Musharraf fights back

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 09/08/07):

The dire prospect of a state of emergency being declared in Pakistan – a possibility floated and denied in the past 24 hours – will concentrate minds in Washington and London. That is probably what General Pervez Musharraf intended.

Pakistan’s president has had an “annus horribilis”, as the Queen might say, and it is not over yet. In addition to a flood of domestic political criticism, a humiliating defeat at the hands of the supreme court, and escalating confrontation with Islamist militants, Musharraf has faced growing pressure from his main ally, the US.

After President Bush joined forces with Democratic presidential ingénu Barack Obama in threatening unilateral military action against Taliban and al-Qaida elements based on Pakistani soil, Musharraf seems to have drawn a line.

His message to the White House: you can only push me so far. Perhaps that is what he told Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, when she spoke to him from Washington in the middle of the night, Islamabad time.

The more level-headed policymakers in the state department and the Pentagon know the US needs Musharraf or someone very like him.

These bottom-line calculations include Pakistan’s continued cooperation, however imperfect, with Bush’s “war on terror”; the existential battle for next-door Afghanistan; and Islamabad’s neutrality in the coming confrontation with Iran.

Washington also fears the democratic deficit that a state of emergency would vastly inflate. It is already difficult to reconcile Musharraf’s accretion of power, his rigged, impotent parliament, and his still unresolved feud with his exiled civilian opponents, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, with the US pro-democracy agenda.

A state of emergency that postponed indefinitely presidential and parliamentary elections, facilitated increased military repression, and led to further curbs on free speech and political debate, could strain US support, financial and otherwise, to the limit. Congress might make it impossible for Bush to stick with his ally.

The reaction of the Pakistani public on the street, denied legitimate avenues for pursuing political change, could be even more explosive. No wonder Washington is nervous.

All the same, some of the post-Musharraf scenarios being aired in London and Washington are too apocalyptic by far. The idea that the hardline Islamist parties that wield political power in North-West Frontier province could win nationwide control is far-fetched.

In all, the hardliners control perhaps 10% to 15% support nationally. Where they have held office, their support has fallen, alienated by their incompetence, corruption and regressive ideas. Most Pakistanis remain wary. Their concerns are primarily economic and educational, not ideological.

Likewise, talk of south Asian strategic dominoes, by which Afghanistan, then Pakistan fall to Islamist zealots and join forces with revolutionary Iran is a story designed to scare the children – and justify some western policies in the region. There is a danger that Britain’s inexperienced new foreign secretary, David Miliband, could buy into this simplistic idea.

What Pakistan actually needs is neither a state of emergency nor a coup against Musharraf. It needs a genuine partnership between legitimately elected civilian politicians and a military that knows its limitations.

At present, neither can effectively function without the other. Acting alone, neither can meet the real challenges Pakistan faces, the foremost of which are not terrorism or Islamism but poverty and deprivation. Together, they need to build institutions that work.

Pakistan badly needs an inclusive, face-to-face national conversation. Musharraf should facilitate it by announcing a national convention of all the country’s leading political forces, including Bhutto and Sharif and the religious parties.

The two-fold aim? To calm the situation, then forge a national road map based on consent, not confrontation.