Musharraf Gambles with Pakistan's Future

The President declares a state of emergency, but his army is no longer so popular and the U.S. may withdraw military aid
Getty Images

Pakistan's political crisis has reached its predictable zenith, with President Pervez Musharraf declaring a state of emergency on Nov. 3. Opposition party workers, civil society leaders, human-rights activists, lawyers, members of the judiciary, even former intelligence chief Gul Hamid, an extremist sympathizer—but no members of the armed forces—have been arrested without charge and jailed. "Inaction at this moment is suicide for Pakistan," said Musharraf in a nationally televised statement. "And I cannot allow this country to commit suicide."

Suicide or murder, this move has taken Pakistan back to where it began—as a poor, developing nation with great promise that had been ruined by 60 years of bad administration and an opportunistic and dominating military which effectively seals off any democratic impulses. "We are in 2008, but Pakistan is back to 1958," Nasir, a reader of the popular Pakistani Web site, posted sorrowfully on its site on Nov. 4. The country has been led by military rule or martial law for more years than it has by democratic election, and, judging by the army's support for Musharraf's recent unpopular move, the generals are in no hurry to return to the barracks.

That Musharraf has overplayed his hand is obvious. Blaming his own nine-year rule for increased terrorist activity and a newly emboldened judiciary, as an excuse to prevent a democratic election, is audacious—and could prove foolhardy.

Military's Risky Turn Against Extremists

What is less apparent is that for the first time, the Pakistani army may have serious reason to reconsider its place in the country. Over the years, a once-popular army has lost its luster for the population. In the early days of Musharraf's rule, the military maintained goodwill. Even after 2001, when Musharraf entered into a close embrace with the U.S. as an ally and got his country badly needed economic aid, the army was tolerated—despite its obvious links with extremists in the region.

The double game was exposed when the extremists—Musharraf's core constituency after the military—were targeted by his army under pressure from the U.S. In 2006, the Pakistani army lost nearly 100 soldiers fighting extremists and Al Qaeda in the wilds of Waziristan in eastern Pakistan. That number has increased dramatically to more than 700 in 2007—600 alone since July, according to Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis outfit based in New York.

This matters, because more than 25% of Pakistan's foot soldiers come from the same tribal areas and they are not inclined to fight their own people. Several hundred soldiers have been court-martialed this year for refusing to fight in the region. Army rule has ensured that most state benefits are funneled into Punjab, the most prosperous state in the country with the majority of army recruits. The eastern tribal regions, on the other hand, have suffered from decades of neglect and lack of development. In the absence of strong administrative machinery, these regions have held together on the old tribal loyalty system. The influx of foreign fighters, which has made the tribal areas a haven for terrorists, has broken down the old loyalties. Here, more than anywhere else in Pakistan, the army is viewed with suspicion for fighting America's war, not Pakistan's.

New Rulers of a Feudalistic Society

Over the years, the military has taken control over all other aspects of Pakistan—political and economic. There is very little private business in Pakistan compared with the army's vast commercial interests. The army is the largest landowner in Pakistan (12% of the country's land), the largest corporation, the largest nongovernment organization, the largest farmer. It consumes more than 50% of the country's annual budget, in addition to the annual $2 billion in military aid it receives from the U.S. Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent security and strategic affairs analyst in Pakistan, and author of the bold Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, estimates the army's business interests at more than $4 billion. Over the years it has co-opted civilian institutions such as the Education Ministry and even the Cricket Board, with military officers heading them. Army officers have become the new rulers of an already deeply feudalistic society.

This has not gone unnoticed by ordinary Pakistanis, who have seen their lot deteriorate as the military has enriched itself at their expense. U.S. aid has helped to increase the country's GDP, but a basic education is still not within the reach of most Pakistanis, health care continues to deteriorate, the media is often intimidated, and journalists are often jailed and killed. Emergency rule by the army will do nothing to strengthen business and investor confidence, say expatriate Pakistanis.

Across the border sits India, with its booming economy, robust democratic political systems, and rising middle class, a country on its way to becoming a world power. In Pakistan, the military identified itself with soldiers and the elite feudal classes, ignoring the poor and the middle classes who are the backbone of Pakistani society and make up its intelligentsia.

Calls for Resignation

This middle class, which nurtures civil society groups and yearns for a more equitable, democratic, and independent-acting Pakistan, is now asserting itself. The last six months have seen an astonishing blossoming of that civil society, led by lawyers and the judiciary. The goal: the restitution, to pride of place, of the much-manipulated constitution of the country. The target: Musharraf, who further abused and misused the constitution to stay in power as both President and army commander-in-chief and to suspend the rights of opponents.

The spark was ignited in March, when Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, began asking uncomfortable questions about Musharraf's dual position, the quick and cheap sale of state assets, and people missing from their homes after the army conducted random searches across Pakistan. Infuriated, Musharraf asked Chaudhry to resign. The judge's refusal became the rallying point that ordinary Pakistanis needed; hundreds of thousands rose up in support, asking for Musharraf's resignation instead and a return to democratic rule.

It could have worked. A deeply flawed but workable power-sharing agreement with exiled opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, brokered by the U.S., was nearly in the bag. And the Supreme Court, under the popular, reinstated chief justice Chaudhry, had allowed Musharraf to run for reelection—subject to a Nov. 6 hearing on whether he would have to give up his post as army chief. Afraid the public mood for democracy would force him to run for president as a civilian, Musharraf imposed emergency rule. "Let's not kid ourselves that it's an 'emergency'—it's martial law," said Talat Hussain, a popular host on Pakistan's Aaj TV, minutes before Islamabad blacked it off viewers' screens.

The Money's on Musharraf

Perhaps Musharraf should have stuck to what he knew best, running the army. A shrewd politician would have sensed the national mood and gone with it, instead of against it. But Indian intelligence officials who have studied Musharraf say he is a high-risk gambler, with the luck of the devil. Despite deepening discontent and growing radicalization within the rank and file of the army, Musharraf has hung on to power for nine years, and survived four assassination attempts during that time. The emergency was a calculated risk, and though India immediately deployed additional troops on its western borders, the bets in the bazaar are that Musharraf has a 60% chance of pulling off his audacious, unpopular move.

Certainly those chances will diminish if the U.S. withdraws its military aid from Pakistan, or if the Pakistani army refuses orders to shoot its own countrymen. Already, rumors have surfaced that the vice-chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Kaini, placed Musharraf under house arrest on Nov. 5, taking over as army chief. The rumors have been denied by Musharraf, but reflect the tensions between him and his army over the declaration of the state of emergency.

Pakistan's fate will be sealed in the next few days. Already, the country is split between pro- and anti-Musharraf groups; many judges in Sindh and Peshawar have refused to swear allegiance to the new chief justice installed by Musharraf. Increased agitation and street protests will be evidence of reduced support for Musharraf from the public and from within his army, and will speed his execution or departure. If he is able to contain the agitation, it will enhance his standing within the army, and ensure a few more years of army rule in Pakistan while effectively silencing democratic voices.

Either way, the U.S. would do well to expand its circle of friends in Pakistan beyond Musharraf and his army—or cast its net wider for another strategic country to be its ally in the war on terror.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.