Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan are rushing toward crisis. The problem is which one.
Ever since the partition of India at the end of the British colonial period when the nations of India and Pakistan were created, Pakistan has seemingly been in a continual battle with itself, as well as India. Varying civilian political parties representing religious and social issues battled -- sometimes literally -- for ascendancy in the democratic process.
Repeatedly the military intervened, purportedly to bring order out of chaos and discipline where once there was only corruption. Unfortunately each of the "reformist" military governments ended in less than an orderly fashion.
In 1969 Field Marshall Ayub Khan was chased out of his job as leader of the government by howling mobs that succeeded in bringing all governance to a standstill. General Yahya Khan suffered a similar fate in 1971 after India trounced the proud but smaller and less well-equipped Pakistan army. In 1988 General Zia ul-Haq mysteriously was dispatched in an air crash.
General Pervez Musharraf is fully aware today of these unhappy endings to military rule in Pakistan, but for the moment he is avoiding recognizing the tumult about him. At the same time, however, he cannot ignore the pressure from Washington to get on with elections before this year ends so as to return Pakistan to civilian rule.
Musharraf made a heavy-handed attempt to dismiss the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for defying presidential intent when the jurist attacked government intelligence efforts to prosecute terrorist suspects. The exercise brought lawyers and students into the streets effectively solidifying disparate opposition groups.
Meanwhile, Washington and London have floated several compromise balloons regarding the structure of the next administration in Islamabad. The United States and Britain have a great deal invested in Musharraf, but he is adamant about his need -- from a power standpoint -- to continue to be army chief as well as head of state. That does not fit the idea of returning to a civilian government.
The fact is that the potential of having either Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif return to power from their current exile hardly excites the Americans or British in spite of the oft-rumored relationships that both political leaders have with either MI6 or CIA. Each of the former corruption-tainted prime ministers heads a party that appears unable to gain a majority vote; thus insuring the establishment of an inherently weak coalition government.
In practical terms it really doesn't matter if a civilian government rules Pakistan other than creating the appearance of democracy. The army, intelligence and civil service tend to follow their own professional leadership. It is within the competitive elements of these services that policy is or is not pursued.
Musharraf, as army chief, has had the extra clout needed to force greater attention of the chain of command of all agencies to directives coming from his presidential political structure. At the same time even he has had to tread with care, as the independence of the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) has repeatedly proven.
Aside from the well-known corruption during both the Bhutto and Sharif administrations, and the expectation that a return of either of them to office will bring a return of their corrupt practices, the external politics of Pakistan will remain essentially the same. But this in itself poses a big problem.
The U.S. has accepted publicly that Pakistan's nuclear facility at Khushab is now capable of producing weapons grade plutonium. Another nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan could be precipitated between the two bitter South Asian rivals. Production of weapons grade plutonium by Pakistan would put its key ally, the United States, in a very difficult strategic position in regard to India.
Islamabad already is reportedly armed with 30 to50 uranium warheads. The new facility at Khushab is estimated to have the ability to produce annually 40 to 50 significantly lighter but more powerful plutonium warheads.
Adding to the volatility of its politics, Pakistan has joined with Iran in condemning the knighthood conferred on Salman Rushdie by Queen Elizabeth II. While the honor is meaningless in secular Pakistani terms, the action by the British Crown is deemed an insult to Islam in religious terms as Rushdie is considered to be an apostate and a blasphemer. The official reaction of Islamabad in joining with Tehran indicates the continuing political strength of radical religious elements in Pakistan.
Musharraf is very important to Washington in effect as a "cooperating witness" in the battles against al Qaeda and the Taliban. The argument can be made -- and often is -- that the Pakistani leader is not doing all he can when it comes to anti-terror campaigns.
The key to such a complaint is whether Pervez Musharraf -- or any leader in Islamabad -- can remain in office if he/she fully satisfies the desires of Washington and London. It should be quite obvious that in the best of situations leading Pakistan entails dealing with one crisis after another, and avoiding a coup or assassination on a daily basis. In this respect it is always a bad day in Islamabad.
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