General Musharraf’s state visit to the US ends up being a promotional tour for his memoirs. But not everyone is buying what he’s selling.
He was cool and relaxed in a baby blue shirt, deep blue tie and navy jacket. His hair was expertly blow-dried. As the TV cameras zoomed in, President Pervez Musharraf looked slick, sartorially and otherwise. And when veteran interviewer Steve Kroft of the iconic newsmagazine show, ‘60 Minutes,’ asked Musharraf about the message former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage delivered to the Pakistan government in the days immediately following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Musharraf didn’t miss a beat. “The director of intelligence told me that [Armitage] said, ‘Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.’”
Kroft tried to seem surprised, like he wasn’t expecting that response, and then confirmed, “Richard Armitage said you should, ‘Be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age?’”
With a slight smile, Musharraf nodded quickly and said, “Yeah.”
This exchange, in reference, to statements made in President Musharraf’s memoir, In the Line of Fire, and which aired on Sunday, September 24, across America on CBS, should have sent the sales of his book skyrocketing on Monday morning. But the fact is, the comment already had pushed the book into the pre-release sales stratosphere before Sunday. For the show that aired Sunday was actually recorded three days earlier and the hot piece of geo-political gossip was leaked to the press the same day. By Friday morning, it was headline news across America, and Pakistan for that matter.
It didn’t take long before a reporter asked President Bush to comment on it the next day at the White House. Bush claimed that the first time he heard of the alleged threat was in the newspaper that morning. “I was taken aback by the harshness of the words,” he said. Richard Armitage denies the statement, but admits to having a very “strong conversation” with the then Chief of ISI. “I’ve never made a threat in my life that I couldn’t back up,” says the barrel-chested ex-diplomat. “I wasn’t authorised to say such a thing. As I couldn’t back up that threat, I never said it.”
The authenticity of the statement, and its sheer audacity, had the world talking for days. It was the perfect bait to reel in the media and book-buying public. On Friday evening, Musharraf’s memoir sat at number 122 in the pre-release sales list on Amazon.com. Two days later, and even before the ‘60 Minutes’ segment was aired, In the Line of Fire hit number 11.
So who leaked the news? Was it someone inside CBS, or was the whole thing orchestrated by someone at Simon & Schuster. Well, for all intents and purposes it amounts to the same thing. Simon & Schuster is the publishing arm of CBS Corporation, who is of course, the broadcaster of ‘60 Minutes.’
It didn’t take long for people to figure out what was happening. Between speeches at the UN, meetings with President Bush and his official book launch, the President of Pakistan hit the news and talk show circuit with a rare zeal and energy. Besides ‘60 Minutes,’ Musharraf had appearances on CNN’s ‘Situation Room’ with Wolf Blitzer, the ‘Today Show’ and amazingly a late-night comedy talk show that specialises in fake news, ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart.
After Musharraf’s winning performance on ‘The Daily Show,’ where with a cup of jasmine tea in his hand, he answered Stewart’s first question of “Where’s Osama bin Laden?” with, “I don’t know. You know where he is? You lead on, we’ll follow you,” the US media was again abuzz with Musharraf talk.
In The Washington Post the next day, Libby Copeland wrote, “The President of Pakistan has been in the United States lately to discuss matters of global importance and – in his spare time – to flog a memoir.” According to the Post’s staff writer, “Last night he appeared on the ‘Daily Show,’ where he demonstrated both a sense of humour and a deep desire to sell In the Line of Fire.”
It seemed, though, that Musharraf had one more thing on his agenda: attacking Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In one-on-one interviews, in press conferences and even during his book launch, Musharraf wasted no opportunity to reject claims that Pakistan houses either Taliban headquarters or training grounds. He shifted the blame for Afghanistan’s worsening woes squarely onto Karzai’s shoulders, saying that Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pushtun, is feeling alienated and there is a risk that the non-Taliban Pushtun will join the resistance. “Don’t let them join the Taliban and fight a people’s war against you,” declared Musharraf from the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, where his memoirs were being officially launched. “This must be understood, and as soon as President Karzai understands his own country’s environment, the easier it will be for him.” His final jab at Karzai elicited laughter from the crowd.
Karzai didn’t take Musharraf’s accusations lying down. He routinely complained the Musharraf regime was not doing enough to wipe out the roots of terrorism in Pakistan: reining in those madrassahs that spew hatred and are used as fronts to train militants. In a veiled reference to Pakistan on September 21 Karzai said, “You cannot train a snake. It will come and bite you.”
It’s no secret that the two leaders have been publicly blaming each other for months now for the escalating violence in Afghanistan. In anticipation of the Iftar dinner that President Bush was hosting on September 27 for the two Muslim leaders, the media described the meeting as one between Bush’s “bickering anti-terror allies,” who were involved in endless “public sniping.”
