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December 06, 2007 Edition 45

A country under siege
Anouar Boukhars

Sixty years after its invention as an imagined national community whose membership was defined by religious affiliation, Pakistan is a deeply fractured and bitterly divided society, beset with enormous political and security problems. President Pervez Musharraf's desire to maintain political power at all costs has undermined the military's image and dangerously threatened prospects for stability in the country.

Articles in this edition
Musharraf's quest for legitimacy - Irfan Husain
A straight line - Simon Henderson
Politics of the borderland - Faisal Devji
A country under siege - Anouar Boukhars
As is the case with most dictators, Musharraf started as a decent man but soon fell prey to his own ambition, convincing himself that he is Pakistan's indispensable man, a national hero who transformed the country from a rogue state into a crucial Muslim ally of the United States. Musharraf likes to brag about his eight-year tenure in office, especially when compared to the record of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two former prime ministers with tainted reputations. Since he seized power in a military coup in 1999, the economy has expanded, foreign exchange reserves shot up from less than $1 billion to $16 billion, and the stock exchange index has seen its value rise 13-fold.

But Musharraf's obsession with power and miscalculations cost him his credibility. Since his botched bid to fire the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, his popularity and political capital among Pakistanis slid dramatically. His approval rating has gone from 63 percent in 2006 to 21 percent, according to a survey released by the International Republican Institute in early October 2007. Approximately three quarters of those polled opposed Musharraf's re-election as president and about the same number thought that the country was on the wrong track. The survey also confirmed what many other polls have repeatedly shown: the alternative to military rule in Pakistan is not the Taliban-like Islamic zealots. In a free and fair election, 64 percent of Pakistanis will vote for the two main moderate opposition parties while 31 percent of the vote will be divided almost equally between Musharraf's Muslim League and all other religious parties combined.

Today, the only thing that unites this country of 167 million people is Pakistanis' wish to see an immediate a-politicization of the army and its return to the barracks. This wish, however, might be unattainable despite Musharraf's decision to quit as army chief. Under Musharraf's rule, the army has become an omnivorous business empire, controlling as much as one-third of all heavy manufacturing, seven percent of private assets and 12m acres of public land. Musharraf and his comrades in the army, who harbor deep disdain for civilian authority, attribute this massive control of assets to the efficiency and competence of military personnel. The military claims that its control of thousands of public organizations and businesses like banks, insurance companies, fertilizer plants, bakeries and universities is beneficial for the economy. "Why is anyone jealous if the retired military officers or the civilians with them are doing a good job contributing to the economy?" Musharraf once said.

In reality, however, the Pakistani military thrives thanks to lavish government subsidies and bailouts for military-run businesses, which stifle competition and business. To be sure, the military's commercial empire is not a creation of Musharraf. It grew under his tenure but its economic clout preceded his rule.

With or without Musharraf, the army's role in Pakistan's politics will not diminish significantly. The country's new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, may well focus his time and energy on enhancing the army's combat effectiveness and restoring its credibility in the eyes of the public. The humiliating poor performance of the military in battles against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has demoralized the force. Hundreds of soldiers have already surrendered without a fight and dozens more have deserted.

This has been exacerbated by growing public distrust and criticism. "The army has never seen as much criticism as it has in the last 10 months," noted Dr Hasan Askari Rizvim, a prominent military specialist. The anxiety about the state of the army prompted 20 former generals, air marshals and admirals to appeal to Musharraf to quit his functions as head of state and army chief. Kiyani, a former chief of Pakistan's intelligence agency and a graduate of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, seems to understand the urgency and necessity to boost the army's morale and restore its reputation. He might even distance himself from Musharraf. But one thing is sure: Kiyani will do nothing to jeopardize the institutional and financial interests of his military. In this, he will be supported by many civilian politicians who profit commercially as well as politically from the status quo.

As these events unfold in Pakistan, Middle Eastern dictators generally are concerned about a state collapse in another Muslim country of utmost strategic importance. Like the United States and most other western countries, they are terrified at the prospect of a takeover of the country by radical Islamists. They are also terrified at the prospects of democracy in Pakistan and the "negative" precedent that an overthrow of Musharraf's dictatorship would set for their longevity.- Published 6/12/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org


Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College in Maryland.

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