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13 Oct 2006

Seven years of Musharraf’s 'general' rule

With general elections due in 2007, the Pakistani military leadership scrambles to maintain its grip over civilian power.

By Naveed Ahmad

As Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf completes his seventh year of rule, little has changed in terms of dispensation of authority to the people - one man calls the shots and all roads lead to the Army House, the general's official residence.

Despite a series of unprecedented rebuttals and criticism of his recently released memoirs, "In the Line of Fire," Musharraf's media managers and political advisers adamantly portray him as “always right, invariably courageous, omniscient and infallible.”

Aside from winning kudos from the administration of US President George W Bush and other key Western leaders, Musharraf prides himself on Pakistan's economic performance during his seven-year rule.

But many independent analysts credit the masterminds of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US - not the country's economic wizards - for the country’s fiscal boom.

A look at Pakistan's economy

According to official statistics, by mid-2005, Pakistan's economy grew by 8.6 percent, the highest growth rate in two decades. The stock market index in Karachi rose by over 1,000 per cent since 1999, while the country’s foreign exchange reserves shot up from US$1.7 billion in 1999 to US$13 billion in 2006. Public debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) plummeted to 54 percent from 80 per cent in 2000.

The about-face against the Taliban won Musharraf's Pakistan much more than legitimacy. Washington pledged US$600 million in aid and promised to forgive US$6 billion of debt, while persuading others creditors to be soft on Islamabad. In December 2001, the IMF agreed on a US$1.3 billion credit facility for Pakistan. Meanwhile, bank remittances from expatriates in America and Europe skyrocketed, given harsh checks imposed by Western nations on informal cash transfers. Low-interest rates and more readily available consumer credit saw middle class Pakistanis buying more land, houses and cars.

But the military has emerged the biggest player in the real estate business, acquiring the prime land at throwaway prices for defense housing societies and cantonments, or barracks.

Even the weather favored the agriculture-based economy, with output increasing by 7.5 percent. Agriculture traditionally accounts for 22 per cent of Pakistan's economy. Furthermore, the textile industry, which accounts for 60 percent of the country's total exports, was another beneficiary of the post-9/11 events, with the removal of trade quotas.

The financial sector's boom recalled similar situations during the military regimes of self-elevated Field Marshal Ayub Khan in the 1960s and of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

However, opposition parties doubt the statistics, saying the higher growth rates and the reduction in poverty have been achieved through data tampering.

Alongside the barrage of political challenges, unpredictable petroleum prices and unending travel advisories for Westerners by their respective governments seriously undermine efforts to sustain the 7 percent growth rate.

A quagmire of political alliances

Musharraf must have marked the year 2006 as a banner one in his personal calendar for countless reasons, and his hastily launched memoirs attempts to address a few of those.

Through the book, he has tried to strengthen his persona of “a statesman the west should continue to bank on.”

Just a few days prior to the book launch, close confidants of Musharraf and a senior spymaster revived contacts with Benazir Bhutto, the exiled leader of the liberal, pro-Western Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The News newspaper reported the Dubai contact as the first ever face-to-face meeting between a Musharraf lieutenant and two-time former prime minister Bhutto.

Last week, a court released Bhutto's deputy and former parliamentary speaker, Yousaf Raza Gilani, on bail. Gilani is facing a ten-year prison term for abuse of power and corruption.

Analysts find this government move too obvious to ignore, especially when a similar bail plea for the release of deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s deputy, Javed Hashmi, was rejected. Hashmi, who succeeded Sharif as head of the moderate Pakistan Muslim League, was jailed in 2003 for criticizing the military’s intervention in politics.

The Musharraf-Bhutto contact and the release of Gilani caused anxiety among the ranks of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), PML (N), led by Sharif.

Bhutto and Sharif are the country's two top opposition politicians, and it is clear that Musharraf is courting one at the expense of the other, hoping to divide and conquer. Though Bhutto and Sharif could possibly catch up on a few things when they meet in London later this month, the hopes for a grand alliance (also involving other opposition parties) against Musharraf have all but evaporated.

Bhutto's PPP believed that a grand alliance of opposition parties would be possible only if the opposition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) resigned from the governments of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and troubled Balochistan. The Islamist alliance shares government with a pro-Musharraf alliance in Balochistan, but solely governs a northwestern province.

Political observers once believed that the violent death of Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti at the hands of Pakistani security forces would unite the fractured opposition parties in pursuit of shared objectives. But that appears unlikely to happen.

