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Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule weakens an already unstable political system which has deep implications for security within Pakistan and the wider region.
- Emergency law will do little to halt the spread of extremism and violence in Pakistan, not least because these extra-constitutional measures were targeted at Musharraf’s political opponents.
- Musharraf has absurdly classed the moderate middle classes as a greater threat to Pakistani security than militancy. Authorities that should be concentrating on the rising tide and spread of pro-Taliban and Al-Qa’ida linked jihadists are therefore now distracted by suppression of lawyers, NGO workers and the media.
- Emergency law will further destabilize Pakistan’s political system. It has effectively halted any opportunity for an alliance with Bhutto, could lead to civil strife, and even hasten Musharraf’s departure. Such political turmoil is an opportunity for militants to spread their already expanding influence.
- A ‘long march’ to Islamabad planned by Bhutto for next week moves Pakistan closer to widespread insurrection.
- Pakistani troubles caused by the emergency law will have implications for violence in Afghanistan. A weak government and turbulent political system caused by civil strife or Musharraf’s overthrow will distract Pakistan from its crucial role as an actor in the war on terror.
Fighting the wrong battle
Emergency rule, in and of itself, will do little to help fight extremism and militancy in Pakistan. Broad powers against freedom of speech, the media, property rights and assembly in public are unrelated to jihadist violence, suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. Moreover, it appears counter-intuitive to believe emergency law will foster stability and order in lawless regions that already ignore the writ of central government and are the centre of pro-Taliban and Al-Qa’ida linked groups.
However, it is fallacious to assume the target of Musharraf’s latest manoeuvre is the battle against militancy and extremism. The declaration text highlighted a secondary reason necessitating the suspension of the Republic’s institutions; according to Musharraf, some in the legal profession have been ‘working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism thereby weakening the government and the nation's resolve diluting the efficacy of its actions to control this menace’.
Despite official assurances to the contrary, the judiciary is the real reason for the emergency. It is worthwhile noting that the proclamation text is dominated by criticism of the legal profession. Moreover the law was issued just days before the Supreme Court’s verdict on the constitutional validity of the 6 October 2007 presidential election was due. At stake was the legitimacy of Musharraf’s future as the country’s top elected leader. The emergency was a pre-emptive move by the General, a desperate attempt to cling to the Presidency in which he placed his political future above that of his country’s. His energy during the crisis has been solely focused on vanquishing political rivals. Witness then, scenes of baton-wielding police attacking lawyers in the Lahore high court while their counterparts in Karachi were dragged to jail. Martial law has been wielded against the legal profession, human rights activists, political opponents, NGOs and the media. Around two hundred armed police stormed the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Lahore, arresting around fifty people, an act few could link convincingly to militancy and terrorism.
The effect on security is likely to be swift. Thousands of policemen, intelligence agents and the military, who should be dedicated to fighting the rising tide of militancy throughout the country, have been diverted to enforce a brutal crackdown on the moderate, secular segments of society. Militants are likely to seize the opportunity offered by authorities chasing political activists and suppressing legitimate demonstrations.
Diplomats have been concerned for some time that terrorism and security were not foremost in Musharraf’s list of priorities. Recent months have witnessed the spread of extremism and jihadist influence beyond the mountainous northwest near Afghanistan to the capital and beyond. For the past two years, Musharraf has stood by as just 100km away from the capital, the formerly peaceful Swat valley resort was infiltrated by militants. This year in particular, his attention has been monopolized by political manoeuvring to maintain his grip on power. The predicament is larger than Musharraf, however; it is a structural problem of military governments. Armed forces cannot be effective in military combat if their focus and energy is distracted by political battles. For this reason, media harping about the dichotomy between security and democracy, and the necessity for the former to trump the latter in certain situations, is wrong.
