Musharraf The Savior

Conrad Barwa requested me to write about the assassination attempt on Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.

A high intensity bomb wrecked the bridge near 10-Corps Headquarters moments after President Musharraf’s motorcade crossed it on Sunday night [Dec 14] while on its way to Army House from Chaklala airport, security sources said.

The device, which had been fitted beneath the Lai bridge (Ammar chowk), exploded with a big bang at around 7.15pm – about seven seconds after the last vehicle of the presidential convoy passed over it. The last vehicle was occupied by the DSP Security, the sources said.

I obviously don’t know any more than what’s in the news, but I am a bit skeptical of Musharraf’s timelines ever since his timeline for his 1999 coup which didn’t make much sense to me.

I don’t have much to say about the assassination attempt, but there are some related issues on which I think American opinion gets it all wrong.

Also, there has been news about Pakistani nuclear cooperation with Iran, Libya and North Korea which has brought forth the same sort of uninformed commentary in the blogosphere.

The Talking Dog, like most American bloggers, wishes to keep Musharraf because

Musharaff may be one of the few things standing between Islamist nuts gaining the reins of Pakistan, and its… nuclear weapons.

I am somewhat misrepresenting the Talking Dog here with this excerpt, so you should read his post and the comments. But it does represent a general opinion that Musharraf is the only one keeping Pakistan from becoming an Islamist1 state.

This impression is terribly wrong. I’ll admit that I don’t like General Pervez Musharraf [Disclosure: I voted against him in the referendum in April 2003]. I first noticed him during the Kargil fiasco. Amber’s and my considered opinion then was that Musharraf should have been court-martialled over that. In October 1999, Musharraf overthrew the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif [Disclosure: We had voted for his party as the least bad option in 1997]. He thus followed in the footsteps of General Ayub Khan (1958-1969), General Yahya Khan (1969-1971) and General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988). As you can see, the military has been in power in Pakistan for 28 of the 56 years of Pakistan’s existence. The Pakistani military is sometimes called the only effective institution in Pakistan. It is nationalist and realist but with somewhat grand ambitions and a hand in everything in Pakistan: politics, business, even sports bodies and even the drug trade during Zia years.

Contrary to popular perception, Pakistan has a number of civic institutions and a much better political atmosphere than most Muslim countries. It also has numerous secular parties on the left and the right. Most people think the religious alliance (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or MMA) is the only opposition to Musharraf, but there are also the parties of the two former Prime Ministers, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Benazir Bhutto’s PPP. They are both part of the anti-Musharraf alliance, ARD (Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy). PML-N got about the same number of votes (with a lot less seats because of first-past-the -post system) and PPP was second to the ruling PML-Q in the last election in number of seats but got more votes.

Considering the last election, it is clear that the religious alliance MMA (more specifically its component JUI) won big only in the Pashtun areas of NWFP and Baluchistan. This gave them a majority in the NWFP and a plurality in Baluchistan. This win was possible because of a number of reasons:

  1. The US attack on Afghanistan was unpopular among the Pathans/Pashtuns.
  2. The electoral decimation of the Pashtun nationalist parties which had held the balance with the religious parties.
  3. Musharraf’s efforts to keep his two major opponents, Sharif and Bhutto, out of power.
  4. The public’s dissatisfaction with both Sharif and Bhutto who had been in power twice each, but never completed a term.

You might notice that Baluchistan and NWFP are the two smaller provinces. Punjab is the largest one in population with about 60% 55.63% of Pakistan’s population. The religious parties did not do too well there, though they did win a few urban seats. These seats were won not by JUI but mostly by Jamaat-e-Islami which is the party founded by Maudoodi.

Overall, I don’t see any scenario other than “clash of civilizations” where the religious parties could become the major party/alliance in Pakistani politics.

Regarding some Islamist army officer seizing power in a coup against Musharraf, I have mentioned before that this is not a plausible scenario. The army in Pakistan might be crazy but they do speak with one voice. Every military coup in Pakistan was engineered by the army chief and was helped by the corp commanders (The general commanding 10 Corps is the most important since that is based in Rawalpindi, right next to the capital Islamabad).

Let us check Pakistani history. Other than the successful coups, there have been a few allegations of coup plans. The first one I know of was the Rawalpindi conspiracy case in 1950 (?). It involved Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a very good poet, and some others including a retired Major General. It was said to be communist-inspired. Another one was a plan in the 1970s by some junior military officers to overthrow Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. They were caught and jailed but later pardoned by General Zia, the army chief, who overthrew Bhutto some time later. Finally, there were the arrests and trials of some Islamist officers, including a Major General and a Brigadier, during Benazir Bhutto’s rule. One thing is common in all these cases: They were more like talk than actual plans or attempts. I am pretty sure that no coup attempts by junior army officers, whether they are Islamist or secular, are likely to happen any time soon.

