In the line of fire, without a shield?
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been tactically astute in balancing US demands with domestic pressures, but his personal credibility and the state’s moral authority have been eroded. Protests by lawyers and others, as well as internal division between the three intelligence agencies are symptoms of Pakistan’s crisis of governance, writes Praful Bidwai.Judged by any yardstick, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is both a lucky man and an astute tactician. With his amazingly robust survival instincts, he has weathered any number of crises since he seized power in October 1999. The list begins with his first retreat on domestic reforms in 2000; the collapse of the Agra summit in July 2001; the September 11 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda, itself linked to forces nurtured in Pakistan. Then followed the US-led war on Afghanistan; the 10 month-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with India; the 2003 assassination attempt on Musharraf; and disclosures in 2004 about Dr A Q Khan’s “Nuclear Wal-Mart”. The past year has seen growing Western pressure for results in the “war on terrorism”; sealing of shady deals with tribal elders in Pakistan’s border regions; and Dick Cheney’s recent finger-wagging visit, with threats to cut off aid. Musharraf has survived these crises using his wits—at times with aplomb. He has sold Washington the USP of “Islamic moderation” while keeping Islamicists happy at home. He has executed major shifts of stance and got away—as in September 2001. This time around, however, Musharraf’s luck may be running out. Going by this well-documented and cogently argued book*, he is already “living on borrowed time. He has spawned a system that is a hybrid of military and civilian rule… So far, the military’s backing has given the system a semblance of stability, but it is crumbling under the weight of its own contradiction.” Says author Zahid Hussain: “Pakistan may not be facing any imminent threat of an Islamic fundamentalist takeover, but there is a real danger of fragmentation with radical Islamists controlling part of the country. The growing influence of militant Islam, particularly in the strategically located North-West Frontier Province and … Balochistan, is ominous.” Hussain concludes: “Musharraf’s support for the US-led war on terror, his tactical cooperation with certain militant groups, and his refusal to embed a culture of democracy and accountability have intensified social, ethnic and religious differences in Pakistani society. These are the faultlines from which a geo-political earthquake could at some point erupt—an earthquake which would make the current regional security situation look positively calm by comparison. Pakistan’s battle with itself is far from over.” What makes the present moment fateful is a combination of specific proximate circumstances with “structural” factors which have eroded the state’s moral authority (and Musharraf’s credibility) and narrowed its options. Among the first is Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Choudhry’s refusal to fall in line rather that rake up inconvenient issues like disappearances and the privatisation of a steel mill. The dismissal triggered serious protests by lawyers and others—and a backlash in the form of arrests and attempts to muzzle the media, including the prestigious “Dawn” newspaper and the “Geo” TV channel. Domestically, Musharraf has painted himself into a corner. The protests have suddenly made his regime look weak and vulnerable. This is likely to limit his ability to rope in the “the King’s Party”— Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q)—to rescue him in an election year. There has been much talk of Musharraf doing a clandestine deal with Benazir Bhutto by allowing her to return. But Bhutto is keeping her cards close to her chest. She probably doesn’t want to antagonise Washington by closely joining the Islamicists’ protests against Musharraf. But oppose Musharraf’s military rule, she must. It’s hard to tell which way the domestic forces will align. Musharraf could well be the loser if the secular parties get together. But it’s not excluded that he will seek the Islamicist parties’ support for his re-election as President by October. It’s also not clear that Musharraf will honour this poll “deadline”—rather than declare a state of emergency. Musharraf’s troubles are compounded by the circumstance, reported by many Pakistani journalists, including Ahmed Rashid, that Pakistan’s three intelligence agencies are “at loggerheads over control of Musharraf, Pakistan’s foreign policy, its political process and the media. Military Intelligence and the Inter-Services Intelligence are military agencies, while the largest civilian agency, the Intelligence Bureau, is now run by a military officer.” Ironically, says Rashid, the ISI, the most powerful of the three, is “the moderate element urging Musharraf to open up the political system to the opposition...” It’s unlikely that there’s a sizeable constituency in Pakistan for Musharraf’s peace process with India. The Army cannot be enthusiastic about it and the political parties haven’t been on board so far. They lack a sense of ownership about the agreed confidence-building measures and bilateral talks on Kashmir, which have apparently made significant progress. As for the rest of his foreign policy agenda, Musharraf is playing a complex game. He no longer enjoys unqualified support from the US for helping fight the war on terror. It’s clear he’s pursuing a policy hostile to al-Qaeda, but friendly to the Taliban who may eventually regain influence or power in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, the US threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan—only to retreat, by announcing a $750 million package to bring “economic development” to the border regions with Afghanistan. In addition, the US plans to spend $75 million in 2007 on “upgrading” Pakistan’s Frontier Corps. Musharraf has been trying to neutralise US pressure by turning to China. Following Cheney’s visit, he despatched Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri to Beijing to deepen the two countries’ close, “all-weather” friendship. Pakistan offered China a lucrative overland energy route from Gwadar port in Baluchistan, which would cut transit distance by almost one-half. China is investing heavily in developing Gwadar. Musharraf’s recent actions in Baluchistan and the tribal agency areas abutting Afghanistan, and his domestic manoeuvres, have further intensified the tensions and contradictions that have long characterised Pakistan. These lie along three axes: competition between civilian and military power, rooted in fundamental weaknesses in Pakistan’s political system; tension between religion and the state, which needs secular institutions for stability; and grave imbalances in the distribution of power between Pakistan’s provinces, dominated by Punjab. Musharraf may now have added a fourth axis: namely, a contradiction between the higher judiciary and the executive, which used to be contained because the judiciary always fell in line. At any rate, he has aggravated Pakistan’s crisis of governance and eroded his own credibility. He could be on the way out. That confronts India with a problem. The Manmohan Singh government has invested a good deal in the dialogue with Pakistan. It must carry the dialogue forward. But it must look beyond Musharraf. New Delhi needs to draw up contingency plans—without appearing to be partisan, leave alone overbearing. Although it’s in India’s long-term interest to have a democratically stable Pakistan (and Afghanistan), India cannot secure this outcome. It’s for the Pakistani people to do so. India must reaffirm this and clarify that it won’t interfere in Pakistan’s domestic affairs, but will pursue the peace process with whichever government is in power. India must emphatically demonstrate her vital interest and keenness in resolving the Kashmir issue through negotiation and assure Pakistani leaders that the pace of negotiations won’t be contingent upon the complexion of the government in Islamabad. India should reiterate a commitment to further developing people-to-people interactions irrespective of the two countries’ domestic political priorities. New Delhi will have to show an exceptional degree of imagination, generosity and wisdom in dealing with Pakistan at this critical stage of its transition. Or else, the big gains of the recent past could be lost.