The pervasive impression is that the impending judgement by the Supreme Court regarding the propriety of President General Pervez Musharraf’s re-election as president of Pakistan for another term prompted the timing of his decision to impose emergency rule last week. The temptation to view the developments in Pakistan through the prism of democracy is almost irresistible.
But democracy is not even a sub-theme in the current world of realpolitik in Pakistan. At best it forms a miniscule part of the story. What emerges beyond doubt is that Musharraf’s move enjoys the support of the top brass of the Pakistan armed forces. Significantly, he signed the proclamation on emergency rule in his capacity as the chief of army staff rather than as the president. He has thereby signaled that the Pakistan armed forces as a whole are backing his move.
It is on occasions such as this that the incomprehensible alchemy of the US-Pakistan relationship fleetingly surfaces. Clearly, it stands to reason that Musharraf took care to consult Washington and Britain before announcing his move. But what was the nature of these consultations?
Musharraf spoke to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Thursday, hardly hours prior to the proclamation of emergency rule. Britain was the prime mover of the Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto rapprochement. Musharraf kept in view the need to assuage British feelings.
Equally, Admiral William Fallon, commander of the US Central Command, was on a visit to Pakistan, and he actually happened to be in the general headquarters of the Pakistan armed forces in Rawalpindi when Musharraf was giving the final touches to his proclamation on emergency rule. The political symbolism was unmistakable.
US reluctantly acquiesces
Fallon did his best to “dissuade” Musharraf from going ahead with his plan, but had to ultimately give in. Fallon apparently warned Musharraf that future American aid for his beleaguered regime might be in jeopardy if the US Congress took a negative view of the rollback of civil liberties in Pakistan. If so, it is obvious that Fallon failed to impress the tough Pakistani top brass. Equally, Musharraf estimated Washington has no choice but to support his regime for the foreseeable future.
This wouldn’t be the first time that the generals in Rawalpindi have done their homework as regards their corporate interests and proceeded to set aside Washington’s unsolicited counsel. Time and again in Pakistan’s history it has appeared that the unequal relationship between the US and Pakistan is far from a one-dimensional tie-up. It would be a mistake to regard Pakistan as a mindless American proxy – which is part of the reason why China and Russia have an abiding interest in that country.
A famous instance arose when, as the then deputy secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration, Strobe Talbott, narrates in his book Engaging India, his desperate pleas with the Pakistani leadership not to emulate India in exploding a nuclear device in 1998 were simply ignored by the Pakistani generals.
A decade earlier, another Pakistani military strongman, General Zia ul-Haq, simply refused to toe the US line to agree to an Afghan settlement that Washington had worked out with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which would have restored Kabul’s traditional neutrality in the geopolitics of the region. Zia insisted Pakistan’s influence on a future regime in Kabul ought to be predominant.
Thus, in retrospect, it turns out that the former prime minister Bhutto’s abrupt departure for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates last Thursday against the advice rendered by most of her party leaders happened just in time when it dawned on the US and Britain that despite their strong urgings, the generals were hell-bent on the imposition of emergency rule. The US and Britain counseled her to get out of harm’s way and quickly leave the country.
The initial statements of “regret” by the Western capitals, especially Washington, need to be taken with a pinch of salt. To be sure, the US policy toward Pakistan finds itself in a cul-de-sac. Musharraf’s move coincides almost to the hour with the thundering speech by President George W Bush at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, on Thursday in which he blasted the US Congress for failing to take his “war on terror” not seriously enough, and he went on to compare Osama bin Laden to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin.
Addressing his neo-conservative acolytes, Bush came back to his favorite theme that via his “war on terror”, he was actually waging a global war for democracy and freedom. He compared Islamist “plans to build a totalitarian Islamist empire … stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia” to the Third Reich. He claimed that US-led campaigns have “liberated 50 million people from the clutches of tyranny” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush said the people in the Middle East are “looking to the United States to stand up for them”.
Alas, we knew only a day later that just as Bush was speaking, one of his staunchest allies in his pet global war was squashing democracy and freedom. The US doublespeak becomes all too apparent in the mildly reproachful comment over Musharraf’s move, bordering on resignation, by the US spokesmen. It indicates that Washington’s dealings with the Musharraf regime will continue and normal business will resume once the dust has settled down.
