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Since taking control in a bloodless 1999 coup, General Pervez Musharraf has held on to power for nearly eight years, making him one of the most longstanding leaders in Pakistan’s sixty-year history. He won a flawed 2002 presidential election, according to EU monitors, and also maintained control of the country’s military by remaining army chief. As his five-year term nears its October 2007 end, Musharraf says he needs to remain in office to follow through on initiatives begun during his presidency. However, as a series of domestic crises threatens his authority, opposition leaders question whether Musharraf should remain army chief if he gains reelection. Meanwhile, former Pakistani leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both in exile, clamor for political support from their consituents at home. As the election nears, questions arise over Pakistan’s political future—with or without Musharraf. Futhermore, the U.S.-Pakistani alliance appears to be weakening as the Musharraf government continues to fail in its efforts to curb Taliban and al-Qaeda activities in the country’s northwest tribal areas.
A Shifting U.S.-Pakistan Alliance
Washington’s relations with Musharraf got off to a rocky start when he came to power in 1999. Congress used Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits providing funds to countries where elected governments have been deposed, to prevent giving economic and military aid to Pakistan. However, the White House viewed Islamabad as an important ally against al-Qaeda after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the Bush administration waived the sanctions.
“We have to accept that the Pakistani army and intelligence have emerged in the last few decades as one of the most important components of the government,” says Abbas.
Musharraf, who named himself president in 2001 while retaining leadership of the army, pledged to support the United States by withdrawing support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and cooperating with efforts to root out terrorist training camps and religious extremism within his country’s borders. In the months following 9/11, hundreds of alleged al-Qaeda operatives were rounded up and arrested by Islamabad. But Musharraf’s new allegiance with the United States drew condemnation in Pakistan, where critics dubbed him “Busharraf.”
In 2003, President Bush announced a $3 billion, five-year economic and military aid package for Pakistan. The following year, Musharraf deployed troops to the semiautonomous border area, which the Taliban and foreign militants sympathetic to al-Qaeda have used as a safe haven for training and to make cross-border raids into Afghanistan. The operation led to major military casualties, and the government signed a pact with pro-Taliban leaders in the agencies of South Waziristan in 2004, North Waziristan in 2006, and Bajaur in 2007. Critics accused Islamabad of surrendering to extremists, and concern over militant training camps and incursions into Afghanistan continued while suicide attacks targeting Pakistani military outposts increased. A 2006 International Crisis Group report suggests the Waziristan pacts strengthened militant groups. During a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations on Aug. 15, ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said she favors linking U.S. aid to the “restoration of democracy,” which she argues would lead to a more effective strategy in fighting extremists.
In February 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney visited Pakistan, where reports say he pressured Musharraf (IHT) to resolve the problem of extremism in the border area. After fighting began in March between pro-Taliban tribesmen and primarily Uzbek militants in South Waziristan, Musharraf heralded the clashes as a policy success. During an April speech at a security conference, he suggested Western media had misrepresented the tribal accords and suggested that he would pull out of the anti-terror coalition if doubts continue about Pakistan’s commitment (Indian Express). But the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate issued by U.S. analysts points to the tribal region as a haven for al-Qaeda. Comments by U.S. presidential candidates that military strikes inside Pakistan may be necessary have further inflamed the debate.
The Supreme Court and Red Mosque Controversies
In March 2006, Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry for abuse of power, including using influence to help his son gain jobs. The decision to remove Chaudhry resulted in widespread demonstrations led by lawyers who were joined by other intellectuals as well as religious and secular opposition leaders. A number of senior judges also resigned in protest. As CFR Fellow Manjeet N. Kripalani explains in a podcast, those against the suspension say Musharraf sacked Chaudhry because of the likelihood the chief justice would vote against his continuing to hold the offices of president and army chief simultaneously. Chaudhry also had taken up cases of citizens arrested by the Pakistani intelligence agency without due process.
Zahid Hussain, prominent Pakistani journalist and senior editor of Karachi-based Newsline, says the unrest caused by Chaudhry’s suspension constitutes the most serious crisis of Musharraf’s tenure in power. “He may be able to ride out this storm, but he will come out critically bruised,” says Hussain. Chaudhry was reinstated on July 20 by the Supreme Court; Musharraf has said he accepts the court’s decision.
Musharraf’s political crisis was further deepened in July 2007 with a bloody assault on the Red Mosque, in Islamabad, where militants had holed-up after refusing government requests to disband. More than a hundred clerics, militants and students were killed, and the assault led to a wave of terrorist violence as hard-liners made calls for an Islamist uprising.
