by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 8, Ramadan, 1428)
The Supreme Court verdict on September 28, dismissing several petitions challenging General Musharraf’s attempt to contest presidential polls while retaining his army post, has dealt a severe blow to the opposition’s hopes of preventing him from continuing his rule. There was an immediate adverse reaction on the streets; the police resorted to their customary brutality, attacking lawyers, political opponents and journalists, and a number of cameras were smashed. Protests continued as Crescent International went to press, amid signs that though the verdict might have brought some respite to Musharraf, Pakistan’s troubles are far from over.
The legal fraternity has nominated Wajihuddin Ahmed, a retired justice of the Supreme Court, as their candidate for the presidency. A total of 43 candidates have registered their names for a post that will be decided by the vote of the National Assembly, the Senate and the four provincial assemblies. The North West Frontier Province (NWFP), whose government is controlled by the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal, announced that it would request the provincial governor to dissolve the assembly, a move that would rob Musharraf of valid legitimacy even if he were to get a majority of the vote in the complicated electoral process. Musharraf, meanwhile, announced through Attorney General Abdul Qayyum, who was defending him against the challenge in the Supreme Court, that he will resign his army post once he is “elected” president. Abdul Qayyum also said that if he were barred from the presidential poll, Musharraf would continue in his army post until the “new president” appointed a new army chief. In the end, this turned out to be irrelevant.
It is difficult to decide which is worse: General Musharraf’s desperate attempts to prolong his illegal rule by clinging to power, or politicians shamelessly selling themselves by striking deals with him to get into power. One former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, is desperately trying to strike a deal with Musharraf, a move that has Washington’s blessings; another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was prevented from entering the country and re-exiled on September 10 despite a Supreme Court ruling that, as a citizen ofPakistan, he is free to return. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the most slippery politician Pakistan has produced, continues to speak from both sides of his mouth and has achieved the impossible feat of being with the opposition and the government simultaneously.
Benazir wants the raft of corruption charges she faces withdrawn in return for her supporting Musharraf’s continuation in power; she also wants his help in passing an amendment to the constitution to enable her to become prime minister for the third time. The fact that Musharraf would even countenance such a preposterous proposal indicates the depth of depravity to which the ruling elites have sunk in Pakistan. He is prepared to drop corruption charges against her because she cannot face the courts to disprove them. Yet in the murky politics of Pakistan, that does not appear to deter her. She argues that the “international community” (meaning the rulers in Washington) supports her bid. There is no hint that the people of Pakistan matter at all, or that they may have other ideas about the kind of democracy she believes in. Her cosying up to the general has disappointed many of her party stalwarts and increased her unpopularity with ordinary Pakistanis. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML)-Q faction, the party allied with Musharraf, is also opposed to striking a deal with her. They are led by the Chaudhries of Gujrat, and any alliance between the general and Benazir would undermine their political future.
Such political theatrics would be highly amusing but for their disastrous consequences. Amid the political jockeying for power, the military has been involved in attacking people in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), especially in North and South Waziristan, and in Baluchistan province, to appease the Americans. It was during one such operation in South Waziristan that 600 troops, among them a colonel and more than a dozen majors and captains, were captured by the Mehsud tribesmen on August 31. Three hundred were released, but the other 300 were still in captivity at the time of writing. The demoralised soldiers surrendered to about 25 lightly armed tribesmen and handed over all their equipment, including 17 trucks. The military has been involved in other activities as well that have made it so unpopular that officers no longer appear in public in uniform for fear of being insulted or attacked. There is also resentment about the military’s tentacles in ventures that has made it the largest business enterprise in Pakistan. Today the military is everything—the largest political party, a real estate business, a trading enterprise, owner of factories and other ventures—except a fighting force. Military officers—both serving and retired—also occupy important civilian posts, such as heading State corporations.
The military has frequently meddled in politics and made things worse, but such problems have escalated alarmingly over the last eight years because of Musharraf’s disastrous policies. The final straw was his attempted dismissal on March 9 of the independent-minded Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. He rightly perceived the chief justice as a hurdle in his plans to get himself elected from the existing assemblies, which are stacked with people beholden to him. Unlike his predecessors, who accommodated every tyrant, Iftikhar Chaudhry has established a reputation for fair-mindedness and sticking to the constitution, which has made him unpopular with the establishment, which, while never constrained by legal niceties, had to use the courts to seek a veneer of legality. This is where past judges have acted as willing tools of military dictators.
