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    South Asia
     Nov 6, 2007
Musharraf plays his last ace
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - President General Pervez Musharraf's second coup was his ace card to extend his stay in power. Washington's tacit approval for the implementation of "extraordinary powers" was conditional on increased endeavors against militancy in Pakistan in support of the US-led "war on terror". But with Musharraf having played his last card, anything could happen.

Musharraf's declaration of an emergency on Saturday, which, according to Pakistani Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sher

Afghan, is a blend of emergency and martial law, is primarily aimed at preventing the Supreme Court from invalidating Musharraf's October 6 victory in presidential polls.

Following the declaration, troops entered the Supreme Court building in Islamabad and "escorted" Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry out, his services "terminated". Chaudhry, who, along with six other judges had declared the emergency null and void, announced he would continue his struggle. The president of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association Aitzaz Ahsan and other members of the lawyers' body were also arrested. Scores of lawyers were arrested in Karachi on Monday during a protest rally outside the High Court.

However, Musharraf, playing to audiences in the West, has done his best to paint the emergency as a declaration of war against Islamic militancy, especially in the tribal areas, where the army is already fully engaged. For instance, speaking on national television on Sunday, Musharraf "appealed" to the West to understand the necessity for imposing the emergency.

The crisis in Pakistan coincides with a fresh Taliban offensive in southwest and northwest Afghanistan, in addition to the main battle in the southeast. The Western command in Afghanistan sees Pakistan's North Waziristan and South Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan as the epicenter of these major Taliban maneuvers.

As a result, Washington had little choice but to give Musharraf the green light for his emergency as it desperately needs his help.

Musharraf has placed scores of judges under house arrest, implying that they had sided with the militancy in releasing over 60 "dangerous terrorists", besides reopening the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad. The hardline mosque had been closed since troops stormed it in July to flush out militants.

Many political opponents and human-rights activists have been arrested, while a list of journalists to be detained was due to be finalized on Monday. The electronic media have also been disrupted.

More than 50 defiant judges are likely to become the flagbearers of a new struggle against the authorities, despite their house arrest.

Cricketer-turn-politician Imran Khan, who emerged as the most prominent voice of civil society in earlier struggles of the judiciary, has apparently escaped house arrest. He is underground at present and is negotiating with the bar councils for a powerful joint struggle to mobilize the masses on the streets.

Musharraf is likely to announce a schedule for national elections by Thursday - they were due to take place in January. Former premier Benazir Bhutto, earmarked in a US-initiated plan for a powersharing deal with Musharraf, has returned from a trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where she had previously lived in exile. She traveled there last Thursday and apparently returned at the instigation of the US to support Musharraf in a transition of power. The thorny issue of Musharraf, the army's chief of staff, giving up his uniform has been put on the back burner.

Back on the border
In the bigger picture, on Sunday fresh troops (all non-Pashtun) were mobilized for a new operation in North-West Frontier Province. At the same time, militants in South Waziristan released 211 soldiers they had been holding captive for several weeks after receiving assurances of a staggered army withdrawal from the area. Tribal elders are the guarantors of the deal.

This deal places the decision-makers in military headquarters in Rawalpindi in a bind as Musharraf, having received Washington's "blessing" for now, should be waging war, not making deals with militants.

Whether Musharraf survives this new storm is one issue, but what is really at stake is the future of the "war on terror" in the region.

Should militants and the political opposition - temporarily after the same goal - force out Musharraf, fighting the US war in Pakistan would be very heavy baggage for his successors.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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