Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suspended the country’s constitution on November 3, accusing the judicial branch of the government of crippling the government’s efforts against increasing violence by Islamist militants. Since the “Proclamation of Emergency,” there have been protests and arrests, mostly among members of the legal profession who are in the forefront of the protests against Musharraf’s move. Musharraf has come under international pressure, including from the United States, to reverse his decision.
It is the timing of the proclamation that raises questions.
According to Musharraf, he took the action following the judiciary’s release of 31 militants accused of insurgent activities against the government. He claims that the court’s actions have undermined the executive branch’s ability to contain the sharp increase in anti-government attacks.
There is no doubt about the increase of anti-government violence in recent months. These attacks have occurred no only in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, but in the capital city of Islamabad as well. In July, Pakistani troops stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad, killing scores of militants. Since then, the militants have sought revenge against Musharraf and the government by unleashing a wave of attacks resulting in the death of as many as 1000 Pakistanis.
Musharraf has in turn sent Pakistani troops to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the northwestern border with Afghanistan, areas that are strongholds of many of the militant groups. The troops are facing stiff resistance not only from the militant groups, but from the tribes who are sympathetic to the militants. The Pakistani army, although well-trained and well-led, has suffered some embarrassing defeats.
Throughout Pakistan, Musharraf is not a popular leader, he has been the target of several assassination attempts in recent years. Many of his former supporters turned on him when he allied himself with the United States in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. His decision to allow American aircraft to fly over Pakistan on the way to conduct operations in and over Afghanistan did not sit well with his traditional power base – the army. He faced even more resentment among the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the group intimately involved with Pakistan’s support to the Taliban.
Despite his unpopularity since 2001, he has managed to maintain his power base, largely through his position as Chief of Army General Staff. He has promised to step down from this position, but has yet to do so. It is doubtful that he will give up control of the army, the ultimate guarantor of power in Pakistan, during this period of crisis.
Just over two weeks ago, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned to the country in what many inside and outside Pakistan hoped would be a power sharing arrangement between Musharraf and Bhutto. It was hoped that Bhutto’s presence combined with Musharraf’s stepping down army chief would be a step towards democracy. Presidential elections, currently scheduled for January 2008, are now in question. Prime Minister Shawkat Aziz believes they may be postponed for a year or more.
In addition to the rise in violence and the return of Benazir Bhutto, Musharraf was faced with an additional challenge to his leadership, this time by the Supreme Court. The high court was believed to be on the verge of invalidating Musharraf’s recent re-election. Musharraf feared he was losing control of the situation, and more importantly possibly about to lose his position and he decided to act to prevent both.
What is the United States' role in this?
We need the Pakistani army and intelligence services to continue the fight against the al-Qaida and Taliban elements in Pakistan. We need them to continue and increase their cooperation with our forces along the Afghan border. We do not need a Pakistan that is the new training ground for al-Qaida, replacing pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Most of all, we do not need the removal of the current government only to be replaced with an Islamist regime with an arsenal of nuclear weapons. How much confidence do we have that an Islamist government would not transfer such weapons to terrorist groups?
What are the options for the United States? Do we support Musharraf despite his suspension of the constitution? Or do we pressure him to repeal the emergency declaration and risk losing power?
Tough call, but American national interests should prevail. I say we give Musharraf the benefit of the doubt and let him do what he has to do to contain the militants. Democracy in Pakistan would certainly be preferable to martial law under Musharraf, but temporary martial law under Musharraf is certainly better than an Islamist state.