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Commentary No. 214, August 1, 2007
"Can Musharraf Survive?"
Poor Pervez Musharraf! He is not very popular, and is under pressure from just about everybody. Yet he labors on, seeking to maintain his equilibrium, and his power, while sitting on top of a seething volcano. He has in fact done better than one might have thought possible.
To start the story at the beginning, we have to remember the origins of the state of Pakistan. The principal nationalist movement in colonial India was the Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a secular lawyer of Muslim origin, was an active member. But he increasingly came to feel that Muslims as a group (one might say as an ethnic group) were relegated to a second-class citizenship. He joined the Muslim League, a movement seeking autonomy/independence for a "Muslim" region. In 1934, Jinnah became its president, and in the final negotiations with the British for the independence of India, he succeeded in obtaining an independent and separate status for Pakistan.
On August 14, 1947, when Pakistan became an independent state, it consisted of several provinces in the northwest of colonial India and a Bengali province in the northeast, quite distant from the western sector. On August 11 of that year, Jinnah made an inaugural speech before the about-to-be legislative body of Pakistan, calling for an "inclusive and pluralist democracy," which would guarantee equal rights for all its citizens of whatever religion or ethnic group. Not only was the Muslim League essentially a modernist secular nationalist movement, but the armed forces that would be established drew its personnel from the old British military forces in India, and its officer corps was equally secular for the most part.
As we know, independence for India and Pakistan resulted immediately in terrible inter-group violence and, among other things, a struggle for the control of Kashmir. The net outcome of that initial struggle was not only a de facto (and to this day contested) partition of Kashmir but also a transfer of populations, such that Pakistan became overwhelmingly Muslim. In 2007, its population numbers 165 million, which makes Pakistan the sixth most populous state in the world, and one whose birthrate is among the highest. This population is today 97% Muslim, of which 20% are Shi'a.
The political history of Pakistan has been tumultuous. Its relations with its principal neighbor, India, have always been tenuous and conflictual. The eastern part of Pakistan seceded in 1971, with Indian encouragement, to become the state of Bangladesh. The first military coup occurred in 1958. Civilian rule, under a largely secular, urban party led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was restored in 1972, only to be overthrown again five years later. The coup was led by Gen. Zia ul-Haq who was a quite pious Muslim and installed sharia as the law of the land. He also had the country renamed the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Civilian rule was restored years later under the aegis of Bhutto's daughter, Benazir Bhutto, who then ceded place to Nawaz Sharif. In 1999, Sharif sought to arrest his chief of staff, one Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who succeeded in having Sharif arrested instead and being himself placed at the head of the government. He was proclaimed president in 2001, and elected to that post in 2002.
To make sense of this back and forth, we have to identify the principal political actors inside Pakistan and its geopolitical alliances. To start with the latter, Pakistan's biggest concern has always been India, and therefore logically it sought the support of two states whose relations were reserved towards India throughout the Cold War - the United States and China. These two states considered Indian foreign policy too close to that of the Soviet Union. The India-Pakistan military strains led both to refuse to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and to develop nuclear weapons, much to the chagrin of the United States.
Internally, the situation in 2007 is quite different from that in 1947. Islamism as a political force has become extremely strong and permeates large sectors of the armed forces. Islamists are unhappy about Pakistan's links with the United States, especially during the last five years. The urban, secular forces would like to force out Musharraf (as well as the armed forces) from political power and have recently shown their strength in their successful support of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court whom Musharraf had tried to fire. The armed forces, while Islamist, do not really want to cede their role to jihadist elements like al-Qaeda, and therefore attempt to play a bridge role - appeasing but trying to contain the jihadist forces.
When the United States was supporting jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s, its strongest ally was Pakistan, and in particular the intelligence units of the armed forces, the ISI. In the 1990s, the ISI helped the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan. Hence, the ISI was quite unhappy when the United States overthrew the Taliban and has not been very cooperative with regard to Afghanistan, something about which Afghanistan's current president, Hamid Karzai, complains to this day.
It seems quite clear that, when Osama bin Laden launched the attack against the United States on September 11, 2001, one of his major objectives, if not his principal one, was to bring down the regimes in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Why and how so? Bin Laden considered the regimes in both countries too accommodating to the United States behind their ambiguous language on Islamism. He expected the United States to put pressure on the Musharraf regime to engage his homegrown Islamists totally. Bin Laden's theory was that, if it did so, Musharraf's regime would fall.
Musharraf has resisted this pressure (as has Saudi Arabia), agreeing with bin Laden that it was politically suicidal to do what the United States wanted him to do. On the other hand, he had to keep the United States relatively happy lest Pakistan lose the crucial economic and military support of the United States. So, every once in a while, he throws a bone to the United States, as in the recent assault on the Red Mosque, a stronghold of Islamists. But he is careful not to go further.
And this contradiction is what brings us to where we are today. The jihadists are well installed in the so-called northwest frontier areas (which have always been de facto autonomous) and Musharraf does not dare to take real action against them. The jihadists denounce Musharraf for being too pro-American. The United States, on the other hand, considers him far too accommodating to the jihadists. The United States keeps mumbling about direct action. But the United States cannot really turn against Musharraf entirely, lest an even worse regime succeed his. Meanwhile, the urban secular classes are pressing a weakened Musharraf to step down and give way to a truly civilian regime.
Musharraf's key support, indeed sole support, remains the army. But as long as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, Islamist political strength continues to grow. And Pakistan has many nuclear weapons. Should the Islamists come to unrestrained power, this would pose a real geopolitical threat to the United States, unlike the invented one of Saddam Hussein.
by Immanuel Wallerstein
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