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Musharraf whipping Pakistan into (US) line
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - In the wake of September 11, the Indian sub-continent took on renewed importance, especially for the United States and its "war on terror", in which Pakistan, a key "ally" and a major US "asset" outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), plays a pivotal part.

It is in the interests of the US, therefore, that Pakistan, with or without President General Pervez Musharraf, remains on side with Washington in its ongoing efforts to get to the source of radical Islam and anti-US jihadis in the region, and to maintain stability on the sub-continent.

High-level officials familiar with government thinking have told Asia Times Online that both administrative and political restructuring will begin in the coming weeks to further bolster the country against "traditional forces".

The immediate challenge is to spread Musharraf's pro-Western leanings deeper into society in general, and alter the pervasive mindset that starts with the two-nation theory (which resulted in 1947 in the division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan and which defines religion as the basis of state) and culminates in pan-Islamism. As a result of these attitudes, which are deeply ingrained in the national psyche, over the years the establishment has never supported building bridges between India and Pakistan, or with forging ties with liberal forces in Afghanistan.

Musharraf, albeit under US pressure, has to at least a limited extent bucked both these trends, but the danger of him having to go into reverse gear is always present - and it is this that the US wants to avoid.

As a start, Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, has agreed to step down as chief of the army by December 2004, but before that several changes will be implemented. Meanwhile, on April 14, a National Security Council was approved by parliament that allows the military a legally sanctioned role in governance.

  • The unification process of all pro-Musharraf parties has started. In the first phase (minus the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz Group) all Pakistan Muslim League (PML) factions have been united. Now, in the second phase, another pro-government grouping, the National Alliance, is being merged with the PML.

  • By October, two full generals, including General Aziz Khan, will retire. Two officers will therefore be promoted, and one of them will fill the vacated vice chief of army staff position, most likely present Corps Commander Lahore, Lieutenant-General Shahid Aziz. Shahid is a relative of Musharraf and has been given fast-track promotion throughout his career.

  • After achieving these primary targets, the consolidated PML and then the federal cabinet will appeal to the president that, in the broader national interest, he should not shed his uniform.

  • The president will comply, but with a twist: he will accept the title of field marshal, and give the chief of army position to the trusted Shahid Aziz, and increase the powers of the president with relation to military appointments.

    In this way, Musharraf will retain his grip at the helm, and will continue in reshaping Pakistan-Afghanistan and Pakistan-Indian relations in line with US interests.

    To achieve this, Musharraf will have to win over large sections of the grass-root electorate. Already, the powerful rural base of Punjab (the largest province) , which used to be the source of power of the ruling PML - Nawaz group, has been won over to the PML - Quaid-i-Azam group, a pro-Musharraf party. The remaining power pillars of Punjab and North West Frontier Province are dominated by the Pakistan People's Party led by former premier Benazir Bhutto, now organized under the Patroit group and the Sherpao group, both pro-Musharraf parties. All independent "feudal lords" who once dominated national politics, like former president Farooq Laghari and former interim prime minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, have been united under the National Alliance, a pro-Musharraf group. And all these will be gathered under the umbrella of the PML, whose leadership will eventually go to Musharraf.

    Effectively, the mainstream political parties will be turned into compliant horses.

    The only potential counterforce is the alliance of six religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, but since the death of its president, Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, it has been seriously weakened. Of its real election force, the factions of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam are essentially passive towards Musharraf, which leaves only the Jamaat-i-Islami as a stand-alone challenge.

    Analysts also believe that in the coming months there will be more army reshuffles to flush out those who cling to traditional beliefs - such as anti-India and pro-Taliban.

    If all of these changes are effected, Pakistan could be in a position to strongly continue on its present course of appeasement with India, and a serious clampdown on radicals, even if Musharraf is not at the helm.

    Of course, the best-laid plans can go awry, especially in a volatile country such as Pakistan, and a single spark could derail the whole process.

    "All Musharraf needs to do is a few more Wana operations [sending the army into the tribal areas in search of radicals] and he will not remain, either with or without his uniform," Syed Munawer Hasan, the general secretary of the Jamaat-i-Islami, warned at a meeting with the press in Karachi on Monday.

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