Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:50 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:50 | SYDNEY

Musharraf in the raw


Rory Medcalf


5 November 2007 12:41

President-General Musharraf’s midnight declaration of a state of emergency in Pakistan lays bare the nature of his rule. Since his coup in 1999, he has ruled by dint of his position as head of the army, albeit aided by semi-democratic fixes and facades where he could find them. Now there is no pretending. 

The curious coalition he manipulated during and after the 2002 elections — including radical Islamists and middle-class moderates — has spectacularly fallen apart. In March, he outraged moderates with his suspension of the Chief Justice and the forceful suppression of protests and media coverage. Then, in July, the belated and violent crackdown on Islamist militants at Islamabad’s Red Mosque both reflected and sharpened the rift between the General and Pakistan’s radical Islamist minority.   

Where else to turn? Reported attempts to knit a power-sharing arrangement with popular former Prime Minister Bhutto have failed. And time was running out. Parliamentary elections are due within months, and the Supreme Court was probably on the verge of declaring invalid Musharraf’s recent ‘election’ to another five-year term as President, because it was done by the last parliament and not the next. 

So the General deployed the troops and suspended the constitution. He has given public explanations that this was necessary to save the country from a path of ‘suicide’ involving ‘unprecedented’ levels of terrorist violence and judicial obstruction. But it boils down to a simple, circular logic: whatever Musharraf does is good for Pakistan. It just so happens that whatever seems good for Pakistan is certainly good for Musharraf. Trust me, he says.  This kind of self-delusion puts the Sun King in the shade.

Of course the United States and other countries fighting Islamist terrorism barely even pretend to trust him. Duplicity about Pakistan-based support for militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir is Islamabad’s default policy, as Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban authoritatively chronicle.  

But even now there are sounds of swallowed outrage (which foreign ministers often call 'concern') in WashingtonLondon and Canberra. The situation in Pakistan and its tribal borderlands with Afghanistan may be bad, but there’s every prospect it would be worse were the West to abandon Musharraf without a clear succession plan. The risk is judged not worth taking. New Delhi unashamedly values security above democracy, so it will keep talking to the General. Anyway, the only apparent external leverage over Musharraf is Washington’s billions of dollars in military aid. Washington’s threats to suspend this are almost certainly hollow — since the US would thus be cutting off part of its own wider war on terror to spite its democratic face.  

So the West is stuck. This is what comes of spending decades accepting the story that the Pakistani army is the only institution indispensable to the country’s survival. It probably becomes more true each year you believe it. The bind would not be so exquisitely embarrassing for the US if it weren’t so adamant about associating its campaign against terrorist violence with the promotion of democracy. 

Musharraf, a former commando, is a consummate tactician: a master of sudden moves to throw his enemies off balance and to survive until the next encounter. But this is also his weakness. Tactics seems his substitute for a long-term plan, and surviving gets harder each time. The problem is, his Western partners, however exasperated, don’t seem to have a strategy for Pakistan either.