Rattled Pakistan looks to Musharraf By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Whether through astuteness or luck, or a combination of both, Pervez
Musharraf survived tumultuous times after seizing power in a military coup in
But after stepping down as army chief of staff last November and following
parliamentary elections in February, Musharraf was on the ropes, his power
diminished and people calling for his resignation as president in connection
with his actions in pursuing the United States-led "war on terror".
Thousands of lawyers - demanding that more than 40 of them be reinstated after
being sacked by Musharraf last year for opposing
Musharraf continuing as president - were due in the capital Islamabad on Friday
to force the issue of his stepping down.
Then came Tuesday's incident in which US warplanes killed 11 Pakistani
paramilitary forces inside Pakistani territory while going after Taliban
There is now every indication that once the lawyers' issue is over, a new era
will begin for Musharraf as supreme commander of the armed forces, but without
a uniform, by virtue of his designation as president and head of state. It is
now thought he is the only person capable of confronting the challenges raised
by the US air strikes, and a badly faltering economy.
The "long march" of the lawyers, which began in various parts of the country on
Monday, also includes workers of various political parties. They have agreed
that once in Islamabad they will not cross into the "red zone", which includes
the offices of the Inter-Services Intelligence and other high-profile
government offices, the diplomatic enclave and parliament.
The government will provide facilities for the protesters, including drinking
water and temporary toilets, so they can register their protest in peace. A
lower turnout than expected is likely because of the extremely hot summer and
traditional differences between secular and religious elements. The leadership
of the lawyer's movement is secular and former Marxist, while the premier
Islamic party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, has tried to take over control of the
The march, though, is a matter of relative minor importance, having been
overshadowed by the US attack.
Asia Times Online contacts are adamant that the military wants Musharraf to be
the one to deal with the fallout, which could include negotiating new peace
accords with militants in the tribal areas and thrashing out rules of
engagement for coalition forces in Afghanistan with regard to action on
The top brass have also been stung by criticism of them and of Musharraf by
Nawaz Sharif, a former premier and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League
(Nawaz), which is a key partner in the coalition government.
The man for the job? Musharraf remains an enigma ever since being
appointed - by then premier Sharif - as army chief of staff and chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1998.
At that time there was some doubt over the promotion, given Musharraf's urban
and liberal background in a traditionally highly conservative military drawn
mostly from rural and tribal areas.
Musharraf somehow bridged the gap. There are tales of his popularity in the
messes with the rank-and-file, where he allegedly danced with a wine glass on
his head. Yet when Sharif tried to remove him in October 1999, three
ultra-conservative generals stood up for him and backed the coup that took him
This began the general's time as a military dictator. After September 11, 2001,
he was forced to make a difficult decision, finally opting to side with the US
as it prepared to invade Afghanistan, even though this meant turning against
the Taliban, which Pakistan had nurtured.
Despite this, al-Qaeda remained undecided over what to do about Musharraf. This
correspondent has spoken to one of Musharraf's former personal security
officers, Captain Mohammad Farooq, who was in direct contact with al-Qaeda and
spent nine months waiting for orders to assassinate Musharraf. They never came,
and military intelligence then rumbled Farooq and he was dismissed.
The several attempts that were made on Musharraf's life were carried out by
local networks, some prompted by Egyptian Takfiris (those who decide who is a
true Muslim). But the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri opposed
attacking him as they did not believe he nor the Pakistani military were
directly involved in the crackdown on al-Qaeda. All al-Qaeda arrests stemmed
from local US intelligence contractors and the Inter-Services Intelligence,
which was under duress from the US.
Musharraf managed to keep both the political parties and the militants from
raising any serious threat to his administration until 2007, when he was
confronted with two tough issues: the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation and the
challenge from the judiciary over the legitimacy of Musharraf's presidency and
the matter of people going missing in the "war on terror".
Musharraf chose to take the judges head-on by sacking them, and implicitly
backing his generals who had been criticized by the judges.
The Lal Masjid saga was more difficult. In 2004, it issued a religious decree
prohibiting people from attending the funerals of Pakistan soldiers killed
during operations against militants in the South Waziristan tribal area. The
mosque in Islamabad increasingly became a sanctuary for militants and a center
for pro-Taliban and militant propaganda.
In 2007, the Lal Masjid's followers became involved in activities such as
abducting policemen, harassing alleged prostitutes and setting up their own
courts on the mosque's premises. Then they abducted a Chinese national, causing
a national crisis.
Musharraf reluctantly ordered in the military, but even during the subsequent
week-long standoff he tried to call off the forces, offering the militants and
clerics inside the option of arrest. They refused and the troops stormed in,
killing a number of people.
Apart from the "war on terror" and the strings attached to it, Pakistan's new
government in February inherited the country's highest-ever foreign exchange
reserves, the best-ever revenue collection, high exports, strong gross domestic
product and a bullish stock exchange. These indices have since nose-dived.
But it's the security situation that really counts, and the US air strike has
severely unsettled the country. Musharraf, with his excellent rapport with
Washington, is the man many see as the only person capable of preventing it
from happening again.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org