Book Review

Under the Gun

The book that caused a stir. (Photo: Komail Aijazuddin)

Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s new memoir offers an underrepresented perspective: that of a moderate Muslim U.S. ally in the war against terror. That’s reason enough for his book to be read by those who think Islam is hiding behind a veil.

This is more than an autobiography. It’s also a DIY manual for army Bonapartists on how to pull off a coup (as Musharraf did when he took the presidency in 1999). And it’s a manifesto gussied up argue to a world unsure of Muslim states — especially a nuclear Muslim state — that Islam, nuclear capability and enlightened moderation can co-exist.

Musharraf’s appearance on The Daily Show, and President George W. Bush’s unequivocal plug (“buy the book”) marks a huge ascension from the days after Musharraf dramatically seized power and became persona non grata in the West. That year, then-President Bill Clinton stopped briefly in Pakistan, but refused to be seen in public with his host.

Now, though, Pakistan is hot, in part by dint of its geostrategic position. Situated conveniently next to Iran, Afghanistan and India, south of China and north of Saudi Arabia, its value in international politics has skyrocketed. Readers will have a chance to learn why Pakistan, so often the tacky guest no one really invited to the party, is now so favored.

Musharraf explains what he thinks was wrong with previous governance of Pakistan (nepotism and ineptitude) and why a Western democratic system cannot be simply be grafted on: “I ardently believe that no country can progress without democracy, but democracy has to be tailored in accordance with each nation's peculiar environment,” he writes. It’s an environment so peculiar, apparently, that the road to democracy in developing countries can be paved only with dictatorships. Still, he clearly recognizes his own existence as a military leader with democratic ideals, and defends his antithetical position.

Musharraf considers himself a lucky man. Reading his story, we can’t really argue. As a boy he was thought to be dead after falling from a mango tree. He escaped death twice during Pakistan’s war with India in 1965. And three times, pure chance kept him from being on doomed trains, planes and automobiles.

His stubborn resilience has imbued him with a sense of destiny, and his enemies with a grudge. Musharraf repeatedly touts his anti-terrorism victories. You can tell he was giddy about informing Bush of the capture of al-Qaeda operative Abu Faraj al-Libbi, whom he coyly identifies as “the one al-Qaeda operative whose name Bush knew, apart from Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri."

To his credit, Musharraf stresses that Pakistan’s anti-terrorism position is self-serving. He (now famously) recounts how he stood up to former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, saying that Armitage threatened that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan “back into the Stone Age,” should Pakistan decide to side with the Taliban. This evoked a denial from Armitage, a grin from Bush and a tsunami of disquiet in both the United States and in Pakistan.

Musharraf’s description of the manhunt to find executed journalist Daniel Pearl reveals previously unknown details about this and other cases. For example, he says that Pearl’s killers were hired mercenaries rather than religious zealots, and that the ISI (Pakistan’s secret service) donned burkas to shadow a suspected terrorist through Lahore’s busy bazaars.

He’s at his liveliest when discussing tactics, strategies, battles and missiles. But his musings on situations off the battlefield, even the diplomatic ones, are conspicuously few. One is aware that he views himself as, above all, an honest soldier who sees life through a soldier's eyes. His ideas, ambitions and prejudices are the outpourings of a man whom destiny has elevated from humble beginnings to self-anointed supremacy. (Revealingly, he describes the man he chose as finance minister, and later prime minister, as “a self-made man from humble middle-class beginnings, like me.”)

To a generation of young Pakistanis, Musharraf's book provides insight into the traumas of premature nationhood, of achieving a independence on a shoestring. He describes movingly how his father — a civil servant in the fledgling Foreign Office in 1947 — had to cope with a shortage of office supplies.

“My father would use the thorns of a desert bush that grows everywhere in Karachi to pin his papers together,” he wrote. “He would also sometimes write with a thorn, by dipping it in ink.” Some of those about whom Musharraf has written disparagingly might be thinking: like father, like son.

Musharraf is popular at home, both for what he’s done (passing landmark laws requiring parliamentary posts be filled only by college graduates, thus helping to foster an economic boom), and for what he says he aspires to do. He’s clear about “what must be done to sustain Pakistan on a path of progress and prosperity.” But will he now want another seven years in power to do it?

Book Title: In the Line of Fire: A Memoir
Author: Pervez Musharraf
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: September 25, 2006
Pages: 368

Komail Aijazuddin is a senior at New York University, where he is pursuing degrees in journalism, art history and studio art. He is co-editor of Brownstone Magazine, NYU's journal about minority issues. This article was first published on NYU Livewire, a biweekly service supplying newspapers and magazines with feature stories about and for young people in college and their twenties.