Pakistan in the Line of Fire: Which Options left?

Posted in Broader Middle East , Pakistan | 29-Jan-08 | Author: Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan

"No one expected that one fatal move – the removal of the Chief Justice – would have unleashed such a rash of democratic forces that would so rapidly lead to the serious political impasse Pakistan is faced with today. In the process, President Musharraf lost much of his most important constituency – the professionals and the middle class."

No one expected that one fatal move – the removal of the Chief Justice – would have unleashed such a rash of democratic forces that would so rapidly lead to the serious political impasse Pakistan is faced with today. In the process, President Musharraf lost much of his most important constituency – the professionals and the middle class.

For the U.S., the assassination of Benazir Bhutto means that it is left with little or no options, seeing that Washington had pinned its hopes on the “Musharraf Plus” package. The latter envisaged the President in control of foreign policy and national security matters, and a Benazir Bhutto-led government focusing on all other matters of state (and giving the country a democratic façade).

Not realizing that such blatant “engineering” of the Pakistani political dispensation is no longer viable and will only exacerbate a tenuous situation, the U.S. is scrambling to devise a “Plan B” and is purportedly negotiating with the leader of the only other major party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by former PM Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif. This is all the more untenable in view of the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the President and the Sharifs.

Pakistan is beyond the stage where any “engineered” solutions can work. A “leap of faith” is required by the U.S. and the West, which would entail a shift of gears to find a more realistic solution.

The fact is that the U.S. has lost credibility right across the spectrum - even amongst the most moderate sections of society. The problem is internal as well as external: Even liberals and moderates feel that the war in Afghanistan and the border areas has now been brought home to the heartland of Pakistan and more importantly, that this is not “Pakistan’s war”. The analogy with Vietnam/Cambodia comes to mind in this context, i.e., it is feared that the U.S. will extend the war to the neighbouring country, and in the process destabilize and destroy that neighbour. Thus the “war on terror” is increasing being seen as alien to the interests of Pakistan - a view now widely held by civil society as also within the ranks of the armed forces. The U.S. must come to terms with this new reality, as it cannot realistically expect the same level of support it has enjoyed over the past several years.

This does not imply that the moderates sympathize with the Taliban, or Al-Qaeda; on the contrary, they hold the view that these elements were largely creations of the West during the Soviet era but later became a Frankenstein’s monster.

Needless to say, radical Islamists have been successfully exploiting these internal contradictions and the widening gulf between the Pakistani and U.S. approaches on how to tackle the insurgency. Even the most secular Pakistanis today deeply resent what is perceived as the unnecessary demonization of Islam by the U.S.

Another negative development is that the Army is no longer viewed as being honest or efficient for the first time in Pakistan’s history. Deep doubts and suspicions exist even in the Punjab – the seat of the vast majority of the Army.

In the minds of many Pakistanis there is a tendency to blame the alliance with the U.S. for all their difficulties, including the threat to democratic institutions. The prevalent view amongst political observers is that the days of a transition to democracy are now over. There is a pressing need for a transformation, as opposed to a process of transition to democracy. The U.S. must come to this realization and act as the vehicle for such a transformation; only then will it be peaceful and orderly. Given Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities and its geo-strategic location, the alternative would indeed be a nightmare scenario for the country and for the region as a whole.

Some observers hold the view that the Army must now play the main role for a transformation of this scale. This will entail:

  • Resignation of the President
  • Restoration of the judiciary
  • A neutral caretaker government
  • An unfettered media
  • A neutral Election Commission
  • Holding of free and fair elections

This is seen as the preferred formula despite the fact that prior to Musharraf’s popular 1999 military coup, Pakistan suffered from inept and corrupt cycles of political rule by the PML-N and PPP. These two parties are most likely to win the largest number of seats in Parliament in any reasonably free and fair election. In that eventuality, while there will be divisions within the Parliament; the opposition parties will be united in their animosity to Musharraf, thereby leading to a tug of war between an assertive parliament and the Presidency. The opposition parties are likely to try and impeach the President (who has publicly stated that he would step down if such a move were to be initiated). On two occasions in the past when there was gridlock between Parliament and the Presidency, the President was forced to step down.

However, if the elections scheduled for 18 February are massively rigged and the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q, derisively referred to as “the King’s party”) secures a large number of seats at the expense of the opposition parties, massive and prolonged civil unrest is expected. Since the judiciary and the Election Commission are not trusted by the opposition, which sees them as being “packed” with Musharraf loyalists, there is an even greater likelihood of trouble in the streets. In such a situation, the present Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Kayani and his Corps Commanders would be reluctant to fire upon unarmed demonstrators (looting and rioting would be rife but it would presumably be difficult to separate the unarmed from the armed elements in the melee; there could also be a surge in terrorist attacks). Considering the unpopularity of the Army today and that the President Musharraf is now a civilian, the position of the President may become untenable. It should be noted that on the 4th of January the COAS, while addressing his Corps Commanders, clearly stated “ultimately it is the will of the people and their support that is decisive”; this is what will enable the Army to “thwart all kinds of threats”. Given the negative sentiments that already exist against the Army, direct military intervention could only be a last resort.