PAKISTAN: Threats to Musharraf’s Rule

February 7, 2005

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How serious is the fundamentalist threat in Pakistan?

Islamic fundamentalists, some of whom are believed to have targeted President Pervez Musharraf in two near-miss December assassination attempts, are given sanctuary in parts of Pakistan and appear to cooperate with al Qaeda. The attacks have intensified fears that radical Islamic terrorists are bent on destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan. But many experts say they believe Pakistan is more stable than it appears and that the extremists targeting Musharraf lack sufficient armed might and political support to seize power.

Who is trying to kill Musharraf?

The latest attempts--on December 14 and 25--appear to be the work of the radical Islamic group Jaish-e-Muhammad (Army of Muhammad), according to Pakistani investigators. This group advocates Pakistani control over the disputed territory of Kashmir, which is split between Pakistan and India. Jaish-e-Muhammad is believed to have ties to al Qaeda and is alleged to have received support in the past from Pakistan’s security services. Information contained in a mobile phone chip believed to belong to one of the bombers and found at the site of the second attack has led to the detention of some 40 Islamic militants. But experts say there is no shortage of other groups that might want to kill Musharraf.

Why is Musharraf being attacked now?

Jaish-e-Muhammad and other radical Islamic groups in Pakistan are infuriated by Musharraf’s support for U.S. policies in the region since the terror attacks of September 11, experts say. One expression of that support has been his intermittent efforts to clamp down on Islamist groups and Taliban elements in Pakistan and in the border areas with Afghanistan and Kashmir. Before September 11, Pakistan actively supported the Taliban government in Afghanistan and aided militants attacking Indian positions in Kashmir.

What would happen if Musharraf were assassinated?

Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a 1999 coup, would probably be replaced by another Western-leaning military man. The leading candidate, some experts says, is General Muhammad Yousaf Khan, the current army vice chief of staff. While any transition would create instability, some experts say Pakistan could weather the crisis--at least initially. "I don’t see Pakistan as a society in turmoil or on the knife’s edge between order and disaster," says Nicholas Platt, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and president of the Asia Society. "I think that the stability provided by an essentially moderate population and a strong military is greater than meets the eye."

Would a post-Musharraf government shift policies?

Many experts predict that moderate elements in the army would prevail and continue Musharraf’s pro-U.S. stance. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalists could attempt to use the situation to bargain for more power. Over time, this could lead to a power sharing arrangement between Islamic parties and the military--an outcome that troubles many U.S. policymakers. "I don’t see the threat [of Islamic fundamentalists taking over Pakistan] in any way as an imminent threat. At the same time, the consequences of their [eventually] coming to power in partnership with the military would be very consequential for American interests," says Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan expert and scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. The question is "whether the military would feel they would have to take some actions which could placate some of the religious elements," he says.

Would Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal be at increased risk?

Few experts consider the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to be an immediate concern. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are under military control, and the military is Pakistan’s strongest institution, experts say. The components of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal are believed to be stored at facilities scattered across the country, making a hasty deployment improbable. "The army is the glue of society and will continue to be so," Platt says, and has "a very firm hold over the military facilities." In his opinion, "the specter of radical Islamists taking over and brandishing the Islamic bomb is rather far-fetched."

Why did Musharraf decide to support the United States?

Siding with the United States in the war on terror allowed Pakistan to regain the strategic importance it had during the 1980s, when it was a base for U.S. aid to Islamic militants fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, U.S. interest in Pakistan waned. Pakistan eventually approached world-pariah status. It was censured and sanctioned for its nuclear ambitions, which culminated in five successful nuclear tests announced in May 1998. After 9/11, U.S.-Pakistan relations warmed dramatically. In June 2003, President Bush announced a $3 billion aid package for Pakistan, as well as $1 billion in loan forgiveness, in return for its anti-Qaeda efforts. The aid boosted the country’s economy and helped Musharraf cement his standing as head of state.

How does Kashmir factor in?

Recent initiatives aimed at reviving peace talks on the disputed province have further angered Islamic militants fighting to reunite Kashmir with Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan claim the divided region, two thirds of which is currently under Indian control. The Kashmir question has been a bone of contention since the two nations were created in 1947, and two of the three Indo-Pakistani wars were sparked by Kashmir. Musharraf met in January with Indian Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The two leaders agreed to begin peace talks in February, and Musharraf pledged in a written statement that he "will not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner."

What are some of the groups suspected of plotting his death?

  • Al Qaeda. Last September 11, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, addressed a special message to "our brother Muslims in Pakistan." He called Musharraf "a traitor who sold out the blood of the Muslims of Afghanistan," and urged Pakistanis to overthrow the general as part of their "Islamic duty."
  • Kashmiri extremists. A political crisis emerged in Kashmir in the late 1980s as India reacted aggressively to rising Islamic sentiment in the province. By 1990, Kashmir was placed under the control of the Indian central government and separatists mounted an insurgency. Kashmiri fighters were joined by radical Islamic militant groups including Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harakat ul-Mujahadeen (Islamic Freedom Fighters’ Group), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), the military wing of a well-funded Pakistani Islamist organization. All three groups are on the U.S. State Department’s list of global terror organizations.

