This is my second piece on Pervez Musharraf’s resignation as President of Pakistan. It was featured on The Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free website on Tuesday 19 August 2008:
The ex-general’s nine-year rule has come to an end. During it, he may have unwittingly sowed the seeds of his own destruction.
The political career of a trusted US ally in the Muslim world has come to an end. In a nationally televised broadcast an emotional but stoic Musharraf explained that he would resign immediately to avoid a potentially divisive impeachment process instigated by his political rivals. Since last week there has been ferocious wrangling over the terms of his exit and uncertainty remains as to how civilian and military leaders will remedy Pakistan’s growing economic and security woes.
The latest saga may have bought both the government and army a temporary reprieve from these problems. But ordinary Pakistanis are unlikely to be distracted for long. “There is nothing I can afford. Even [staple foods like] dhal (lentils) and wheat are beyond me. How can I support my family?” asked Malik, a man who sells toothbrushes on the streets of one of Karachi’s upmarket suburbs. The Taliban insurgency continues to take lives and livelihoods. Last week a bomb blast in Peshawar killed 14 and another girls’ school was destroyed in Swat.
Like the proverbial sinking ship, political allies and the army have deserted Musharraf. As if to accentuate the divide, President Musharraf held his own Independence Day celebrations last week with his family and diehard supporters. Coalition government members and General Ashfaq Kayani, the most powerful military man in Pakistan, attended another function along with foreign diplomats and press. For the first time in Pakistan’s history the president and prime minister held separate Independence Day events.
The US, arguably Mushrraf’s most important ally, has also spurned the former general on account of its glib rhetoric about not interfering in Pakistan’s domestic politics. The one consolation for Musharraf is that the US and Saudi Arabia want him to be given a graceful exit. The exit has now occurred but it is uncertain whether the grace is forthcoming.
An alliance of convenience has quietly developed between the PPP-led coalition government and the army. In his official Independence Day speech last week the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, showered General Kayani with praise. “I want to assure you that army Chief General Kayani is … highly professional and he is pro-democracy.” It was a clear signal that the government was not interested in challenging the army. Yet it is principally the army, or elements within it, that has been responsible for the dire security situation in Pakistan.
“As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business,” said the American intellectual John Dewey, “the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.” In Pakistan’s case the shadow is cast by the army. According to Ayesha Siddiqua’s seminal book, Military Inc., Pakistan’s military has developed into an unaccountable institutional Frankenstein which controls much of the country’s private and public economy, and with it the political landscape. Just last month, for example, an attempt by the government to increase oversight of Pakistan’s military intelligence body was unilaterally rebuked by the army. Civilian leaders were unceremoniously forced to backtrack on the decision. Nothing in the current situation suggests that the army will lose such clout, although it may be taking stock of recent events.
Musharraf ruled out using sweeping constitutional powers to dismiss the government because it would further disenfranchise him from the public. There were rumours he was even considering another coup but Pakistan’s media carried reports that both the army and political confidantes advised him against such a move. His decision to willingly leave suggests Musharraf heeded their advice.
As with all things, Musharraf’s legacy is not black and white. His ascent after a benign coup in October 1999 came at a difficult time for the nation. Pakistani forces had just been forced to make a humiliating retreat from Indian controlled Kashmir and the country was facing international isolation for its decision to become a nuclear power. All of that changed after al-Qaida crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
In those two years of international isolation prior to September 11, Musharraf seemed to have a golden opportunity to challenge his army’s dangerous liaison with Islamic militancy. But therein lay the paradox faced by any dictator. Any leader, even the most moderate or secular, requires the acquiescence of powerful people to remain in power. In hindsight, there is very little Musharraf could have done to reign in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), now almost universally accepted as the patron of Islamic militancy in this region, because he was himself reliant on the ISI and top generals for his survival.
Once Musharraf allowed the US unfettered access to Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the country was showered with foreign capital and military aid. Musharraf also liberalised Pakistan’s media rules, enabling a plethora of private news channels to develop. Ironically, these same channels hastened his demise when they broadcast his regime’s brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations throughout last year.
There were other disturbing signs. The much vaunted economic improvement that followed American support transformed Pakistan into the Israel of its region: a military-dominated society showered with billions in arms and close to no oversight of where the money was being spent. One of the planks of Musharraf’s impeachment is that he squandered much of the US aid meant for the war with the Taliban and al-Qaida. Perhaps only in Pakistan can a politician like the PPP’s Asif Zardari, himself the subject of corruption charges, spearhead charges of corruption against his own president.
And yet there remains little confidence in a civilian administration controlled by Zardari and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, another man widely associated with kleptocracy and economic ineptitude. Their government has promised to reinstall judges now that Musharraf has resigned. This will be an early litmus test for local and foreign observers, especially if a reinvigorated judiciary avoids whitewashing outstanding corruption cases against Zardari.
But the most immediate task following Musharraf’s exit will be to stabilise the economy. With inflation rising and foreign capital leaving the country at an alarming rate, ordinary Pakistanis are hurting and frustrated. The coalition government will find alleviating this suffering vital for its own survival. Otherwise Zardari and Sharif may find themselves removed as quickly as Musharraf was. As is the tendency in Pakistan, the army may prove to be a more durable force.