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Pakistan's night of the long knives

g and compass

Asia Times

Pakistan's night of the long knives

October 9, 2001

By Nadeem Malik in Islamabad and
Syed Saleem Shahzad in Karachi

Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf, at the same time as extending his role as chief of army staff for an indefinite period, has opted to follow United States foreign policy goals, booting "core generals" out of power and paving the way for increased Pakistani involvement in ultimately setting up a government of choice in Afghanistan

Diplomatic sources in Islamabad claimed that the US retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan on Sunday night were specifically aimed at the positions of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, which triggered an immediate reaction from senior pro-Taliban members in Musharraf's inner ring of military heads. Initially, the US had said that it was only interested in "smoking out" Osama bin Laden, who lives in exile in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's top military brass went into a late-night emergency meeting soon after the attacks began. Subsequently, Musharraf promoted Lieutenant-General Mohammad Aziz Ahmed Kahn (Corps Commander Lahore) to the rank of four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCS), a ranking but largely ceremonial post, and forced the retirement of the powerful General Mahmood Ahmad, the Chief of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and General Muzaffer Usmani, the deputy Chief of Army Staff.

Musharraf elevated his Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant-General Mohammed Yusuf, who was third in line in seniority, to the revived position of Vice Chief of Army Staff and a four-star general, higher than Usmani. In line with the traditions of the Pakistani army, Usmani requested retirement because he had been superseded by a junior. Similarly, Aziz Khan was elevated above Mahmood Ahmed, who also requested retirement. General Ehsanul Haq, the corps commander of Peshawar, is likely to be appointed as the new director-general of the ISI.

Although Mahmood, a liberal-minded officer, appeared to be a close friend and confidante of Musharraf's, sources say that his ambitious nature has always been a threat to Musharraf and he was perceived as one who might take advantage of any trouble.

Kahn, Mahmood and Usmani were key players in helping Musharraf stage the bloodless coup that brought him into power on October 12, 1999. However, the men were known for their strong sympathies for the Taliban regime that the ISI helped install in Afghanistan in 1996, and for their support of an ethnic Pashtun-dominated administration should the present Taliban administration be ousted, due to wide ethnic and religious support within the Pakistan army in particular, and on its tribal borders in general.

The way now appears clear for Pakistan to push, along with the US, for a broad-based government in Afghanistan to include all ethnic groups, and even possibly including the former monarch. At a press conference on Monday, Musharraf said that it was the goal of the US and of Pakistan to "bring peace into Afghanistan". "Secondly, whatever dispensation [is set up], it must be broad-based, it must be multi-ethnic ... no political dispensation should be seen to be imposed on Afghanistan ... a political dispensation should be facilitated rather than being imposed on the people of Afghanistan."

Diplomatic sources in Islamabad say that the military changes are meant to bring in army officials who will act as the "change leaders" in Kabul, at the same time giving immense powers to Musharraf to decide the fate of his Afghan policy. On Monday Musharraf also specifically warned the Northern Alliance not to take advantage of the present situation. The alliance is fighting a civil war against the Taliban and is largely hostile to Pakistan.

Diplomats in Islamabad say that Musharraf will be tempted to remain close to the US and the Western world to survive in power as a backlash within the army and from religious groups is expected. He might well need external support if militant religious groups and tribal Pashtuns join hands with the Taliban for a new holy war against both the US and Pakistan, which they have claimed they will do in the event of attacks on Afghanistan.

Heavily armed police contingents tear gassed anti-US protesters in Rawalpindi, Quetta, Peshawar and Karachi on late Sunday night and on Monday morning. Now, though, Musharraf appears confident that this time around the Americans will not abandon Islamabad, as happened after the first Afghan jihad once the Soviet troops had withdrawn.

((c)2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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