Once again Pakistan is in the vortex of another self-inflicted crisis. Gen. Pervez Musharraf's decision to declare a state of emergency had little or nothing to do with the reasons he has given, namely the growing lawlessness and mayhem sweeping across the country. Instead it has much to do with his unrelenting desire to stay on in public office regardless of the costs. Unfortunately, for once he may be overplaying his hand.
What will transpire in Pakistan in the next several weeks and months will depend on the choices of key domestic and external players. To begin with, the general himself still holds one or two last cards in an otherwise weak hand. Faced with mounting domestic turmoil and harsh foreign criticism, he could, should he choose to, overturn this latest decree and proceed forthwith toward free and fair elections. However, if his past is any guide, such a sagacious move on his part is most unlikely. Instead, trusting his own wiles, he will try to find some way to hold an election in January, the result of which is all but a foregone conclusion. What he apparently still fails to understand is that even if the Bush administration is prepared to bless such a sordid farce, his own countrymen are in a much less forgiving mood. An election of dubious validity that simply makes Musharraf and Army headquarters happy will only deepen and worsen the current state of political disarray and upheaval across Pakistan.
Can anything be done to stave off this distressing scenario? While predicting the future of Pakistan's turbulent politics is hazardous at best, two or three pivotal factors could shape the future course of events. At home, if Benazir Bhutto and her principal advisers in the Pakistan People's Party finally shed their propensity for rank opportunism and throw in their lot with the beleaguered (and battered) lawyers, Gen. Musharraf may have to devise another strategy than simply packing the nation's jails. She has, after a suitable pause, stated that unless Musharraf promises to shed his uniform soon and affirms the mid-January election, her party will take to the streets. Whether or not they will act, and in what numbers, remains to be seen.
The other two critical players who could help resolve this crisis are the United States and, to a lesser degree, the United Kingdom. Thus far the criticisms from both Washington and London have been muted and mixed. The Pentagon and the U.S. State Department have sent out seemingly conflicting signals. The Pentagon is apparently unwilling to even temporarily suspend military assistance to Pakistan. (Given the Pentagon's long-held fondness for Pakistani generals, this comes as no surprise.) The state department has been a bit more critical, but its leverage over the Pakistani military is distinctly limited.
If Musharraf is to be prevented from plunging his country into a deeper abyss of political disarray and possibly even civil war, the White House will have to concentrate its mind. The crisis that Pakistan now faces is unlike any other that it has confronted since 9/11, or indeed earlier. Contrary to received wisdom in Washington, Musharraf does not have many options. If the United States were to seriously threaten a suspension of military aid, he and his seemingly all-powerful Corps Commanders would quake in their jodhpurs. The time has come to hold their feet to the fire.