Going back to the Talking Dog:

My point is simply that, as a dictator, he most assuredly has NOT left an orderly succession plan in place if he is knocked off. As such, what would happen had been killed is entirely unpredictable, with a number of potentially unthinkable outcomes. Sure— the likely result is that some senior military guy would take over. But that’s just it: its up in the air.

But, but if you knew Pakistani history, you wouldn’t say such a thing. See there was this guy, General Zia-ul-Haq, ruling Pakistan when I was growing up. He overthrew Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in July 1977 and had him hanged after a murder trial. In 1985, after party-less elections, he brought in a parliament and a hand-picked Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo. Then in May 1988, Zia sent Junejo and the national and provincial assemblies packing under a provision of the constitution that he had amended. The Senate, being a permanent body, still existed. Then fate intervened and Zia died in a plane crash on Aug 17, 1988 along with Gen Akhtar Abdur Rahman (the ex-head of ISI) and a host of other senior officers and the US ambassador and military attachee. There were two options: Either the military could take over under Vice Army Chief Gen Aslam Beg or under the constitutional rules of succession the senate chairman would become acting President. Gen Beg decided not to take over and Ghulam Ishaq Khan became President. Khan, Beg and the ISI did do a lot of intrigue etc. but elections were held a couple of months later and democracy, though corrupt and somewhat clipped, came back to Pakistan after 11 years.

BTW, do you know that no government in Pakistan after Zia has completed its term? Every single one was dispatched by the President or the army chief (in 1999). This was done under Article 58-2(b), a stupid idea introduced by General Zia.

Here are Ikram Saeed’s comments in this Matt Yglesias post which are pertinent to this post.

I am seriously puzzled by puzzlement here. Pakistan has regularly been a democracy, and has many democratic (and secular) parties. It also has a strong civil society movement (Shehri — an urban renewal society, the Edhi foundation, the various Human Rights Committies of Hena Jilani and friends, many more).

The solution is quite simple — push for democracy and an end to the military domination of the state. Unlike most Islamic countries, Pakistan has an electoral record of rejecting religious parties (the JI, JUI, and JUP win few seats in the most important provinces of Punjab and Sindh). In fact, Islamist parties usually make the most gains in times of military dictatorship.

As for the trope that Pakistani’s have been indoctrinated to hate the US — I think you need only look at the mass of Pakistanis illegally immigrating to the US. Pakistan is as anti-American as Noam Chomsky (whose post-911 lecture in Islamabad was oversubscribed).

Anyway. There are plenty of Enlgish language media in Pakistan. Much of it is relatively uncensored. And the US and Canadian press cover it fairly well. Barry Bearak had good NYT Magazine story recently, and anything by John Stackhouse is excellent. (And if you only trust news from blog, there are many of them too —religious, secular, gay, straight.)

The Pakistani army is primarily realist and nationalist, not religious. It has been called the only effective institution in Pakistan (though I would argue the army contributed to making other institutions ineffective). It sees its role as safeguarding the interests of the state.

The one big religious gambit of the PK army, the Talibs, were really a realist measure. The PK state demanded a stable Afghanistan, for geostrategic and pipeline reasons. Godliness was an incidental benefit. Now that the US has made clear that overt godliness is verboten, the PK army will work within the new parameters both within and outside the country.

So if Mush-man fell, he would be replaced by another senior General, who would safeguard Pakistani ‘interests’ the way the military always has. (And PK has a disciplined army — coups are always lead by the most senior personnel. No Master-Sargeant dictators here.)

Pakistan has a lot of problems, best encapsulated by the description I once heard: “Pakistan has too many billionaires for such a poor country”. In my view, though Zack may disagree, at some point in the future, a mass revolution is possible. People are just too poor and the economy is too bad for the present situation to continue. To forestall that, the country’s institutions must be more responsive, and to me, this means democratic.

But an ISI rogue coup? Not going to happen. It is unPakistani.

I agree mostly. Regarding a mass revolution, I am not sure. I have gone back and forth on this quite a few times. Currently, I think it won’t happen. The reason is that enough good happens in Pakistan to keep it from falling apart completely. Also, some of the political frustrations of the people are released in some sort of democracy now and then.

