Double or quits?

THE recent talks between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto are a measure of the former’s weakness and desperation to hang on to power. The fact that she seems to have refused to compromise on the issue of his uniform can be seen as a sign of her new-found confidence. After all, why should she risk losing support to bail out a dying dictatorship?

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 2 Aug 2007, 8:47 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

Military thinkers recommend that failure should not be reinforced. Thus, if a commander is on the verge of defeat, it is better to cut one’s losses and form a line behind him rather than sending more troops to salvage his position.

This pragmatic practice is based on the well-founded theory that failure, like success, has its own momentum. By sending reinforcements, one risks having them suffer from the demoralisation that has gripped the defeated force. In business parlance, the equivalent of this rule is: “Don’t throw good money after bad.” So if an unsuccessful venture is sinking, it is better to write it off rather than pour in more money to keep it afloat.

These thoughts came to mind in the wake of a meeting General Musharraf had with the media in Islamabad shortly before he met Bhutto in Abu Dhabi. Here, he announced his decision to seek re-election as president by the present assemblies. Naturally, he expressed his ambition in suitably patriotic terms, saying that given the current violence taking place in the country, we needed the army and a strong leader. He also stressed that by retaining his uniform, he would be able to provide ‘unity of command’.

The Press release did not inform us whether any of the assembled editors and journalists asked him the obvious questions: “General, you have enjoyed absolute power these last eight years during which you have worn your uniform, and exercised unity of command. Under your watch, violence in the country and on our borders has increased to the present horrendous level. So what will you do differently? And why do you deserve five more years?”

In other words, why should we reinforce failure? Surely, if he had some viable strategy to counter the wave of extremism and the accompanying terrorism that has swept the country these last few years, he would have deployed it by now. The fact is that the country is reaping what Musharraf sowed back in 2002, when he threw his lot in with the clerics of the MMA, and eased their way into the assemblies of the Frontier and Baluchistan provinces, as well into Parliament.

The induction of Pakistan’s religious parties into the governments of the two provinces bordering Afghanistan has had a devastating effect on our security. Given their pro-Taleban sympathies, they have provided militants with a political umbrella under which to operate. Add to this the covert support enjoyed by the Taleban within our army and Intelligence agencies, and one can see why the holy warriors are stronger than at any time since 9/11.

The entire Lal Masjid fiasco is a grim reminder of the price of bargains struck with extremists. When they perceive weakness, our clerics increase their demands. In fact, one military dictator after another has tried to legitimise its grip on power by doing deals with the religious right. The result of these bids can be seen in the rapid Talebanisation of large swathes of the country.

One big problem with Musharraf is that he sees no contradiction between his endless talk of ‘enlightened moderation’ and his deals with the mullahs. Another problem is that the main prop in his shaky coalition is the breakaway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League. The political orphans and turncoats who constitute this rump element rely heavily on the reactionary vote. They have thus been dragging their feet on any remotely progressive legislation and policies Musharraf has tried to push through.

Lacking the flexibility to overcome his prejudices, Musharraf has allowed his personal hatred of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to cloud his judgment. It does not take a genius to figure out that in order to halt the tide of extremism, secular and centrist elements need to be strengthened. But Musharraf has missed no opportunity to hound his perceived foes, egged on by the PML-Q and the MMA who see their position threatened by the return of the PPP and PML leaders.

Given all these contradictions, it is difficult to see what Musharraf would achieve if he were given five more years. Certainly, a coterie of generals and businessmen would get even richer. More shopping plazas and car showrooms would open. But social problems would remain unaddressed, as they have these for the past eight years. And above all, the scourge of religious militancy and terrorism would continue to haunt us.

Any notion that Musharraf would be prepared to share power with a genuinely elected political government should be dispelled at once. With his army background, and his firm belief in ‘unity of command’, there is no way he would revert to the president’s constitutional role of head of state without real authority. And would he be subordinate to the prime minister as army chief?

In Shaukat Aziz, Musharraf has a political nobody who is so grateful for his job that he would never dare to go against his boss’s wishes. But once a prime minister with a popular mandate is installed, the rules of the game will change. The Presidency will be locked in a perpetual conflict with the Prime Minister’s House. In France, the president and prime minister have clearly defined areas of responsibility that make cohabitation relatively painless. But our constitution gives virtually all executive powers to the prime minister.

It is not hard to foresee a scenario where Musharraf would sit on legislation requiring his signature, or obstruct the working of the government in so many ways open to the president. But unfortunately, he just does not comprehend the dynamics of democratic politics, and the pressures under which elected politicians operate.

Clearly, the best option for him is to supervise free and fair elections, and then step down from both his offices. Let the new assemblies elect the next president, and the new prime minister can appoint the new army chief. Eight years in power, especially in a country like Pakistan, is a very long time.

The real fear, however, is that he will not see this as his best option. But his other alternatives range from bad to worse. He could go ahead and try and get the present assemblies to re-elect him. However, such a dubious ploy is sure to run into an immediate challenge in the Supreme Court before the chief justice he so summarily and spectacularly tried to sack. Or he could declare an emergency and postpone the elections by a year, together with all the turmoil this desperate act would cause.

One can only pray that hope will triumph over experience, and somehow, better sense will prevail.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached at

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