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President Musharraf's intrepid speech at RUSI highlighted his fraught relationship with the West. Whilst Pakistan should remain ever present on the global conscience, the nature of Western involvement in Pakistan's myriad domestic problems should be dictated by the country's sovereign interests.
“Who dares wins” is a motto that has possibly meant more to President Musharraf than any of his fellow Commandos in Pakistan’s elite Special Service Group (SSG), a Special Forces outfit that helped nurture Musharraf’s early military career. Having spent 46 years in the military, the last eight as both the army chief and the head of state, Musharraf’s daring spirit seems as alive today as it perhaps was during his days as a young Commando. This was evidenced in the fervent and sure-footed speech delivered by him to an audience of diplomats, media personalities and think tank experts at RUSI.
Musharraf’s career has been marked by an endless series of dares and wins, that is, until recently. Musharraf dared his way into becoming Pakistan’s first Mohajir (non-Punjabi refugee from India) President without losing the support of a staunchly Punjabi military. He embraced the opportunities presented to him by the United States in the days following 11 September, 2001 and took on the Taliban – which had been created and tacitly supported by successive Pakistani regimes, Musharraf’s included. As Chief of Army Staff cum head of state, his intrepid nature eventually caught up with him. In 2007, the political and security crises in Pakistan has reached a maturation point, spurred by the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhury and accelerated by the increasing levels of violence that culminated with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former, and once potentially future PM of Pakistan. Yet, the President seems unfazed – his demeanour espoused confidence. While stating that his visit to Europe was intended to “remove misconceptions” about Pakistan and himself, he had three messages for the West.
The Importance of Pakistan
First, he warned, that stability in Pakistan is not only important for stability in South Asia, but also for “the streets of Europe”. The connection made between events in Pakistan and the security of Europe was a clear message that Pakistan should not be seen as an isolated problem. The President went to great lengths to explain how Pakistan had been 'ditched' by the West in the post-Cold War period. Its desertion led to the “causes of self-destruction.” Amidst disillusionment on Capitol Hill with regards to Pakistan’s seeming inability to efficaciously serve as the ‘frontline’ state in the 'global war on terror', Musharraf made it clear that any effort to abandon Pakistan will have a disastrous impact on the West.
The strategy of globalising Pakistan’s problems as a direct threat to the West could not be more poignant at this point of time. Recently, Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee openly criticised the Bush Administration’s policy of providing military hardware to a state that he claims no longer delivers on the 'war on terror'. US presidential hopefuls, having turned Pakistan into a domestic issue in the ongoing election campaign, seem to be overly cautious about openly endorsing its only South Asian ally.
To a large extent, Musharraf’s message is much needed at this point of time. Any discussion about the West’s disengagement from Pakistan will have a disastrous impact on the state, and subsequently the 'war on terror'. Musharraf may not be the most popular leader, in fact his approval ratings within Pakistan have never been lower, but at present time he is all the West has. Outside Pakistan, no other nation in the region has any need or interest in supporting operations in Afghanistan and incurring the high costs of terrorism and suicide bombings. Within Pakistan, the present Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kiyani, a pro-Musharraf General, has made it apparent that he is more interested in the military than in politics. A recent directive issued by him instructed military officers to stay away from politics. Amongst the political groups, it is unlikely that any party coming into power will have a serious say in military matters. If history has taught the West one thing, it is that Pakistan’s civilian machinery is often dependent on the will of its military leaders. This held true for Nawaz Sharif, who tried to oust Musharraf from power, it is likely to hold true for any future prime minister, at least for the time being.
