Wednesday, June 20, 2007

After Musharraf: Pakistan's uncertain future.

After Musharraf: Pakistan's uncertain future.
by Abbas William Samii
06/18/2007, Volume 012, Issue 38

The continuing political crisis in Pakistan--triggered in March by President Pervez Musharraf's suspension of the country's top judge for alleged corruption, and heightened by the subsequent violence in Karachi that took 40 lives--creates uncertainty about the country's leadership. We should be watching closely, because Pakistan is a vital partner in our long war against terrorism and religious extremism, and the United States may have to decide whether or not to continue to back the beleaguered president.

Musharraf is facing increasing pressure to step down. According to Article 49 of the Pakistani constitution, the chairman of the Senate (currently Mohammedmian Soomro, a former banker) takes over if the president resigns or dies. An election to fill the presidency must be held within 30 days of its becoming vacant, a period that is extended if it coincides with legislative elections--and legislative elections are currently slated for this autumn. But whether the process would proceed so smoothly is unclear, not least because Musharraf himself came to power extralegally. Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999 and took over as chief executive. He had himself declared president in June 2001, and his term was extended by five years in April 2002. He is currently trying to have it extended again, presumably by another five years.

There are several exiled political figures who would like to lead Pakistan, including former Prime Minister Sharif, who heads a branch of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who heads the more liberal Pakistan People's party. These two figures may find a return to power problematic, however: Musharraf decreed on May 18 that neither Sharif nor Bhutto will be allowed to return before this fall's parliamentary elections. In early June, furthermore, police arrested hundreds of opposition party workers in Punjab.

Islamist political parties could also vie for a more decisive political role were Musharraf suddenly to depart the scene. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties, won power in two provinces (Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier Province) in elections in October 2002. Although the MMA until recently supported the government, its platform in 2002 included criticism of Musharraf's policies. Its leaders have expressed a preference for Islamic rule, and there are media warnings of "Talibanization" in the two provinces, as well as sporadic instances of extremism in the rest of the country.

In the last few months in Islamabad, a sort of morality campaign against video shops and music stores has been underway, emanating from Islamist circles. An article in the April 30 issue of Jinnah, an Islamabad daily owned by a prominent businessman with alleged military connections, dismissed the warnings. The author of the piece, a cleric named Abdul Rashid Ghazi, wrote that what some describe as instances of extremism are merely protests against the dilution of Islamic values and demands for legitimate rights.

Ghazi is deputy head of Islamabad's Red Mosque, which in April established an Islamic court that promptly issued a fatwa against tourism minister Nilofar Bakhtiar. Her offense: Pictures were published of her hugging a paragliding instructor in France. Bakhtiar resigned the next month. Then in late May, several police officers were held hostage in the mosque, supposedly to be exchanged for men described by local media as "Taliban." When the hostages were released, police abandoned plans to storm the mosque.

The party purportedly responsible for the bloodshed in Karachi on May 12, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, is believed by some commentators to have received encouragement from the Musharraf government, which they say wants to create a crisis as a pretext for postponing the elections. There is speculation that some banned parties, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (listed by the U.S. State Department as, respectively, a "foreign terrorist organization" and a "group of concern"), are tolerated because their patrons are politically well connected. In any case, these are just two of the many Pakistani organizations calling for restoration of the Caliphate.

There are other actors who influence the country's internal politics, either by backing candidates in elections or through the use of money. The most significant of these is the military. Musharraf is chief of staff of the army, and in late May he accused the former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, of insulting the armed forces. There have been repeated calls for Musharraf to resign as chief of staff, but Musharraf told the BBC that he does not see forsaking the uniform. In the still unlikely event that he changed his mind, Musharraf presumably would be succeeded by his deputy, Ahsan Saleem Hyat.

The multiethnic composition of Pakistani society also affects political developments. For example, the 14 million residents of Karachi include Baluchis from the country's west, Mohajirs who immigrated from India, Pashtuns, northeastern Punjabis, and Sindhis. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which was behind the Karachi violence, is made up of Mohajirs. And Baluchis have been fighting the central government for many years, demanding a greater share of the province's income from natural resources (principally natural gas). Two members of the Baluchistan Liberation Army were sentenced to death at the end of May for setting off a car bomb two years ago that killed four people.

Because Musharraf is viewed in Washington as an ally in the war on terror--and because he has dampened longstanding tensions with India-- his leadership style has been accepted. The Pakistani military, however, has reduced its activities against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters over the last eight months, and the actual tempo of operations and level of aggressiveness is considered inadequate. This despite U.S. payments of "coalition support funds" worth $1 billion annually, according to a May 20 report in the New York Times, and total U.S. payments close to $10 billion since 2002.

On the one hand, should President Musharraf step aside and permit real elections to take place--that is, allow parties to organize and hold public meetings (now banned), permit exiled political leaders to return, and end restrictions on the media including the ban on live broadcasts--his successors might be more committed to fighting terrorism and extremism. On the other hand, given the volatility of Pakistani politics, elections might not have the desired effect. Indeed, some believe that Musharraf serves as a bulwark against growing Islamist power and even ultimately an Islamist takeover.

This leaves U.S. policymakers facing difficult alternatives, with no guarantee that any option they back will actually advance U.S. interests in the war against terrorism.

Abbas William Samii is a regional analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. The views expressed here are his own.

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