What remains of Pakistan? Faced with the possibility of an adverse verdict from the Pakistani supreme court, General Pervez Musharraf — the country’s military-dictator-turned-undemocratically-elected-president — not only sent packing seven supreme-court judges who had dared to express independence from the executive, but at the same time, declared a state of emergency. He has muzzled the last elements of the free press and incarcerated a prominent lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, who had led protests against Musharraf when the latter tried to oust the chief justice of the court several months ago. Musharraf rationalized the state of emergency by citing growing lawlessness and terror throughout much of Pakistan. The imposition of virtual martial law may buy Musharraf some breathing room, but it may have also rung the death knell of his military regime.
However suspect Musharraf’s prescription for addressing his country’s increasing mayhem, his description of the prevailing conditions in Pakistan is not inaccurate. Last week, a suicide bomber detonated himself a mere quarter of a mile from Musharraf’s presidential residence, leaving seven dead. Barely two weeks ago, 140 people perished when another suicide bomber attacked former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s triumphal procession as it found its way from the airport to her ancestral residence in Karachi. Islamic radicals, whom Musharraf once cultivated, are now turning against him and his hand-picked (and U.S.-promoted) once and future prime minister. They feel that he has betrayed their cause and now seek to overthrow his regime at all costs.
Just prior to the events of 9/11, Islamic zealots of every stripe saw Musharraf in quite a different light. The country’s hydra-headed and much-feared Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), a branch of the too-powerful military, was happily in cahoots with a range of Islamic condottieri. ISI operatives had managed to successfully ensconce the scrofulous Taliban regime in Afghanistan, were playing host to a string of radical Islamic groups, hell-bent on wresting away the disputed Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and were encouraging the growth of radical Islamist groups such as the Harkat ul-Jihadi Islami in Bangladesh. When President Bush bluntly confronted him to make a choice between support for Islamist radicals and cooperation with the U.S., Musharraf made a public and highly publicized disavowal of support for these unsavory groups and promised to pursue a policy of “enlightened moderation.” In practice, however, his conversion was only partial. He has handed over an assortment of mid- to high-level al-Qaeda operatives to the United States, most notably Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the individual believed to have personally decapitated Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
In return, American and other Western economic largesse kept his country from spiraling into a maelstrom of debt, provided his military and police with sophisticated weaponry, and, above all, has helped keep Musharraf firmly in office. Yet at the same time, he has continued the grim process of Islamization and militarization of Pakistani society which was set in motion but one of his predecessors in military dictatorship, General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. He has all but eviscerated Pakistan’s two major political parties (the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party), sought to squelch any hint of judicial independence, encouraged and supported the growth of Islamist political parties, permitted madrassas (Islamic religious schools) to flourish, and quietly allowed, if not actively encouraged, the Taliban to regroup in the western borderlands of Pakistan abutting Afghanistan. This final development is entirely in keeping with a long-standing Pakistani strategy to seek “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, in the event of a future conflict with India.
The miniscule Pakistani elite, who have benefited from the inflow of economic assistance and return of expatriate funds to Pakistani banks after 9/11, have been mostly supportive of Musharraf’s so-called “enlightened moderation.” However, in the wake of rising tides of violence in major cities — especially the sprawling metropolis of Karachi — even the country’s small middle class has tired of his machinations. His most dramatic miscalculation, however, came in March of this year, when he locked horns with the popular chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikar Chaudhury. Since then, his police and paramilitary forces have had to periodically tear-gas and baton-charge elegantly attired lawyers in the streets of major cities from Lahore to Islamabad. Consequently, Musharraf has now managed to accomplish what many of his military predecessors had done: alienate vast swaths of Pakistani society and direct their wrath against an increasingly embattled military regime.
Today, Musharraf can probably count on more support in Washington, D.C., and possibly London, than in any other place in the world. President Bush and his advisers continue to insist that he remains a vital ally in the global war on terror. Their public insistence of support and faith notwithstanding, it is far from clear how much longer this altogether unreliable ally will be able to stave off the demise of his regime. His latest draconian measure will, in all likelihood, be his last card in a game in which the time has run out.
– Sumit Ganguly is a professor of political science and director of research at the Center for American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington.