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.
"I thought that removing my uniform would dilute my authority and command at a time when both were required most," Musharraf explained in his memoirs last year. "Therefore, much against my habit and character, I decided to go against my word. I decided not to give up my uniform."
Observers here say it will take considerable pressure from the United States to get Musharraf to step down from his army post this time around.
"Musharraf can throw the constitution in the dust bin. So it all boils down to whether the U.S. will hold its ground," said Talat Hussain, director of news and current affairs for Pakistan's Aaj Television.
How the military feels about Musharraf and the elections is also a crucial variable. Those who have spoken privately with senior Pakistani officers say they are eager for a return to democratic rule.
"I have not met a military official who does not want an election in this country," a Western diplomat said. "There's a desire for legitimacy."
But the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak for the record, said that desire does not stem from any dissatisfaction with Musharraf and that the general remains popular among the top brass. "How could he not be?" the diplomat said. "He personally signed off on every senior promotion that has occurred over the past 10 years."
Still, there are some signs of dissent in the ranks.
Retired officers have grown increasingly vocal in recent weeks in their criticisms of Musharraf, with one group calling on the president to give up his uniform for the good of the country.
Hard-liners within the military establishment, who have long been unhappy about Musharraf's alliance with the United States on counterterrorism, have been particularly critical.
"The time is now for him to retreat," said retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence unit.
Gul, who describes himself as a "moral supporter" of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, accused Musharraf of using Pakistan's armed forces "against the people of Pakistan" and said it is only because of military discipline that they have not rebelled. "Musharraf's in a situation where he knows he cannot win," Gul said. "He must not reinforce the failure."
Leaders of Pakistan's civil society are saying much the same thing, though for different reasons. Since March 9, when Musharraf suspended the chief justice for unspecified abuses of office, lawyers and political opponents have taken to the streets arguing that the president is trying to squelch democratic institutions. The judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, was expected to perform a key role in determining how the elections play out. He was also seen as a potential obstacle to any plan Musharraf might have to stay in uniform.
Since then, several leading Pakistani intellectuals have called on Musharraf to resign both posts and to oversee the elections but not run as a candidate.
Those plans are complicated by the fact that the political leaders considered most viable as candidates, Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both live in exile. The two were the last civilians to lead the government. But their tenures are not remembered fondly by most Pakistanis, and since then, civilian leadership has atrophied even further, analysts say.
"Civil society and the civilian sector of the government are frankly incapacitated," said Ayesha Siddiqa, who has written a book about the growth of Pakistan's military. "My worst fear is that however this crisis unfolds, the army will have the last laugh."