Musharraf's own goals

Irfan Husain
26 March 2006

One would have thought that being a soldier as well as president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf would avoid opening multiple fronts, and create alliances rather than making new enemies.

Far from heeding these lessons from military history, he seems bent on starting new fights and spurning potential friends. Politically, he has never been more isolated. Militarily, his troops are heavily engaged in Waziristan on the Afghan border, and in Baluchistan where his paramilitary units are fighting Baluchi insurgents. His partnership with the six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – the natural support-base of military rulers in Pakistan – has collapsed due to his crackdown on Taliban elements in Pakistan's fractious "tribal areas".

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(March 2006)

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The month-long protest movement in February-March 2006, ostensibly against the offensive Danish cartoons, has shown yet again that when push comes to shove, the religious parties can call out the mobs. This is an issue that has united the fragmented parties that oppose Musharraf in a way local issues did not. Suddenly, the opposition seems galvanised while Musharraf is looking shakier than at any time since he seized power in 1999.

On the eve of President Bush's arrival in Islamabad on 3 March, the Pakistani army launched a major operation against alleged Taliban elements in South Waziristan as a show of force in the unsettled region, and a demonstration of Pakistan's loyalty to the American cause. This did not prevent Musharraf during Bush's visit appearing a beleaguered leader at bay on his own turf, nor the domestic political opposition from using the occasion to embarrass him.

The power to make enemies

Much of the opposition to Musharraf stems from his broken promise to retire as army chief in 2005, and continue as a civilian president until October 2007, when he would stand for re-election at the time of the parliamentary and provincial elections due then. After some dubious constitutional advice and shaky parliamentary support, he has announced that he will carry on in his dual capacity.

Musharraf's record of pledges breached has ensured that his many opponents now feel that the only way to get rid of him is through violent protest. His acolytes, by sending out signals that the president is unwilling to leave the scene even after the 2007 polls, have raised the stakes in Pakistan's ruthless game of power politics.

His only supporters at present, apart from the army and the Americans, are the carpetbaggers of the Muslim League. But as other military rulers in Pakistan have learned, this ragtag collection of opportunists backs a leader only as long as he is seen to be in charge. As soon as it senses his power ebbing away, it looks around desperately for the next rising star to hitch its wagon to.

Some of Musharraf's woes have been imposed on him; others have been own goals. An example of the latter is the explosive situation in the tribal belt dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a direct result of being America's staunch ally. Whilst prior to 9/11, Islamabad would not have raised an eyebrow over Taliban raids into its neighbouring country, today there is huge pressure from Washington on Musharraf to prevent these cross-border attacks. Moreover, in a conflict with well-armed and highly motivated men, there are bound to be civilian casualties from time to time, an issue that provides the MMA with more political ammunition against Musharraf.

In Baluchistan, there are almost daily reports that insurgents are using large numbers of rockets, mortars and mines against government personnel and assets. This kind of ordinance is expensive, and there are many suspicions and allegations about where the money is coming from. Musharraf has more than once hinted at an Indian hand in organising and financing the shadowy Baluch Liberation Army. Although the charge is unproven, such a policy would seem logical retaliation for Pakistan's support of Kashmiri rebels. If Musharraf had lived up to his repeated promises to halt cross-border terrorism, perhaps Pakistan would not be facing a well-organised Baluchi insurgency today.

Musharraf is probably exercising all his self-control not to follow his first instinct and go in to Baluchistan with guns blazing. He lacks the temperament to negotiate patiently and arrive at a formula that gives the Baluchis a greater share of revenues from their energy and mineral resources.

Politically, Musharraf's isolation is entirely of his own making. From the day he took over, he has acted to eradicate the influence of the country's two major politicians (and former prime ministers), Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. While the former was treated leniently and sent into a luxurious exile in Saudi Arabia, Bhutto and her husband Asif Zardari have been hounded mercilessly. Every effort has been made to bribe and bully members of these opposition parties to switch allegiance. Now, when Musharraf needs their support to neutralise the mullahs, he finds them in the opposite camp.

Nawaz Sharif has spent five years in Saudi Arabia with his extended family as guests of the royal family, and has set up a steel business in the country. He has now been given permission to travel to Britain (where, in London, he owns several luxury flats) for medical treatment. But according to an agreement brokered between Islamabad and Riyadh, the Pakistani politician is barred from taking part in politics.

Benazir Bhutto has not fared as well: a regular on the lecture circuit in the United States, she has watched from a distance as Asif Zardari suffered incarceration for eight years (first under Nawaz Sharif, then General Musharraf). He was released on bail in 2004, and is currently undergoing cardiac treatment in America.

In his personal convictions Musharraf is a liberal, secular individual; had it not been for his obsessive hatred of civilian politicians like Sharif and Bhutto, he could have joined forces with them to marginalise the mullahs. After all, these two figures between them command the largest number of votes in Pakistan. Instead of broadening its base, this government has used its National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to crush politicians it does not approve of.

At the same time, the many charges against corrupt politicians cannot conceal the fact that – as previous NAB enquiries have established – several of them are members of the present cabinet. The whole exercise in house-cleaning is motivated not by a principled effort to remove the stain of corruption from Pakistani politics but solely by a desire to keep certain politicians the government finds undesirable far away from power and influence.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan and its neighbours:

Maruf Khwaja, "The past in the present: India, Pakistan, and history" (August 2002)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet"
(March 2004)

Muzamil Jaleel, "Kashmir's bus ride to peace" (April 2005)

Maruf Khwaja, "The Baluchi battlefront" (February 2006)

An end to isolation?

It is evident that Musharraf needs to reach out to potential allies. But what deals might he want to cut, and with whom? His options are clearly limited: he cannot further appease the mullahs without drastically reducing his close cooperation with the Americans. It follows from this that the uprising in the tribal areas will continue, and any civilian casualties there will further strengthen his Islamist opposition.

After more than six years of constant harassment and defamation, it is unlikely that a deal with Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is now possible. But politics make for strange bedfellows. Who knows, given the right inducements, how power-hungry politicians react to the prospect of high office?

In principle, then, there is still time for Musharraf to end his isolation. But all too often, people who have been in power for a long time convince themselves of their own invincibility. One problem is that his army deputies and corps commanders are now several years younger than him, and in the military this counts for a lot. For a considerable period after he took power in October 1999, his colleagues could have spoken to him as near equals; but their successors are probably far more deferential. This usually makes for bad advice.

Ultimately, dictators become detached because they surround themselves with yes-men and thus lose contact with the real world. Inevitably, they become convinced of their own infallibility.

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