Review of Possible Developments in Pakistan

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi 

Pakistan has witnessed important developments during the past few weeks, most of which were rooted in military structure of the country’s power hierarchy. Those developments can be enumerated as follows:

  1. The ruling by the Supreme Court aimed to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry as Chief Justice; Chaudhry had been already dismissed by President Pervez Musharraf;
  2. Another ruling by the Supreme Court allowing former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan; as well as his attempt to return to Pakistan which was followed by his apprehension and repeated exile to Saudi Arabia by the ruling military authorities;
  3. Reelection of Musharraf as president for another five-year term which was preceded by resignation of opposition MPs. The People's Party of Pakistan took part in the election, but refrained to vote, thus casting doubts over the legitimacy of the whole election;
  4. The ruling by the Supreme Court that General Musharraf may run for president while holding a military post, but his presidency should be endorsed by the Supreme Court;
  5. Ms. Benazir Bhuto's returning to Pakistan in a bid to share power with Musharraf and a botched attempt at her life in Karachi in the form of repeated suicide attacks, which left about 600 people dead or wounded.

For a better understanding of the current developments in Pakistan, the power structure in that country should be taken into account from 1947 when the Indian Subcontinent was split up and Pakistan was separated from India after about 200 years of colonialism.

Major features of power structure in Pakistan include:

  1. The power structure is turbulent and political power has alternated at the hands of politicians and the military;
  2. During about 60 years that have passed since the independence of Pakistan, the military has been directly in charge of the government for 50 years and has been running the country’s affairs from behind the scenes during the remaining 10 years;
  3. None of the political prime ministers have successfully finished their terms and have been dismissed as a result of military coup d’états. At the same time, none of the ruling generals has voluntarily let go of power reins.

The current situation in Pakistan becomes more understandable in the light of the above historical backdrop. Therefore, the main options before General Musharraf include: 

  1. Exclusive power and declaration of state of emergency;
  2. Complete transfer of power with the military returning to the barracks;
  3. Division of power – sharing the political power between the military and politicians.

In reality, every one of those possibilities involves their own barriers, but it is hard to believe that a basic change would be possible in the power structure of Pakistan. The main obstacles to a totalitarian rule by the military include:

      A.    Domestic barriers, and
      B.    Foreign barriers.

Continuation of an absolute military rule has been domestically challenged by political parties which doubt its legitimacy. Apart from that, at least, two tribes have started armed struggles against the army and some observers maintain that continuation of such conflicts would jeopardize future peace, political stability and territorial integrity of Pakistan. Two tribal regions where armed conflicts are underway include Baluchistan (the independence–seeking movement called “People’s Liberation Army”) and Waziristan (local Taliban elements).

Two political and military figures have noted that such conflicts will be very dangerous. General Hamid Gul, former chief of the military intelligence has alarmed that continued military rule in Pakistan may end in a situation similar to what led to separation of Bangladesh back in 1950s. It seems that insistence by political parties, new activities of Ms. Bhuto, leader of Pakistan People’s Party, and Nawaz Sharif, leader of Nawaz branch of Muslim League Party, in addition to armed struggles in Baluchistan and Waziristan are putting tremendous pressure on the ruling generals to make them accept changes in the military power structure. The situation has worsened by failure of efforts made by General Musharraf to form a mixed government of generals and loyal politicians, such as Shaukat Aziz, the current prime minister of Pakistan.

The main obstacle, however, stems from requirements of Europe and the United States in Afghanistan which call on General Musharraf to give up political power. The understanding is growing in the United States and Europe that the Taliban and al Qaeda are getting reorganized in some tribal areas of Pakistan and this has increased their military power in southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, which would not be possible without support from certain parts of the Pakistani army. Therefore, there is no doubt that Pakistan is pursuing a double policy in Afghanistan, which has prompted the United States and European countries to put more pressure on General Musharraf to reduce the army share in the power apparatus and give more share to the political figures. They maintain that what is going on in Waziristan does not result from inability of Pakistani army to fight the Taliban, but is because there is no political will to put an end to this situation in Islamabad.

It is for this reason that the strategy adopted by the United States and the European countries in South Asia conforms to that of political groups opposed to the totalitarian rule of Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz. Ms. Benazir Bhuto arrived in Karachi as a result of such calculations despite the fact that she had received warnings about her possible assassination and General Musharraf had also asked her to postpone her trip to Pakistan. She spent more than 10 hours on the streets with ordinary people during which bloody attempts were made on her life from which she escaped unscathed. If the current developments in Pakistan are looked upon from the angle of obstacles faced by Musharraf to guarantee the unbridled rule of generals, it should be noted that the time for such exclusive rule is long past. The political - and not legal - vote of the Supreme Court, which allowed Pervez Musharraf to run for president while he was still in charge of Pakistani army, but made his inauguration as president conditional on final endorsement of the Supreme Court, clearly sent the message that distrust between political and military sides of the power structure is soaring high. The Supreme Court used endorsement of presidency as a tool to force Musharraf resign his post as commander of Pakistani army or his presidency would lack legitimacy.

