Musharraf in the Twilight

By Frederic Grare, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (THE WASHINGTON POST, 10/07/07):

The end of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s era in Pakistan approaches. Since March 9, demonstrations have mounted to protest his dismissal of the independent chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. On May 12, protests resulted in carnage during which more than 40 people were killed, mostly from the opposition. The pro-Musharraf Muttahida Qwami Movement (MQM) was held responsible by the majority of the Pakistani press. The Pakistani army’s authority is now being challenged like never before. A taboo has been broken and Musharraf’s government has made mistake after mistake, exposing its true dictatorial nature and also its weakness.

The current Red Mosque crisis in Islamabad is unlikely to improve his image, both in Pakistan and abroad. Musharraf tolerated the Islamic radicals for weeks before deciding to move against them. Whatever the final outcome of the crisis, the Pakistani President will have to answer three major questions: How could such a crisis occur in the middle of the capital, about half a mile from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters? Why did it occur right after the judiciary crisis? Why did it take so long for the regime to react? Whatever the answers, Musharraf is likely to appear at best incompetent and at worst complicit of attempting to divert public opinion from the real political issue of the moment.

Washington and most other Western capitals fret about the prospect of losing what they consider their best ally in the war on terror and a rampart against the supposedly inherent extremist tendencies of the Pakistani society. However, the crisis actually shows the relative weakness of extremists, and the dubious quality of Pakistan’s cooperation in the war on terror and against the Taliban.

The current crisis has not been triggered by anti-Western radical clerics but by a revolt against the constant violation of the rule of law and the constitution. The protestors are lawyers and other representatives of modern civil society who have been frustrated by Musharraf’s eight years of quasi-dictatorial rule.

At the same time, the truth is emerging about Pakistan’s mixed commitment to combating terrorists. Islamabad has undoubtedly handed over a number of al-Qaeda militants, but the military-dominated state has been more reluctant to cooperate against the Taliban. Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General James L. Jones and other U.S. military officials have recently given examples of Pakistan’s refusal to cooperate in this regard. Moreover, Pakistan has not respected a number of its commitments in the war on terror. Terrorists training camps have not been dismantled, and Musharraf has occasionally threatened to stop anti-terrorism cooperation when he was bothered by Western criticism of repression of political opponents, in Balochistan and elsewhere.

The end of the Musharraf regime should therefore not be seen as the potential disaster that Western conventional wisdom suggests.

Nor would Musharraf’s fall necessarily be the end of military power in Pakistan. The army could well decide to sacrifice its chief if it considers he has now become a liability. Musharraf’s departure could then open the way for another general to step in. Or, given the criticism that the army is facing, it could decide to withdraw behind the scene and let civilians assume the burdens of day-to-day government, while trying to regain some legitimacy through an agreement with civilian leaders.

Whatever its final outcome, the present crisis should be an opportunity to rethink Western strategies toward Islamabad. The United States, and the West generally, have given the Musharraf regime constant support. Pressure may have been privately exerted when Musharraf did not try hard enough in the “war on terror” but Islamabad kept benefiting from the largesse of the U.S. administration and the international community for whatever assistance it did deliver. Indeed, Musharraf even gained largess when he said he could not fight harder because he was imperiled by extremists. The reality is that the problems that Pakistani-based and nurtured jihadists pose to the world will not be without a change of the country’s foreign policy. And this cannot occur without the end of military domination in Pakistan.

The restoration of democracy — the re-establishment of civilian power according to the 1973 Pakistani constitution — is ultimately the only reasonable policy option in the short, medium and long terms. This restoration does not mean the “elimination” of the Army, but simply its withdrawal from politics. The military could be given a role through the National Security Council but would no longer be the domineering entity.

To encourage Pakistanis to pursue such reforms, the U.S. (and others) must stop allowing multiple objectives to be traded against each other, and instead recognize that terrorism, Afghanistan, Kashmir and democratization are related. They all require an end of the Army and intelligence service’s domination of Pakistan’s policy-making.

To facilitate such a shift the U.S. and other influential powers must offer increased assistance to Pakistan, but commit to reduce or eliminate it entirely if Pakistan does not act consistently with the principles it professes to share with its partners. Conditionality of assistance should apply if and when civilian rule is restored, too.

Some elements of the military will go along because they believe the increasing involvement of the army in non-military affairs is gradually decreasing its professionalism and that the military is culturally ill-equipped to run a country. There will be resistance. But specters of extremist takeover should not obscure the reality that military dominance largely produced the crises now confronting Pakistan and the world, and cannot be the solution to them.