Pakistan has moved forward in the two weeks since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but toward what exactly remains unclear. The country has displayed a capacity to sustain high-levels of violence, but with economic pressures and social divisions rising, one wonders what is the tipping point.
Musharraf Hangs in the Balance
Stuck in a gray zone, Pervez Musharraf has neither increased nor decreased in power. That is not to say that the political dynamics surrounding him have changed. They have been vastly altered with the murder of Benazir Bhutto.
Bhutto would have served both as an asset for Musharraf as well as a source of consternation. In the short to midterm, her electoral participation would have effectively validated his presidency; her ascendancy to the premiership would be even more of a plus, especially in the eyes of Washington.
Conceivably, Bhutto could have provided Musharraf with the capacity to mobilize public support for campaigns against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In reality, their partnership, if it ever took hold, would have been exclusive and those left out–namely Nawaz Sharif–would logically make the anti-terror campaign a wedge issue, especially with its American origins.
Furthermore, in the mid to long-term (or even sooner), Bhutto would have pressed for a reduction of Musharraf’s presidential powers and, at the opportune moment, his ouster. For much of 2007, Bhutto was maneuvering for a third shot at the premiership. The assumption that she would remain content with a neutered office is naive.
Musharraf remains in power, in a sense, by default. There is a lack of a capable and willing alternative. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, as explained below, has other priorities at the moment. Interested and influential parties are waiting for the elections to produce a new government. Afterwards, evaluations could be made as to whether the new premier constitutes a working partner for Musharraf or a viable and willing alternative to him.
Things are not getting better for Musharraf. His achievements–sustained economic growth, a vibrant and free media, and managing of foreign pressure–are crumbling before his eyes, or better put, in his hands. Should there be any improvement in the security situation in the Frontier Province and FATA, Gen. Kayani–not Musharraf–would likely get the credit. Elections roundly seen as free and fair, while improving his standing, would give his political opponents perhaps overwhelming leverage.
Perhaps Musharraf is sensing the tide. For the second time, Musharraf said yesterday that he would resign from the presidency if the new parliament sought to impeach him. Is this a sign of a weary Musharraf or a threat to external forces pressing for democracy?
Shortly after Musharraf’s coup, his brother told the New York Times that he’d give him the following advice: ”Look, don’t overstay and end up like previous martial law governments. They were thrown out by the people….If he becomes corrupted by power, I’ll be uncomfortable. I hope he does his job, holds elections and gets out.”
His brother, whose wise advice was not heeded, must be uncomfortable now.
Since his rise to public notoriety late last year, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has remained both mysterious and a recipient of fairly unguarded praise. Kayani reportedly has no aspirations to political power, but then again the same was said of Pakistan’s last two general-presidents as well as former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Aslam Beg. A “soldier’s soldier,” his priority is revamping Pakistan’s army. He’d like to win the multiple insurgencies and restore the military’s morale and good name in the country.
Toward this, Kayani declared 2008 the “year of the soldier” and announced various measures to improve services for low-mid level and non-commissioned officers. Additionally, he asserted in a meeting of the corps commanders last week that victory in the nation’s various security challenges requires “will of the people and their support.” Since Pakistan’s elections are a month away, Kayani is likely publicly expressing his insistence that elections largely be free and fair.
Interestingly, the portrayals of Kayani in the Pakistani discourse are almost, if not completely, highly positive. Additionally, there is also a gradually rising call (both direct and indirect) for Kayani to ‘relieve’ Pakistan of Pervez Musharraf (à la the Pakistan National Alliance vs. Bhutto in 1977) . Even if Kayani has ruled out such an option, as it would distract him from his military priorities, he could be compelled to make such a move. But Pakistan’s opposition could have unreasonable expectations of Kayani–specifically in terms of the pace he’d reduce the military’s political role. Its economic role is another story.
Plan C in the Making?
Pervez Musharraf was Washington’s Plan A for Pakistan. As Musharraf’s hold on power began to deteriorate this year, the Bush administration devised a Plan B, pairing him with Benazir Bhutto and having Gen. Kayani in the background. That plan effectively died with the late Benazir Bhutto. But Washington’s made no indication of a reversion to Plan A, a Musharraf-only policy. Instead, it has begun courting the PPP’s Amin Fahim and the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif. Engagement of Asif Ali Zardari seems to be not so vigorous.
