The clock is ticking

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 14/05/07):

Weekend bloodshed in Karachi, nationwide political turmoil, and border clashes between Pakistani and Afghan troops have heightened the sense that a potentially unstoppable, many-fronted crisis is about to engulf Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf.

After almost eight years of smartly pressed, barely legitimate uniformed rule from his colonial era residence in Rawalpindi, Gen Musharraf is fast shedding friends at home and abroad. This is not wholly surprising. In Pakistan, it is often said, military strongmen rarely depart the scene happily or even alive.

“The battle lines are now drawn. There is Musharraf and the ruling political party and the MQM (the Karachi-based Mohajir movement) on one side and the rest of Pakistan on the other,” said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times. “He is facing the worst period of his rule.”

Whether Gen Musharraf can hang on is the question exercising the nation, and especially civilian opposition politicians who may now face the responsibility of replacing him.

“The conventional wisdom is that his time is running out. One mistake has been compounded by another,” an Islamabad insider said. “A pro-democracy momentum has been building up for months and it could be very hard to stop. The clock is ticking.

“Musharraf could still defuse it if he changed course, if he really changed. He could admit he made a mistake (over suspending the supreme court’s chief justice), apologise, promise free and fair elections.

“But for him to do that would be acting completely out of character. These military people find it hard to say sorry.”

A Pakistani source said that while the situation was escalating daily, “there is genuine apprehension about what could happen next … The people who bring down governments are not the same people who make them. That is the great lesson of Pakistan’s history.

“We’re at a point in Pakistan where civilians can’t govern without the military. They are needed to provide security and do the “war on terror” stuff and provide muscle for all the really big economic and other challenges Pakistan faces.

“But we have also learned that the military cannot govern on its own. There has to be a genuine partnership. And unfortunately that is not what we have seen. For all the geopolitical reasons everyone knows about, we need the military. But they can’t hack it on their own.”

Supporters point to a record of presidential achievement that includes a rejuvenated economy and partial rapprochement with India. And they raise an “après-moi le deluge” Gaullist spectre of an Islamist fundamentalist takeover, or what opposition leader Benazir Bhutto calls the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan.

“This is a challenging situation, no doubt about that,” said the Islamabad insider. “But it is equally challenging for the politicians who’ve been sitting on the sidelines. What will they do if they take charge? Do they have the answers?”

Given such domestic uncertainty, the influence of external players – notably the US – may yet prove crucial in tipping the crisis one way or another.

For Washington (and London), hunting down al-Qaida, disrupting local connections to terror cells and networks in the west, and pacifying Afghanistan are key benchmarks by which continued support for Gen Musharraf is measured.

Other factors, such as Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude to US attempts to isolate neighbouring Iran and the country’s unofficial support for Kashmir separatists are also part of this complex, shifting equation.

US and Afghan government impatience with Gen Musharraf’s refusal, or inability, to shut down cross-border insurgent recruiting and supply trails from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and the existence of “Pakistani Taliban” training camps in areas such as Waziristan, led to (heavily denied) American air attacks on militant targets last winter.

Even though Pakistan now says it has 90,000 troops deployed along the border, has built more command posts, and is fencing some border areas, both Kabul and Washington say it is not enough. These tensions erupted into border violence at the weekend.

All the same, Washington remains even more fearful of regionally destabilising political anarchy should Pakistan implode.

“Replacing Musharraf with another strongman who would better serve US interests is a possibility but it is not clear whether this solution is workable due to the lack of suitable leaders,” an intelligence brief from the independent, US-based Power & Interest News Report concluded.

“Unless Washington has found a credible successor who will continue to support US policies, then its interests call it to continue to work with Musharraf despite his shortcomings.”