Who Holds the Cards in Pakistan?

Memo From Islamabad
As Pakistan’s Chief Looks Ahead, Army Holds the Cards
By CARLOTTA GALL: New York Times, June 28, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Speculation has been rife in political circles recently that Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, may not survive his wrangle with the chief justice and hold on to power, but a great silence emanates from the one place that may count the most: the barracks and the mess halls of the armed forces, the other great part of Pakistan’s ruling equation.

What the army thinks about the political logjam, and what it decides to do in the event of continuing stalemate, instability or violence, will be the defining factor in General Musharraf’s future, most commentators agree.

If and when the army feels it is being damaged by its association with General Musharraf, and his insistence on retaining the dual posts of president and chief of army staff, they will act to safeguard the reputation of the army, they say.

Historians and columnists have been outlining the precedents, recalling how Pakistan’s three previous military rulers exited from power. None of the departures came in happy circumstances, and none bode well for General Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

The longest ruling general, Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977, died in 1988 in a plane crash, the cause of which still remains a mystery.

The strongest possibility is that the plane was brought down using a bomb. But according to one theory, the plane crashed after the crew was disabled by knockout gas hidden inside crates of mangoes — a gift that was put on board the presidential plane at the last minute. This being the mango season, the old story has gained a lot of currency lately. “He either goes the mango-crate way or he goes gracefully,” one military officer said.

Pakistan’s other two military dictators in its turbulent 60 years since independence were forced out by fellow officers. Gen. Mohammad Ayub Khan, who ruled from 1958 to 1969, was isolated, unpopular and sick by the end, and after months of popular unrest was replaced by another military man, Gen. Yahya Khan.

General Yahya Khan promised a return to democracy and held probably the fairest elections Pakistan has ever seen. But after war and the breakup of Pakistan in 1971, when Bangladesh gained independence, his fellow officers forced him to resign and hand over rule of what remained of Pakistan to the civilian political leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

General Musharraf, the fourth military ruler of Pakistan, has already survived several attempts on his life, and with suicide bombing on the rise, and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the hills, the possibility of assassination remains — even if he should step down.

But the general is showing no readiness to give up either of his posts, president or chief of army staff, though the terms for both jobs expire toward the end of the year. In a recent interview, he said that after a life in the army, his uniform was like a second skin to him.

But if his stubbornness is met with more demonstrations, challenges in the courts and possibly civil unrest, the army command will grow increasingly concerned.

Well aware of the importance of backing within the army, General Musharraf called a meeting of his corps commanders and principal military staff recently, apparently to ensure their support. The military public relations service issued an unusually long news release in that vein.

“The Corps Commanders and Principal Staff Officers of the Pakistan Army affirmed to stand committed for the security of their country under the leadership and guidance of the President and the COAS,” it read, referring to the chief of army staff.

Issuing such a statement is unusual and brings to mind the vote of confidence that often presages the end for a cabinet officer or, in sports, a manager or coach. In effect, several former members of the army said, such assurances only underscore the general’s insecurity.

The military officer said he had not seen a commander calling for such a statement of support in more than 30 years in the army. “The statement was a mistake,” he said.

“The army is not a political party,” he said. “People do not have to swear support for their leader.” An army officer takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, not his commander, he added.

A veteran opposition politician, Enver Baig, was more definitive. “The military backing he had, has definitely eroded,” he said, speaking of General Musharraf. The discontent with General Musharraf is seeping into the lower ranks as well. “The midlevel officers are becoming restless,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a military analyst and author of a recent book on the military’s enormous economic clout that has angered the military leadership.

In the North-West Frontier Province there is growing frustration among military and intelligence officials over the rising lawlessness of Taliban militants, and the president’s apparent lack of concern and direction, senior officials say.

The National Security Council, which considered the problem in early June, promised more police officers and resources. Meanwhile, military officers no longer feel comfortable going around Peshawar in uniform, said one former officer from the province.

Even in the capital, army officers say they can feel the changing mood. The military officer described driving in Islamabad and seeing someone holding up a placard showing a big army boot stamping on a map of Pakistan. “That is a very poor reflection,” he said. “It is hatred that is building in the civilian level against the army.”

Faced with such discontent, the mood in the military is not for another general to take over, but for the country to restore civilian rule, he and several former members of the military said.

But who will tell the general to go? After nearly eight years in power, General Musharraf has personally picked all the top military and intelligence leaders. He will remain secure as long as he retains the support of four or five of the nine corps commanders, Ms. Siddiqa said.

Military officers, especially senior ones coming up for promotion or retirement and eager to keep the privileges they have earned, will not speak out of line to the chief of army staff, the officer said.

The officer said he could sense growing dissatisfaction among fellow officers, but discipline was such that no one was voicing it. “They don’t say it,” he said. “From their eyes you can see it.”

Asked if the corps commanders might tell the general he had to go, he answered, “We may be coming to that stage.”

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