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Musharraf’s predicament, Pakistan’s agony

Iftikhar H Malik
4 September 2006

The events of 11 September 2001 transformed the position of Pakistan in world politics, and offered its leader General Pervez Musharraf a frontline role in the "war on terror" the United States announced in their aftermath. Five years on, what has the country under Musharraf's leadership made of the responsibility - and the opportunity - it was then presented with?

The phone call from the US's then secretary of state Colin Powell that woke Musharraf with the news of the attacks in Washington and New York offered him a straight choice: Washington or the Taliban. For Musharraf, it was more than an easy decision - it was a godsend. Since his dismissal of an elected government in October 1999, the military ruler had become a pariah in the west, and the 9/11 attacks were a quick route to recover lost (or never gained) legitimacy, as well as a vanguard role in the unfolding war.

A sick body-politic

George W Bush had his own reasons for seeking Musharraf's hand. The result for the hapless people of Afghanistan in the ensuing weeks and months was the overthrow of the Taliban, but also the continuation of a sustained military operation which continues unabated today - even though no Afghans were responsible for 9/11, and the introduction of al-Qaida onto their soil had first been the responsibility of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Musharraf could ignore such cynicism and relish a newfound status as global statesman among allies no longer concerned with Pakistan's deep problems of governance.

Behind the scenes, however, these problems have endured and even intensified in these five years. The chronic difficulties of Musharraf's Pakistan - poverty and sectarianism, lack of accountability and trust in governance, regional disputes in Baluchistan and Waziristan - are as acute as they were before and since Musharraf arrived in power. Meanwhile, the country's government has the largest cabinet in its history, led by a suave banker-prime minister (Shaukat Aziz) who seems to spend more time on foreign travel than in attending to severe problems at home.

Pervez Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz each cite the spread of mobile technologies as evidence of the Pakistan's economic progress, and the constitutional amendments of 2002 (and the dubious referendum that followed) as evidence of its political advance. But as the elections of 2007 loom, the signs of deep disillusion among the Pakistani people are proving harder than ever to conceal.

The religious-political parties advocating a purist form of Islamic order (such as the Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Islam, and even the Jamaat-i-Islami) have benefited from an increase in Islamist political sentiment (and anti-Americanism) in the Muslim world. But they have also proved more acceptable to the ostensibly secular Musharraf, as he could use the presence of such elements in the assemblies to emphasise his indispensability to the west as the "last bastion against extremism".

A military state

In face of the serious imbalances entrenched by the Pakistani tradition of khaki praetorianism that Musharraf has upheld, his remaining supporters portray him as the symbol of "enlightened moderation". It is a hard case to make in a country where 35% of people live below the poverty line, and where very few analysts believe the premise that (to use a favourite regime dictum) "only the military can contain the mullah".

Indeed, the experience of Musharraf's seven years in power has discredited the military as an agent in the political arena. More and more Pakistanis argue that the army's most progressive role would be to return to the barracks and make way for the only force that can truly prevent the much-feared "Talibanisation" of the country: unfettered democracy backed by an assertive civil society.

While the military projects itself as the only guardian of the state, millions of Pakistanis view it as an interest group whose power serves only to reinforce the country's problems of governance and nationhood.

Such doubts are reflected too in the regional and international sphere, where Musharraf's "normalisation" process with India has (despite concessions over Kashmir and Afghanistan) started to look fragile. The very absence of forward momentum emboldens hawks on both sides and makes each dangerous incident - such as the Mumbai bombs of 11 July 2006 - a source of potential polarisation.

Meanwhile, the experience of Pakistan's unsettled frontier regions in the west and north of the country is marked by endemic internal social and developmental inequalities that foster greater demands for autonomy and resentment of the centre. The killing of the Baluchi nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti on 26 August 2006, and the embittered aftermath, is symptomatic of the unresolved problems that will be a prominent part of the Musharraf legacy.

Musharraf's thinning domestic power-base is making him increasingly vulnerable. The chief echelons of the military, his core support, are with him as long as their munificent benefits are guaranteed; his foreign backers too are likely to sustain him only as long as his rhetorical balancing-act as the bulwark against an unthinkable Islamist alternative remains convincing.

But the attitude of both is instrumental, and Musharraf can fully rely on neither. A president who has been in charge while more than 800 Pakistani soldiers have been killed fighting fellow-Pakistanis in the border regions, amid a near loss of the state's writ in these tribal areas, cannot inspire confidence for long. To both the Pakistan military and his western allies (principally the United States), Musharraf is increasingly a man running out of time. Five years after that phone-call from Colin Powell, the general has more than ever become Pakistan's problem rather than its solution.

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