Musharraf’s political acrobatics and flawed plans likely to achieve little in Pakistan

General Pervez Musharraf is not the first Pakistani ruler to believe that he has a divine right, not only to rule, but also to rearrange the political system because he alone knows what is best for the country. And, like his predecessors, he is fond of his own voice, making pronouncements on matters best left to the experts. Despite his military background, he believes that he knows how to usher in a “true democracy”. The fact that all of Pakistan’s previous military rulers (this is no apology for the civilian dimwits who have been permitted to occupy the prime ministerial chair occasionally), namely Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ziaul Haque, left the country in a shambles is conveniently ignored.

In a rambling speech on July 12, Musharraf outlined his plan for the future set-up in the country, making it clear that he has no intention of giving up political power. He also clarified that the military’s role in politics will be given constitutional cover after Turkey’ s style. This will be facilitated by the creation of a National Security Council (NSC), whose members will include the four services chiefs (including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee), the prime minister, president, the four provincial governors and some cabinet ministers. He said that, as a military ruler, he believes in the “unity of command,” (ie. the consolidation of all power in his own hands), but then contradicted himself by saying that all executive authority will be vested in the prime minister, who will nonetheless not be allowed to become “all powerful.” Such simplistic pronouncements may be standard fare on the parade ground, but they are hardly suitable for a man proposing to run a country as diverse and complex as Pakistan is.

Musharraf’s strategy has been clear from the day his fellow officers, especially general Mahmoud Ahmed, seized power from Nawaz Sharif on 12 October 1999 (Mahmoud was forced to resign last year): to do everything to appease the US in order to stay in power. This suits the Americans fine. The attacks on September 11 were a gift to Musharraf and his coterie of military officers. In his eagerness to please the Americans, Musharraf has not only abandoned a 25-year policy on Afghanistan with indecent haste, but has also made a grand retreat on Kashmir, while increasing the amount and volume of rhetoric apparently in support of the Kashmiris. And he has put his hand in the hornet’s nest by using Pakistan’s army to attack people in the volatile tribal belt of Pakistan at the Americans’ behest. He then tried to make a virtue of this folly by declaring that the Frontier Corps and other forces had entered the tribal area to “combat terrorism,” though it was a territory that no one had entered for a hundred years.

Nor is that all. American FBI agents and military personnel are crawling all over Pakistan, especially at airports, which are now effectively under FBI control. The American spy agency is now allowed to collect data on and profile all passengers who are either entering or leaving the country. It has also been given carte blanche to carry out raids within the country on so-called terrorist hideouts. This has led to some bizarre incidents: innocent Pakistani citizens have been arrested and humiliated by the Americans without so much as a whimper of protest from the military authorities. It would, however, be out of character for Pakistani rulers to protest the humiliation of Pakistani citizens, especially by those whom they themselves revere.

Even the new head of USAID now feels that he has the right to interfere in Pakistan’s political affairs. He said in Islamabad on July 17 that in future his agency will help to train office-bearers of political parties. “Our mission,” he said, “is helping political parties to develop capacity and to train new legislatures to do a better job.” For whom, one wonders, and by what authority does the head of USAID assume such responsibility? That the Pakistan army has always been at the service of the US is well known; in the past it has been rented out to do the Americans’ dirty work abroad (in Somalia, Haiti, Sierra Leone etc.); now it is providing the same service within Pakistan. It is such subservience that has emboldened even the head of an agency like USAID to assume the role of political mentor. But we should not be surprised, as Musharraf himself has shown so much eagerness to please the Americans that one can hardly blame the Yanks for believing that they own and rule Pakistan.

Musharraf’s political reorganization plan comes through the tortuously-named National Reconstruction Bureau. When it was first set up, most Pakistanis believed that its function would be to rebuild the country’s physical infrastructure: a commendable task that desperately needs doing. But the military rulers had other ideas; the Bureau’s primary function is to manipulate the system to enable the military to keep a tight grip on power; all else comes second. The lynchpin of this policy is the NSC. Even the Supreme Court’s ruling that elections must be held before October 12, and power must be handed over to civilians, has been mangled beyond recognition. Since the military is supreme, the Supreme Court must also operate this framework.

The NSC idea, and Musharraf’s pronouncement that all aspirants for political office must be at least college graduates, have between them raised howls of protest from political parties and their leaders, who are dismayed that the new requirements will bar most of them from contesting the polls on October 10. Others have been disqualified on grounds of corruption: not a bad idea but that it is applied selectively. For instance, the military is exempt from all accountability; the argument advanced is that there is an internal mechanism to check such abuses. Well, maybe: but if so, how have men like Admiral Mansoorul Haq acquired millions of dollars and got away with it? There are other military personnel, serving as well as retired, whose records are equally suspect. Corruption and scandals are not confined to civilians, whether in politics or the bureaucracy. The process of accountability would have had much greater credibility if it had been applied to all. This is not to suggest that crooks in civilian clothes should be spared, only that the net needs to be cast much wider.

Musharraf has used the increase in foreign-exchange reserves (from US$0.5 billion when he took over to nearly $7 billion today) as proof of his sound economic policies. This is disingenuous. The foreign-exchange reserves have increased because many Pakistanis and others have withdrawn their money from American banks for fear that the US might freeze their accounts and seize their funds. The cowboys in Washington have run amok since September 11, accusing anyone they do not like of having “links with terrorists”. This has scared investors and other people with money (who are not generally the bravest souls in the world) to seek safer havens elsewhere. Pakistan is the beneficiary of this phenomenon: hence the increase in foreign-exchange reserves, which has nothing to do with Musharraf’s handling of the economy.

Musharraf cannot be faulted for trying to cling to power by any means possible. It is what all Pakistani rulers have done. The tragedy of Pakistan is that its sociopolitical system is out of tune with the needs and aspirations of the people. There are some constants in Pakistani politics: all rulers vie to appease the US in order to stay in power, as well to be able to compete with arch-rival India.

Until September 11, Kashmir was an important plank of Pakistani policy; under Musharraf it has been abandoned, although the rhetoric goes on. For Pakistani rulers, appeasing the US is their most important mission in life. If Uncle Sam in happy, everything is considered to be under control. But Uncle Sam is difficult to please. Despite Musharraf’s fulfilling every US demand, Washington has shown little inclination to ease pressure on Pakistan or show gratitude for its efforts; instead pressure has been exerted on Islamabad to force it to acquiesce in India’s demands. The fact is that the US knows that Pakistani rulers can be browbeaten into submission because they have no support from their people. This also explains why the US is happy with Musharraf; as a military man he has no support base among Pakistanis, and is therefore easy to manipulate.

What Musharraf has failed to understand is that his policies have alienated a large number of people in Pakistan, especially his assault on the religious sentiments of Pakistani Muslims. His brazen subservience to the US has also alienated the overwhelming majority. Given the US’s record and past behaviour, as soon it achieves its objectives Musharraf is likely to be abandoned. The sense of betrayal in Pakistan is so deep, and Musharraf has become so unpopular, that he may even be targeted for assassination. Should this come to pass, he will have only himself to blame. His political acrobatics will then be of no avail and even Uncle Sam will not weep for him.