Military ties intact
The statement by the Pentagon spokesman is particularly important for the top brass of the Pakistani armed forces. The spokesman said the development “does not impact our military support for Pakistan … Pakistan is a very important ally in the ‘war on terror’ and he [Secretary of Defense Robert Gates] is closely following the fast-moving developments there”.
Traditionally, it is the opinion of the Pentagon that matters most to the brass in Rawalpindi – and not the perspectives of the State Department or readings by the Central Intelligence Agency. As long as the Pentagon’s support remains intact, as is the case presently, Rawalpindi will be pleased, and Musharraf will continue to enjoy the support of the corps commanders.
At the moment, Musharraf is not looking much beyond the endorsement of the emergency rule by the top brass of the Pakistani armed forces. He doesn’t care for his popularity ratings in Pakistan. And, conceivably, he wouldn’t be particularly flustered by the international reaction either. Musharraf has assessed that the worsening situation in Afghanistan leaves the US with hardly much choice in the matter other than working with the regime that he chooses to head.
Developments in the western Afghan province of Farah (bordering Iran) and the southern province of Kandahar have taken a particularly serious turn lately. The US failed to extract any increased troop commitments at the recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her first-ever visit to Kabul on Saturday flatly refused to deploy German troops in the volatile southern provinces of Afghanistan. The new government in Tokyo has cut back on Japan’s involvement by stopping refueling of US ships servicing the war in Afghanistan. The new government in Poland is reviewing its association with Bush’s war.
No need of US advice
Thus, Musharraf knows that the US dependence on him is only likely to deepen in the coming weeks. Besides, Musharraf has succeeded in underscoring in Western capitals that he is the anchor of “stability” in Pakistan. No matter the actual ground reality, he has succeeded in projecting a perceived threat from militants. (The international community has no independent means of verifying these threat perceptions either.)
To a degree, even the reaction by New Delhi – a mild statement of “regret” and a pious hope that “normalcy” will return soon – is an acknowledgement that Musharraf has maintained an overall climate of peace and tranquillity as well as a degree of predictability in relations with India. Western capitals are quite aware of the extreme fluidity of the situation but are literally forced to suspend their disbelief in Musharraf’s claim as the guardian of Pakistan’s stability. What choice do they have?
In the short term, therefore, Musharraf doesn’t have to look over his shoulder any more or listen to irritating Western hectoring about democracy while he goes about resetting the parameters of Pakistan’s political life. He correctly estimates that what matters most is his apparent willingness to wage a strong military campaign against militants; his helping hand in advancing an “intra-Afghan dialogue” involving the Taliban; and his role in the event of Washington deciding on a military showdown with Iran in the coming months.
In sum, Musharraf assesses he has a relatively free hand to press ahead with his political agenda within Pakistan. He must be pretty much fed up with the intrusive attitude adopted by pretentious US functionaries and think-tanks in recent months with regard to Pakistan’s political future. He has a point insofar as there aren’t any real “Pakistan experts” as such that the Bush administration could claim to have. His sense of exasperation was clearly showing in recent weeks that functionaries in the US administration who have no real grasp of the tough lay of the land in Pakistan have been dictating to him democracy lessons. They didn’t even understand that one way or another, historically, Pakistan always remained on the razor’s edge while life moved on.
Washington’s insistence that Bhutto should join his team was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Under tremendous US pressure, Musharraf, seemingly against his gut instincts, acquiesced with the game plan choreographed in Washington. He knows Bhutto is a complex personality. But he also knows she has influential supporters, like US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, whose antipathies toward Musharraf date to his posting in Kabul.
All the same, within the fortnight since Bhutto’s arrival in Pakistan from exile on October 12, Musharraf has been proved right. The American blueprint for Pakistan’s democratic transformation became stuck in the mud. It was so visible that all could see, especially when Bhutto began trading charges that the establishment was conspiring to kill its future prime minister, and the negotiations between the two sides over fine-tuning their “deal” ground to a halt. The frustrations deepened when Bhutto realized that she was virtually confined to her Karachi home.
Ironically, Musharraf found he could seize the high ground once it began to dawn on Washington that its hare-brained plan to foist Bhutto atop the political heap in Islamabad was simply unworkable. Plainly put, Bhutto was not acceptable to the Pakistani establishment. Washington had no “Plan B”, either.
