The Musharraf Era
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is being challenged on several fronts, from an insurgency in Wazirstan to legal challenges within his own government, according to Ahmed Rashid of the Washington Post. His departure from office may come sooner rather than later.
Since March 9, when Musharraf suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, public protests have escalated every day -- as has a violent crackdown by the police and intelligence agencies on the media and the nation's legal fraternity.
Moreover, Musharraf is losing control of three key elements that have sustained his rule but are now either distancing themselves or turning on him completely. The first is the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Party, which has acted as the civilian appendage to the military but faces an election and knows that going to bat for the unpopular Musharraf will turn off voters. Party leaders and cabinet ministers are already distancing themselves from him.
The second element is the country's three intelligence agencies, which are at loggerheads over control of Musharraf, Pakistan's foreign policy, its political process and the media.
The third loss for Musharraf has been the unqualified international support he has received since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Anger in the U.S. Congress and media, and particularly among members of the Republican Party, toward Musharraf's dual-track policy in Afghanistan -- helping to catch al-Qaeda members but backing the Taliban -- is making it difficult for President Bush to continue offering Musharraf his blanket support.
When strongmen fall in countries where successions are disorderly, there is always a moment of suspense before observers can draw a breath. Musharraf's tightrope act suggests that Pakistan is divided between powerful forces, some sympathetic to the Jihad and others opposed with a big slug of criminality and thuggery thrown into the mixture. However, the "exit strategy" recommended by Rashid has dangers too.
It is far better that he revert to the promise he made when he seized power in 1999: to return the country to democracy. His best course of action would be to say he is not a candidate for president, hold free and fair elections, allow the return of exiled politicians, restore full political rights and gracefully depart with his legacy, which is considerable, intact.
It is in the interest of the United States to support such an exit strategy. The military can no longer counter the phenomenal growth of Islamic extremism in Pakistan through offensives alone. What the country needs is greater political consensus and a popularly elected government, and to replace the extortions of the mullahs with the return of day-to-day parliamentary politics. The army created a political vacuum in which extremism has thrived. Pakistan needs a return to civil society and government.
And the danger, of course is that Rashid's recommended center won't hold and Pakistan enters an ever sharpening spiral of extremism that will make events in Iraq look like a English tea party on a summer's day. One hopes that it won't happen, but if it does, then perhaps the experience in Iraq will have provided some idea on the ways to manage the crisis within and without Islam's borders.
For an interesting briefing on the role of Pakistan in regional instability on the subcontinent from an Indian point of view, watch Ashok Pandit's talk at Rice University.