Pakistan: Musharraf at Bay

15 May 2007

Pakistan: Musharraf at Bay

By Gwynne Dyer

“The vast majority is with me,” said Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, a year ago. “The day I come to know I’m not popular, I’ll quit. But more than that, they’ll be out in the streets, and I would not be allowed to stay.” Well, they’ve been out in the streets for two months now, and it’s a good question how long the general will be able to stay in power. It’s an even better question what comes next.

Of the nine nuclear weapons powers in the world, seven are stable, predictable countries that basically support the status quo: the United States, Russia, China, India, Britain, France and Israel. The eighth, North Korea, may have one or two working nuclear weapons, or maybe not. (Its test last October was an almost complete failure.) And then there is Pakistan, a one-bullet regime with Islamist radicals lurking in the wings and around fifty nuclear weapons plus delivery vehicles.

A year or so after Pakistan first tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, I asked an American defence analyst what he thought would happen if officers who were seen as extrtemists took power in Pakistan. He said that there would be “a traffic jam over Kahuta” (then the main Pakistani nuclear centre), as American, Indian and Iranian aircraft launched simultaneous, uncoordinated strikes aimed at eliminating Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.

It’s too late for that now: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are widely dispersed and well protected. But it does give a measure of how horrified some other countries would be if Musharraf` were replaced by a regime drawn from some of the more extreme elements in the Pakistani military. The current agitation suggests an eventual transition back to civilian rule instead, but there are no rules in Pakistani politics.

When General Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, popular disgust with the corruption of Pakistan’s civilian politicians was so deep that he had real popular support for some years. Generals have run Pakistan for almost half the time since independence sixty years ago, and on average the military regimes have been slightly less corrupt (although they have also repeatedly dragged the country into unwinnable wars). But Musharraf’s life got much more difficult after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September, 2001.

Washington, intent on invading Afghanistan, demanded Pakistan’s help with menaces. Musharraf claims that Richard Armitage, then US assistant secretary of state, warned Pakistan’s intelligence director that if the country did not cooperate fully with the United States, it should “be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the stone age.” So he cooperated.

Ever since, Musharraf has walked a tight-rope, pulled one way by Washington’s demands and the other by the Islamic loyalties and fierce anti-Americanism of most of the Pakistani public. A booming economy (7 percent growth this year) has helped a bit, but the wealth doesn’t get spread very widely: about one percent of the country’s 165 million people are rich, perhaps another three percent would count as middle class, and the rest are poor. Much less than half the population is literate, and only two million people in the whole country pay income tax.

Pakistani governments, both civilian and military, traditionally depend on appeals to nationalism and religious sentiment to keep the impoverished majority quiet, but this has worked much less well for Musharraf since he was compelled to side with the United States in the “war on terror.” The surprise is that it has taken this long for a crisis to erupt, but now it has arrived.

The trigger was Musharraf’s attempt two months ago to dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, in order to make way for a more malleable judge who would not challenge his intention to run for president again this November while remaining commander-in-chief of the army. (That is unconstitutional under Pakistani law, but Musharraf got away with it in the rigged election of 2002, and he wanted to be sure he had no trouble this time either.)

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. All the groups that felt abused or insulted by Musharraf’s policies finally went out into the streets, and the protests continue: last weekend in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and financial capital, 41 people were killed in street fighting. He may not be able to ride this out. If he cannot, what comes next?

There are rumours of a deal between Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, the biggest in the country. She has been living in exile for the past decade, but he would amnesty her and she would come home to be prime minister again, leaving him in the presidency. Nawaz Sharif, the ex-prime minister whom Musharraf overthrew in 1999, denies this, insisting that “(Bhutto) said to me she will not enter into any deal with Musharraf,” but stranger things have happened in Pakistani politics.

Musharraf may be able to tough it out for a while longer, but the civilian politicians will probably be back in the end. There is, however, another, deeply worrisome possibility. The Pakistani army is a black box, and nobody knows what is going to come out of it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Washington…incometax”)