With the book’s official launch on Monday September 25, multiple controversial stories were lifted from the book and hit the headlines each day as separate news pieces. According to the book, General Musharraf “war-gamed” a confrontation with the United States, the CIA secretly paid Pakistan “hundreds of millions of dollars in bounties” for the capture of Al-Qaeda fighters, Indian scientists may have bought black-market nuclear equipment via the Dr. A.Q. Khan network, and the now-captured Al-Qaeda number three operative, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, took part in Daniel Pearl’s killing.
But none of that was as interesting as Armitage’s “Stone Age” threat. The media meanwhile, seemed to latch on to the tense relations between Musharraf and Karzai more than any of the other memoir stories. And when the media weighed in, they generally sided with Karzai. “The real war on terror is going on in Afghanistan, and, frankly, it’s not at all clear that we’re winning,” said William Milam, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. “Pakistan could help by keeping the Taliban out of there.”
Barnett Rubin, of New York University, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 21 that Pakistan was “the global centre of terrorism.” The South Asia expert said, “[Islamabad] has done virtually nothing to disrupt the command and control of the Taliban, which is based in Pakistan.” He argued that foreign influences in the destabilization of Afghanistan emanate from Pakistan, “regardless of the fact that President Musharraf speaks good English, wears a suit and says things that we like to hear.”
The peace deal between the Pakistan army and pro-Taliban militants in September, which pledged to halt cross-border movement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, received plenty of bad press during Musharraf’s visit too. U.S. critics generally believe that Pakistan’s recent anti-terror efforts, instead of cracking down on extremists, give pro-Taliban fighters a free rein in the area. An article in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard read, “One intelligence source has opined that the gains of the past five years were reversed in mere weeks with the loss of Waziristan and the release of 2,500 fighters.”
On the Friday before his book launch, Musharraf, while at the White House, stated, “The deal is not at all with the Taliban. This deal is against the Taliban. The deal is with the tribal elders.”
But during Musharraf’s visit, a report emerged from Afghanistan that provided ammunition to his critics. According to one U.S. military officer, the number of attacks against US troops on Afghanistan’s eastern frontier have tripled since July 31. That’s exactly around the time the cease-fire began on June 25. The final negotiations and signing on September 5th simply cemented the previous understanding. This story got major traction in the US after being picked up by USAToday under the headline “Afghan attacks up threefold since Pakistani truce with tribesmen, US says.” Newsday ran a similar story, but added that there was more to the Waziristan Accord than was officially disclosed.
Despite all these criticisms, Bush was, at least publicly, buying everything Musharraf was selling. Media across the U.S. was quick to pick up on these words from the U.S. President during a White House press conference on September 22: “When the President [Musharraf] looks me in the eye and says the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanisation of the people and that there won’t be a Taliban and there won’t be Al-Qaeda, I believe him,” Bush said.
Of course, there are many that don’t buy what either are selling. In an article from McClatchy Newspapers, reporter Ron Hutcheson – McClatchy is America’s second largest newspaper company and Hutcheson’s coverage of Musharraf was consistently harsh – Bush had “little choice” but to accept Musharraf’s word. “The US depends heavily on Pakistani cooperation in the fight against Osama bin Laden, and Bush risks jeopardizing the relationship by getting too tough with the Pakistani military ruler,” writes Hutcheson.
But Bush went beyond avoiding “getting too tough” with his Pakistani counterpart. On September 22, on the White House lawn, after Musharraf deflected a question about the “Stone Age” threat by saying that he was “honour-bound” to his publisher not to comment on his memoir before its official release, Bush piped in with a unique plug for In the Line of Fire. “In other words, ‘buy the book,’ is what he is saying,” said Bush.
A Los Angeles Times editorial wrote this about the incident: “International diplomacy has always been dependant on external factors, but it has seldom hinged on the terms of a book contract. At a time when the developing world is protesting what it sees as US unilateralism and bullying…Musharraf’s claim threw gasoline on the bonfire.”
There were those, though, that were more envious than critical. A senior publicist who works for a rival publishing house commented on the exchange and was quoted in The Washington Times as saying, “I’m listening to this stuff and thinking, ‘This kind of talk is priceless.’”
Even after leaving the U.S., Musharraf managed to plug his book on TV. His talk and Q&A session at Cornell University on September 26 was broadcast on Book TV, on October 1 and 2.
Based on that alone, it could be argued that his trip was a success. The media ate up all the juicy tidbits in his book, never mind that the accuracy of many of Musharraf’s versions of historical events were questioned and more than a handful of reader reviews on Amazon.com described his tome as “a pack of lies.” Musharraf was also able to sell a few copies and promote his version of the current Afghan crisis as well. And even though many in the U.S. media disagree with his version of reality, it does not matter. What does matter is what the President of the United States thinks. And for now it seems that he still considers Musharraf a trustworthy “friend.” Or maybe he is just better than the alternatives.
Text reprinted with the permission of Newsline Publications (Pvt.) Ltd.