The military government thwarted those prospects in a timely manner by introducing amendments to the Islamic laws, which were “discriminatory against women especially when applied in cases of adultery, rape and honor.”

The controversial amendment introduced in parliament was designed to bitterly divide the opposition as Bhutto's PPP favored the move, while the MMA threatened to resign from the assemblies if it became a law in its original form.

Since then, the government has effectively put the bill on hold and has engaged the MMA through an unofficial ulema committee overseen by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, chief of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), PML (Q), and MMA leader Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman.

At the other end of the quagmire, political arrangements installed in November 2002 appear to have gone awry. As Musharraf completes the seventh year of rule, he is well aware of the changed realities on the ground, but appears unsure as to how to best exploit them.

Still, the general's political pundits are confident that a combination of blessings from Washington, support from the Pakistani army, loyalty of the co-opted political leadership, and manipulation of the divided opposition leaders can sustain the political status quo until after the 2007 elections.

In 2002, the military established a political party of its own, the PML (Q), meant as a mainstay for Musharraf. However, the party has not worked out as planned, and Musharraf has failed to win its total loyalty. Many PML (Q) leaders - former PPP and PML (N) lawmakers - chose to accept prison terms on dubious corruption charges rather than to support Musharraf. Today, the league is plagued with numerous internal leadership battles.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is another key but smaller coalition partner in the government. The MQM is by far Musharraf’s favorite for a number of reasons. MQM leaders hail from the coastal areas of Sindh province, and their vote bank comprises migrants from southern India to Pakistan after 1947. Musharraf’s family shares cultural and ethnic ties with the MQM.

The two coalition partners - the PML (Q) and the MQM - are at odds with each other. With each passing day, the PML (Q)'s troubled relations with the MQM are destined for a showdown in a battle over political turf.

The dissenting generals

On 1 October, Musharraf initiated another controversy to the displeasure of his top secret agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the army by admitting that some retired military spies might be "assisting" the Taliban “with their links somewhere here and there.”

His remarks revived the debate at the international level that some "rogue" elements in the ISI and the army were supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, while the Pakistani authorities were unable or unwilling to stop such activities.

The outspoken pro-Islamist former ISI chief General Hamid Gul reacted strongly to Musharraf's statement, saying: “Musharraf is a distinct type of team captain who is scoring goals against his own team.”

Another former spy master, General Asad Durani, found the statement "highly speculative" and against the interests of Pakistan.

Despite the Musharraf government’s liberal policy of offering material rewards to former military personnel, a number of retired senior army officers appear to be unhappy with some aspects of his policies. They are especially displeased with Musharraf's holding of two offices that should be distinct: that of president and commander in chief of the armed forces. Combining the two offices, they say, exposes the army to criticism from civilian and political circles.

Seven retired senior army officers joined 11 eminent civilians in July to address a letter to General Musharraf, asking him, among other things, to quit one of the two offices. It was a bold move, as some of them had held important assignments in Musharraf’s military government.

Musharraf has entered his ninth year as army chief, denying the opportunity to dozens of competent subordinates. More than his pro-Western policies, his claim over dual offices has damaged his image at home.

The unsettling political sands

Meanwhile, the Islamists stand divided, and the Fazal-led MMA faction is waiting for the right time to join ranks with the pro-Musharraf elements. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Musharraf’s staunch critic and leading pro-democracy Islamist politician, is busy holding discreet meetings with the leader of the Justice Movement Party, Imran Khan, and Sharif’s deputies in Pakistan.

At the same time, the military is pursuing the shrewd Benazir Bhutto for a power deal. The Oxford-graduate is a capable opportunist, adept at straddling the fence for larger political gains.

Meanwhile, Sharif, Khan, and Qazi Hussain Ahmad are bent on taking to the streets after the Muslim celebrations of Eid-ul-Fitr, on 25 October, and Bhutto certainly would not miss the show, known as she is for raising the bar when it comes to negotiations. In public, she would keep her all options open until a deal is struck with the military leadership and assurances are received from Washington.

Eventually, Musharraf’s confidants may reach a compromise with the power-hungry Bhutto and also eventually win support from Fazal-ur-Rahman’s Jamiat Ulema Islam party, but at the cost of shedding the military fatigues. To extend his political career by a few years, Musharraf would have to make the tough choice of quitting the army chief office.

Naveed Ahmad is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides reporting for Pakistani TV channel, Geo News and Germany's DW-TV, he also strings for newspaper in the US and Middle East.

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