Musharraf’s Last Stand

This was supposed to be a foreign-policy election. Iraq, Iran, North Korea were going to be prominent on the campaign agenda in 2008. In fact, over the past few months, the wider world has been receding. Violence in Iraq is down. The threat from Iran seems less urgent. We're negotiating with North Korea. But one country has been all over the news and is being debated on the campaign trail—Pakistan. Pakistan worries everyone. Commentators talk of rising instability and national peril. Proliferation experts like Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warn that the country's nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Presidential contenders threaten to get tough with Islamabad. And to add urgency to these discussions come periodic terror attacks, including one last Thursday, outside the Lahore High Court, that killed 19 policemen and bystanders.

I watched this debate from Pakistan, leaving Lahore one day before the bombing. Pakistanis—somewhat dazed in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto's assassination—are not quite sure how to take in all the attention. Most are intrigued by their newfound prominence, defensive about the gloomy picture painted of their country and hopeful that their problems will lead to international help. But all are genuinely worried. Things have rarely looked as bad.

In the past year Pakistan has suffered its worst violence since the riots that followed its founding in 1947. And in the past six months it has careered from one political and constitutional crisis to another, none of which has been resolved, or is likely to be resolved by parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18. "We have all these problems coming together at the same time," says Jehangir Karamat, the former chief of staff of the armed forces. "The suicide bombings in our cities and towns, the insurgency in the western regions, the lawyers' protests, the challenge to the regime's legitimacy." In fact, Pakistan is facing two crises—one political and the other security-related. It might have been more convenient to tackle them sequentially, but that is no longer an option. The country will face them simultaneously over the next few months, and how well it does will determine whether this nuclear-armed nation veers badly off course.

Pakistan is a messy place, with only unpalatable choices, which is why many believe that in this land of the blind, Pervez Musharraf is king. George W. Bush, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy—all have bet on Musharraf. He's not perfect, in their view, but he is a bold leader who fights terrorism and has the competence to move this complex country in a modern direction. Until recently it was a good bet. When Musharraf took control of the government in 1999, Pakistan was spiraling downward, its economy a shambles, its military intertwined with jihadists in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and its politics deeply corrupt. Musharraf was forced to make a choice after 9/11 and acted decisively. Once the principal sponsor of the Taliban government, Pakistan quickly helped the United States topple it. Over the next two years, Musharraf weakened support for something much closer to his military's heart— the jihad in Kashmir, which kept a third of the Indian Army tied down in that state. To understand the magnitude of these shifts, bear in mind that the Pakistani military has had only two policy successes over the past three decades—installing a friendly regime in Afghanistan and bleeding India at low cost over Kashmir.

In a wide-ranging conversation at his Camp Office in Rawalpindi on Jan. 7, Musharraf came across, as always, as smart and thoroughly modern. In the past he has spoken admiringly of Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk, and denounced Islamic extremism. He's instituted economic reforms, and embraced science and secular education. By all accounts, he has not been tarred by the personal corruption that had become routine for Pakistani leaders, though of course he is part of a broader structure of military power and privilege that is massive, arbitrary and accountable only to itself.

One year ago, if Pervez Musharraf had ceded power (there were many different ways to do so) and allowed for a transition to democratic rule, he would, over time, have been remembered as Pakistan's most significant leader since Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, perhaps even since its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. There are many caveats and qualifications to this characterization—I can hear the shrieks from Pakistan's urban liberals—but on balance, I believe that it holds. While intellectuals and activists in Lahore and Islamabad had many complaints, in September 2006—after Musharraf had been in office seven years—average income had risen 55 percent, TV and print media were flourishing, and his approval rating hovered above 60 percent.

But over the past year, Musharraf has embarked on a series of moves that have destroyed his claims to being a modernizer, his reputation as a statesman and his popularity with his own people. Many outside Pakistan do not quite realize the sea change that has taken place. Musharraf is now deeply unpopular; significant majorities distrust anything he says. He is routinely accused of masterminding Bhutto's death, rigging the elections in advance and being in cahoots with terrorists. His approval rating was 30 percent in November 2007, in the latest of five national surveys conducted by the International Republican Institute over the previous 18 months. It has almost certainly gone down significantly since then, in the wake of Bhutto's assassination. When asked what they thought of his (engineered) re-election as president in October 2007, a stunning 61 percent said that they "strongly disagreed," and an additional 11 percent said they "disagreed." And polls in Pakistan are likely to overstate the level of support for a military ruler.

