Saturday, September 15, 2007

Understanding Musharraf's Moves

Why would Musharraf do what he did? By Adil Najam
The News, September 15, 2007

The writer teaches International Negotiation and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, US, and is the founding editor of

The way the government handled Nawaz Sharif's return to Pakistan was shameful. But it was not surprising. Talk of exactly this happening had been rife here in Islamabad in the days leading up to September 10. What is truly surprising -- astonishing, in fact -- is why Gen. Pervez Musharraf would do what he did or even let it happen.

Had the entire episode been ignored it would, at best, have been one more political irritant for Pervez Musharraf. Instead, his government chose to deploy excessive force for the public humiliation of a twice-elected former Prime Minister in what was the equivalent of using a cannon to swat a housefly. As a result, it may have gained some little time and an illusionary victory, but the current and future costs have been huge.

While the immediate economic costs -- re-routed flights, security deployments, work stoppages, road closures, etc. -- were considerable, the long-term domestic and international political costs will be much larger. This incident has further tarnished Pakistan's image, exposed the vulnerabilities of the Musharraf regime, emboldened opposition forces, created considerable domestic and international sympathy for Nawaz Sharif, prepared the ground for yet another confrontation between government and judiciary, and severely damaged Pakistan's foreign policy relations with Saudi Arabia (which has been showered with much ridicule in the Pakistani as well as international press). The Saudis may stand by Musharraf for now, but they will certainly think many times before they ever try to bail out another Pakistani government on any issue again.

All of these costs were entirely predictable, and must have been known to those who planned and executed the script for September 10. Why, then, would Gen. Musharraf risk loosing so much to gain so little?

Much of the discussion focuses on the proximate causes, especially on the General's desire to have himself reelected as President in uniform. But there may also be deeper dynamics at work. At least four possible explanations come to mind.

1. Commando logic. Given the nature of the operation -- troops storming a plane, pressure negotiations, intimidation tactics, diverted flights, changed call numbers -- and Gen. Musharraf's pride in his own commando pedigree, an obvious explanation is to call this a commando's instinct: Take swift and decisive action to ward of future complications. Enticing as it sounds, this explanation is unsatisfactory.

Indeed, Gen. Pervez Musharraf was a commando once, but he is a commando no more. By training, by impulse and by philosophy, commandos are mission driven. This is what makes them so alluring. The mission supercedes everything; even personal survival. Pervez Musharraf may once have been such a person. Today he is quite the opposite. He is a person driven by the need for personal survival and office; in short, a politician. The logic of September 10 -- to the extent that there was logic involved -- was a political logic. It was the logic of survival and it was certainly not commando logic.

2. Personal prejudices. There is great irony in the fact that airplanes and airports were as central to Nawaz Sharif's fall from grace as they were to Pervez Musharraf's rise to power. Neither man would have missed the parallel between the events of September 10, 2007 and October 12, 1999. Both events involved one person working feverishly, trying to prevent the other from entering Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf won the cat-and-mouse game on each occasion.

One must also realize that the Musharraf-Nawaz relationship is a particularly charged and deeply personal one for both of them. For Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif is someone who tried to have him killed. For Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf is an ambitious general who usurped power and bit the very hand (Nawaz Sharif's) that nurtured it.

Dealing with Benazir Bhutto, on the other-hand, is a very different proposition for Pervez Musharraf as compared to dealing with Nawaz Sharif. Benazir is just one more politician. Cutting a deal with her is no different than cutting a deal with Altaf Hussain or Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman or the Chaudhris of Gujrat. He may dislike her more, but he probably does not like the others too much either. Nawaz Sharif, however, is his protagonist extraordinaire, the wounds are deep and they are deeply personal. This context suggests that the events of September 10 may not have been part of any political calculus at all. They might have been based on nothing more profound than an urge to 'get even' and then, maybe, to 'go one better' on the other.

