Pakistan’s political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond

Shaun Gregory
27 August 2008

It is a measure of his isolation that the resignation of Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf appeared - when it came - to surprise only Musharraf himself. In his final speech to the nation on 18 August 2008 he seemed bewildered and depressed; a man facing political death, his mind unable fully to grasp the speed with which he had fallen from power. It was a man speaking to a mirror, trying to justify himself to himself one last time.

Shaun Gregory is professor in the department of peace studies at the University of Bradford, northern England, and head of the Pakistan Security Research Unit there. He is the author of Pakistan: Securing the Insecure State (Routledge, 2008)

Also by Shaun Gregory in openDemocracy:

Pakistan on edge" (25 September 2006)

"Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

"Musharraf: the fateful moment
" (16 November 2007)

It has not taken long for the resignation to expose the fact that the splinters in Pakistan's troubled polity go far deeper than the survival in office of an unpopular president. A week later, the ruling coalition fractured; the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif led his supporters out of the government on 25 August, amid the decision of his Pakistan People's Party rival Asif Ali Zardari to declare himself a candidate for the election of Musharraf's successor on 6 September 2008.

The damaging political fallout of Musharraf's departure is an early insight into the nature of his entire political legacy to Pakistan.

The president's balance-sheet

By the time of his farewell address, Pervez Musharraf had long lost the support of a host of constituencies he needed to remain in power: the Pakistani electorate, Pakistani civil society, the Pakistani media, the Pakistan army, the United States, and even his political cronies in the PML-Q whom the general-president had empowered as a political force through vote-rigging. The accumulated result was that he no longer commanded even the means to resist his own impeachment. When news of his resignation arrived, the Pakistani stock-market rose by 4.5% - though this was a muted and weary cheer against a backdrop of economic woes which have seen 25% wiped off the value of the Pakistani stock market in recent months.

His departure leaves a vacuum in Pakistan, but it is not of the character of that which followed the unexpected death in 1988 of Zia ul-Haq, his predecessor as military ruler of Pakistan. Too much power had already ebbed from Musharraf for that to be the case. However Pakistan is in a far more parlous state in 2008 than it was twenty years ago and much of the blame for that rests squarely on Musharraf's shoulders.

There is a stubborn and seemingly eradicable myth in Pakistan that the Pakistan army is all that stands between Pakistan and chaos. The peddlers of this myth, within and outside Pakistan, would do well to reflect that it was the army which ended Pakistan's hopes of a secular, democratic future in the early post-partition era; it was the army which led Pakistan to the break-up of the nation in 1971; it was the army which took Pakistan to the brink of nuclear confrontation in 1999 and 2001-02; and it is the army once again - after nine years of Musharraf's rule - which has taken Pakistan to the edge of chaos.

True, civilian political leadership in Pakistan has been and remains neo-feudal and corrupt. But how much of the failure of Pakistan's democracy to develop and mature since 1947 can be laid at the feet of the Pakistan army and its intelligence arm the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)? These institutions have after all systematically undermined democracy and civil society in Pakistan for decades, and shored up a small autocratic elite against the aspirations of the emergent middle class in Pakistan and against the hopes of what educated and wealthy Pakistanis condescendingly refer to as the "common man".

So powerful has this myth of the Pakistan army become that it utterly resists contrary evidence. Musharraf was lauded by the White House as a democrat even though he was responsibile for a host of violations: he rigged elections, exiled pluralist political leaders, repressed federal politics, made political deals with Islamic extremists, pressured the judiciary, undermined civil society, and disbarred, arrested and in some cases "disappeared" political opponents. Meanwhile, he was trumpeted as incorrupt even though under his leadership the army siphoned off billions of dollars of aid for its own interests, greatly expanded the commercial and financial activities of its private conglomerates, and inserted more than 1,000 military officers into senior civilian roles in everything from the petroleum ministry to university vice-chancellorships.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Ehsan Masood,
"Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Irfan Husain, ""Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, ""Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Musharraf was similarly heralded as a champion of the free media - a point to which he referred in his resignation speech - despite the fact that Pakistan slipped down the international press-freedom rankings during his tenure (from 119 [out of 139] in 2002 to 157/168 in 2006).

