The wake of Musharraf's resignation is a litmus test for Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister overthrown by Musharraf in a 1999 coup. Will he respond to the call of his conservative voters to play a role in ending military operations in tribal areas? By Syed Saleem Shahzad
For the Pakistan People's Party-led government elected in February 2008, impeachment of president Musharraf was a clear case of Hobson's choice. His retention in the office of president was damaging for the future of the coalition government, as he was unacceptable to one of the coalition allies, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group.
Yet when Musharraf bowed out on Monday without giving his opponents a chance to impeach him, the two main coalition partners – the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group – instantly lost their common enemy. There is now no need to make compromises as they did during Musharraf's rule on many disparate policies, especially the policy to support the US-led "War on Terror" against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Pakistani tribal areas.
A president in mufti
A good friend to the West in the fight against al-Qaeda, the retired General Pervez Musharraf, who sloughed off of his army chief's uniform last year and became a president in mufti, resigned on Monday, after four provincial assemblies passed a no-trust resolution against him and the parliament was ready for an impeachment motion against him.
However, Musharraf's unpopular legacy of Pakistani support for the US-led "War on Terror" remains. The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group (PML-N) is once again likely to play a critical role in quickly pushing for the end of military operations in Pakistani tribal areas, which would guarantee to boost its support in the masses. They have little concern for how much such a move would upset the leading component in the coalition government, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and Washington.
The Taliban welcome Musharraf's resignation
Pakistan's Tehrik-i-Taliban have already prepared the ground for the PML-N to recompose its policy on the issue, by welcoming President Musharraf's resignation.
"We welcome President Musharraf's resignation and if the government discontinue his policies, we are ready to stop attacks against the government," the spokesperson of the Pakistani Taliban, Moulvi Omar, said in a statement issued to the press.
Unlike the PPP, whose leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on 27 December 2007 because of her outspoken voice against the Islamic militants during her election campaign, the twice-elected former premier Nawaz Sharif and his party, the PML-N, has a policy supportive of conservative viewpoints.
During the last general elections in Pakistan he had pledged to restore the Pakistani judiciary, stop the military operations in the tribal areas and avenge last year's military operation in Lal Masjid Islamabad (the Red Mosque). In return, he gained sweeping support from conservative voters, with the PML-N emerging as the second largest party in parliament.
Now that Pervez Musharraf has stepped down as president, Nawaz Sharif faces a litmus test. Will he respond to the call of conservative voters, the major part of his party's supporters, to play a role in ending military operations in tribal areas?
The pro-Musharraf party might change its loyalties
Nevertheless, calling a halt to military operations in the tribal areas is unlikely to be the immediate priority of the skilful and seasoned politician Nawaz Sharif after Musharraf's exit. He is wise enough to assess that upsetting Washington at this juncture would not be helpful to his cause.
Raising issues related to the "War on Terror" would place pressure on the PPP, for instance the issue of the missing people who were suspected Al-Qaeda members and detained without trial by Pakistani security agencies, the reconstruction of the radical Jamia Hafsa, a women's seminary under Lal Masjid Islamabad which was demolished last year, and withdrawing from the military operations in the tribal areas.
Instead, Nawaz Sharif's first and foremost target is to gain strength in the assembly. At least half the members of parliament belonging to the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Quad-i-Azam) are likely to change their loyalties by forming a forward block and extending their support to Nawaz Sharif.
The second, equally important task for Nawaz Sharif is the restoration of the judiciary. A new alliance with former Musharraf allies would build his strength in the parliament and he could then contest for more a powerful role in the coalition government.
A power struggle looms ahead
In the meantime, the restoration of the judiciary would be a new front against the PPP leader Asif Zardari. The restored judiciary is likely to challenge the notorious National Reconciliation Ordinance, issued by President Musharraf last year after he struck a US-brokered deal with the later assassinated Benazir Bhutto, withdrawing all corruption cases against Bhutto and her now widower Asif Zardari from local and national courts.
The deposed chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary had already accepted the petition for the hearing filed against the National Reconciliation Ordinance before his removal from office on 2 November 2007.
This upcoming political wrangling between the coalition partners in the post-Musharraf era is likely to last at least weeks, if not months. The extremely unpopular war in the Pakistani tribal areas, generally dubbed America's, Afghanistan's and Mr Musharraf's war, is likely to slow, if not stop, even before Nawaz Sharif puts his foot down to stop the military operations, because of unending political turmoil in Pakistan.
The Taliban will be successful
This political turmoil is what has enabled the militants to secure net gains this year. During the politically unstable 2008, militants have carried out the highest number of suicide attacks against Pakistani security forces – more than in Iraq – forcing the security forces to strike a peace deal.
Under the peace deal, military operations were stopped and the militants completed the withdrawal of their men by the first week of May. Peace in Pakistan often means more war in Afghanistan, however, and this is no exception. The deal's impact appeared by the last week of May, with NATO casualties in Afghanistan outnumbering the casualties of the allied forces in Iraq.
The militants have three more months for their activities (fighting comes to a halt in Afghanistan during the winter), and the post-Musharraf political wrangling will provide them with the best cover. If things go according to Nawaz Sharif's wishes and he succeeds in holding power single-handedly by next year, the Taliban's spring offensive 2009 will be a far better success story than ever before.
Syed Saleem Shahzad
© Qantara.de 2008
Syed Saleem Shahzad is the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online