However, there are also domestic and foreign obstacles on the way of complete transfer of power to politicians. Inside Pakistan, the army generals would not concede to complete transfer of power for a variety of reasons. Past experience has shown that powerful generals of the army have never given up power voluntarily. However, there are serious concerns under the current conditions which include:

  1. Military commanders are concerned that a new period of political party rule would lead to political chaos and new wave of terrorism in Pakistan;
  2. India may exploit the chaotic situation in Pakistan to its own avail.

Both points have made the army reluctant about complete transfer of power to political parties. In addition, the United States and NATO are concerned about influence of domestic situation in Pakistan on their troops in the neighboring Afghanistan. The United States and Europe are fully aware that as long as the political side does not possess the needed levers to suppress the Taliban and al Qaeda in tribal regions and those levers are wielded by the military, even if the political figures gained power through majority vote of people and managed to reduce internal differences, in case of non-cooperation from the military, the existing dual policy of apparently fighting terrorism and covertly supporting Taliban and al Qaeda would continue. Therefore, both military and political sides of power apparatus should be combined to get Pakistan’s policies attuned to US strategy in Afghanistan and this cannot be achieved through complete transfer of political power. It is for this reason that the third option; that is, division of power, is more preferable. The reality, however, is that division of power is also arduous. The problem lies within the military side of the power structure, which cannot trust the political side. Also, the political side cannot be totally trustful of the military side. Ms. Bhutto is well aware of this problem and, therefore, has embarked on a complicated political game upon her return; her new policy pursued negotiations and compromise with General Musharraf in parallel to negotiations and compromise with the United States. Ms. Bhutto maintains that an agreement with the United States would be more profitable than an agreement on division of power with General Pervez Musharraf. For this reason, she has gone through two rounds of negotiations with the United States before returning to Pakistan and has made any agreement with Musharraf conditional on obtaining needed guarantees from the United States and Britain. Ms. Bhutto accepted the following obligations in Washington:

  1. Putting an end to ambiguities about nuclear cooperation between Pakistan and other countries and allowing US investigators to grill Abdel Qadir Khan, the nuclear scientist who is charged with having helped some Islamic countries achieve nuclear technology; and
  2. Attuning Pakistan’s policy on terrorism to that of Washington and purging the army of elements who are supporting the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Both obligations have been accepted by Ms. Bhutto in return for assuring an agreement with Musharraf on division of political power. Bhutto wants a share of the power pie and the United States wants to see a trustworthy ally in Pakistan for its fight against the Taliban, al Qaeda and Islamic radicalism. Therefore, division of power is common denominator of the United States, NATO and Ms. Bhutto, and General Musharraf has no choice but to accept it. However, an even more important reality is that General Musharraf may see an agreement with Ms. Bhutto to give the post of commander in chief of the armed forces to General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani as a makeshift tactic and once getting rid of the existing deadlock, he may easily repeat the historical experience of dismissing the prime minister. Ms. Bhutto also considers the current stage as part of her overall strategy which she has adopted temporarily in order to gain power. As soon as she is in power, she would revive the constitution of 1973 according to which all power would be transferred to the prime minister and the president would be a titular figure as is the case in India. The United States should guarantee that the army would allow Ms. Bhutto to finish her term as prime minister if she manages to win the post through public elections which are slated for January and that she would not be topped through a military coup in the midway. In return, the United States would assure the Pakistani military that the People's Party, which is led by Ms. Bhutto, would not push the army out of the power structure and would not limit it to the task of defending borders. To understand the current complex situation in Pakistan, we must pay more attention to major power players and current situation of every one of them. Major players in Pakistan power game are currently:

  1. The army, which is represented by General Musharraf;
  2. Political parties which are represented by Ms. Bhutto’s People Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League;
  3. The religious side, which is a coalition of six religious parties led by Mowlana Fazl ul-Rahman.

The Pakistani military is in its weakest position since the 1999 military coup d’état. However, the generals are not ready to completely give up power. The United States and NATO do not consider it to benefit their situation in Afghanistan. At regional level, only Pakistan’s old rival, namely India, pursues such a change. The political side is divided, but can be recognized in three major parties:

  1. Nawaz Sharif branch of Muslim League party;
  2. People's Party of Benazir Bhutto;
  3. The ruling coalition of Muslim League - the Quaid-e Azam branch - supported by the military.

In any change of the military power structure, the ruling Muslim League Party would be the main loser and, therefore, it is trying to concoct a new coalition with the Nawaz branch. However, since they branched from the main party through the army support, Nawaz Sharif is not willing to cooperate with them in their current form. Rejecting a request for meeting from Shujaat Hussein by Nawaz Sharif in Saudi Arabia when the former was representing General Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz in a bid to achieve a political agreement with Sharif, made secretary-general of the ruling Muslim League to postpone his visit to Saudi Arabia without totally losing his hope. The army is planning to transfer the power to a reengineered Muslim League after combining it with smaller parties. At least, Quaid-e Azam branch of the Muslim League, the old or `guard' branch and the Junejo branch are ready to form a coalition with Nawaz Sharif’s branch, but the problem is that Nawaz Sharif is not ready to step back from chairmanship of the main branch of the Muslim League. On the other hand, General Musharraf sees the return of Nawaz Sharif as a development which would cast doubt on his political legitimacy because he snatched the power after dismissing Nawaz Sharif through a military coup.

