When the time comes for writing an epitaph for Pakistan’s President-General Pervez Musharraf, two critical blunders committed by him in 2007 would be mentioned without fail. First would be the unwarranted suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary in March. The reasons were flimsy and Musharraf had a clear division among his advisors on the issue. The fact that he chose to go ahead and drop the hammer on his toes proved that the General had acquired the fatal disease of all dictators to delude themselves with the notion of immortality.
Democracy has never been Bhutto’s forte. It’s a convenient slogan, a glib catch line
Second would be his decision to let former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto return to an offer of amnesty and share in the political pie at the end of the rainbow. This once again betrays Musharraf’s unfounded confidence in managing the future of a state faced with multiple crises, and, as some analysts fear, on the verge of being a failed entity.
There are several obvious reasons to suggest that Bhutto’s return at this juncture, with the blessings of the General and his benefactors in Washington, would only add to the levels of instability and anxiety in the country, encourage sectarian and extremist elements to flourish, increase the military’s stranglehold on the State and keep at bay any wind of democracy that could change the destiny of Pakistan. Democracy has never been Bhutto’s forte. It’s a convenient slogan, a glib catch line.
For Musharraf, Bhutto could prove to be a Helen of Troy, rendering him ineffective as she picks up political steam and makes him incapable of fighting the most important battle of his life for Pakistan—to contain the wave of radicalisation that is threatening to engulf the soul of Pakistan. It is true that Musharraf has been riding the jihadi tiger for long and now he must face the consequences. He cannot absolve himself of the responsibility of letting the Taliban and al Qaida make a secure home in his country. But no one can accuse him of being a fundamentalist or a jihadi himself. The jihadis have been part of his strategy which, his critics point out, is confined to tactical moves of a commando—short-term. Ironically, he is the only person around who could take the terror heads head-on, and perhaps contain them, if not neutralise. Bhutto could make it difficult for this to happen, and she has her own reasons.
The clues to this inevitability lay in the so-called deal between Bhutto and Musharraf. Both are extremely ambitious, desperate for political power and ruthless. Bhutto’s two innings as the Prime Minister were marked with extra-judicial killings, corruption and self-promotion. Musharraf’s eight years as the military ruler is similarly marked with extra-judicial killings (of Balochis) and disappearances, self-promotion (he considers himself as a savior of Pakistan) and corruption. One of his top Corps Commanders, Lt Gen Tariq Majeed (promoted early this month as the Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff), was accused, by none other than Bhutto, of making a fair amount of money through two defence deals. His own father-in-law was accused of malfeasance in a highway contract. Nothing was more precocious than the re-appointment of his buddies in uniform to highly lucrative postings and parcelling of high value real estate to military officials.
Musharraf is a head strong commando who considers political parties as his battalion and democracy as a speechwriter’s most favoured phrase. He sees himself as the builder of the modern, moderate Islamic state of Pakistan. Bhutto is no different. She is highly ambitious, willing to sup with the enemy to get close to the seat of power, and can be ruthless
Besides their colourful, and incidentally well-documented, past, their characters are worth noting. Musharraf is a head strong commando who considers political parties as his battalion and democracy as a speechwriter’s most favoured phrase. He sees himself as the builder of the modern, moderate Islamic state of Pakistan. Bhutto is no different. She is highly ambitious, willing to sup with the enemy to get close to the seat of power, and can be ruthless to cut down the same hand that rescued her from oblivion; in this case Musharraf. She is articulate, but superficial. She knows how to manage media interviews, crowd and foreign leaders. She cannot walk the talk though. She is a prisoner of her own projected grandeur; she has the gumption to call herself the Daughter of the East, while she has been stashing away ill-gotten wealth, and herself, in the west. She is an opportunist. So is Musharraf.