Pakistan’s turbulent political future
Musharraf’s latest move has undermined the potential for a renewed focus on the threats posed by extremism and militancy. Placing Bhutto under house arrest has ended any hope for the US backed alliance between her and Musharraf. Though flawed, the pact had the potential to provide an element of stability, broadening Musharraf’s political base, uniting powerful secular-moderate forces against extremism, and building a political shield of semi-legitimacy behind which Musharraf could confront the jihadist undercurrents threatening the country.
Emergency law does more than undermine a missed opportunity. His attempt to remain in power and promote stability has actually generated instability of its own.
Unrest has been limited thanks to a population largely apathetic towards an elitist political system. However, there are signs of simmering resentment. On Monday, hundreds of police blocked over a thousand lawyers from launching a street protest in Multan. Furthermore, the opportunity for larger scale civil strife increased markedly on Wednesday when Bhutto issued a denouncement of Musharraf, positioning herself and her Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) at the forefront of the opposition. The PPP are the only force in Pakistan capable of galvanizing mass demonstrations, a fact displayed when up to a million people thronged the streets of Karachi to welcome Bhutto home from exile. Bhutto’s arrest on Friday and the clash of police and PPP protesters in Rawalpindi raises the stakes still further and a ‘long march’ to Islamabad planned for next week threatens to exacerbate a rapidly deteriorating situation and moves Pakistan a step closer to widespread insurrection.
Widespread calls from the international community for the removal of emergency law and the holding of elections in January as scheduled are naïve however. Musharraf’s support base has haemorrhaged in recent months due to a clumsy confrontation with the Supreme Court. This latest action has further eroded his support leading to an acute state of polarization between the military and civil society elements such as the media, judiciary, political parties and NGOs. There is little support for any political experimentation he may now attempt. Musharraf promised on Thursday that elections would be held before 15 February. Even if these take place, they will have little credibility. Whatever the result, the elections are likely to be condemned as rigged.
Musharraf has therefore painted himself into a corner and in so doing, all but guaranteed further insecurity and violence. Large-scale civil unrest is pregnant with the possibility of violence, but will also further stretch the authorities and thereby distract their attention from the real threat posed by rising extremist violence. Militants can be expected to take advantage of a government pre-occupied by an ongoing political crisis. It is not unthinkable that further waves of suicide attacks conjoined with widespread demonstrations against Musharraf may galvanize already restive factions within the military to launch an internal coup. Musharraf’s political future is therefore in serious doubt.
A power vacuum in Pakistan if Musharraf is overthrown, or protracted turmoil in the political system which seems almost certain, is a golden opportunity for militants in that country and beyond. The security dimensions to the latest Pakistan crisis are not confined by national borders. Pakistan is a front-line in the US war on terror. There are wide and deep links between domestic political events in Pakistan and broader regional issues, in particular the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Musharraf’s second coup bodes ill for the war in Afghanistan. The lawless rugged border regions of Pakistan are a haven of groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed or Laskar-e-Tayyaba Mehsud, organizations who provide training and logistics for attacks on US and NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan. Success in that country will not be forged in Afghanistan alone. Military distraction by the declaration of emergency and subsequent unrest therefore not only exacerbates Pakistani security problems, it also constrains Pakistan’s crucial role as a front of the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, this was demonstrated last month when Taliban plans to launch a post-Ramadan offensive into Afghanistan were thwarted by Pakistani troops invading Waziristan tribal areas on 7 October. The Taliban countered by stirring their network in the Swat Valley and capturing several villages and towns, thereby removing pressure off the Waziristans, further suggesting the profound effects a denationalized, regional Taliban can have on Pakistani security.
The Taliban are therefore likely to be the main beneficiaries of Musharraf’s ill-judged attempt to remain in power. They will be emboldened by the turmoil in Islamabad and will be strengthened ahead of their first ever winter offensive which a Taliban commander vowed to pursue on 2 November. By next spring, NATO forces in Afghanistan and whoever is ruling in Islamabad may face a cross-border Taliban with substantial territory in both countries.
Andrew Legon is a Research Associate with the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He is contactable at email@example.com
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.