Most important of all, Musharraf was praised as a staunch ally in the "war on terror" even though under his rule Pakistan has continued to contravene the supposed principles and objectives of this war: by supporting terrorism as an instrument of state policy; by continuing to support the Taliban even as it strikes from safe havens in Pakistan against Nato and United States/United Kingdom forces in Afghanistan; by failing to extract al-Qaida from Pakistan's tribal areas; and by failing to prevent Pakistan from emerging as arguably the wellspring of international Islamist terrorism.

The ingredients of peril

The remaining apologists for Pervez Musharraf usually offer two defences to these kinds of charges. The first is that it is rogue elements of the ISI and not the Pakistan army which is responsible for Pakistan's linkages with terrorism (such as the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008 in which the ISI is strongly suspected of complicity). The second is that the Pakistan army has been pushed into certain actions by US policy.

In relation to the first, Musharraf himself asserted in 2006 that the ISI was a disciplined force and did what the army told it to do. There is no reason to doubt this.

In relation to the second, it is unquestionably true that the war in Afghanistan and the George W Bush administration's crude reliance on military power has, for Pakistan's state, greatly complicated the situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, no external power drove the Pakistan military to repress secular politics and civil society, to disregard the legitimate claims of the federal states, to court religious extremists and terrorists, or to assume control of a large slice of the Pakistan economy.

The explanation for all these actions lies in the determination of the Pakistan military, and the privileged elite it supports, to place its own interests before those of the people of Pakistan. As the man in control of Pakistan from October 1999 to August 2008, Musharraf cannot evade responsibility for these actions, nor consequently for the part these decisions have played in pushing Pakistan into crisis.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto - a huge body-blow to Pakistan, notwithstanding the many flaws of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader - was part of the long, slow crisis that marked the last year of Musharraf's rule. The hapless new coalition government formed after the elections of 18 February 2008 - divided politically and still largely focused on the wrong issues, has now to face the challenges of a state in the utmost peril.

The ingredients of this peril are manifold. The Pakistani economy is on the slide and many of the elite are beginning to take their assets out of Pakistan or to prepare for flight; the Taliban and their tribal allies have taken control of parts of the tribal belt and are increasingly assertive across Pakistan through targeted suicide-bombings; Balochistan is in violent turmoil; there are growing federal tensions between the Sindh and Punjab; sectarian violence is on the rise (not least in Karachi and in the Kurram agency); and the United States in the final days of the Bush administration has stepped up direct military actions inside Pakistan (which both presidential candidates are likely to continue, with little regard to the wishes of the Pakistan government). Against this backdrop, and almost unnoticed, the centre of gravity of Pakistan's polity is shifting in an increasingly conservative Islamic direction, driven by anti-western antipathy.

A country on the edge

Moreover, it was evident during the short life of the Asif Ali Zardari / Nawaz Sharif government that this administration was being shown little of the patience and indulgence shown to Musharraf by either Washington or London. This was a mistake since the government - as its collapse on 25 August 2008 confirmed - was always weak. It did not command the army or the ISI, and needed to be given time and space to find meaningful responses to the plethora of problems Pakistan faces - not all of which would have pleased the west.

While Pakistan burns, attention is now inevitably focused on the issue of Musharraf's successor. The PPP leader, Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari - who announced his intention to run on 23 August - is likely to take the post. The presidency is however a fragile position without the support of the army; and Zardari is loathed by the Pakistan army. The stage is thus being set for another unstable political dispensation - with Zardari (probably) in the presidency, Sharif controlling the Punjab, and the army waiting in the wings. The prospect is that this trilateral relationship is unlikely to survive for long. The most stable outcome - also perhaps the most likely - would be a partnership between Nawaz Sharif and senior and Islamically conservative Punjabi military officers, a move which would be consistent with Pakistan's drift towards Islamic conservatism and away from the west.

If Washington continues its policy of allowing its short-term objectives in the FATA/NWFP to obscure the far greater danger of Pakistan's collapse, then this will probably accelerate Asif Ali Zardari's political demise and play into Nawaz Sharif's hands. The risk too is that more intense US military operations in Pakistan will push Pakistan ever closer to the abyss. If Pakistan should edge further towards state failure, some may even find themselves wishing for the return of Pervez Musharraf.

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