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Markey: Concerns That Anti-Musharraf Protests Could Spiral Out of Control

Interviewee: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 16, 2007

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Daniel Markey, a former specialist on South Asia for the State Department, says that on a recent trip to Pakistan he was surprised at the continuing level of protests against the government of President Pervez Musharraf over his firing of the country’s chief justice. On a more positive note, he says the absence of an expected spring offensive by Pakistan-based Taliban into Afghanistan is “a significant propaganda victory for the United States, NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], and Pakistan.”

You’ve just come back from a trip to Pakistan, and the news from there that dominates the American press has been these protests over President Pervez Musharraf’s firing of the Pakistan chief justice [Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry]. What is all that about?

It’s a domestic political flap that’s taking place at several levels all at once. The suspension of the chief justice several months ago was said to have been driven, at least officially, by his acts which were deemed “inappropriate for his office,” but most Pakistanis don’t believe that was the real reason.

He was accused of using influence to get a job for his son, right?

Yes. Charges of nepotism, that he had too many official vehicles and other things like that are seemingly fairly minor offenses by Pakistani standards. So people started asking, “Well, what’s the real reason?” And the two top explanations are, one, this particular justice has, on several issues, ruled against members of Musharraf’s circle, including the prime minister, and the head of his political party, the PMLQ, so they must have wanted him out. And the second main reason—and this is one that’s even more political—is that Musharraf’s people felt that he might stand in the way of Musharraf’s efforts to continue on in office, both as president and as chief of the army.

Musharraf’s term expires in the fall, is that correct?

Yes. He has said recently, and his supporters have said, that they intend for him to be reelected as president. The election for president is an indirect one in Pakistan; it takes place by the assemblies, both the national assembly and the provincial assemblies. Musharraf’s people would like it to be held before the current sitting assemblies are disbanded for the national elections. In other words, he’d be voted on by the people who are currently in office. That’s a safe thing because he knows he’s already been elected by them before; he has a majority there, so he knows that he will win. Once he’s been safely returned to office, then they can have national elections and provincial elections to replace or vote in new members of parliament.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

And the flap is over his keeping both the army command and the presidency?

That’s a major sticking point. Constitutionally there’s a big problem with that. You’re not really supposed to have both of those offices at the same time. Musharraf has received a sort of a reprieve over the past five years, but the time is running out, and so the expectation is that he would need to embark on some sort of a maneuver, either actually to step down from one of those offices, or find a way around the constitutional provisions, or change laws, amend the constitution, or some combination of these things. A very creative solution would be to have him no longer be chief of the army, but have him essentially retain the capacity to run the army.

If you’re president, aren’t you commander-in-chief anyway? Or is that just the American system?

You are, even in the Pakistani system. Historically the army chief has really been the power center, so for that reason and for reasons of internal army hierarchy, the concern is, at least among some Musharraf supporters, that if he did step down as army chief, he would actually surrender the capacity to run the army, even though nominally, yes, the president is in charge.

Are there any viable political opposition candidates to him for the presidency?

Not really, although there’s some chance at least, that if things go really badly over the next weeks or months, that he would be forced out, and then somebody else would rise up to take over. There are people who have been in Pakistani politics for years and years, old faces, familiar faces, who could come back and serve that role as president, and they would probably be a lot weaker than any Musharraf presidency, though the system would really change to accommodate that shift. If for some reason Musharraf were forced out, we would probably see a return to a situation where you have a relatively weaker president, a stronger prime minister, and a strong army chief who wouldn’t be Musharraf.

The real concern is that these protests, including the ones in Karachi that left over forty people dead and the one before that in Lahore, could spiral out of control. That’s a fear that I had not anticipated to be so real before I went to Pakistan. I had expected these things would pretty much be under control. The level of concern from official circles was a little surprising. Recently there have been some news reports, denials mainly from the government of Pakistan that they might declare a state of emergency, which essentially would be something just short of martial law, in order to deal with these disturbances. Doing so would be in many ways a setback. It would be a troubling sign of the concerns from Islamabad about the government’s capacity to maintain control.

