If ruling Pakistan is like riding a tiger, President Pervez Musharraf may be drawing in his reins too tightly, according to some analysts. Over the weekend, the president declared a state of emergency and fired the defiant chief justice of the highest court, along with his allies. Officials have arrested a number of lawyers. The decision follows a series of suicide attacks in recent days and weeks. Some experts contend that despite the recent violence, the president's crackdown on liberties may not serve his own, or the country's, interests.
On the eve of the declaration of emergency, Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao discussed at length the country's security situation with National Interest online, maintaining that while Pakistan remains committed to prosecuting its military campaign against terrorists in the tribal areas, such actions catalyzed the serial suicide attacks that have buffeted the country. Pakistan has deployed 80,000 soldiers in the northwestern tribal area and established 1,000 military posts in the frontier region to fight the militants. Suicide bombers struck twice last week and last month delivered the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan's sixty-year history, when they hit former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's campaign procession, killing at least 136 people and injuring more than 500. Musharraf has pointed to the recent violence and its destabilizing effects as justification for the state of emergency.
According to David C. Isby, a national security expert and author of books on South Asia, ruling Pakistan is not about what is or is not justified. Musharraf may have been justified in launching a helicopter attack one year ago on a madrassa in the tribal village of Chingai after the clerics there ignored a directive from Islamabad to shift its operations from jihad training to Islamic education. However, that action may not have been broadly strategic for the president since it allowed the government's rivals to whip up opposition. While Musharraf must counter the onslaught of militants, he must also remain vigilant of the popular perception of his legitimacy.
Musharraf's emergency rule "leaves in place the guys in the mosque", said Isby. "And it leaves the guys in Waziristan" province. "Going around arresting lawyers, in a country where the rule of law is generally respected, undermines legitimacy", he said. Even the British Empire at the turn of the century had to worry about projecting such legitimacy, and was negatively affected when its proxies imposed excessive force.
For Musharraf, who last suspended the constitution when he seized power in 1999, becoming the third army chief to have staged a coup against a sitting government, projecting legitimacy is particularly important. The fact that the declaration of emergency came as the Supreme Court was nearing a decision on the legality of Musharraf's re-election as president last month while also serving as army chief makes the decision look particularly narrowly self-serving.
Many experts on Pakistan concede that Musharraf's narrow self-interests may largely coincide with those of his country, since other rulers who could ascend to power could prove to be less democratic and secular. In Pakistan, though, determining just how to benefit both Musharraf and the country requires careful consideration of how and when to employ force and transition towards greater democratic freedoms, say analysts of the region. And the recent violence demonstrates the hazard of orienting U.S. foreign policy around one leader, of uncertain longevity.
Ximena Oritz is a senior editor at The National Interest.