Why has this happened? Musharraf realized last year that Pakistan's laws and courts were obstacles to his central aspiration—to remain in power—and he responded by cutting them down. When it became clear that the Supreme Court stood in his way, he fired its chief justice. When the charges he brought against the chief justice were unanimously dismissed by a 13-judge panel (including five hand-picked ones), he declared an emergency and fired the chief justice and 60 other judges of various superior courts, placing most of them under house arrest. When lawyers protested, he arrested their leaders, including the highly respected head of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan. Musharraf shut down TV stations, then reopened some after they were forced to sign a "code of conduct."

Musharraf has explained his actions—all wildly unpopular—as necessary to fight terror, and banked on foreign reporters' not checking the details of a complex saga. For example, Musharraf claims the judges had gone soft on terror, releasing jihadists arrested during the siege of Islamabad's Red Mosque last year. It's true that three judges had acquitted the Islamists, but Musharraf has retained all three. "The principle by which he fired judges is clear," says Asma Jahangir, the courageous chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a respected lawyer. "Those who were relatively independent were sacked. Only the scum remain."

Musharraf's struggle to stay in power has also reinforced his alliance with thoroughly illiberal forces. Having packed the courts, amended the Constitution, muzzled the media and battled with the major political parties, Musharraf has alienated all the modern, secular and liberal forces in Pakistan, with the exception of some businessmen and his own community of "mohajirs" (refugees from India) in Sindh. He now relies for his support on the military, an assortment of feudal politicians and some friendly fundamentalists. In Rawalpindi he spoke of other politicians, including the late Benazir, with undisguised hostility. Although he is an intelligent, well-meaning man whose vision for Pakistan remains moderate and secular, he has become a deeply polarizing force in Pakistan. Musharraf's selling point has always been that even though he was not elected, he has been a liberalizing dictator. Over the past year, he has lost claim to the adjective.

Does that mean Musharraf's days are numbered? Not exactly. Mushahid Hussain, secretary-general of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the party aligned with the president (often described as the "king's party"), says, "He's a cat with nine lives, and he still has two left." It may not be his feline qualities that keep him in office, though, but the support of the armed forces. Whatever happens at the polls, Pakistan's military, allied with elements of the country's traditional, quasi-feudal establishment, will still wield immense power. Its control of the Pakistani state is deep and has actually increased over the past decade, as Musharraf has placed retired generals in key positions of authority.

But Musharraf could also face a powerful political opposition in the National Assembly. Unless the elections are rigged, every independent expert predicts that the king's party will do badly. Opposition leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir's widower and the new co-head of her Pakistan Peoples Party) are united in their basic agenda. "Our No. 1 demand is the restoration of the judiciary," Sharif told me. "Nothing is more important than that." Zardari said, "The whole structure of power must change in this country. The military must get out of politics."

At a political and constitutional level, the crisis in Pakistan is actually good news. Civil society has mobilized. The print media have been utterly fearless in its criticism of the president. Musharraf's actions have given the parties an agenda to get passionate about, and so far they have not succumbed to the infighting that often destroyed them in the past. It would be a mistake to romanticize Pakistan's democrats. Many are feudal, corrupt and pliant. But increasingly there are some young and talented ones emerging as well. The polls may be rigged, though there are fewer opportunities than before for massive illegalities. The king's party may be able to buy allegiances after the elections. But it is also possible that Pakistan's political class might surprise us with its maturity.

There is a solution to Pakistan's political crisis, one that will allow Musharraf to leave on a high note. First, he must hold free and fair elections. Musharraf's current plan is to wield power as part of a troika—the Army chief, the prime minister and himself as president. This will work only if he is the weakest leg of that stool. He has already appointed a decent man as head of the Army, and he can allow a stable parliamentary coalition to elect a prime minister who can run the country. Musharraf should recognize that he has become far too controversial to be able to lead his nation and should instead recede from power. The example to follow is Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, now universally feted for bringing democracy to that country. Musharraf is said to be convinced that he is indispensable to Pakistan's future. He should remember the words of another general turned politician, Charles de Gaulle, who, when told he was indispensable to France, is said to have replied, "The graveyards are filled with indispensable people."

That still leaves Pakistan's other, more dangerous, crisis—the new jihad. Once nestled within the tribal areas of Pakistan and in neighboring Afghanistan, groups of militants have now begun to move freely into the settled towns and cities of the east. In the past year there have been 46 suicide bombings, killing more than 1,000 people. Attacks have taken place almost everywhere in the country. Most major political figures have been targeted, as have the police. In the past six months Army cantonments have been repeatedly attacked, and last fall two buses filled with officers from the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency were blown up. And, of course, in December, the country's most popular leader was killed.

