Losing Pakistan

Losing Pakistan

According to Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is beginning to lose the support of a previously-loyal institution: the army. Will the rest of the country follow?

In Pakistan, the spectacle of having buttoned-down lawyers billy-clubbed by police and political rivals hauled away is naturally directing attention to President Pervez Musharraf's recent use of considerable force. But before this crackdown began, in an outlying province bordering Afghanistan, an event of both symbolic and material significance demonstrated the president's weakness where it matters most: within the army itself, said Akbar Ahmed, a former political agent of Waziristan and currently the chair of Islamic Studies at American University. That event and other factors, said Ahmed, demonstrates that Musharraf-despite his deployment of impressive, if unconstitutional, powers-has entered the downward cycle of his authoritarian rule.

In south Waziristan on August 30, about 300 soldiers were reportedly "kidnapped." The soldiers apparently were seized without a fight and the government has given conflicting reports of what occurred: first, that the men had been caught in bad weather; later, that they were holed up fighting militants and were unable to retreat. Many analysts, including Ahmed, say the soldiers surrendered. Since Pakistan has maintained a disciplined corps, the surrender of such a vast number of soldiers would indicate that segments of the army have decided against killing fellow Muslims on Musharraf's orders.

Other analysts in the region see the surrender in south Waziristan and other military defeats with equal severity. Arun Shourie, an Indian parlamentarian and political commentator, said in an op-ed Wednesday for The Indian Express that "the fact that half of the country's territory is today outside the writ of the Pakistani state shows how far things have been allowed to fall." The military's problem in Pakistan is "structural", and while that is not Musharraf's fault, it is his problem. Major operations are being carried out by the Frontier Corps, consisting of locally-recruited Pashtun soldiers officered by Punjabi army officers, said Shourie. Pashtuns are the main ethnic group in the frontier provinces, while the Punjabis dominate much of the rest of Pakistan. Pashtun soldiers, said Shourie, are wary of fighting those of their own tribe "and just as nervous of fighting Pashtuns of other sub-tribes or tribes, for they know that doing so could well trigger a cycle of revenge, a cycle that will last for generations." Sending units of Punjabis would be even more hazardous, potentially risking an ethnic conflict. And while most of the earlier fighting was being done by foreigners (Chechens, Uzbeks, Arabs), now entire tribes and sub-tribes are rising against the government, he said. This metamorphosing structural problem, said Shourie, will remain irregardless of Musharraf's fate.

According to Ahmed, the souring sentiment towards the president cuts through large swaths of society across the country-from the lawyers to the politicians to the students to the human-rights activists. "What you're seeing is the natural decline and disintegration that takes place at the end of a military dictator's rule in Pakistan", he said, adding that similar cycles took place during the 1960s and 1980s. The Pakistani people, said Ahmed, had already lost faith in Musharraf before his suspension of constitutional rule, which has only served as a catalyst for the riots and rallies. At another juncture of his rule, declaring a state of emergency may have proved effective, but now, it will only make his grip on power more tenuous, said Ahmed. "Everything he's doing, I would have advised him to do the opposite", he added.

If law and order continues to break down and, for example, mobs begin burning buildings and otherwise generate adverse international press for Pakistan, the military will likely replace Musharraf with his anointed successor, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, the deputy chief of the army. Kiani is pro-West, pro-U.S., pro-war on terror-all the right credentials for Washington, said Ahmed.

Still, Washington will continue to face challenges with Pakistan, beginning with a growing feeling there that the U.S.-promoted war on terror is humiliating the army and generally injurious to Pakistan. And though Washington is giving more aid to Pakistan than ever before, the generally pro-American population is growing increasingly hostile to the United States. Still, if there is to be a tidier ending to the crisis in Pakistan, America is the only viable mediator. "At this stage, it's the United States and the United States alone that matters in Pakistan."


Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.