So how are they going to work together? Or a better question still is, for how long? The plan, as it stands now, is that Musharraf will retain his presidency as a civilian while Bhutto, if her party manages to get enough seats in the early 2008 general elections, can hope to become the Prime Minister for the third time. This is what Musharraf is willing to accept. This is what Bhutto is desperately trying to achieve. This is what suits Washington. The people of Pakistan can wait, say, another five years, for their turn. This is the common goal of the three key players, for the moment at least. Their individual plans are hugely different. The US wants a General (any) in the seat to help hunt down Osama bin Laden before President George W Bush demits office; he wants his own glorious epitaph. Musharraf wants to remain in power for another five years first and then may be figure out how to last it longer. He will of course sideline Bhutto once he has managed to complete the business of elections. Bhutto can be made irrelevant by managing the elections in a manner which makes it difficult for any one party to attain majority. He can even allow Nawaz Sharif to return to bring Bhutto to a level playing field. This will put him back in the driver’s seat. And, not to be forgotten, as the President, he has the final say on erasing the constitutional bar on anyone becoming a premier for a third time. Since the National Reconciliation Ordinance (to legalise the presidential pardon in certain corruption and political cases) is under judicial review and therefore Bhutto is not entirely out of the clouds yet. Musharraf is certainly not enamoured of Bhutto and nor is he going to develop any liking for her once she forces her way to Islamabad, courtesy Washington.
Bhutto has her own plans. She is desperate to return to Islamabad as the Prime Minister, of course without the corruption charges (her wealth, most of it plundered from the poor country, according to National Accountability Bureau, is over $1.5 billion). She is willing to risk a pact with the military ruler just to reach the finishing line, and after that, she knows power will beget power. Once she becomes the Prime Minister, it would be within her reach to mobilise her influence within the military and intelligence services (after all few of her father’s favourite army and intelligence officers were later accommodated in the Pakistan People’s Party) and strengthen her political base. Her return to Islamabad, even as a leader of the Opposition, could unravel the King’s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) which has been stoically holding the flag aloft for Musharraf since 2002. The mullahs, particularly the ambitious Maulana Fazlur Rehman, could do a turn-about and join hands with Bhutto to trouble Musharraf (Rehman is capable of going either way, depending on the booty). As the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Bhutto, it was Rehman who laid the foundation of the Taliban by inviting generous support from the Saudi royal family to raise an Islamic militia to counter the growing clout of warlords in Afghanistan.
It is quite certain that Bhutto, more so as the Prime Minister, would certainly try to play politics with the military and intelligence services as she did in her previous two rules. She would want her own men to man key posts in the ISI. In her first term, she refused to appoint the candidates recommended by the Army to head the ISI. Her confrontation with the then Army chief, Aslam Beg, finally led to her dismissal. When she attempted a similar re-arrangement of loyalties within the intelligence community the second time, she once again faced the axe. So, taking a cue from the past, if she were to keep her hands off ISI, it cannot be discounted that the agency, headed by staunch Musharraf loyalist, could undermine her political career. On the other hand, if she follows her past, the army and ISI could present a formidable challenge to her future. One of the serious allegations being made in the suicide bombing on her cavalcade on October 18 is the involvement of Brigadier Ijaz Shah, Director of Intelligence Bureau and a former head of ISI Punjab division.
At the political level, miffed by Bhutto’s return, PML-Q’s Chaudhary brothers, with equal clout in the army and the intelligence agencies (ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Taj and IB chief Shah are well acquainted with PML-Q president Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain and his cousin, Punjab Chief Minister Pervez Ilahi), would certainly make it difficult for Bhutto to function in any capacity. They have been busy letting it known that Bhutto would return to Dubai and visit Pakistan on and off. Sharif, equally desperate to return in November, could turn the tables with the argument that he was the lone democratic alternative to the military rule. Sharif, who too would naturally benefit from the presidential pardon and removal of the constitutional bar, can neutralise Bhutto’s charm offensive long before the elections. She could have peaked a bit too early perhaps, letting Sharif take the last lap of the race.
Under any circumstances, it is really difficult to fathom how Bhutto and Musharraf (with so many actors playing their equally ruthless and desperate roles) could work beyond a month perhaps, leaving Pakistan and its people to wait for the dust to settle on another opportunity to turn the country around, lost in the petty politicking of avaricious politicians and generals.