Whither Musharraf?

Endgame for Pakistan's military regime

The Statesman | Mar 21, 2002

General Musharraf finds himself in a most unenviable position - Pakistan's polity has been torn asunder by recent events, the Mullahs are up in arms, his support base within the army is being gradually eroded and Indian troops are lined up in full battle gear across Pakistan's eastern border. Pakistan's proxy war with India will go on because the Pakistan army will not allow Musharraf to change its fundamental policy towards India.

Pakistan is living through turbulent times. The post-11 September United States-led war in Afghanistan has shaken Pakistan’s polity like no other event in its troubled history. The ignominious defeat of the Taliban and its Al Qaeda guests, the self-appointed foot soldiers of Islam, is in reality a military and diplomatic defeat for Pakistan as it was fighting a “proxy war” in Afghanistan, just as it is waging a proxy war against India through its mercenary Islamists. This denouement was inevitable. It has been brought about by several decades of the overarching influence of the Pakistan army on the nation’s polity and its foreign policy.

Mired in a virulent madrasa-Kalashnikov-narcotics smuggling-terrorism culture, looted by its wily and corrupt politicians and ruthlessly trodden over by the army’s jackboot, Pakistan was on the verge of becoming a failed state when the terrorist strikes in New York and Washington DC gave it a chance to redeem itself. General Pervez Musharraf was quick to see the advantages of grabbing the opportunity to join the international coalition against terrorism. He unceremoniously jettisoned his nation’s long standing Afghan policy and threw in his lot with the US.

Not building bridges

This expedient step shook the nation and created deep fissures among the Corps Commanders who now guide Pakistan’s destiny. Today, American troops are firming-in for what is quite obviously likely to be a long-term presence on Pakistani soil and Musharraf has been left with no choice but to launch a crackdown against Pakistan’s jehadi. General Musharraf finds himself in a most unenviable position – Pakistan’s polity has been torn asunder by recent events, the Mullahs are up in arms, his support base within the army is being gradually eroded and Indian troops are lined up in full battle gear across Pakistan’s eastern border.

The Musharraf regime has lost the initial support extended by the common people, as its domestic record has not been without blemish. While the first year was taken up by a political witch-hunt, no real economic reforms have been initiated and the high – handedness of junior army officials, who are now running the country’s administration, has alienated the people. Pakistan still appears to be light years away from becoming a genuine civilian-led democracy. The military regime has promised to hold polls for the National Assembly in October 2002. However, the modalities are yet to be decided and it is not clear whether the polls will be held under the present Constitution.

General Musharraf has been consistently advocating his concept of a party-less democracy. In the elections for local bodies, each one of the candidates was allowed to stand for election only in an individual capacity. However, most candidates had the implicit backing of one political party or another. On the credit side, some electoral reforms have been announced. For the first time since 1977, both Muslims and non-Muslims will be permitted to vote for the same candidates. The number of seats in the National Assembly has been increased and 60 seats have been reserved for women – another first for a conservative Islamic state

Musharraf has made no attempt so far to build bridges with politicians. He has gone on record to state that he would never hand over power to Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto. Completely ignoring the politicians would be a mistake in the long run. Though the politicians are in disarray at present, the possibility of the emergence of a broad alliance cutting across the political divide is now coming to the fore. Nawaz Sharif’s PML, now led by a vibrant Kulsoom Nawaz, and Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, have found it expedient to put their own differences temporarily aside and come together to oppose the military regime.

Double game

Along with 17 other political parties, they have formed an “Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy”. At the same time, a number of politicians from both the parties are willing to cut private deals with the military regime.

The judiciary has also been mostly unhappy. Asking the senior judges to swear a new oath of loyalty to the chief executive and the sacking of those who refused to oblige, including the Chief Justice, alienated the judiciary and the intelligentsia. However, “packing” the judiciary helped the military regime to get the Supreme Court’s endorsement of Musharraf’s coup on the specious grounds of the “doctrine of necessity’ and a favourable verdict in its case against Nawaz Sharif.

If there was any section of the Pakistan elite that appeared to be satisfied with the Musharraf regime’s initial performance, it was the Muslim clergy and the numerous terrorists outfits spawned by it. Because of the remarkable consistency in the Pakistan army’s and the clergy’s anti-India posturing and actions, the so-called jehadis were the only ones who received the military regime’s active support. However, in view of Musharraf’s strong support to the United States for launching attacks against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the imprisonment of several jehadi leaders, the Islamist parties have fallen out with the Musharraf regime.

Musharraf’s major gain has been to rebuild bridges with the US. Consequently, almost all US sanctions have been waived, IMF loans have been re-scheduled, Pakistan has been allowed to buy US weapons and, from a pariah state, Pakistan has once again become a frontline state, this time in the fight against global terrorism. However, the US is acutely conscious of the double game that Pakistan continued to play during the short war in covertly supporting the Taliban regime through its various jehadi outfits and the ISI while overtly professing a change of heart.

It is no secret that most of the hardcore Taliban and Al Qaeda mercenaries who survived the war are now in Pakistan. The US will not let Pakistan off the hook for its complicity with the terrorists. It will continue to accept Pakistan’s support as long as such support is crucial its own national interests and will have no hesitation in once again discarding Pakistan when its own requirements have been met. Quite obviously, there is more trouble ahead for General Musharraf.

General Musharraf has clearly stated that though he does not wish to cling to power for long, he will hand over to a civilian regime only after sorting out the mess created by the politicians. That could take a few years; it could even take a decade or more, as Musharraf has not spelt out a specific “cleansing” agenda. He will definitely ensure that power is handed over only after the army is given a formal role in governance. Musharraf may follow in Zias footsteps and continue as Pakistan’s de facto ruler. He has already given himself an extension of COAS. However, ambitious Generals like Usman, Aziz and Mahmood Ahmed, and others of their ilk, are unlikely to retire gracefully. Musharraf’s first priority is to keep his own flock together. Dissension in the higher ranks is already evident.

Keeping powder dry

Whichever course Musharraf chooses, there is unlikely to be any change in Pakistan’s hostility towards India and its covert support, even sponsorship, of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism in India. In his now famous 12 January speech, Musharraf made it clear that Pakistan will continue to provide diplomatic, moral and political support for what he insists is a “freedom struggle” in Kashmir. While Pakistan might agree to stop the overt infiltration of so-called Kashmiri “freedom fighters” across the LoC, it will continue to do so covertly by finding smarter methods of inducting more jehadis, for example, through neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. In all probability, the centre of gravity of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism will shift temporarily from Kashmir to other parts of India. However, Pakistan’s proxy war with India will go on because the Pakistan army will not allow Musharraf to change its fundamental policy towards India. Hence, peace in Kashmir and between India and Pakistan is a long way off.

India must influence Western democracies to refrain from conducting business as usual with the Pakistani military junta and from encouraging it in any manner. Despite the war against terrorism that has made Pakistan a frontline state once again, India’s efforts to expose the threat posed by an army-led dispensation in Pakistan to regional security must continue. And, of course, all-out efforts must be made to enhance the armed forces’ operational preparedness. With a neighbour like Pakistan, India must keep its powder dry.