Martial law in Pakistan
Time's up, Mr Musharraf
Nov 8th 2007
From The Economist
No longer the potential solution, the general has become a big part of Pakistan's problem
Illustration by Kevin Kallaugher
AS MILITARY dictators go, Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf has always seemed rather a decent sort. An affable man who gives the appearance of speaking his soldierly mind, he prompted quiet cheers from many of his countrymen when he usurped power from a corrupt civilian government in 1999. After September 11th 2001, he won the backing of America and its allies, risking popular anger by swiftly enlisting his country in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Proclaiming himself an apostle of “enlightened moderation”, he seemed, despite his embarrassing lack of democratic credentials, a relatively safe pair of hands to be in charge of a 165m-strong moderate Islamic nation—one that possesses nuclear weapons and is prey to a frightening extremist fringe.
Over the years, however, General Musharraf has squandered the goodwill he enjoyed at home and abroad. Many at home were angered by his alliance with America in a war they saw as directed at both Islam and their ethnic-Pushtun kin in Afghanistan. His persistent refusal to take off his army uniform and allow unrigged elections alienated liberal opinion.
So most of his support had evaporated even before he staged his second coup. That came on November 3rd, when he dismantled the constitutional facade built to prettify his rule and imposed, in effect, martial law. Hundreds of secular and Islamist politicians, lawyers and human-rights activists were locked up. Private television-news channels were taken off the air. For a decent seeming man, it was an act of political indecency. He may have been surprised by the vehemence of the condemnation he has faced, especially from America. But, like a borrower whose insolvency would bring down a bank, he may calculate that much of his former backers' anger is bluster, covering a fear of their own impotence. Many want him gone; America itself is demanding that he introduce some semblance of democracy. But it is not obvious how to force his hand without endangering the stability of Pakistan itself.
A way must be found, however. General Musharraf has built his international alliances on the fear that whoever replaces him will be worse. If that were ever true, it is not now. He himself is now a central part of Pakistan's instability.
As so often happens to dictators, however decent they seem to start with, General Musharraf has come to see himself as “indispensable”. In declaring what he euphemistically termed “a state of emergency”, he cited two threats to Pakistan's future that required his firm hand: the spread of violent extremism and the pesky interference of the judiciary in his efforts to deal with it. The first of these is a real and growing menace. The cancer of extremist violence (see article) has spread from the lawless tribal areas where Pakistan blurs into Afghanistan to the neighbouring parts of Pakistan proper, and beyond. The bizarre stand-off and bloody dénouement in July at the Red Mosque showed it can touch the administrative heart of Islamabad. Last month's carnage in Karachi at a procession celebrating the return from exile of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, emphasised that nowhere in Pakistan is free of the threat. Nor, such is the involvement of Pakistan-trained terrorists in attacks in the West, is anywhere else. The radical mullahs of the border areas people the West's worst nightmares: a “Talibanised”, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
General Musharraf is gambling that, so terrifying are these nightmares, the West will give his authoritarian streak the benefit of the doubt. Freed from the pettifogging concerns of quibbling lawyers and self-serving politicians, goes the argument, he can concentrate on eradicating extremism. If only. It is true that Western diplomats have been frustrated in recent months by his preoccupation with political intrigue. But martial law has so clearly pitted him and the army against the rest of the country that, rather than gain a sharper focus, he is now likely to be even more distracted. Supporters of the prime minister he deposed, Nawaz Sharif, were already angered by General Musharraf's apparently illegal deportation of Mr Sharif when he tried to return from exile in September. After a lag Miss Bhutto's party was not spared this week's round-up of democrats. She will find it hard to resume the power-sharing talks that General Musharraf and America hoped might give his regime a credible civilian cloak. Already the legal profession, turned into anti-government street fighters by General Musharraf's clumsy attempt this year to sack a stubbornly independent chief justice, is manning the barricades again.
Looking for a lever
America and Britain are loth to do anything that might jeopardise their links with Pakistan's army and its intelligence services. Pakistan still smarts from what it sees as America's fickleness in ditching it in the 1990s after Pakistan had, through Afghanistan, helped topple the Soviet Union. Logistical support for the Afghan war, undermining the Taliban's rear base in the tribal areas, and intelligence on planned terrorist attacks in the West: all demand Pakistani co-operation.
For this reason, the most obvious stick with which the West can beat General Musharraf—the threat to withdraw American aid, of which nearly $11 billion has poured in since 2001—is difficult to use. But it should be used. After some tough talk from America, General Musharraf has apparently promised to hold elections by mid-February, overturning the suggestion by Shaukat Aziz, his prime minister, that elections due by January might be delayed a year. If this pressure is maintained, Pakistan can still be dragged back from the brink.
The top brass of the Pakistan army are protégés of their chief, General Musharraf. They have done well out of his rule both personally and institutionally from all that American largesse. But their loyalty to their boss can be assumed to be finite. It will end at the point where it becomes obvious he can no longer deliver the goods: either in terms of popular support for the army at home, or in terms of American backing. It must be made plain that such backing is dependent on restoring democracy, through a free election open to all. Otherwise, as military dictators go, so should General Musharraf.