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Pakistan’s Chaos Forces United States to Rethink Role

IR prof on Musharraf’s mistake, Bhutto’s chances, and the people’s despair

On November 3, when it appeared that Pakistan’s Supreme Court would rule that General Pervez Musharraf could not legally hold both his military office and the office of president of Pakistan, the nation’s leader imposed emergency rule, suspended the constitution, and placed the country under martial law. Almost immediately, thousands of demonstrators, led by the country’s attorneys, took to the streets. Pakistan’s students have since joined in the protests, and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has vowed to violate a ban on public meetings by leading a rally on Friday.

To learn more about how this happened and where it might lead, BU Today talked to Husain Haqqani, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor, the director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, and the author of 2005’s Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Haqqani, a former journalist and diplomat, has served as advisor to several Pakistani prime ministers, including Bhutto.
BU Today: Why did Musharraf impose emergency rule? Did he think his country would let him get away with it?
I think Musharraf expected limited civilian resistance and only ritual international condemnation in view of his role in the war against terrorism. On both counts, he appears to have badly miscalculated.

What was his motivation?
Most observers agree that Musharraf’s action was motivated by his desire to keep himself and his civilian associates in power and was not necessitated by the need to save Pakistan from terrorism or internal chaos, as he claimed. In any case, there is something fundamentally wrong when every few years an individual in uniform must stand before TV cameras and claim that he alone knows how to save and protect a nation of 160 million. 

How will Musharraf’s action, and the people’s reaction, influence relations with the United States?
The Bush administration’s hopes that with its help there could be a transition to democracy in Pakistan with a continuing role for Musharraf have been dashed. The United States might now start looking beyond Musharraf. He has risked U.S. support for Pakistan and has put himself at risk because of his inability to grow beyond being an autocrat who must have his way in everything.

What about our own legislative branch? How is it likely to respond?
Even if the Bush administration acts with restraint, U.S. public opinion and Congress certainly will most likely react very strongly to Musharraf’s power grab. There are many members of Congress who are uneasy about supporting an unpopular military ruler whose record in fighting terror is, at best, mixed.

Does Musharraf have any popular support in Pakistan? Who is on his side?
Ironically, the army must now bail out its chief from a crisis created by the bad advice of his civilian advisors. Musharraf’s civilian allies are the ones who would be the biggest losers in any transition to democracy. They are incapable of winning a free and fair election and have resented the prospect of any arrangement that allows [former Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto to contest, and beat, them at the polls.

Musharraf’s decision reflects the calculation that he can get away with anything as long as the army remains behind him. He seems to reckon that the international community would not go beyond ritual condemnation of his actions, and that the United States would not impose sanctions or suspension of aid because that might impair Pakistani participation in the global war on terror. But Musharraf’s estimation might not be 100 percent accurate.

In a free and open election, what are Benazir Bhutto’s chances of being elected president?
Bhutto has emerged as the viable civilian alternative to Musharraf, with public support at home and acceptance abroad. As the only politician in Pakistan to publicly describe Islamist extremism and terrorism as the principal threat to the nation, Bhutto was initially measured in her response to Musharraf’s reckless actions. She demanded that he restore the constitution and call elections as scheduled. She hoped to change his attitude with the threat of putting hundreds of thousands of supporters in the streets, without actually doing so. But Musharraf’s stubbornness is changing that position. She has positioned herself as an opposition leader who represents the sentiment of the people, but is also willing to accept a negotiated settlement that restores the constitution, ends persecution, and results in free and fair elections leading to full civilian rule.

What about a coalition government? Is there any hope of that?
So far Musharraf has shown no inclination to negotiate in good faith with Bhutto or the international community. And with each passing day, the Bush administration’s hopes — that with its help there could be a transition to democracy in Pakistan with a continuing role for Musharraf — are diminishing. Unless Musharraf changes course quickly, the United States will be compelled to start looking beyond him to a more legitimate leader.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.