The most troubling aspect of this wave of terror is that no one in Pakistan seems to understand why it's happening. Everyone I spoke to, from President Musharraf on down, was taken aback by the violence. When I asked the president about it, he began a long, rambling answer that decried blowback from the Afghan jihad in the late 1980s. But those fighters are now 50 years old. The ones blowing up Pakistanis are a new generation of young jihadists, motivated, networked and competent. If Musharraf has few answers, the political parties have largely ignored the problem, as have most journalists and commentators (with some important exceptions).

Theories abound. The Pakistani military was never fully committed to battling jihadists. Having spent decades training fighters for Kashmir and Afghanistan, the Army withdrew support but would not kill or arrest its former charges. While true at first, things appear to have changed in the past year. The armed forces are taking the battle to the militants, which explains why the jihadists are now targeting the Army in return. There remain some defense experts, like Talat Masood, a retired general, who argue that even now, the Army is softer on Afghan and Kashmiri jihadists, believing that keeping those places somewhat unstable is in Pakistan's long-term interests. (The Army assumes that the United States will eventually tire of the war and leave, and India will benefit from a stronger Afghanistan.) "The idea that a stable Afghanistan and India mean peace and development—that's something that the Pakistani Army doesn't really believe in its heart," says Masood.

Washington itself bears a significant part of the blame. The Taliban were never really defeated after the fall of Kabul. They simply went into hiding and regrouped, and yet the American Army declared victory and left. "You outsourced the most important battlefield of the War on Terror to NATO troops that did not have the mission, training or will to actually fight it," says PML leader Hussain. (The Pentagon is now considering sending an additional 3,000 Marines to southern Afghanistan.) The rise of the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas was also ignored. The first military operation there took place in 2004, two and a half years after the jihadists had retreated there, largely because the Pakistani Army didn't want to get bogged down in an area marked by disputed borders and fiercely independent people.

It's easier to diagnose what went wrong than say what should be done to put it right. Some have argued for stronger military measures, but the Pakistani military (with U.S. assistance) has been fighting these forces with mixed success. Others argue for greater political efforts at reconciliation and rehabilitation, a view Musharraf himself shares. But these measures so far have not worked. Musharraf's deal with the tribal leaders in 2005 and 2006 have failed—by his own admission. Some critics argue that these were hasty arrangements, designed out of desperation. What is needed, they say, is a much broader effort to revive the politics of the tribal regions and Baluchistan (the other danger zone) and to integrate them more fully into Pakistan.

Counterinsurgency and nation-building, which is what we're talking about, is a long, hard slog. The Pakistani state has limited capacity, especially in regions that have been "no go" zones for hundreds of years. Even its much-vaunted Army isn't really up to the job, having been designed to fight the Indian Army, not small gangs of Pashtun warriors. But if there is a missing component to the battle against the new jihadists it is that throughout Pakistan, this is seen as America's war, or Musharraf's war, but not as Pakistan's war. No one has been able to enlist the Pakistani people in the effort to marginalize the militants and at the same time provide political and economic development, as well as an ideological alternative to tales of jihad and martyrdom. Right now Pakistan's politics are focused on an entirely different battle—over the president and his illegal power grabs. Very few are willing to join a struggle that he will spearhead. Unless he can find a way to take himself out of the spotlight, Musharraf and his fate will eclipse the serious security issues facing Pakistan.

The American debate has been, as is often the case, largely removed from reality. The two scenarios that obsess Western politicians—loose nukes and empowered mullahs—are overhyped. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is, by all accounts, firmly embedded in the command-and-control structure of its military, with multiple supervisors and ultimate oversight by the prime minister and president. The second, related worry—that Islamic militants will take over the country—is even less plausible. For better or worse, Pakistan is run by a military that is disciplined and (mostly) secular, especially in its current leadership. The country's politics are dominated by parties that are mainstream and moderate in their interpretation of Islam. Fundamentalists have never done well in Pakistan's elections, gaining just over 11 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections, held in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Public-opinion polls all concur that these parties will be routed in February's elections.

The U.S. candidates' policy proposals have been depressing in their lack of seriousness. Does anyone believe that Pakistan would allow Washington and London to secure its nuclear arsenal? Or that it would meekly let the U.S. Army invade its territory to fight terrorists? The real question we face in Pakistan is what to do about the upcoming elections to ensure that they are free and fair. We need to walk Musharraf back from a power struggle in which he is pitted against an independent judiciary and democratically elected politicians. And above all we must find a way to work with the Pakistani people and not a handful of generals. Otherwise the intense anti-Americanism in Pakistan—fast rising because of our support for Musharraf—will produce a new wave of jihadists, born in the mountains of the frontier, tested in battle against the Pakistani Army and thirsting to fight the ultimate enemy, thousands of miles away.

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