It is said that political power in Pakistan flows from the three A’s: Allah, the Army, and support from America. Of the three, it is the army leadership that has the clearest means of ridding the country of Pakistan’s president in uniform, Pervez Musharraf. And that’s the main reason any power-sharing deal with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is unlikely to end Pakistan’s political turmoil.
Musharraf hoped to extend his presidency this fall without caving in to opposition demands that he renounce his military position and restore a civilian rival to the post of prime minister. But few international leaders face such a wide range of sworn domestic enemies.
Since seizing power following a 1999 coup, Musharraf has survived at least three serious assassination attempts. His anti-terrorist partnership with the United States fatally undermined his political alliance with Pakistan’s religious conservatives even before his government stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque in July, killing more than 100 people. The threat of terrorist attacks inside the country will continue to rise.
Musharraf also has plenty of secular enemies. Their anger, inflamed in March when he tried unsuccessfully to sack the Supreme Court’s independent-minded chief justice, rages on. The court recently ruled that Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf unseated eight years ago, must be allowed to return from exile.
Sharif is planning a grand entrance. His “decisive struggle against dictatorship – and determined opposition to any deal with Bhutto that excludes him – will intensify. Musharraf is warning him to remain in London.
America isn’t happy with Musharraf, either. Some in Washington charge that he has done too little to roust Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from safe havens along the country’s border with Afghanistan. His recent flirtation with a plan to bypass Bhutto and declare emergency rule provoked pointed Bush administration criticism.
But it’s the army that is most likely to eventually decide the fate of his presidency. Musharraf’s rule has given the military leadership a strong role in policymaking, but his eight years in office have badly damaged domestic support for the army’s influence within the government. His unpopularity has become their unpopularity.
Aware of a potential threat from within their ranks, Musharraf has populated his inner circle with relatively junior (and reliably loyal) officers. But a deal that makes Bhutto prime minister would undermine the military’s influence – and eventually its support for Musharraf’s presidency. As prime minister, she could eventually revisit her deal with Musharraf from a position of strength. Military leaders know this, and the threat that they will eventually push him aside will plague his presidency well into next year.
The army is unlikely to move on Musharraf directly unless subtler methods fail. The generals know that another coup would further weaken the military’s popular standing – as well as Pakistan’s relations with the US – at a moment when Bhutto and Sharif have raised expectations at home and abroad for a permanent return to civilian rule.
But if Musharraf were to refuse to go quietly, the generals could promise him a long list of public corruption charges that he must survive without their protection. Musharraf’s presidency won’t survive long without military backing.
To preserve the appearance that their meddling is benign, senior military officers probably know that they cannot afford to install another general as president. Instead, they will most likely support cosmetic political reforms, including a new law that formally separates the roles of army commander and head of state.
That is the strategy the military adopted in 1988, following the mysterious plane crash that killed former President (and General) Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. The army leadership ordered elections, permitted the formation of a civilian government, and then stage-managed the political process from the wings.
Bhutto, the leader of a secular party that now enjoys substantial support in Washington, would dominate policy planning in the next government at Musharraf’s expense. She must build on her domestic support, but she can rely on economic and security cooperation with America to safeguard the country’s stability.
In addition, the military’s role as guarantor of stability, and its tight control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the army’s crown jewels, will continue. The Bush administration can therefore enthusiastically back a return to civilian rule and claim a much-needed victory for democracy in a Muslim country.
But Bhutto would inherit Musharraf’s domestic enemies. Sharif would fulminate against her every misstep, threats of attack from religious radicals would continue, and the military would safeguard its interests from just off stage. Adding to the pressure, America would expect the kind of cooperation in pacifying Pakistan’s tribal areas that Musharraf has proven unable to provide.
The military will, under any scenario, continue to quell fears of complete political chaos. But it would also likely ensure that a Musharraf-Bhutto deal does not fully close a tumultuous chapter in Pakistan’s history.
Ian Bremmeris President of Eurasia Group, the global political risk consultancy, and author of The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.projectsyndicate.org).