Holding out for a hero

<strong>In the Line of Fire: a memoir</strong>

Pervez Musharraf <em>Simon & Schuster, 352pp, £18.

President Pervez Musharraf, the last action hero who moonlights as the military dictator of Pakistan, dedicates his midterm memoirs to "the people of Pakistan". The poor, long-suffering denizens of that country deserve "selfless leadership" and a "better future". That they certainly do. But unfortunately for Musharraf, they do not see him either as selfless or as much of a leader. They do, as he states, spend a great deal of time praying - but they are actually praying for his quick exit; and they know a better future cannot be ushered in as long as the military is in power. On the evidence of this hastily dictated book, their prayers are in vain.

The book begins with an explosion. Indeed, several explosions. On his way to Army House, evildoers try to kill our hero. They blow up his heavily protected car. Once. Twice. He escapes by the proverbial skin of his teeth. It seems that destiny always smiles on him. He reflects on his military career, and we are treated to flashbacks of the times he has cheated death. He misses a helicopter ride to play bridge: the helicopter crashes. He is left behind by the plane that carries the military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq to his explosive death. He manages to engineer a coup while on a flight from Colombo to Karachi, and lands minutes before his plane runs out of fuel. Yes, indeed: God knows which side the bread is buttered.

The book cuts to "Fifty Years Before" and we discover that, "in His Mercy", God made the young Pervez a highly gifted and talented lad. He was born in Delhi, ready to stand up to bullies the moment he arrived. His elder brother was born a genius, complete with a civil service examination certificate in his hand. His father was blessed with a lineage that went right back to the Prophet Muhammad. After partition his family migrated to Karachi, where the young Pervez enjoyed playing hoaxes. Then the family moved to Turkey. In Ankara, our star learns to shoot, love dogs and admire Atatürk. Soon he learns how to make a simple bomb. Given these experiences and this pedigree, and a mystical belief in himself, he could only go up. And up and up he went.

A good story needs a string of nefarious villains, and Musharraf meets all kinds - the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a belligerent India, terrorists of all shades, and a series of jealous officers from his own army determined to thwart his progress and bring him down. But he disposes of them all, with the agility and cunning of James Bond. In the summer of 1999, for example, he senses that India is planning another of its regular encroachments into Pakistan in the mountainous region of Kargil. Quick as a flash, our Pakistani Bond organises his band of warriors and marches his men up the hill. This quick thinking and military acumen not only put a stop to Indian aggression, but also produce an unparalleled opportunity for settling the Kashmir dispute and establishing permanent peace between India and Pakistan.

Unfortunately, there are always ungrateful sods who refuse to acknowledge a messiah. Even the clear demonstration of his divine calling by helping the poor, improving the lot of women and fighting terrorism fails to convince them. The unbelievers doubt his account of Kargil. Indian politicians and journalists have dismissed it as the delusions of an epileptic mind. Nawaz Sharif claims he was duped by Musharraf, who was running his own private war. Others have pointed out that it is Musharraf's antics that brought the countries to the brink of nuclear war.

Worse: a chorus of retired generals has come out of occultation to accuse the divinely ordained one of "numerous lies, half-truths and misleading statements". Lieutenant General Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, for example, has pointed out that it is a patent lie that Musharraf was one of four cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy who were shortlisted to go to Sandhurst. Nor was he among the top ten on his course.

Musharraf's assertion that the coup against Nawaz Sharif was planned at a series of four conferences is dismissed with equal disgust. He was not even present at two, and the subject of the conferences had nothing to do with an army takeover. Similarly, his claims to be the most accomplished, most successful, most respected, most clever, most decorated and most senior army officer in the history of Pakistan are being laughed at.

They may laugh, but Musharraf, like a true messiah, anticipated this kind of scorn. He leaves them with some questions to ponder. Who else but a man chosen by fate could reverse Pakistan's policy towards the Taliban regime in Afghan istan? Who else but a man of destiny could have stood up to the Americans when they threatened to bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age? Who else but a battle-worn general specialising in cheating death can lead the fight against Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and other terrorists? Prop hets are always ridiculed at the start, he seems to be saying. But the people always come round, once they have seen genuine miracles.

Pervez Musharraf's detractors also misunderstand the objectives of this all-important text. The goal of In the Line of Fire is not to write history - or, indeed, to revise it, as some sceptics have suggested - but to spin a good Boy's Own yarn. The aim is to lay claim to immortality. Truth has nothing to do with it. That is why it is written like an apocalyptic thriller, with a firm eye on the film rights. I recommend that Arnold Schwarzenegger come out of retirement to play General Musharraf.