No more, as became evident from the Supreme Court verdict of July 20 reinstating the chief justice and declaring Musharraf’s move illegal. But before the Supreme Court verdict, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party operating under Musharraf’s patronage, perpetrated a bloodbath in Karachi on May 12 to prevent the chief justice from addressing the Karachi Bar Association. This was followed on July 10 and 11 by a commando assault on the Lal Masjid and Madrassa complex in Islamabad that left hundreds (perhaps thousands) of students dead. The MQM has meanwhile continued its terror campaign by assaulting courts where cases against its members are being heard, and where lawyers who are defending members of a rival group, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement-Haqiqi, work. The MQM is a party whose leader, Altaf Husain, lives in self-imposed exile in London (he has become a British citizen) but continues to wage political warfare by remote control. His party has a gory record of torture of political opponents including drilling nails in their hands, feet and skulls.
There are other troubling developments on the horizon. On September 13, a Pashtun commando officer blew himself up in the Special Service Group (SSG-commandos) dining hall, killing 16 fellow commandos and injuring dozens of others. It is reported that his sister, a student at the Jamia Hafsa madrassa, had been killed in the commando assault. Informed observers have confirmed a deep split in the military about Musharraf’s policies. The Pashtuns are unhappy with his subservience to the US and the policy of killing his own people, especially in the Frontier Province. Many Pashtun officers have refused to shoot their own people, considering it unconscionable to do so. They rightly argue that the Pakistan Army should not kill its own people to appease America.
While Musharraf has surrounded himself with cronies and close relatives for protection, he faces a dilemma. The Vice Chief of Army Staff, lieutenant general Ahsan Saleem Hayat retires on October 7; a new general must be appointed. This becomes important if Musharraf is forced to relinquish his post as army chief. The vice chief will automatically step in. The Pakistan Army is structured in such a way that the chief calls all the shots. Once Musharraf is out, his predecessor, regardless of how loyal he may appear now, will become his own man. He need not do Musharraf’s bidding. Aware that Musharraf is extremely unpopular and that, because of his policies, most Pakistanis hate the military, the new chief may take steps to distance himself from those policies. While this will not mean ending subservience to the US—this is a constant in Pakistani politics—he may not want to continue his association with Musharraf’s policies and their consequences.
There is of course an honourable way out for Musharraf: he could leave of his own accord, but this is highly unlikely. He has claimed on many occasions that he is “indispensable”; it seems that he has never visited a graveyard. He also asserts that the Americans want him in power. This may be true, but there are times when even the Americans cannot do anything to stem the tide of public opinion. Besides, there are many others in Pakistan who would be more than happy to serve Washington’s interests so long as they can be in power. As Pakistan’s political circus was in full swing, on September 28 the Supreme Court added its own twist; the nine-member bench granted a reprieve to Musharraf through its verdict that the petitions challenging his election in uniform were “not maintainable” on technical grounds.
A week earlier (September 21), Musharraf had announced that major general Nadeem Taj will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and take over as director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence from lieutenant general Ashfaq Pervez Kiani. Another major general, Mohsin Kamal, will replace lieutenant general Tariq Majid as Commander 10 Corps, Rawalpindi, which includes the notorious 111 Brigade, commonly referred to as the “coup brigade” because it spearheads assaults on the parapets of power during a coup. There is speculation that Generals Kiani and Majid are now slated to fill the two top spots of chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and Vice Chief of Army Staff, which will become vacant on October 7.
General Nadeem Taj’s appointment is interesting. He is close to Musharraf, having served both as his military secretary as well as head of Military Intelligence. It is the latter experience that makes him attractive: he will act as Musharraf’s eyes and ears in this critical period. He played a key role in supervising the 2002 general elections that brought the present subservient assemblies into existence. He also initiated back-channel contacts with Benazir Bhutto. Thus he is close to Musharraf’s thinking in several key areas. It will be interesting to see whether these changes will be enough to keep Musharraf in power, or whether the people’s tide will sweep him into the dustbin of history, perhaps before the end of the year. Whichever alternative transpires, Pakistan’s turbulent record is not likely to change any time soon.