Musharraf could lose power because of rising domestic instability, international political pressure, or assassination (he has survived at least two assassination attempts already). If he were toppled, a transitional government would fill the vacuum with the chairman of the senate serving as president until an election was called, according to the Pakistani constitution. The military would likely play an important role. “We have to accept that the Pakistani army and intelligence have emerged in the last few decades as one of the most important components of the government,” says Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former official in the governments of both Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The Pakistani military will likely play an important role in Musharraf’s power struggle given his resistance to resigning as army chief, even though opponents say maintaining both positions violates the constitution. The president reneged on his 2003 pledge to give up the influential army post, saying that stepping down endangered Pakistan’s stability. Musharraf also has a firm grip on authority over Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), his country’s notorious intelligence agency. Marvin G. Weinbaum, a Pakistan expert at the Middle East Institute, says the ISI would guarantee his election: “The ISI can deliver, if they have to, in terms of rigging.”
Experts suggest Musharraf could retain power at least through the October 2007 election, when a constitutional amendment would become necessary for him to hold the office of president again. Hussain says an overthrow does not appear imminent and imagines two likely future scenarios: Musharraf gives up his uniform and becomes a weakened president as part of a coalition with the opposition, or he steps aside and democratic elections occur. Weinbaum says the judicial crisis is “not something that is going to tear [Musharraf] off the throne.” He believes that if Musharraf’s power wanes over time that “this would empower not only his mainstream critics but even more so his critics among the religious groups.”
Pakistan’s Religious Opposition
In addition to international pressure, controversy over the sacking of the chief justice and the Red Mosque incident, Musharraf faces opposition from a coalition of conservative Islamic political parties, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). Although some of the parties in the MMA, including Pakistan’s oldest religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami, supported Musharraf’s 1999 power grab, they formed the coalition in opposition to his decision to support U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The MMA has protested some liberal reforms that occurred under Musharraf’s watch. Coalition members threatened to resign after the Protection of Women Act transferred rape trials from sharia to civil courts.
During 2002 elections, while campaigning on promises to install sharia law, the MMA gained control of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, two provinces in the border region with Afghanistan where jihadi movements are prevalent. The coalition also garnered fifty-nine out of 342 legislative assembly seats, or 12 percent control. Hussain says the increased strength of conservative religious groups in Pakistan demonstrates societal “fragmentation,” but he says there is “no danger of religious extremists coming to power.”
Part of the reason the MMA gained power was because “mainstream parties were marginalized” at the time of the elections, says Abbas. Pakistan ’s two strongest opposition contenders, former democratically-elected premiers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both live in exile, leaving their parties without firm leadership. Musharraf, in a move to keep them both out of office, introduced an amendment to the constitution banning prime ministers from serving more than two terms. With Musharraf appearing increasingly weak, Bhutto and Sharif have discussed plans to return to Pakistan, and rumors abound of a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance.
Prospects for a Partnership
Bhutto, who served as the first female leader of a modern Muslim state, fled Pakistan in 1999 to avoid corruption charges, but still serves as the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). In April 2007, with domestic unrest on the rise in Pakistan, graft charges against her were dropped, clearing the way for her return and a potential partnership with Musharraf that could help him secure his leadership in October. Britain and the United States favor such an alliance as a means to counter radical Islamic groups, reports Zahid Hussain in the Times of London. Bhutto says she plans to return to Pakistan this fall, against Musharraf’s pleas to stay away until after elections.
But Bhutto’s return and a Musharraf partnership would involve delicate negotiating. The constitution would need to be changed so she could run for a third term, a requisite that remains unmet. Bhutto also resists working with Musharraf as long as he keeps his military post. Furthermore, Bhutto would risk assassination attempts by extremists, explains the Middle East Institute’s Weinbaum, who says she will remain reluctant to return without a guarantee of the premiership.
Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), who was deposed in 1999, casts a wary eye on the alleged Musharraf-Bhutto negotiations, calling the rumors of a deal between the two “very disturbing.” Sharif and Bhutto, former political enemies, began holding their own series of talks in 2006 in hopes of forming a democratic opposition coalition. Sharif has pledged to return to Pakistan before Bhutto and welcome her return (Daily Times). In August 2007 he won approval from Pakistan’s Supreme Court to have his exile status overturned.
A Democratic Future?
Musharraf’s current domestic problems indicate a desire for a return to democracy and the increased momentum of civil society. Whether the president loses power suddenly or over time, “there will be no vacuum,” says Abbas. But he predicts that it would take at least five years “for a democratic process to take root.” Syed Jawaid Iqbal, founder of the Moderates, a Karachi-based think tank, warns that even if opposition leaders can form an alliance to oust Musharraf, “as soon as he is out, they will be divided on who gets what.”
Experts also say the United States will need to change its strategy for dealing with Pakistan, with or without Musharraf. “In Pakistan, there is a widely held belief that the United States helps military dictatorships,” says Abbas. Hussain calls the U.S. alliance with Musharraf “short-sighted” and recommends the United States provide development funds rather than military aid to counter instability in the border region. Weinbaum, who says the United States must make clear its support for democracy in Pakistan, agrees: “We’ve got to have a foreign assistance policy that conveys a partnership with the people of Pakistan.”