Pakistan: Musharraf Seizes Control

Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post Islamabad/Kabul bureau chief Griff Witte was online Monday, Nov. 5 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's moves to solidify his power, which have included the arrests of hundreds of political opponents, the total shutdown of Pakistan's independent media and the likely delay of elections that would have ended his term as president.

Pakistan Moves Against Opposition (Post, Nov. 5)

The transcript follows.


Griff Witte: Greetings from Islamabad, everyone. It's been a very fast-moving story in the past few days, and there's a lot to talk about, so let's get right to it.


Washington: Thank you for your report in this morning's Post. It really helped to shape what is really going on in Pakistan. Regarding Secretary Rice's threat on U.S. aid to Pakistan, is that really a viable threat? At the end of the day, we do need Pakistan to cooperate to get "terrorists" in the tribal region by Afghanistan? Dropping that aid could jeopardize that, right? Your thoughts?

Griff Witte: The U.S. is clearly not happy with what Musharraf did on Saturday -- it's embarrassing for one of Washington's closest allies to be scrapping his country's constitution and firing independent-minded judges on the Supreme Court. At the same time, it's also clear that Washington doesn't feel it can afford to use the leverage it has over Islamabad. The U.S. has made counter-terrorism its number one policy priority when it comes to relations with Pakistan and, rightly or wrongly, Musharraf is seen as the best available partner for tracking down al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Washington doesn't want to jeopardize that effort, and it doesn't want to destabilize Musharraf.


Mount Rainier, Md.: Given that our support of the Musharraf regime has not resulted in the permanent disbanding of the Taliban, nor the capture of Osama Bin Laden, can the U.S. -- with its stated goal of spreading democracy -- really continue to send this guy $150 million a month while he locks up the opposition? If we do, what does that say about the status of America's civil discourse -- how many steps away from that kind of reaction are we really?

Griff Witte: There's certainly a lot of sentiment among moderate, anti-Musharraf forces in Pakistan that the U.S. has bet on the wrong horse not only from the perspective of democracy, but on the counterterrorism front as well. Their argument is that Musharraf has expended more energy battling the mainstream political opposition than he has on battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda; just based on evidence from the past couple of days since the emergency declaration, it's hard to argue with that.


Kansas City, Mo.: I have to believe that if the Bush administration had focused on Afghanistan first then Osama would have been caught and all of this wouldn't have happened. Any chance of the administration deciding to take Afghanistan seriously now?

Griff Witte: If anything, I get the sense that Afghanistan has been lost even further in the shuffle. Most military analysts believe that Afghanistan won't get any better until the problem of militancy in northwestern Pakistan is addressed, but with Pakistan in political upheaval, the problem of militancy has had to wait.


New York: Why does the U.S. rely so much on Gen. Musharraf? After all, it's not Gen. Musharraf but the force of Army behind him. Why not pick another general now, given that Gen. Musharraf has proven to be a very bad boy?

Griff Witte: A very bad boy? That's a new one.

To answer your question, the U.S. doesn't have much choice in the matter. Pakistan's army is known for being very disciplined and hierarchical. Musharraf has been the army's chief for about a decade now. He has promised several times to step down, but so far hasn't, and there's evidence that he never will (at least not willingly). For him to be dislodged would require officers below him to carry out a coup, and while that possibility is the subject of much discussion and speculation here, it would be a very extreme step indeed.


Longmont, Colo.: I see that the lawyers are protesting, but what about everyone else? How can millions of people sit by while their freedoms are removed in a day? Will the crackdowns be like those Burma? If so, can we sit by and watch?

Griff Witte: This is an important question, and the answer will have much bearing on how this all plays out. No one knows yet whether the general public will follow the lawyers into the streets. Today I watched as hundreds of black-suited lawyers chanted their distaste for Musharraf -- and hundreds of regular citizens stood around and watched, not joining in. It's possible they eventually will; despite the dominance of the military over the course of Pakistan's 60-year history, the country also has a rich tradition of participatory politics. Few countries do crowds like Pakistan, but it probably will require mobilization by the political parties to bring people out, and it's still not clear whether the leadership is willing or able to do that.