Sovereignty v. Intervention
The President’s second message was with regard to Pakistan’s sovereign status. Yesterday evening (January 24, 2008), US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that “we remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis and to partner with them to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations, should they desire to do so.” In the past six months, Pentagon officials have been increasingly concerned about the Pakistani military’s (in)ability to successfully conduct counter-insurgency operations (COIN). Trained to fight India, the military’s experience in COIN seems to be lacking. This is a view that has been spun for domestic consumption and political purposes by those such as Barack Obama, who, in August 2007 stated, “there are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
It was in reaction to statements such as these as well as the analysis within the Pentagon that prompted Musharrraf to clearly point out that US intervention was “not possible at all, that any foreign forces will not be allowed into Pakistan”. Musharraf claimed that people have started thinking of US forces as though they hold “magic wands”. He pointed out, that in certain areas of Waziristan, the hostilities faced by the US will be much more than in Afghanistan. He dismissed claims that the US military will be able to achieve anything more than the Pakistanis, they would simply get “bogged down”. While his position is certainly infuenced by the need to showcase the Pakistani military as a strong and able force that is doing everything it can to fight the terrorism, the political reasons mentioned by Musharraf for not intervening in Pakistan makes for a stronger argument.
The President stated that when the US or any other nation talks about intervention they should “understand the sensitivities of the man on the street.” This is definitely an important point that most Western analysts seem to have ignored in their tunnel vision analysis of Pakistan. Since 2001, Musharraf has been dubbed as Bush’s ally by an increasingly radicalised ‘street population’. Contrary to the analysis provided by Musharraf, it is not Pakistan that they see as allied with the US, but it is Musharraf. Hence, in the event of an intervention, it is not the US who will first pay the price, but Musharraf. The people of Pakistan, as well as its military, will not stand for US presence on Pakistani soil, at least not in the near future. Also worth noting is that until now, the military have supported Musharraf’s policies. This includes the corp commanders as well as the lower rank offcers and regular soldiers. The military, the only stable institution in Pakistan, could very well turn against the President if US troops are allowed to enter Pakistani soil. US Special Forces occassionally seen on the border regions is one thing, but an increase in US military presence will definitely result in the loosening of an otherwise well knit hierarchy, reminiscent of 1980s Lebanon or present day Nigeria.
The Façade of Democracy
The President’s third message for the West was that his government was doing everything it could do to make sure that the forthcoming National Assembly elections, which he guaranteed will take place on February 18, 2008 will be “free, fair and transparent”. He did point out that the form of democracy seen in the West should not be expected of Pakistan, as the political environment in the West was very different to that in Pakistan. However, he claimed that Pakistan is on its way to achieving the same political status accorded to many Western nations. Over the question of democracy and the upcoming elections, it has become increasingly apparent that Musharraf’s assurances and the West’s expectations are fictitous at best.
The elections are unlikely to be “free and fair” or likely to change the power dimensions within Pakistan as long as Musharraf enjoys the support of the military. Musharraf has developed an ingenious defence for accusations relating to election rigging. His answer to critics over this important issue is simply that they need to tell him “how exactly” the elections can be rigged, and then he will make sure that mechanisms will be put in place to remove any “bugs in the system”. However, he failed to explain that as the man holding all the strings, if he were to rig the elections, how that “bug” would be removed. Candidates from the Peoples Party of Pakistan (PPP) in Sindh have already been arrested for crimes they apparently committed in 2004. UN human rights activists in Pakistan have pointed out that there is little possibility that ‘booth rigging’ and large scale voting manipulations will not take place. Pakistan, much like the rest of the Subcontinent, has become accustomed to the peculiarities of electoral victories despite popular mandates, it is unlikely that in the upcoming election anything will be different.
Most Western nations seem to assume that these elections will restore Musharraf’s democratic credentials. Congressional opinion on aiding the Pakistani military and Europe’s future trade with Pakistan seem to hinge on these elections. However, the truth of the matter is that it is not democracy, but the façade of democracy that seems to satisfy the West. Which party comes into power – be that the increasingly popular PPP; the Pakistan Muslim League-N headed by Nawaz Sharif; or the party that has held the majority in the National Assembly for the last five years, the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q – will not make the slightest difference to Pakistan’s internal democratic process. At best, it will allow Musharraf to claim that democracy has been strengthened under his watchful eye. In real terms, however, no one other than Musharraf will have the power to take decisions that will affect the future of this struggle.
Research Associate in the Asia Studies Programme at RUSI