General's long goodbye

PERVEZ Musharraf stands virtually alone today while facing the most serious challenge to his presidency: possible impeachment by the new democratically-elected government.

By Hassan Abbas (Guardian News Service)

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Published: Wed 13 Aug 2008, 10:08 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

The potential charges are serious: conspiring to destabilise the government that was elected last February, unlawfully removing the country's top judges in November 2007, and failing to provide adequate security to Benazir Bhutto before her assassination last December. Allying himself with the Bush administration has increased his unpopularity, especially following missile attacks by the US in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Despite earlier differences over how to deal with Musharraf, Pakistan's leading political parties are now united against him. Feuding between the Pakistan People's party, led by Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, had given Musharraf a chance to regain some standing after his allies were defeated in the February elections. American reluctance to abandon Musharraf — together with prolonged electricity shortages, which made the new government appear incompetent — also raised his hopes. Musharraf may be counting on the army, his primary constituency, to bail him out of this crisis. Though such support remains a possibility, it is unlikely that the army leadership will extend itself on his behalf.

Though a protege of Musharraf, the army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is a professional soldier for whom the army's institutional interests are more important than the political interests of his former boss. Kayani has repeatedly declared that the army will not interfere in political affairs, and that the parliament and constitution are supreme.

Even if the army is tempted to step in, it has been chastened by political developments during the past year. The entire legal community arose to demand restoration of the country's judges and reinforcement of the rule of law. The public's demand for free elections and the resulting creation of a democratic government have forced the military to accept the public will. The army has also paid a heavy price for Musharraf's approach to the war on terror. Suicide bombers have struck repeatedly at military installations and personnel around the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Though the army has reaped a financial windfall from US military aid, and has targeted many foreign militants allied with Al Qaeda in the region, its performance against Pakistani militants has been mixed at best. Consequently, the prestige of the Taleban and other militant groups operating in the area has grown. In this context, the army, seeking to avoid sole responsibility for reverses, wants a popular government to take charge of policy. No such government can emerge if the elected parties are unseated.

Nevertheless, there are signs of disagreement on important matters between the government and the army. The military recently blocked a government move to place Pakistan's infamous intelligence service, the ISI, under the control of the interior minister rather than the prime minister. Musharraf backed the military's opposition to this reform, gaining some gratitude from military commanders.

During PM Yousaf Raza Gilani's recent visit to the US, President Bush repeatedly said that his administration supports Pakistan's democracy, a policy since reiterated by US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. This indicates that the US will not back Musharraf in any confrontation between him and Pakistan's democratic forces. Most Pakistanis hope so. Musharraf must assess what will be his legacy. Rather than trying to face down impeachment and prolonging the crisis, he should recognise that Pakistan cannot afford more instability, and that giving up honourably will bring him some respect.

Even if Musharraf faces impeachment and by some stroke of luck is saved from being thrown out of office, his future will be bleak. In March 2009, the current ruling coalition will gain more seats in the Senate, and the government would almost certainly try to impeach him again. Moreover, any attempt by Musharraf to dislodge the government by using his constitutional authority would trigger another election, the results of which would not be much different from the vote in February. It is time for Musharraf's friends in the West to press him to serve his country one last time, by avoiding confrontation with his country's democratic forces and calling it quits.

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