After supporting Nawaz Sharif’s deportation from Pakistan in September 2007, the U.S. is now slowly building ties with him. Washington reportedly convinced Sharif not to boycott the elections after Bhutto’s assassination, but the PPP’s decision to continue on with participation was clearly also a factor. As to how far Washington will go with Nawaz is unclear. The highest U.S. official he’s met with has been the ambassador, but it seems as if visiting congressmen and senators haven’t made even a phone call. Senator Joe Lieberman did meet with Sharif’s deputy Raja Zafarul Haq.
Rumblings in Waziristan and the NWFP
Retired Lt. Gen. Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai resigned as governor of the North-West Frontier Province. Orakzai, who hails from the Tribal Areas and favored dialogue with the neo-Taliban, has been replaced by Owais Ghani, who was governor of the restive Balochistan province prior to his appointment. Ghani’s appointment is yet another instance in which Musharraf has recirculated a loyalist to a critical position. Previously, he appointed Senate Chairman Muhammad Mian Soomro (first in line in presidential succession) as caretaker prime minister.
Orakzai reportedly had wide latitude over efforts to stabilize the Tribal Areas, even supplanting the military there. His replacement is seen by some as an indication of heightened military operations in the area. After all, Ghani presided over the aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in Balochistan which crescendoed with the assassination of its leader Akbar Bugti.
These developments, however, need not mean the end of dialogue with the neo-Taliban. Pakistan’s central government is taking advantage of, and perhaps encouraging, divisions among the tribes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It will be dividing South Waziristan into two divisions, one for the Ahmedzai Wazirs and the other for the Mehsuds. Fissures between the Ahmedzai Wazirs and Mehsuds are growing, with Maulvi Nazir (an Ahmedzai Wazir) accusing Mehsuds (one of whom is Baitullah Mehsud) of being behind the murder of nine of his supporters. He claims they are under the influence of Uzbeks.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz claimed on Tuesday that a major operation to apprehend Baitullah Mehsud was in the works. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the addition of 3,000 marines to Afghanistan.
The Ethnic Card and Dirty Politics
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a Sindhi, has rekindled ethnic divisions in Pakistan to some degree. Both Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and her son, Bilawal, have made repeated calls for national unity and the preservation of Pakistan’s federation. In fact, Zardari will be moving to Lahore–Punjab’s capital–and seek to reinforce the PPP’s national reach.
However, the Chaudhry cousins (Shujaat Hussain and Pervaiz Elahi), leading figures in Musharraf’s faction of the Muslim League (PML-Q), have sought to play the ethnic card and push for a greater bloc of the Punjabi vote. The PML-Q in Punjab briefly posted advertisements calling for compensation only for non-Sindhis (i.e. Muhajirs, Punjabis, and perhaps Pathans) in the damage from riots ensuing after Bhutto’s murder.
Pervaiz Elahi accused Zardari of being behind his wife’s murder, saying: “Who has benefited from the tragedy? Zardari, and only Zardari. Check the authenticity of her will. Find out the amount for which she was insured.” He also accused Zardari and Sharif of being behind the post-assassination riots.
Granted, Zardari did label the PML-Q the Qatil League (Killer League). But the divisiveness of the Chaudhry cousins, and most importantly its ethnic bent, is dangerous could contribute to Pakistan’s destabilization.
Shortages and Outages
Pakistan’s economic woes have exacerbated in recent weeks. Energy shortages have resulted in nation-wide blackouts (for a few hours) and the closure of factories for several weeks. Wheat, already priced astronomically for Pakistani wages, is now in immensely short supply. The caretaker government was to have issued a relief package for Pakistan’s textile industry–the country’s major source of exports–but it has balked at doing so. In the interim, the industry has continued to decline as a result of non-competitive pricing and sustained violence and instability in Karachi, Pakistan’s major port city. The United States is the largest importer of Pakistani textiles; a decline in U.S. consumption in 2008 would constitute yet another blow to troubled exporters.