By Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and the author of “Taliban” and “Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia” (THE WASHINGTON POST, 12/08/07):
President Pervez Musharraf was on the verge of imposing a state of emergency in Pakistan last week before being stopped by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and civilian advisers. It is clear to all in this extremely tense country that power is rapidly flowing away from Musharraf, even as he desperately tries to find a way out of an impossible political impasse.
Declaring a state of emergency would have suspended fundamental rights, placed restrictions on the Supreme Court and delayed this year’s elections. It is unlikely that an already angry and mobilized public would have accepted new restrictions, even those imposed by the army, which Musharraf heads. Massive street protests and further mayhem might have ensued.
After eight years as president, Musharraf is battling for survival, refusing to yield power to civilians yet unable to exert the authority he needs to keep the peace at home and still be a useful ally to the West in rooting out Islamic extremists along the border with Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, Musharraf has considered imposing martial law, has tried to cut a power-sharing deal with exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and has enlisted support from President Bush to dampen the crisis that the country has been in since spring, but nothing has worked.
Bhutto is backing away from any deal, and her aides describe Musharraf as a drowning man.
Since 2001 the Bush administration has refused to understand that political stability in Pakistan requires a modicum of democracy, a political consensus among the country’s various liberal forces and a working relationship among the four provinces before any battle against extremism can succeed.
Washington presumed that because Musharraf wielded the army’s power there was no need to push for democracy or bother with civilian politicians. As a result, the Bush administration has lost the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people. (They have become further alienated while watching Pakistan become a whipping boy in debates between U.S. presidential candidates.)
The Bush administration looked away when the army rigged presidential and parliamentary elections in 2002 and ignored the exiling or sidelining of mainstream politicians and political parties by Musharraf.
For the past few months tens of thousands of the country’s liberal and secular elite — lawyers, female activists and political workers — have protested Musharraf’s wrongful suspension of the Supreme Court’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, in March.
Yet even as our civil society filled the streets, the U.S. State Department and the White House maintained a studied silence — betraying not only the Pakistani people and democracy but also America’s abiding interest in having a stable government in Islamabad that would be a meaningful partner in the war against extremism.
Chaudhry was recently reinstated through a stunning legal decision, a major blow to Musharraf. The Supreme Court is now a wild card, capable of issuing any number of decisions that would make it untenable for Musharraf to continue as president and army chief.
In the days leading up to Aug. 14, when Pakistanis will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country’s founding, Americans should recall that Pakistan’s creation was the result of a long democratic struggle against British colonial rule.
In 1945 thousands of Muslim lawyers and members of civil society marched through the streets of British India, demanding a new country. Pakistan was not created by a tin-pot general or by mullahs. And Pakistan should never be compared to Muslim Middle Eastern dictatorships; its people have a long history of battling for democracy, despite a U.S.-backed military that has all too frequently seized power over the years.
Today, Pakistan faces immense problems. There is a full-blown tribal insurgency backed by al-Qaeda in the North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan in which more than 200 soldiers have been killed since mid-July, while suicide bombers have twice penetrated Islamabad.
The army, facing civil revolt and plagued by differences of opinion, cannot effectively go after extremists, while Pakistanis have yet to be convinced that this is their war against extremism and not one dictated by Washington.
The United States needs to help bring about a peaceful and fair political transition in Islamabad before it again insists that the army battle al-Qaeda. Musharraf needs to shed his uniform, hold elections and declare that he is not a candidate for the presidency. Washington then needs to help ensure that the new elected leadership works with the army to mobilize public support for the struggle against extremism.
Neither the army nor Bhutto can battle the extremists alone and save Pakistan from meltdown. Bhutto understands this, but the army still does not. Bush has to accept that his ally’s political days are over — that it is time to stop equating Musharraf with Pakistan.