Pakistan foils coup plot

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - A plot to stage a coup against Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf soon after his recent return from the US has been uncovered, resulting in the arrest of more than 40 people.

Most of those arrested are middle-ranking Pakistani Air Force officers, while civilian arrests include a son of a serving brigadier in the army. All of those arrested are Islamists, contacts in Rawalpindi, where the military is based, divulged to Asia Times Online.

The conspiracy was discovered through the naivety of an air force
officer who this month used a cell phone to activate a high-tech rocket aimed at the president's residence in Rawalpindi. The rocket was recovered, and its activating mechanism revealed the officer's telephone number. His arrest led to the other arrests.

Other rockets were then recovered from various high security zones, including the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Islamabad.

According to Asia Times Online sources, more arrests can be expected, both military and civilian.

Several assassination attempts have been made on Musharraf since he took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, and in all attempts there was a connection with the armed forces, especially the air force. However, this time it appears that beyond the attack on the president, a coup against his administration was also planned.

This plot takes place amid major developments. While in the US, Musharraf, in a meeting with President George W Bush, once again pledged his commitment to the US-led "war on terror". He drew world attention to his belief that the real threat were the Taliban in Afghanistan, and not al-Qaeda. He subsequently agreed to terms with Washington for a massive joint operation against the Taliban.

Still in the US, Musharraf also claimed that former ISI officials were supporting the Taliban and he sent instructions to the director general of the ISI to check on top officials, including retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul and retired Colonel Ameer Sultan (known as Colonel Imam). Gul is a former director general of the ISI and Ameer is considered as the founding father of the Taliban movement. He was Pakistan's consul-general in Herat in western Afghanistan when the Taliban emerged in the mid-1990s.

Musharraf also instructed that a list be compiled of all retired officers who had been involved in any significant intelligence operations and who were suspected of still being sympathetic towards the Taliban.

At the same time, he began to backtrack from an agreement Islamabad had made with the Pakistani Taliban in the Waziristan tribal areas for the release of al-Qaeda-linked people detained in Pakistan. Instead, more were arrested, including Shah Mehboob, a brother of former jihad veteran and member of parliament, Shah Abdul Aziz. Also arrested was a British-born suspected member of al-Qaeda, known as Abdullah.

"This is just one glimpse of upcoming events as a result of Musharraf's pro-American policies, which are in contrast to the thinking pattern of Pakistan's state institutions," said retired squadron leader Khalid Khawaja, a former ISI official who went to Afghanistan after his forced retirement and fought alongside Osama bin Laden against Soviet Russia in the 1980s. (Khawaja features on Musharraf's list mentioned above.)

"Musharraf always blamed the madrassas [Islamic seminaries] for extremism, but all plots against him or his government go back to the armed forces. But he still does not realize why this happens," Khawaja maintained.

"He says retired ISI officials are involved in supporting the Taliban. I say there is no difference between retired and serving ones. All of them have the same approach, mindset and conviction. The retired ones act freely, while the serving ones have some job constraints, but both think in the same way. The present move of a coup against Musharraf is the writing on the wall that if he continues with pro-American policies, he will continue to face problems like that," Khawaja said.

"These governments, whether it is Indian or Pakistani, compel their forces to work for their strategic requirements, and when a particular operation is over, they talk about peace and wash their hands of everything they have done in the past. For instance, the Kargil operation [the Pakistani incursion into Indian-administered Kashmir in 1999]. Pakistan initially called it an action by the 'mujahideen'. Six months later, they started awarding medals to their army officers for their performance in Kargil. What does it prove? It proves that governments are personally involved in everything, whether it is the Kargil operation or the Kashmiri resistance, and then they blame the mujahideen or whatever."

Khawaja said that whatever officials did during their service in the ISI, it was on state instructions, and if the state tried to punish these same officials, the result would be the type of events that are happening now.

It is all too apparent that Pakistan's head and tail are moving in opposite directions: while Musharraf is fully behind the "war on terror", the strategic institutions are reluctant to follow Islamabad's instructions.

This is not something new, but over the years Musharraf and hardliners within the army have been able to live with one another. Had a hardline ruler been in Musharraf's place, Western countries would have tightened the noose around Pakistan and its security institutions would not have been able to manipulate their support of the Taliban. Because of Musharraf, Western countries are not prepared to be tough on Pakistan, which allows the hardliners to continue their activities.

Musharraf is acutely aware of the undercurrents in the army, which historically draws its inspiration from Islam, and more recently from the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, when anti-US sentiment also took root. Musharraf exploited this by convincing the West of his usefulness in keeping the army - "full of extremism" - under control, something that a democratically elected government could not do, he argued

This cozy arrangement, or uneasy truce, between Musharraf and hardline Islamists in the ranks is breaking down as the US is demanding that Musharraf do something about the resurgent Taliban. He has responded, as outlined above, by cracking down on Taliban supporters and sympathizers. These people, both in uniform and out, have in turn given their reponse: they are not prepared to throw away all the gains that have been made in Afghanistan.