Why did Pakistan support Islamic militants?

Their efforts against alleged enemies of Islam helped Pakistani leaders rally their people to the cause of Pakistan’s success and survival. In the CIA-backed war against Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan, Pakistan received financial support from the United States in order to serve as a staging ground for Islamic mujahadeen, or holy warriors. Pakistan’s support for radical Islamic groups in Kashmir since the late 1980s re-established the 57-year dispute as a major regional concern in the eyes of the international community, according to a recent International Crisis Group report. In Pakistan’s view, it also increased pressure on India to reopen negotiations over the fate of the territory. In Pakistan, the Kashmir dispute is portrayed as a fight for human rights and self-determination in India’s only Muslim-majority state. "America used Islamic fervor to fight in Afghanistan, and Pakistan continued with that in Kashmir, using Islam as a motivator. It was an Islamicjihad," says Kathy Gannon, the Associated Press bureau chief in Afghanistan and the Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Does Pakistan admit that it supported these militants?

To a degree. Pakistan has denied providing anything but diplomatic and moral support to Kashmiri dissidents. But Western intelligence reports have alleged that Pakistan also provided funding, arms, training facilities, and aid in crossing borders to both Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad through its Interservices Intelligence agency.

Would support for radical Islamic groups increase if Musharraf were eliminated?

Many experts say no. Most Pakistanis support Musharraf, and they would be horrified by his murder, Platt says. In addition, "if Islamists were the perpetrators, I would expect the army would come down [on them] like a ton of bricks," says Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington and a longtime Pakistan expert.

What percentage of Pakistanis support fundamentalist Islam?

It’s impossible to know, but some experts place the figure at about 10 percent to 15 percent of the population. Within that percentage, some experts estimate, is a much smaller minority ready to take up arms and fight for radical Islam. Still, in a nation of 150 million people, "even 1 percent of the population means there could be 1.5 million people with their finger on the trigger," says Arnaud de Borchgrave, the director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

How much support do radical Islamists have within Pakistan’s army?

Experts disagree. While Gannon says there is "a great deal of sympathy within the army for the radical religious right," Weinbaum doubts there is a large group "sympathetic to the most radical of groups." On the other hand, if even a small percentage is willing to block Musharraf’s orders to crack down on militants, it can greatly undermine the army’s effectiveness. Pakistani military officers have recently been arrested for alleged ties to al Qaeda, according to press reports. Disloyal army and intelligence officials can also provide information to militants to help Musharraf’s assassins. Pakistani investigators, for example, suspect that the Christmas Day attackers may have had inside information about the president’s route and schedule.

Are religious parties represented in Pakistan’s parliament?

Yes. Religious parties made major gains in the October 2002 election, fueled by a rise in anti-American sentiment after Musharraf joined Washington’s war on terror. The Muttahida Majlis e Amal, or United Action Front, an alliance of religious parties, polled 11 percent of the vote, which gave it control of 20 percent of Pakistan’s parliament. The alliance also won control of the provincial government in North-West Frontier province and shares power in Baluchistan province. These lies along the Afghanistan border where remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban are believed to be hiding.

What is the relationship between the religious parties and armed extremists?

There are some ties between them. One political party, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, is part of the powerful Deobandi sect that controls 65 percent of the nation’s madrassas, or religious schools. The party is also associated with Harakat-ul-Mujahadeen, the first Pakistani group to be put on the U.S. terror organization list. "In areas where religious parties hold power, militants can operate much easier," Gannon says. On the other hand, those operating within the political process and the extremists have different political goals, some experts say. "The religious parties are on a roll; their credibility has risen like it hasn’t before. They don’t want change," Weinbaum says. "But the jihadi groups want to try to kill Musharraf because they want to see instability in the country."

What has Musharraf done to crack down on armed extremists?

Under intense pressure following a December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament believed to have been conducted by Kashmiri militants, Musharraf banned Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and five other Pakistan-based radical groups. But many of the 1,500 Islamist militants rounded up in subsequent police raids were eventually released. Musharraf has also promised to force madrassas in Pakistan to moderate their extremist teachings, but many experts say they have seen little progress. In the mountainous border regions near Afghanistan, Pakistan has deployed troops to track Qaeda fugitives and has captured some 500 alleged Qaeda and Taliban operatives— including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks. But bin Laden is believed to still be operating from the region, and Afghanistan’s transitional government claims the resurgent Taliban are using Pakistan’s territory as a staging ground.

Will he follow through on recent pledges to crack down?

Perhaps. Some experts say they believe the December assassination attempts will serve as a wake-up call that the Islamic militants Pakistan has supported cannot be controlled. "He’s been playing both sides of the fence. He wants U.S. support, he’s been quite happy to turn over al Qaeda, but he’s been reluctant to give up the militant [card] in Kashmir without some indication that Pakistan is going to get something in return," Gannon says. "Now he’s being forced to choose--and he’s choosing on the side of cracking down."

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