A proposed solution, which is being negotiated behind closed doors, is return of a reconstructed Muslim League to power minus Nawaz Sharif. Some have even noted that the army has conceded to premiership of Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s brother who is living in London, but Nawaz Sharif has not accepted to give up his leadership of the main branch of the Muslim League. The army maintains that the current position of Nawaz Sharif would not be his last.

The Pakistani army has however reckoned on another option to go for in case it failed to reach an agreement with Nawaz Sharif. The second option is the Islamic coalition headed by Mowlana Fazl ul-Rahman. In reality, the religious coalition is simultaneously in the center of attention of Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and the army because the coalition is a political counterbalance and will give victory to any political party it comes to unite with. Therefore, by supporting premiership of Mowlana Fazl ul-Rahman, the army would give a proper response to intransigence of Nawaz Sharif and ambitions of Benazir Bhutto. In addition, the army hopes that it can convince the United States that its problems in Afghanistan can be solved by Mowlana Fazl ul-Rahman who is kind of godfather for the Taliban. The fact that General Musharraf tries to pass himself as representing moderate Islam is more aimed at placating the United States and Britain because the moderate Islam, as envisaged by Musharraf, does not really exist in Pakistan. What happened in La'labad Mosque of Islamabad and what is going on in Northern and Southern Waziristan provinces indicate the growth of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan and casts serious doubts on the very existence of moderate Islam as defined by the United States and Musharraf. Jami'yat al Ulema (Society of Muslim Ulema), which is headed by Mowlana Fazl ul-Rahman is promoting Taliban ideas at madrasas controlled by it and they cannot be considered a moderate Islamic group.

Anyway, the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan and the willingness of Nawaz Sharif to go back to his country showed new deployment of political forces in Pakistan. Therefore, it is quite conceivable that changes would happen in the existing coalitions. Although it is still premature to say what coalition would split up and what new coalition would take shape, the certain point is that efforts for reorganization of the existing coalitions have been increased. The existing political coalitions include:

  1. Coalition of the ruling branch of Muslim League Party - Quaid-e Azam branch - supported by the army;
  2. Coalition of opposition parties around the axis of Bhutto’s People Party and Sharif’s branch of Muslim League;
  3. Coalition of six religious parties, generally known as Mutahida Majlis-e 'Amal (United Council of Action).

The ruling coalition is in tatters and will totally collapse after dismissal of Shaukat Aziz and establishment of the interim government which would take care of free elections. Therefore, small parties which are part of it, would either join Bhutto’s party or that of Nawaz Sharif or would be isolated. Coalition of opposition parties has now been divided into two major parts: a coalition led by Nawaz’s Muslim League which was formed in London in protest to negotiations between Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf, which has been renamed “Restoration of Democracy” or “Movement of All Parties for Democracy”.

Therefore, the first signs of division have appeared in the ranks of political opponents of Musharraf. Although the religious coalition has not changed much, but it is sure to change on the threshold of the elections and if it fails to join one of the dominant currents (People's Party or Muslim League) it is sure to fall apart with each constituent party choosing a coalition to join.

Under any conditions, the major parties, that is, the People's Party and the Muslim League will be in the center of political developments. Therefore, division of power between politicians and the military seems to be inevitable and Musharraf would lose his post as commander in chief of the armed forces. However, there is no guarantee that the general who would succeed him would be totally loyal to him. Therefore, there is no doubt about the fate of the army, but there are doubts on the political side where three currents are claiming the power: The Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif which represents the moderate Islam; Ms. Bhutto’s People Party which is a liberal party that can compete with, at least, part of the Islamic coalition; and the Islamic coalition led by Mowlana Fazl ul-Rahman. Every one of those currents has its own abilities and weaknesses. However, the role of the army still seems to be more important because it can still have the upper hand in the next government. It seems that two possibilities are now more probable:

  1. Empowerment of the Muslim League Party minus Nawaz Sharif in coalition with Islamic parties;
  2. Empowerment of Bhutto’s People's Party in coalition with some Islamic parties.

The role to be played by the army is to prevent a coalition between the Islamic parties and Bhutto’s People's Party and to bring them to a coalition with Nawaz Sharif’s party provided that he would withdraw from leadership and let another person become the prime minister. If this plan fails, the army would try to unite small parties with the Islamic coalition led by Mowlana Fazl ul-Rahman and accept a moderate Islamic government which will try to control the Taliban and al Qaeda according to Musharraf’s viewpoints. It is not clear, which scheme would have its way, but there is no doubt that both Ms. Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have a tough competition ahead of them. Sharif reckons more on domestic support. At the same time, Bhutto counts on domestic support while having an eye on a deal with the army and the United States.

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