Rattled Pakistan looks to Musharraf
KARACHI - Whether through astuteness or luck, or a combination of both, Pervez Musharraf survived tumultuous times after seizing power in a military coup in 1999.
But after stepping down as army chief of staff last November and following parliamentary elections in February, Musharraf was on the ropes, his power diminished and people calling for his resignation as president in connection with his actions in pursuing the United States-led "war on terror".
Thousands of lawyers - demanding that more than 40 of them be reinstated after being sacked by Musharraf last year for opposing Musharraf continuing as president - were due in the capital Islamabad on Friday to force the issue of his stepping down.
Then came Tuesday's incident in which US warplanes killed 11 Pakistani paramilitary forces inside Pakistani territory while going after Taliban militants.
There is now every indication that once the lawyers' issue is over, a new era will begin for Musharraf as supreme commander of the armed forces, but without a uniform, by virtue of his designation as president and head of state. It is now thought he is the only person capable of confronting the challenges raised by the US air strikes, and a badly faltering economy.
The "long march" of the lawyers, which began in various parts of the country on Monday, also includes workers of various political parties. They have agreed that once in Islamabad they will not cross into the "red zone", which includes the offices of the Inter-Services Intelligence and other high-profile government offices, the diplomatic enclave and parliament.
The government will provide facilities for the protesters, including drinking water and temporary toilets, so they can register their protest in peace. A lower turnout than expected is likely because of the extremely hot summer and traditional differences between secular and religious elements. The leadership of the lawyer's movement is secular and former Marxist, while the premier Islamic party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, has tried to take over control of the march.
The march, though, is a matter of relative minor importance, having been overshadowed by the US attack.
Asia Times Online contacts are adamant that the military wants Musharraf to be the one to deal with the fallout, which could include negotiating new peace accords with militants in the tribal areas and thrashing out rules of engagement for coalition forces in Afghanistan with regard to action on Pakistani territory.
The top brass have also been stung by criticism of them and of Musharraf by Nawaz Sharif, a former premier and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which is a key partner in the coalition government.
The man for the job? Musharraf remains an enigma ever since being appointed - by then premier Sharif - as army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1998.
At that time there was some doubt over the promotion, given Musharraf's urban and liberal background in a traditionally highly conservative military drawn mostly from rural and tribal areas.
Musharraf somehow bridged the gap. There are tales of his popularity in the messes with the rank-and-file, where he allegedly danced with a wine glass on his head. Yet when Sharif tried to remove him in October 1999, three ultra-conservative generals stood up for him and backed the coup that took him to power.
This began the general's time as a military dictator. After September 11, 2001, he was forced to make a difficult decision, finally opting to side with the US as it prepared to invade Afghanistan, even though this meant turning against the Taliban, which Pakistan had nurtured.
Despite this, al-Qaeda remained undecided over what to do about Musharraf. This correspondent has spoken to one of Musharraf's former personal security officers, Captain Mohammad Farooq, who was in direct contact with al-Qaeda and spent nine months waiting for orders to assassinate Musharraf. They never came, and military intelligence then rumbled Farooq and he was dismissed.
The several attempts that were made on Musharraf's life were carried out by local networks, some prompted by Egyptian Takfiris (those who decide who is a true Muslim). But the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri opposed attacking him as they did not believe he nor the Pakistani military were directly involved in the crackdown on al-Qaeda. All al-Qaeda arrests stemmed from local US intelligence contractors and the Inter-Services Intelligence, which was under duress from the US.
Musharraf managed to keep both the political parties and the militants from raising any serious threat to his administration until 2007, when he was confronted with two tough issues: the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation and the challenge from the judiciary over the legitimacy of Musharraf's presidency and the matter of people going missing in the "war on terror".
Musharraf chose to take the judges head-on by sacking them, and implicitly backing his generals who had been criticized by the judges.
The Lal Masjid saga was more difficult. In 2004, it issued a religious decree prohibiting people from attending the funerals of Pakistan soldiers killed during operations against militants in the South Waziristan tribal area. The mosque in Islamabad increasingly became a sanctuary for militants and a center for pro-Taliban and militant propaganda.
In 2007, the Lal Masjid's followers became involved in activities such as abducting policemen, harassing alleged prostitutes and setting up their own courts on the mosque's premises. Then they abducted a Chinese national, causing a national crisis.
Musharraf reluctantly ordered in the military, but even during the subsequent week-long standoff he tried to call off the forces, offering the militants and clerics inside the option of arrest. They refused and the troops stormed in, killing a number of people.
Apart from the "war on terror" and the strings attached to it, Pakistan's new government in February inherited the country's highest-ever foreign exchange reserves, the best-ever revenue collection, high exports, strong gross domestic product and a bullish stock exchange. These indices have since nose-dived.
But it's the security situation that really counts, and the US air strike has severely unsettled the country. Musharraf, with his excellent rapport with Washington, is the man many see as the only person capable of preventing it from happening again.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com