Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is vital in the U.S.-led effort to dismantle the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. His forces have helped capture top Al-Qaeda operatives and hundreds of other terrorists. But he is also a man under fire: he narrowly escaped death in two assassination attempts last month. VOA’s Brent Hurd spoke to scholars about the dangers he is facing and what is at stake if he should be removed from power.
The road to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s official residence just outside the capital, Islamabad, is fraught with danger. On December 14, his motorcade crossed a bridge along this road on the way to his home. Moments later, a remote-controlled bomb exploded under the bridge.
“There was an explosion just half-a-minute or one-minute after we crossed (the bridge),” President Musharraf says. “I felt the explosion in my car. It was certainly a terrorist act and certainly it was me who was targeted.”
Eleven days later and less than 500 meters from the destroyed bridge, suicide bombers plowed explosive-packed vehicles into the presidential motorcade. At least 14 people were killed in the attack but the president emerged unscathed. For the second time in two weeks, he appeared on state television, calmly reassuring his supporters that the latest attempt on his life was no cause for concern.
“We went faster, but in front of us there was another bomb which blasted. Again, nothing happened to us and we stopped safe and secure” he says.
The most recent attack marks the third near miss for President Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999. Last year in April a car packed with explosives failed to detonate as the President’s motorcade drove past. He blames these attacks on opponents of his battle against religious militancy in Pakistan.
“It is these extremists, these terrorists, these militants who are out not only to damage our nation but bring a bad name to our great religion,” the president says. “And I have always been saying that the greatest danger to our nation is not external. It is internal and it comes from religious and sectarian extremism.”
Yet some analysts argue that external forces did play a role in these latest attacks. Kamran Bokhari is a geopolitical analyst for Strategic Forecasting Incorporated, a research organization in Austin, Texas.
“You could not tell from the first. You had to wait for the second attack to see there is an Al-Qaeda element and that would be the suicide bombing aspect,” he says. “The details that are emerging from the investigation are that at least one individual who is said to be a Chechen man was a suicide bomber. That would point to a non-Pakistani hand. And back in September, the Al-Qaeda number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri released an audiotape that said President Musharraf is a traitor and needs to be overthrown. That would lead one to believe that they would do it. Plus they have the capability and the evidence points to that direction.”
Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington agrees that Al-Qaeda has every reason to take President Musharraf out of power.
“Above all, Al-Qaeda and its allies in the Sunni Islamic extremist camp are those who want President Musharraf dead,” he says. “He has done a great deal to damage Al-Qaeda. The most senior Al-Qaeda figures arrested so far have been captured in Pakistan and undoubtedly his government has damaged their operation very badly.”
Mr. Lieven says President Musharraf’s support of the U.S.-led war on terror has angered many Islamic hard-liners in Pakistan. After the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, he made a bold move to reverse his country’s support of the Taleban government next-door in Afghanistan. Rajan Menon, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, says President Musharraf is trying to maintain his support of U.S. policy without alienating the Islamists in his country.
“It’s sort of like riding a tiger,” he says. “There are these forces in Pakistan, which may be only part of the Pakistani political scene, but they are certainly there -- the groups one could call radical Islamists. They are at odds with Musharraf in two respects: one is the alignment with the United States and the abandonment of the Taleban. In parts of Pakistan there is enormous sympathy for the Taleban and Al-Qaeda. They were seen as forces that were able to stand up to the United States that counts for something in radical Islamic circles.”
Mr. Menon says these Islamists can be found not only in the political parties, but in the military as well. Many feel betrayed by President Musharraf. Could they have added their fingers on the trigger to kill the president?
Analyst Kamran Bokhari of Strategic Forecasting Incorporated says the latest two attacks indicate that indeed someone in the military or intelligence services may be working with those trying to kill the president.
“The route of the president is not widely known, particularly after he banned radical groups,” he says. “For someone to be able to know and to do it twice suggests that they had inside information. One can’t help but think that someone within the security apparatus is providing information to those who are coordinating these attacks.”
Mr. Bokhari says this makes the situation all the more dangerous for President Musharraf. Rajan Menon of Lehigh University says the stakes are very high in Pakistan, considering its geo-political position with Afghanistan on one frontier and India on the other.
“The Musharraf regime is a personalized regime,” he says, “that is to say, if he were to depart the scene, whether peacefully or not, the entire situation is up for grabs because it is not clear what the mechanism for succession would be and how that succession would occur. So the assassination attempts on one individual will take on a much larger consequence, especially in a country that is driven by all sorts of differences - the debate on what course the country should go between the secularists and the Islamists. And the fact that his alignment with the United States does not sit well with a very large percentage of the Pakistan population. It is in that context that the survival of an individual takes on a largest consequence because it really has to do with the question of what happens to this very important country strategically located, now with nuclear weapons were something to happen to the president.”
Many observers believe it’s unlikely the assailants will give up after their latest failures. What if eventually they should succeed? Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace considers the possibility. “The general assumption is that the army would remain in control at least for the moment and would put into supreme power another general who would not do any kind of U-turn,” he says. “The real question is what this new figure would do as far as Al-Qaeda is concerned. That we just don’t know. I don’t think that most US analysts believe that this would lead to an Islamic revolution or a meltdown of the Pakistani State. The big question is whether the assassination of Musharraf would frighten the high army command into being more tolerant of the Islamic extremists. Or whether on the other hand it would anger them so much that they would crack down harder.”
After the latest assassination attempt on December 25, Pakistan declared a national day of Thanksgiving. And President Musharraf says he remains resolved to rid his country of all extremism and terrorism.