Politics & Policy

State of Denial

Musharraf's latest move has transformed him into a liability.

Recent events in Pakistan might suggest a need for Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency. Since Musharraf ordered a raid against the extremist Lal Masjid in early July, government forces and Islamic militants have clashed daily. Militants’ strength — and their infiltration of such institutions as the military and intelligence services — was underscored by the attempted assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, followed, less than two weeks later, by a suicide bomber’s strike within a mile of Musharraf’s military offices in Rawalpindi. However, Musharraf’s declaration is more than just counterproductive: it in fact suggests that he remains in deep denial about the problems confronting him.

Last week, the Western diplomatic corps expressed concern that Musharraf might impose emergency rule after reports leaked that he had drafted an order imposing a state of emergency. In fact, the New York Times notes that “[f]or the last several months a chorus of senior American officials has visited or telephoned General Musharraf and urged him not to impose emergency rule,” including a 2:00 a.m. call back in August by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Despite these warnings, Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Saturday, after deploying paramilitary Ranger units throughout the capital. Musharraf replaced Pakistan’s constitution with a provisional order suspending a number of fundamental rights, including the right to life and liberty, the right to be informed of one’s offense upon arrest, the right of free movement, property rights, the right of public assembly, and an array of free speech rights. Communications in Islamabad were simultaneously shut down, including telephone service, cable stations, and private news organizations.

Musharraf then moved against his political enemies. The New York Times reported yesterday that his security forces “detained about 500 opposition party figures, lawyers, and human rights advocates on Sunday.” Arrested figures include the head of Pakistan’s human rights commission, the acting president of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political party, and workers in Bhutto’s party. But the most prominent arrest was Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court who has served as Musharraf’s foil this year: after Musharraf initially suspended Chaudhry in early March, the Supreme Court reinstated him near the end of July. After the state of emergency declaration, Musharraf’s troops surrounded the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, arresting Chaudhry and other justices who claimed that the state of emergency was unconstitutional.

Musharraf claimed that he was imposing a state of emergency “to limit terrorist attacks and ‘preserve the democratic transition that [he] initiated eight years back.’” But his actions make Pakistan less safe — and make us less safe as well. This move is disastrous from any perspective. Military intelligence sources tell me that the declaration, which shuts down cable lines, phone lines, independent media, and other sources of information, makes it more difficult to get intelligence out of Pakistan.

The declaration will not be viewed kindly in Pakistan. The country is deeply divided, with Musharraf’s military government, the Supreme Court, the secular opposition, and Islamic extremists all vying for power. This is probably the one move that could bring some semblance of unity to these disparate opposition factions. Bhutto denounced Musharraf’s “declaration of martial law,” claiming that “the extremists feed off dictatorship, and dictatorship feeds off the extremists.” Former Spy Chief Hamid Gul — a Taliban ally — said, as he was being arrested, “One man has put the country at stake to save his rule.”

Al-Qaeda’s information operations campaign, following the attempted assassination of Bhutto, held that Musharraf had orchestrated the suicide bombing as a pretext for imposing martial law. In the eyes of many Pakistanis, Musharraf has now proved al-Qaeda right.

In an excellent analysis of the developing situation in the Daily Standard, Bill Roggio notes that because imposing martial law is deeply unpopular, it will harm the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “National unity and political consensus are needed to fight the rising threat of militancy sweeping across Pakistan,” he states, “yet the state of emergency has pushed Musharraf’s potential political allies into the opposition.”

Pakistani police and soldiers, already demoralized by the difficult fight against militants in the tribal areas, will be even more overburdened as their mission extends to arresting lawyers, members of the press, and suppressing peaceful demonstrations. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis told Bloomberg, “The security services will…be distracted now with efforts to control civil society rather than focusing attention on preventing terrorist attacks.” Musharraf’s forces will be seen as the enemy — not only by militants but also by citizens whose rights are being suppressed. These soldiers will be easier targets for terrorists, since they will be in the open and preoccupied with matters other than possible militant attacks.