Musharraf struck fast. Now that he has “liberated” himself from the political burden that Washington expected him to carry, he feels free to act on his own terms. This means first and foremost that he will hold both the offices of president and chief of army staff, at least until the elections, whenever they are held (the January date seems unlikely now). He will in all probability expect a new Supreme Court to endorse his re-election as president, which will enable him to be sworn in for another term in office. Musharraf’s overwhelming win in last month’s presidential polls has not yet been ratified by the court.
Musharraf has certainly sized up that Bhutto’s political image has been badly tarnished due to her controversial “deal” with him. It will take a while for her to regain her credibility in popular opinion within Pakistan. From Musharraf’s point of view, therefore, in the short term at least, she is virtually rendered ineffectual as a rallying point of opposition, even assuming that she has the will to act in such a role.
But he may well keep a line of communication open to her. Who knows, he may still have a need for her, but that is something for the future. More important, Musharraf needs to factor that even after the present setback, Washington and London may still not give up hope completely regarding Bhutto’s return to mainstream politics in Pakistan’s leadership structure. The sad reality is that there are no other credible figures in the democratic opposition other than Bhutto who would be prepared in today’s circumstances to play according to the US script.
Meanwhile, Musharraf has virtually decided to continue to rely on the present ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, which has staunchly resisted Bhutto’s political accommodation. He has chosen not to upset the apple cart. The intelligence agencies feel greatly relieved that the judiciary has been cracked and the dark days of public accountability are over.
Musharraf continues to rely on the resourceful, crafty Choudhury clan for holding fort in Punjab, the heartland of Pakistani politics. His equations with the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the party of the “Mohajirs” (migrants from India at the time of the partition in 1947), remain intact. MQM leader Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile in London, has mildly distanced himself from the imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan, but he pointedly drew attention to the “reasons” behind Musharraf’s decision. Hussain said sections of the judiciary, the legal fraternity and the media exceeded their “rights, traditions and etiquettes”.
The MQM’s support for the regime is important for Musharraf. It ensures that Pakistan’s most populous city of Karachi takes the imposition of emergency in its stride. Again, it is highly possible that some elements of the Islamic parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman will be co-opted in the coming weeks. Rehman is a valuable link with the militant Islamist camp. The regime has also assessed that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan can be endlessly stalled in the new circumstances with a pliant judiciary.
All in all, the chances of an eruption of popular agitation under the leadership of the democratic opposition are almost nil in immediate terms. This is despite the fact that the reasons advanced by Musharraf for imposing emergency rule lack credibility. He can now count on the intelligence agencies to play their traditional role of manipulating a coalition of political forces that will steer the regime successfully past the next parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has hinted elections are unlikely for another year. Musharraf is evidently planning for the long haul.
Who has the last laugh?
When the epitaph of the Bush era in Pakistan’s contemporary history finally gets to be written in a year’s time, there will be a complex, engrossing story to tell. Bush began reasonably well in 2001 by threatening to bomb the daylight out of Pakistan and to dispatch that country to the Stone Age. His threat of shock and awe indeed worked. Musharraf quickly fell in line in the “war on terror”. The world community applauded Bush. But in the process, Musharraf ensured his regime gained international legitimacy.
Also, Musharraf promptly put a price tag on Pakistan’s role in the “war on terror”. He negotiated hard. And he extracted out of the Bush administration in bits and pieces over the past six years a staggering amount of US$10 billion as assistance. That kept the Pakistani economy going, the army well equipped and his support base intact.
Of course, he took care to endear himself and the Pakistan army as an indispensable ally to Bush. As time passed, like a skilful commando, he began walking a fine line – in and out of the “war on terror” – almost unnoticed, as he pleased. Certainly, Bush noticed but had to pretend he didn’t. There was no other option. Bush was preoccupied in Iraq, and Musharraf knew that as well.
In fact, Bush, who once saw Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s soul in his deep blue eyes and liked it, has no choice but to keep insisting he is on a “hunt” with Musharraf in the Hindu Kush. Now, with a much-weakened Bush presidency almost entering a lame-duck phase, it is only natural that Musharraf feels he must look ahead. He will know by now as well as anyone that his number one public liability within Pakistan is his close association with the George W Bush presidency.
But continued US backing remains vital for Musharraf’s regime. How he reconciles the conflicting interests remains to be seen. One thing is for sure. None of Pakistan’s previous military dictators had such mastery over the art of the possible.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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