Soon after General Musharraf took over as the head of Pakistan, Ardeshir Cowasjee, a columnist for the popular English daily Dawn, was talking to a women's delegation. Telling them that this was perhaps the best time in recent years to get some outdated misogynist laws repealed, Cowasjee had said, "While the General is batting, ask away."
This, more than anything else, succinctly summed up the initial euphoria that Pakistan's intelligentsia felt with General Pervez Musharraf's rule. To many Pakistanis, it seemed that this gallant and decorated army general hailing from a modern and secular middle class background could deliver. The two earlier democratic governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, with their corruption and nepotism, not to mention the constant pandering to right-wing sentiments, had left many people disillusioned. Musharraf couldn't deliver all that he had promised, but as a start he did take some baby steps toward modernity and has tried to keep extremely retrograde Islamic laws at bay.
In the meantime, 9/11 happened and Musharraf was under pressure from the US to bring scores of Taliban and other terror outfits, operating both out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, to book. The armed incursions that the Pakistani army had to make made Musharraf extremely unpopular both within the army and among his own people. Twice in the last few years he came close to being assassinated. So fraught with danger is his job that, in the words of the Time magazine he holds the "world's most dangerous job." There are also rumors that he owes his position, indeed his very life, to US intelligence, without whose help and support he wouldn't have survived.
In his memoir, In the Line of Fire, Musharraf talks about Pakistan, Islam, Al Qaeda, and the looming threat of terrorism - and Pakistanís position in that war. Readers are also told how his country was unwittingly drawn into this war, and how he had no choice but to cooperate.
The book begins with glimpses from his childhood, the years spent in Turkey (where his father served in the Embassy), and his youth in the Pakistan Military Academy. From the Academy to the Army House (the home of Pakistan's Army Chief) to the Head of State, the journey was filled with dangers. We are taken to that evening in 1999, the night of the counter-coup (as he calls it), when as the Army Chief, he was denied permission on the orders of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to land his aircraft in Karachi. And how by a counter-coup, he and his associates captured power and deposed Sharif and his government.
The next few chapters deal with rebuilding the economy. Although it is well known that Musharraf did initiate an economic liberalization program spearheaded by his Finance Minister, New York banker Shaukat Aziz, this section is mainly a self-laudatory exercise, as is the following section where he outlines his achievements in the war on terror.
However, to his credit, he is extremely critical of the appeasement of the religious right in Pakistan. And of two of Pakistan erstwhile leaders, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, for their appeasement and kowtowing to the religious fundamentalists. In his own words,
By the time his regime ended, I had come to the conclusion that Bhutto was the worst thing that had ever happened to Pakistan. I still maintain that he did more damage to the country than anyone else, damage from which we have still not fully recovered. Among other things he was the first to try to appease the religious right. He banned liquor and gambling and declared Friday a holiday instead of Sunday. This was hypocrisy at its peak, because everyone knew that he did not believe in any one of these actions.
Later about Zia:
President Zia, in the 1980s, completed what Bhutto had started in the dying phase of his regime- the total appeasement of the religious lobby. Zia found it convenient to align himself with the religious right and create a supportive constituency for himself. He started overemphasizing and overparticipating in religious rituals to show his alignment with the religious lobby. Even music and entertainment became officially taboo, whereas I am told that in private he personally enjoyed good semiclassical music.
And his humor upon hearing that Mullah Omar, the Afghan cleric leader of Taliban had escaped:
In the first week of December 2001, Mullah Omar, sensing defeat, escaped on a Honda motorcycle and went into hiding. Once when Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan asked me about the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, I told him that Omar had escaped on a Honda and added jokingly that the best advertisement for Honda would be an advertising campaign showing Mullah Omar fleeing on one of its motorcycles with his robes and a beard flowing in the wind.
Interspersed are stories of his love for an East Pakistani Bengali girl, his arranged marriage to his wife, Sehba, their long courtship, and the births of his children. However, the General does not tell all. He keeps some of his nation's secrets just that way. While he mentions the secession of Pakistan's East Wing, thanks to the aid from India, he conveniently forgets the horrific violence that the Pakistani Army unleashed in 1970-71 on the people of the erstwhile East Pakistan. This terror that continued for months and left millions dead and homeless eventually led the Eastern part of Pakistan to secede and form a new nation, Bangladesh, in 1972. He is also silent about the proxy war being carried out in Kashmir by terrorists trained in Pakistan.
Mum is the word on how Pakistan's Intelligence Agency, the notorious Inter Services Intelligence,or ISI,that cut its teeth on training terrorists from the Soviet-US days in Afghanistan, became a mischief-monger aiding and abetting terror outfits from Kashmir to Chenchnya. No, Pervez Musharraf keeps the bad news under wraps. And sings paens to himself and his attempt to transform Pakistan into a modern state.