Musharraf and the Islamists

The General Forced to Make a Move

Pakistan could face a civil war. The army has squandered its reputation as savior of the nation and the General is under pressure to act. A commentary by Bernard Imhalsy

Over the past few months, Pakistanis have frequently heard a snide comment that was once directed at Prussia: "Other states maintain an army, but, in Pakistan, the army maintains a state."

The saying comes from the book "Military Inc. Inside Pakistan's Military Economy". Its author, Ayesha Siddiqa, writes that the Pakistani armed forces control a network of foundations and trusts, which today form the core of the country's economy.

The army owns one third of all heavy industry and around one hundred in-house companies that produce everything from breakfast cereal to cement. It has also sold large parcels of public land to retired officers through housing cooperatives at throwaway prices.

The military see it as perfectly natural that they should have the right to profit from their status as the most important pillar of the nation.

The accumulation of economic power is based upon the ability of the army, whether through the military secret service, the ISI, or by arbitrary means, to intervene in Pakistan's political process when it deems this is in its own and the country's best interest. In fact, they regard these as being one and the same.

Connection to Islamic underground groups

When Benazir Bhutto became too strong, the ISI built up an unknown local politician, Nawaz Sharif, to become her rival. During the 2002 elections, President Musharraf kept the main democratic parties from gaining power only through massive election fraud.

Just as they have promoted their own economic and political interests, the military has also played a hand in the creation of Islamic underground groups. With the consent of the West, these groups were employed against the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. Subsequently, the ISI accomplished what must be its masterstroke – it succeed in cultivating the Pakistani Taliban out of the lost generation of young men that grew up in refugee camps.

Musharraf's unconstitutional double role

The permanent control of the country's political life by the armed forces is not without its opponents. A civil protest movement was already active in the early 1980s and forced the army to at least give up the appearance of controlling power.

And earlier this year, a wide-based protest movement arose once again in response to Musharraf's suspension of a critical judge in order to prolong for another term of office his unconstitutional double role as president and head of the military.

Even the Jihadists began to rebel against manipulation by the ISI, which they had previously accepted out of tactical considerations. The turning point came with September 11.

Musharraf sided with the USA, thereby becoming a traitor to Islam in the eyes of the underground, a view also promoted by al-Qaeda. The Jihadists declared war not only against the West, but also against its Islamic accomplices.

Nonetheless, the groups continued to remain on the payroll of the ISI. Under pressure from the USA, they were eventually declared illegal and could only re-emerge under a different name.

At most, their leaders were placed under house arrest. The political costs, however, for this increasingly transparent double dealing gradually became intolerable for both sides. The persistent assassination attempts against President Musharraf show that the state has definitely mutated into an enemy of the underground.

Secret relationship tattered

The current crisis surrounding the Red Mosque has only deepened this break. The military authorities were openly challenged right in the heart of the capital. For a whole three months, the double dealing continued – plans to storm the mosque were already completed on February 10, yet weapons and fuel continued to flow into the mosque right under the very windows of the ISI main headquarters.

Calls by the media to at least cut off the water and electricity supply were ignored by the government. And for the first time, the radical religious leader Rashid Ghazi no longer followed the orders of his ISI commanding officers. He chose not to capitulate and later be released through the back door.

With his "martyr's death," he forced Musharraf and the military to finally show their true colors. The storming of the mosque has abruptly tattered the secret relationship between the secret service and the Islamists. Like Pakistani civil society at one end of the spectrum, the Jihadists are also no longer prepared to accept the army in the role of arbitrator.

President Musharraf stands isolated. The demonstrations supporting Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry show that the public refuses to accept the legitimacy of the army continuing to play its role of savior of the nation. And the most recent terrorist attack on a military convoy proves that the Islamists now have the army in their sights.

Feeling the "Frankenstein monster"

This constellation is forcing Musharraf to finally honor his pledge to wage war against extremism. This is also an opportunity for him to give priority to his constitutional role as president rather than that of dictator and rally a grand coalition of anti-Jihadist forces behind him.

This includes, first and foremost, the generals, who, as one commentator so vividly put it, can feel the "Frankenstein monster" that they have led along by the nose for so long breathing hotly down their necks.

And then there are also the democratic parties, in particular that of Benazir Bhutto, who would be prepared to sit as prime minister at the side of President Musharraf – if he was willing to hang up his uniform.

Even the coalition of Islamic parties, the MMA, is a possible ally, although it would never say so publicly. This is because radical Jihadist-Islamism threatens to erode its ideological base. Finally, Musharraf could count on the silent approval of the general public, which rejects any further Islamization of the country.

If these were the plans of Musharraf, he could also count on the West, and the USA above all, as it has remained incapable of cutting him loose, yet unwilling to strengthen him. They continue to view him as the lesser evil. America does not trust the notoriously weak democratic parties to effectively deal with the militant Islamist threat.

The USA would therefore prefer if Musharraf would build a government together with the democratic opposition – all the more so, as this democratic administration would remain dependent upon the army. To date, Musharraf has pretended to be deaf when discussion turned to permitting his democratic arch-enemies back to Pakistan.

He believes that without them he is better able to deal with the challenge of the Jihadists. The present explosive situation in Pakistan offers a chance for the West to push for a true democratic opening. Yet, even if this opening should succeed, the question remains as to whether the train has already left the station in the direction of Iraq.

Bernard Imhasly

© taz/ 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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