the future president excelled at sports and, though his academic record was not perfect, "winning a spot [at Pakistan's military academy] was a cinch."

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