Battle Brews Over Rule By Military In Pakistan

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 2, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- For weeks, lawyers in black suits have paraded through the streets of Pakistan's cities, demanding that Gen. Pervez Musharraf step down as president. But it is Musharraf's other job -- as head of the army -- that rankles the protesters most.

The controversy that began March 9 when Musharraf suspended the nation's chief justice is shaping up to be a much broader contest in Pakistan between civilian and military rule. Elements of civil society that have been either supportive of Musharraf or relatively quiet in their opposition, including lawyers, journalists and political parties, are becoming increasingly forceful in demanding that Pakistan no longer be run by a man in uniform.

"The nonmilitary institutions are asserting their rights," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and military analyst. "You can't just ignore those institutions and act like they're not important. But that's what Musharraf has been trying to do. He's been trying to run a one-man democracy."

The clash is likely to gain intensity in the coming months. Musharraf is constitutionally required to step down as army chief when elections are held later this year or early next if he wants to stay on as president. But the general is considered reluctant to cast off a uniform that brought him to power in a coup eight years ago and has helped sustain him since.

Masood, who was once an adviser to Musharraf, said he could understand why. "Once the uniform is gone, what's his source of power?" he said. "I think his power just evaporates."

The army has long been revered in Pakistan, a nation that counts on its armed forces to defend it from a hostile, militarily superior neighbor to the east, India. Throughout Pakistan's history, control of the government has oscillated between the military and elected leaders, as a succession of army strongmen have taken over from weak civilian administrations.

Musharraf came to power in 1999 when the elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, attempted to fire him from his army job. Instead, Musharraf's top commanders rebelled, Sharif was detained and Musharraf took over.

Since then, Musharraf, who entered the Pakistan Military Academy at age 18 in 1961 and has worn the uniform ever since, has vowed to gradually move Pakistan back toward democratic rule. During his tenure, media outlets have proliferated, and the nation elected a Parliament in 2002, though the elections were criticized by outside observers as not completely free or fair. The upcoming elections are being watched closely by U.S. policymakers as a measure of progress.

The Bush administration considers Musharraf a critical ally on counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan and in neighboring Afghanistan. The administration has also expressed support for a return to democratic rule in Pakistan and has endorsed Musharraf's plan for getting there.

But the question of whether he can stay in uniform looms over the relationship.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack indicated last month that the United States wants Musharraf to follow through on "certain commitments" he has made about leaving his military position. That was widely interpreted in Pakistan as meaning the United States would push Musharraf to step down as army chief. But the outgoing U.S. ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, declined to go that far in an interview several days later, telling reporters in Islamabad only that "we hope the president will act in line with the constitution."

Under the constitution, the president is not supposed to hold any other government job. In 2004, Musharraf pledged to resign his army post but failed to follow through.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company