Washington: What do you think of the view that Musharraf is pretty confident of riding this out, given the country's history of being subdued effectively by military dictators in the past, with their coterie of supporters coming from the powerful bureaucracy, military, landed interests and other middle class opportunists who always gain in such a dispensation? Additionally, foreign governments -- especially the U.S. -- eventually become pragmatic and generally have gone along with dictators as long as their security interests are taken care of.

Griff Witte: I've talked with several Musharraf aides in recent days, and the ones who were in favor of emergency rule are absolutely confident. They think that the international response will be muted and that they can handle the domestic opposition. But it's hard to see how this strategy works in the long term -- Musharraf advisors who fought against the emergency idea say that it's a strategy built on short-term survival, and that no one in the inner circle gave adequate thought to where it goes from here.

I think you're right about the U.S. being pragmatic. As I mentioned, the U.S. has made clear that counterterrorism is Washington's top priority here. Support for democratic reforms gets a lot of rhetoric, but not nearly as much money or action.


Arlington, Va.: How real was the threat of extremists in Pakistan? Why was did Musharraf declare a state of emergency now as opposed to earlier or later? And (depending on how big the threat of extremists really is) was the real reasoning behind the state of emergency (and the moves against the judiciary) to keep Musharraf in power?

Griff Witte: The threat is quite real. The Taliban and al-Qaeda have consolidated their hold in the tribal areas that hug the border with Afghanistan, and they're spreading out from there. In recent months, terrorists have struck regularly and with devastating consequences in villages and cities across the country.

But it's become clear that the emergency declaration had very little to do with countering terrorism. Musharraf made the decision after he learned the Supreme Court would rule him ineligible for another term as president; since then, he has arrested more than 1,000 political opponents. Meanwhile the government yesterday released about 30 militants in a prisoner exchange with one of the Taliban's top commanders. There are no plans to use the emergency period to launch a new offensive against al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

Fighting terrorism made for a good excuse, but no one really believes that that's the reason Pakistan is now under de facto martial law.


Annandale, Va.: Thanks for your excellent coverage! Are you in imminent danger yourself? You wrote that Musharraf was the best we can do, but considering Osama has gained safe haven under his rule, how is he better than nothing? Is the problem that we have no troops to spare should Pakistan become chaotic? Must we curry favor for fear of his losing control of the nukes? What message does that send to Iran's crazy president?

Griff Witte: Just to clarify, I wasn't arguing Musharraf was the best we could do. I was just pointing out that that's been the U.S. government's calculation.

I appreciate your concern. There are risks in covering Pakistan, but I don't consider myself in imminent danger. Truthfully, it's the Pakistani reporters who are most at risk. They are a courageous bunch, and do their job day in and day out with enormous professionalism. Even during the emergency, at a time when television coverage is being blocked and the government is trying to impose strict censorship, they continue to doggedly pursue the story.


Anonymous: I've read that the elections will be put off for a year or two, and I've read that elections will occur as scheduled. Which one is it?

Griff Witte: A very timely question. There was a report earlier in the day that Pakistani officials had decided to hold the elections as scheduled in January, but just before I began this chat I was told by a government official that no decision has been made and that the government still has the option of waiting up to a year.

The U.S. very much would like the Pakistani government to commit immediately to holding elections on time, but it's not doing that. Even if the elections are held on time, there are obviously important questions about how free or fair they possibly could be given the crackdown on the opposition, the media and the courts that we've seen in the past few days.


Cincinnati: Re: Ally in the fight on terrorism -- would Bhutto (or any other opposition party) not continue this "partnership" with the U.S.? The people who are opposing Musharraf currently are overwhelmingly lawyers, civil servants, human rights advocates and pro-democracy activists. These are not exactly friends of al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

Griff Witte: You raise a valid point. Bhutto lately has spoken out against terrorism more forcefully than just about any other political leader in Pakistan. She and her party were also, obviously, victims of it just weeks ago when 140 people were killed at her homecoming rally.

The concern that the U.S. and other Western governments have about her is that she might not be able to control the army. The war in the northwest is an unpopular one here -- it's Pakistanis killing Pakistanis. Musharraf can order his troops to continue to fight, despite public opposition; Bhutto might not have that sort of authority, or so the thinking goes...


Griff Witte: Unfortunately, I need to get back to reporting, so that's all I'll have time to answer. Thanks to everyone for your questions.


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