The general has no uniform

Posted in Broader Middle East | 21-Nov-07 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf

KARACHI - Since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1999, Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf has promised more than once that he would shed his uniform. Now he is set to finally keep his word, likely as early as next week.

Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum said on Tuesday that Musharraf will resign as chief of army staff once the Supreme Court validates his victory in the presidential election of October 6. He will then be formally sworn in as a civilian president and prepare for national elections scheduled for January 8.

The October presidential election had been challenged in court, leading to hundreds of members of the judiciary being removed and the imposition of emergency rule. The new members of the Supreme Court - appointed by Musharraf - have now dismissed all petitions against the result.

The government has freed more than 3,000 people jailed since the November 3 emergency declaration and plans to release 2,000 others soon, an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday.

There is, however, a disturbing irony in the course of events leading up to Musharraf's reinvention as a civilian president. While the United States is finally satisfied that Musharraf has followed Washington's dotted lines in the "war on terror", history will record that over the past few years the region has seen the emergence of the neo-Taliban not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan as well.

In this context, Musharraf's visit to Saudi Arabia this week is an attempt to relay though King Abdullah to the George W Bush administration that what is good for the US is not necessarily good for Pakistan, that is, Bush's attempts to dictate the course of national politics have in fact had counterproductive results.

Thus, while Bush this week lauded Musharraf as having "done more for democracy in Pakistan than any modern leader has", it is pertinent to consider the downside in earning such praise.

A war path fraught with danger
Washington tightened the noose around Islamabad early this year with tough demands that Pakistan stop cross-border infiltration of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The US established benchmarks on progress in this regard, which were pegged to the continued delivery of American military and economic aid to Pakistan, worth billions of dollars. From April, high-level US officials visited Pakistan on a regular basis to keep up the pressure for the implementation of political and military programs that would block the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Washington pointed out that the Taliban's "precious assets" were pouring out from the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad to join the militancy in the North and South Waziristan tribal areas and beyond.

An operational plan was handed over to Islamabad and it was implemented on July 3 when the Lal Masjid was stormed, leading to the deaths of scores of militants. The army was redeployed in the tribal areas and strong contingents of military and paramilitary troops were sent into the Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Washington was adamant that Pakistan stick to the plan and made it clear that if Musharraf wavered, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces from Afghanistan would take matters into their own hands and pursue targets deep inside Pakistan.

On the political front, Musharraf was forced to strike a deal with former premier Benazir Bhutto. All corruption cases against her were withdrawn and she was allowed to return to Pakistan after years of self-exile to promote an anti-religious alliance.

From July, the White House has had no complaints over Islamabad's commitment in both letter and spirit. The Lal Masjid was "sanitized" and the Waziristans were bombed in October on the basis of intelligence shared with NATO.

A grand jirga (council) was organized in Kabul to explore ways of engaging the Taliban in peace dialogue, followed by talks directly with the Taliban in Quetta, Pakistan.

For the first time in years, the US was not having to urge Pakistan to "do more", yet paradoxically the situation on the ground was spiraling out of control.

Between July and November, NATO's casualties have been the worst since US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban. A late Taliban offensive has seen them recover large swathes of territory. For the first time, they are united under one leadership with clear objectives.

At the same time, NWFP has virtually been lost. It has always been a tribal hotspot, but while the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s radicalized NWFP to some extent, Islamabad's writ was never challenged. Indeed, in the nation's 60-year history, Pakistan has always successfully suppressed armed rebellions in the province. Now, for the first time, Pakistan's authority over NWFP has all but ended.

As a result, the Taliban's cross-border activities have increased an estimated 10-fold compared to previous years and the previously calm - but still very scenic - Swat Valley has fallen into the hands of radical clerics.

These indeed are the unintended consequences or blowback of the "war on terror" that Pakistan has prosecuted at the behest of the US. Similarly, the political road map involving Bhutto lies in tatters. Bhutto will now have no dealings with Musharraf and has already accused parties backing him of trying to rig the ballots ahead of January's polls - even hinting that she and other opposition parties might boycott the elections.

As Musharraf hangs up his uniform for the last time, these are the realities he faces - Pakistan's burning tribal areas and a volatile political arena centered on an embittered opposition.

But at least Bush is happy.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at