3. Encouraging bad advice. As I had argued in an earlier op-ed, autocratic leaders invariably land themselves in the downward spiral of 'suicidal politics of denial and delusion' and Gen. Musharraf is showing all the classic signs of being there. One sure sign of this condition is that autocrats get surrounded by -- indeed, they surround themselves with -- bad advisors. The arrogance of hubris and the slyness of sycophants combine in a heady mix that slowly eases out those few who might once have spoken truth to power. Invariably, they get replaced either by outright lackeys or by those whose have a real interest in giving bad advice. The latter are more dangerous.

Some of the closest advisers to Gen. Musharraf actually want him to make bad decisions because good decisions would mean that these individuals would lose the positions of power and prestige they now hold. This group needs Gen. Musharraf to hold on to power, even more than Gen. Musharraf himself. Their interest, therefore, is to push Gen. Musharraf away from any sensible path that might undermine their own power base. Particularly, any decision that opens up political space for other players, including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Of course, this is a rather charitable explanation. Like the second explanation, above, this is nearly certainly true to some small degree, but is nearly certainly not the dominant explanation. After all, Gen. Musharraf has demonstrated great ability to make one bad decision after the other on his own. Some of them -- like the reference against the Chief Justice -- despite actually having been given good advice.

4. Misunderstanding the moment. While each of the above explanations have some limited merit, the most potent explanation is that for at least a year now -- since the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti -- Gen. Musharraf has actually lost touch with the realities of the political moment that he and the nation are living through. The Pakistan of 2007 is not the Pakistan of 1999. Indeed, the Pervaiz Musharraf of 2007 is not the Pervaiz Musharraf of 1999. Seven years in power have given him an elevated sense of his own invincibility and importance, fanciful assessments about the extent of his support, and a penchant for political wheeling and dealing (the absence of which, was the exact thing that had endeared many people to him when he first took power). These years have also made Pakistanis restless and disillusioned.

Two trends, in particular, define Pakistan's current political moment.

First, the defining public outcrys of the last year have not been 'for' someone, they have been 'against' Pervaiz Musharraf. Neither Bugti, nor Chief Justice Iftikhar and certainly not Nawaz Sharif have a great personal following. Bugti was probably disliked by more Pakistanis than not.

Nawaz Sharif does have a real political base but until he took on Musharraf, it was a small and shrinking base. As for the Chief Justice, very few Pakistanis even knew his name until March and of those who did, many had reservations about his judicial style. Yet, today each one of them has become an icon of sorts. Not for who they are, but for how they were treated by Pervaiz Musharraf and how they stood up to him.

Second, the revolution in terms of media assertiveness -- and more recently judicial assertiveness -- has come about not because these institutions are perfect, but because they promise accountability. The media, certainly has made enough mistakes in the sensationalism and hype around impending 'emergencies', etc -- for example, in the sentimental jingoism seen in reporting towards the end of the Lal Masjid operation. The courts will, necessarily, also fluctuate in performance. That is the nature of institutions. The real revolution is that people now demand accountability, have found alternative institutions in which to actualize it, and will settle for nothing less. As was evident in the failure of the spin-doctors in concocting stories about why and how Nawaz Sharif left the country. The state no longer has the ability to create public perceptions of its own linking and other institutions are bent on providing checks and balances.

Working together, these twin realities imply that the government is no longer able to save its political soul by diverting attention to others, nor does it now have the ability to manipulate the context in which Pakistanis view and interpret their politics. Yet, these are the exact two tactics (diversions and manipulations) that Pervaiz Musharraf's government has been applying again and again. The more they try these tactics, the more dramatically they fail. And that, I believe, is what really happened (yet again) on September 10.

There is an old saying suggesting that "you cannot dig yourself out of a hole by applying the same logic that got you there in the first place." For its own good and for the good of the country, the Musharraf regime might want to take this advice seriously as they think of their next move.
Email: adil.najam@

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