Most of the criticism from the United States in recent months has been over the perception that Pakistan was allowing the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces to infiltrate Afghanistan. There was an expectation this spring that there would be a big Taliban offensive. Has that actually started or not?

It depends on how you view it. The glass-half-full version is that the offensive never really started, that it was blunted in two ways: within Afghanistan by more robust, aggressive actions by U.S. and NATO forces, and in Pakistan by a revision in terms of [the Pakistani government’s] strategy for controlling the border and for dealing with some of the local tribes and Taliban who are operating out of Pakistan. The happy story is that there didn’t seem to have been this much-feared spring offensive that everyone was and is expecting. The less happy story is that there has been a relatively high level of violence all the way through, that it didn’t really slow down during the winter, and it continued on through the spring. There is still a real threat there. But almost everybody I talked to, at least on this trip, was fairly pleased with the way this spring offensive just hasn’t materialized, and if this continues, say, for the next month, that’s a significant propaganda victory for the United States, NATO, and Pakistan.

There still are bombings, aren’t there?

There are, yes. The level of suicide bombings has gone up every year, like the one that just occurred in Pakistan.

In Peshawar?

Peshawar is a place where they never used to see suicide bombings. My understanding is the first suicide bombing took place last fall. The tactics are shifting, and the fear is that you’re going to see more in the way of Iraq-style violence, which is very, very difficult to control. Whereas you might have a victory over massed Taliban forces who were trying to launch insurgent operations against U.S.and NATO forces, now they’re much less capable of doing that, and they’re going to try for softer targets.

There was an item the other day about a meeting between Afghan, Pakistani, and U.S. military officials discussing border problems, and there was some shooting, a Pakistani and an American were killed. Are these regular meetings?

I believe these meetings were called specifically to try to resolve some of the tensions between Pakistani and Afghan forces on the border. This meeting was intended to address those specific problems and to try to smooth things over, and obviously it certainly didn’t end the way that anybody would have been happy with. But the broader problem is that, whereas Pakistan says that it’s intending to control the border more effectively by erecting fences and having more aggressive patrols, the Afghans voice concerns that the Pakistanis are using this as an opportunity to firm up the border that the government in Kabul doesn’t really respect or believe to be the appropriate international border—the Durand line. So, they see this as a problem. So whereas everybody wants to control the border, there is a difference of opinion as to where that border really should be.

In other words, the Afghans still resent the Durand line, which the British drew in 1893, because it splits their own ethnic groups?

It separates the Pashtun tribes along the border. This line, for better or worse, has been the recognized international border by really everyone, as far as I know, and so eventually the government in Kabul will have to come to terms with it. But nevertheless the two sides need to come up with a way to control the border without causing disputes between Pakistani and Afghan forces. They have enough trouble with the militants to be fighting each other.

The Pakistan strategy of dealing with the Taliban in the provinces, what is it now? Is it still to enlist the local tribes into a kind of deal, that the Pakistan troops won’t interfere and the tribes will do the fighting?

It’s a fairly complicated strategy. During my trip I did have an opportunity to talk to some of the people on the Pakistani side, who were sort of chief strategists in formulating this about a year ago. The strategy has a number of different levels, but at its core is, as you describe, a sort of a divide-and-conquer approach to the tribal areas, whereby you separate the tribal leaders, some of whom are barely distinguishable from the Taliban, from the outside militants, the foreign militants, the Uzbeks, al-Qaeda, Arabs, and so on. That’s the first stage in an effort to try to essentially weed out the worst of the worst. Of course this is only a first step. Over time, the goals would ideally be to then try to come in and reform and deal with the local tribes in such a way that you make them also less dangerous, less militant, and less supportive of cross-border operations into Afghanistan. You could gradually get to a point where you’ve won over the local population and they’re no longer willing to host or support militant operations in their territory.

But nobody believes, as far as I can tell, that this is going to be a short and quick solution. Everyone agrees that this is going to take time. The real challenge is that in the short term, before the strategy can really take effect and really win hearts and minds, you have this problem of controlling the movement of terrorists and militants. They are very difficult to control, especially if you pull back a little bit and remove your heavy military from population centers, which is part of this process.

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