Musharraf's Fragile Hold on Power

Pakistani military dictators are not known for leaving office quietly. Each one of the country’s dictators has railed angrily and stubbornly against his fate to the bitter end. Yahya Khan (1969-72) led his country down the path of an ignominious defeat at the hands of India after bungling an internal crisis in East Pakistan. Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq (1977-1987), who sent one of Pakistan’s few elected presidents to the gallows, ultimately died in a very mysterious plane crash.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in 1999, now seems to have started down the same path. In all likelihood, his days as Pakistan’s leader are numbered. Protests, which started in the legal community, have expanded to students, journalists and political activists. Individuals who hardly knew Iftikar Chaudhry, the former chief justice of Pakistan, now see him as a potential savior. Musharraf has an opportunity to break the tragic pattern of military generals clinging to power. At very least, he should shed his uniform, send the Army back to the barracks and compete in an open election. Unfortunately, there’s little reason to believe that he will. The result will most likely be that he will cling to office until the deepening and worsening crisis finally leads to his replacement by yet another general.

The conditions that persuaded previous dictators to cling to power are still at work today. The first is the willingness of his external supporters to tacitly support his increasingly authoritarian regime. On this score, his political calculations are not entirely off the mark. As long as he abstains from a brutal military crackdown, he can count on the largely studied silence of the United States and the major powers of Western Europe. The Bush administration and the principal European governments remain loath to take any steps that might undermine his already fragile regime. They fear that exerting pressure on Musharraf to end his repressive tactics and pave the way for a return to democracy may inadvertently lead to the toppling of his regime and the emergence of a hostile, Islamist government. Musharraf has done little to disabuse them of this useful canard. (Contrary to most Western governments and commentators, there is little or no danger of an imminent Islamic takeover in Pakistan.) The Pakistani military will not easily allow the privileges it has accumulated over many decades to slip out of its grasp. To put it bluntly, the country’s military regimes have deftly manipulated the fear of Islamists to ensconce themselves in office. Unless the West calls Musharraf’s bluff, he will use this fear to try and fend off the inevitable demise of his regime. So far, Western criticism of his harsh tactics have been anodyne.

Musharraf can also rely on the continued cooperation of Pakistan’s ever-pliant bureaucracy and its complaisant business community, which prefer the order and predictability of military regimes despite the costs to press freedoms, civil liberties and minority religious rights. There is little reason to believe that they are on the verge of breaking ranks now.

Political wiles and the support of the key constituencies at home and abroad probably won’t be enough to keep Musharraf in power for long. Widespread protests aren’t unlikely to subside anytime soon. Government-sanctioned attacks on the popular and independent television channel, Geo, and threats against prominent journalists of Pakistan’s oldest newspaper, Dawn, have only aggravated matters.

Even before protests began, Musharraf’s regime was on a shaky foundation. While it did generate some economic growth, it failed spectacularly to contain growing Sunni-Shia tensions and violence across the country. It has also grossly mishandled the increasing restiveness amongst the tribal population of Baluchistan by resorting to harsh and cruel repression. Finally, the Pakistani military’s quest for “strategic depth” against its age-old adversary, India, have allowed the remnants of the Taliban to regroup, even while Pakistani leaders professed to serve as a loyal ally of the United States in the “war on terror.” Under substantial pressure from the United States, Musharraf has made only cosmetic gestures to contain the resurgence of the Taliban.

It is only a matter of time before disaffection with the current regime leads to a showdown. Unfortunately, like his predecessors, Musharraf continues to flail away hoping to stave off the inevitable. As a consequence, U.S. goals and interests in the region, which include battling the remnants of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, will continue to suffer.