Pervez's Precarious Position

Pervez Musharraf seems to think his grip on power is relatively secure, as demonstrated by his recent trip to Saudi Arabia. But given the volatile political situation he faces, can he really stay in office much longer?

Autocrats don't go abroad when they fear what might happen while they're gone. That's why President Pervez Musharraf's recent trip to Saudi Arabia was revealing-it underlined his confidence that he has regained his footing as he moves through Pakistan's treacherous political terrain. But how long can Musharraf keep his balance?

On November 3, his rapidly eroding political position led him to declare a national state of emergency, igniting fury across Pakistan and bringing Bush Administration pressure to recommit to power-sharing negotiations with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

But for the moment, Musharraf has recovered by successfully executing a two-part strategy. First, he has given foreign and domestic critics some of what they want. On November 28, he resigned as leader of the country's military. A day later, as he was sworn in as president for a second five-year term, he pronounced himself "fully determined" to end emergency rule on December 16. Some 5,000 jailed opposition activists have been released.

Most important, he has promised "come hell or high water" to allow parliamentary elections on January 8. His U.S. ally expressed satisfaction, because it can now urge Pakistan's opposition to fight its battles at the ballot box, not in the streets.

Second, Musharraf has divided his most prominent domestic rivals. He allowed the prime minister he deposed in 1999, Nawaz Sharif, to return to the country from exile in Saudi Arabia. Musharraf's decision was likely influenced by heavy Saudi pressure, but he knows that Sharif will draw some anti-Musharraf support away from Bhutto. The president can now claim that all opposition leaders are free to compete in January's elections. Musharraf has also stoked already intense suspicions between Sharif and Bhutto by hinting that he's quietly holding talks with each of them.

In the best of all outcomes for Musharraf, Bhutto has said that she and her Pakistani People's Party will contest the elections, while Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have threatened to boycott them. That would diminish the risk of any unified anti-Musharraf electoral alliance.

To bolster the president against deadlier challenges and address the near-term security crisis in the country's restive tribal areas, the Bush Administration has pledged $97 million in counterinsurgency support, double the previous amount, for Pakistan's "Frontier Corps", a paramilitary force composed of local fighters.

What has the recent crisis taught us about Pakistan? Domestic demand for democracy was far too strong for Musharraf to indefinitely block the return from exile of Bhutto and Sharif. He could not maintain his position as both president and head of the army. He could only tame an independent Supreme Court by declaring a state of emergency, forcing out the most unpredictable judges and populating the bench with loyalists.

But Musharraf's grip on power was sure enough to weather the storm that has buffeted his presidency for more than a year. The Bush Administration was never willing to abandon him, because it fears that Bhutto cannot counter internal security threats on her own, and because it doesn't trust Sharif to take on militants whose support he may need to boost his political fortunes. The temporary resilience of autocracy suggests that tensions in Pakistan are likely to ease over the next few weeks.

But Musharraf is unlikely to maintain his hold on power for long. He hopes January's elections will unfold much as they did in 2002. By (as subtly as possible) rigging the outcome, he means to strengthen his Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) at the expense of Bhutto's partisans. If he can ensure that no party wins a strong parliamentary majority, he believes he can continue to manipulate Pakistan's politics-even if Bhutto's party, the largest in the country, wins enough votes to elect her prime minister.

But the political situation has changed since 2002. Rigged elections will threaten his international support, already weakened by the imposition of emergency rule. They might also unify the opposition.

After the vote, Sharif may succeed in undermining the unity of Musharraf's political party. The PML-Q is comprised largely of former members of Sharif's party who decided following the 1999 coup to defect to Musharraf's winning team. But as the president's position weakens, he may no longer look like a winner. In addition, the man to whom Musharraf entrusted the military, Ashfaq Kiani, is a long-time deputy. But the army has its own interests, and Musharraf may yet become a dangerous liability. Now that he is a civilian, he can't count on the military's unconditional loyalty.

Finally, the U.S. counter-terrorist strategy is unlikely to succeed. The theory behind it comes from lessons learned in Iraq's Anbar Province, where many tribal leaders have joined forces with U.S. troops to fight foreign Al-Qaeda militants. But in Pakistan's tribal regions, the Pashtuns have a long history of sympathy for (and cooperation with) local Taliban and other militants.

Pakistan's tribal leaders will welcome the infusion of U.S. cash. But there is no guarantee they will fight with much intensity or fully renounce their former friends. Nor will they have large numbers of U.S. troops to support their efforts. Political turmoil has drawn the Pakistani government's attention away from the tribal region, where large areas have fallen under de facto Taliban control.