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Judgment Time for Musharraf

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated: March 19, 2007

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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's decision to suspend the country's chief justice poses a potential crisis for a leader torn between domestic and international pressures. Musharraf indefinitely removed Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry (IHT) from office for abuse of power, but opponents claim the move was aimed at silencing an outspoken judge before a series of election-year cases challenging the president's authority. Appointed by Musharraf in 2005, Chaudhry increasingly strayed from the government line in human rights cases. Hundreds of lawyers protested Chaudhry’s suspension in front of Islamabad's Supreme Court over what they say is an unconstitutional suspension, and several judges have resigned (BBC). In an unlikely alliance, members of Pakistan's conservative Islamist coalition joined the secular opposition in demonstrations, leading to the arrest of the coalition's leader. As protests broke out (Times of London) in other cities, Musharraf's presidential predecessor Rafiq Tarar was arrested at a Lahore rally.

The domestic turmoil does not bode well for Musharraf, who seized control in a bloodless 1999 coup. During a Saturday speech, Musharraf attempted to shift the blame (Australian) to Prime Minister Shaukut Aziz, saying Chaudhry’s suspension was based on written recommendation from the premier. The Khaleej Times says the president is “visibly rattled by the public response and is anxiously watching the situation slipping out of control.” The intelligence analysis website Stratfor predicts: “Once the dust settles, Musharraf will lose sovereignty, whether he continues to rule or not, and the military will be forced to share political power with civilian institutions.”  

During a September 2006 speech at CFR, Musharraf said governing Pakistan is “labeled by some as one of the most difficult jobs in the world.” This challenge was magnified after 9/11, and the president has used the loyalty of the army to help sustain his domestic support as a counterbalance to what his critics see as acquiescence to Washington. Under U.S. pressure, Islamabad in 2003 deployed some eighty thousand troops to Pakistan's tribal areas, the region bordering Afghanistan. While attacks by extremists claimed the lives of Pakistani soldiers, the troop presence has failed to stop the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas, or incursions across the border into Afghanistan.

In a move to end the bloodshed, Pakistan signed agreements with militants in North and South Waziristan that were roundly described by critics as surrender to militants. As CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey tells Bernard Gwertzman, Pakistan's military and intelligence services “question how reasonable it is to shift gears so quickly and turn against individuals who were once allies.” Since the Waziristan deals, suicide bombers have begun to strike beyond the semiautonomous tribal areas in places such as Peshawar, the New York Times recently reported.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to Pakistan to press for results against extremists. Press reports said implicit in his message was the threat that Washington could retract the $300 million pledged to support counterterrorism efforts in President Bush's 2008 budget request if the Pakistani government failed to respond. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher followed up Cheney's trip with a visit to Islamabad to announce a U.S. pledge of $750 million over the next five years for economic development (AHN) in the tribal areas. But as Craig Cohen and Derek Chollet of the Center for Strategic and International Studies write in the spring issue of the Washington Quarterly, “It is worth asking whether U.S. policy has reached its limits and if it is now being guided more by inertia than strategy.Washington's close alliance with Musharraf may now have run its course.”

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