But the worst aspect of Musharraf’s declaration is that it suggests he still lives in a state of denial about the challenges confronting him. Aside from Hamid Gul’s arrest, the bulk of Musharraf’s energy since the declaration has been focused not on Islamic militants, but on his secular political opponents. Roggio writes:

Rather than deploying additional forces to the Northwest Frontier Province, launching an operation, or shutting down radical mosques and madrassas in Pakistan’s heartland, Musharraf instead struck out at his political enemies in Islamabad and the state institutions that had sought to undermine his political power. The Supreme Court and chief justice Chaudhry were at the top of the list, with the media, political parties, and lawyers a close second.

Pakistan does indeed face grave problems. One could even say that the country faces a national emergency. Musharraf’s government has ceded more and more ground to al-Qaeda and its allies in the mountainous federally administered tribal areas that border Afghanistan, through a series of agreements that include the Waziristan accords, the Bajaur accords, the Swat accords, and the Mohmand accords.

These treaties have been abject failures, as they have hastened the regeneration of al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Pakistan’s tribal areas are now strikingly similar to pre-9/11 Afghanistan, with terrorist training camps operating openly (U.S. intelligence believes there are about thirty such camps), and a safe haven area where al-Qaeda’s leadership and operatives can communicate and plan future attacks. Recent terror plots—including the transatlantic air plot disrupted in August 2006 and the Danish and German plots disrupted on the same day in September 2007 — have been indicative of al-Qaeda’s regeneration: the operatives trained in Pakistan, and were in communication with high-level al-Qaeda members there.

Musharraf has lacked any real strategy for addressing this new safe haven. He initially trumpeted his ineffective accords as successes. When extremists launched attacks against Pakistani troops, he generally responded by mobilizing his military for a short time — but invariably reasserted the peace accords before meeting with any real success on the battlefield. His maddeningly inconsistent approach has led some analysts to conclude that Musharraf is in denial about the extent of the challenge that militants pose.

Musharraf’s actions since the declaration of a state of emergency suggest that he has not overcome his state of denial. Issuing orders preventing journalists from bringing “ridicule or disrepute” to Musharraf does nothing to undermine Islamic extremists, nor does arresting members of Bhutto’s party and human rights advocates. It is true that Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued some highly problematic rulings, including ordering the release of about sixty al-Qaeda suspects from detention. But there are other ways to confront the Supreme Court: declaring a national state of emergency only weakens Musharraf’s hand in dealing with them.

It seems that there was one major trigger to Musharraf’s declaration: the Supreme Court’s impending ruling on the constitutionality of his reelection as president. There was a possible constitutional barrier to Musharraf running for president while serving as the armed forces’ chief of staff. According to the New York Times, Musharraf decided to impose emergency rule when a Supreme Court justice told him “that the court would rule within days that he was ineligible to continue serving as president.” According to one of Musharraf’s aides, that ruling would have been unanimous.

In other words, although he invoked the specter of terrorism in his emergency powers declaration, Musharraf executed a raw power grab. Roggio believes that, consistent with his past approaches to Islamic militancy, Musharraf may now be attempting to reassert the treaties over Swat and South Waziristan. But he shows no signs of relenting in his campaign against the country’s lawyers, judges, human-rights activists, and opposition parties.

The U.S. has thus far displayed virtually unconditional support for Musharraf. Our support is unlikely to waver now, as some of the alternatives to his rule are too dangerous to comprehend. Yet many policymakers are wondering about the value of an ally who is so mired in denial — who will only take hesitating steps against Islamic militants, but who is able to transform his tough words into action when facing the country’s not-so-menacing liberal democrats. The U.S. may have no better political option at present, than continuing its support for Musharraf. But he has made a string of disastrous decisions culminating in a declaration of emergency powers that, according to one military intelligence source, “feels like his death throes.” Failing to recognize how Musharraf has transformed himself into a liability would be the height of foolishness.

– Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam.


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