UPDATE: You might want to read an NY Times Magazine article on Pakistan (here’s a free link).

But if elected governments have been disappointing, military ones have been disastrous. And the eventual bridge to cross is more than Musharraf. It is the army itself — and its dominance, whether onstage or behind the scenes. Some way or another, Musharraf’s time will pass. The great fear in the West has been that the next general will be much harder to deal with, someone with a long beard and no taste for whisky. But the greater likelihood is that after Musharraf simply comes another Musharraf, a slightly different model but still a man with the same loyalty to military pre-eminence.

1 Vague, popular term. I don’t like it but I am not sure how to get my point across without writing a few paragraphs. By Islamist, I mean an extremist, neorevivalist interpretation of Islam which would have a very bad human rights record.

Categorized as Pakistan

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. The bomb missed them becasue it was radio controlled, and the convoy had strong radio jammers. (A military spokesman on TV). The MMA makes up almost a third of parliament, which makes them sizeable. If Musharraf is knocked off, they will be a sizeable force in Pakistan. (They already are in fact). Zack, it is not impossible for a “Islamist” army officer to seize power. Local newspapers and magazines have written at length about the disconnect between a number of officers who aren’t happy with what they perceive to be Musharraf’s rubbing up to the West.

    Also, I wrote earlier about Musharraf on my blog.

  2. Zack, I’m flattered and embarrassed. I’m sure I got stuff wrong, and there are plenty of real Pakistanis on the net to correct me, and mock me. I’ll defer to their judgement.

  3. Obviously, I defer to your familiarity with the subject; my academic exposure to the region was a “History of Modern (post-47) India and Pakistan, well over 20 years ago, and like most Americans, my media exposure to the region is… inadequate.

    As I pointed out in my comments— we do not disagree on the basic facts; I am well aware that Pakistan has democratic (and even “liberal” institutions); of course, Musharaf has taken to playing with them by banning his most popular opponents from standing in elections, anointing himself with a “presidential referendum” (which he more or less rigged), and other good stuff.

    My point was simply that, in potential scariness, Pakistan is way, way up there— and I’m not sure you’d disagree. I think its comforting that you would view Pakistan’s tradition of zig-zagging between democracy and military rule as likely to steer it through most eventualities. I know I feel a little better about that, having read your comments.

  4. Ikram: Don’t worry, by now I am a fake Pakistani as well, so someone is going to correct and mock me as well.

    KO: MMA is a sizable force in Pakistan right now with or without Musharraf. I don’t think the presence or absence of Musharraf will make much of a difference in this regard. OTOH, MMA is at its peak right now. It’ll not be easy for them to improve their showing much in any elections now.

    There are indeed a number of senior army officers who are not happy with the way Musharraf has conducted himself with the US, but I don’t think any “Islamist” coup is a big worry.

    I haven’t lived in Musharraf’s Pakistan (though I did vote against his referendum joke), so you probably know better about it than I do. However, I did live in Zia’s Pakistan and have read extensively about Ayub. I think Musharraf has been copying those guys quite a lot. He has made much less mistakes (e.g. a free press) but I don’t think he’ll be a benign dictator.

    TD said: My point was simply that, in potential scariness, Pakistan is way, way up there—- and I’m not sure you’d disagree.

    I do agree with that. I think the Pakistan/India confrontation ranks as the most dangerous one in the world (and not just because I have family there).

    Like I said, TD, I intentionally misrepresented your views somewhat so that I didn’t have to go and have a discussion with nutcases. 🙂 Hope you don’t mind.

  5. I think having thought of an islamic coup are far fetched. MMA are at their peak and still can’t muster up support for their demand on LFO. and i don’t suppose they will have these number of seats in the next elections provided america nad musharraf don’t do anything silly to outrage Pakistanis.

  6. There’s a rumor going round in Islamabad about the assasination attempt on Musharraf. It is said that Musharraf doesn’t trust anyone, so he kept the remote control of the explosive device in his own hand 😉

  7. Improvised Explosive Devise imported to pakistan saved the life of the President!
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  9. Ahmed Rashid on the Future of Musharraf

    One of the best journalists I’ve encountered is Ahmed Rashid (intro HC), who writes about Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sharp turn away from restoring democratic rule in Pakistan (BBC). Lest Zack stop by and imagine I don’t know this, I’ll…

  10. The Great Game Continues: Pakistani Military Crackdown intensifies in the North

    According to the Asian Times Pakistani military operations in the northern border regions with Afghanistan are escalating and will see more serious fighting between jihadist elements, local tribal militias and the security forces. This time around the …

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