Will the retreating general make a successful president?

MUSTAFA Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president once said: "It was when I entered the military preparatory school and put on its uniform, that a feeling of strength came to me, as if I had become master of my own destiny."

By Dr Shahid Masood

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Published: Sat 6 Oct 2007, 8:42 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:32 AM

Today Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf, who has been compared by many to Ataturk, is battling to save his skin by shedding the military uniform that brought him to power and made the master of the destiny of millions. As Musharraf finally prepares to exchange uniform for peace with his political opponents, making the worst of compromises in the process, he is setting in motion a tedious and unprecedented process of crossing from the military side of the fence to the civilian one. The 64-year-old veteran of many a season may have survived several key moments in recent times, propped up by the powerful army, but this latest manoeuvre by him is set to open a new set of challenges, leaving him far more exposed and politically vulnerable than he has ever been. Although the coming weeks and months will indicate whether his shedding of the uniform has amounted to a total snapping of ties with the military, it is getting increasingly clear that a civilian President Musharraf is certain to look a shadow of his imperial past.

Nine years after he became the army chief and eight years after the conflict with India over Kargil, Musharraf is yet to gain the legitimacy he thinks he richly deserves and the root of that can easily be tracked to October 12, 1999, when he overthrew former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from power. Following the dispute over his rise to power, Musharraf suddenly gained major political relevance to Pakistani politics following the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States. But despite being a key ally to the West on the “war on terror” and continuously consolidating his hold on power all these years, Musharraf has not managed to create a niche for himself, minus his military association. It is this umbilical cord that will be put to test once the formality of the presidential election is over. The travesty for him is that he is having to compromise not only with the Pakistan People’s Party but also his own allies including the Muttahada Qaumi Movement.

One fact that has held its ground for all these years is that Musharraf is devoid of a political base and that is a fact that is not going to change in the immediate future. Going by that reckoning, even in the evolving circumstances – where he will not be seen in his army fatigues – Musharraf will, in essence, be reduced to a civilian president who may have made it through the electoral college by hook or by crook but will continue to remain there largely at the mercy of the army. He may have twisted and turned the institution of the army to suit his end but whether he will be able to continue reaping dividends despite crossing over to the other side is worth the wait.

It is pertinent to note that it is not just a game of survival and there are more pressing and serious issues involved here. According to the constitution of the country, spy agency chiefs and chiefs of army staff report to the prime minister for instructions, briefings and policy decisions. But in a situation wherein the president has risen from the rank and file of the army and have then shed the uniform only to become a ‘civilian president’, would he let the strategically critical spy agencies and army wings report to a prime minister and become a lame-duck president? If not anything else, this proposition sounds odd and unlikely.

Musharraf has tried to redeem himself by reshuffling the army and making some very interesting judgment calls. In a clear indication that he is getting ready to hang up his military uniform, Lt-Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiani was named virtually as the future Chief of the Army Staff. General Kiani, who will become the first from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to become the army chief, is a known figure. He comes from Potohar region of Punjab from where the British drew most of their military officers during the days of the Raj. Even today a large number of Pakistan Army personnel come from that region. Even though this is not the first attempt to bring an ISI man at the helm (Nawaz Sharif tried in vain to appoint General Ziauddin Butt) this is a more politically correct decision in many ways. Kiani has worked with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. He was by the side of Musharraf when Chief Justice Iftekhar Chaudhary was infamously summoned. He, however, did not file an affidavit against Chaudhary, thereby maintaining neutrality over the issue. Taking Kiani’s position as the ISI chief is Lt-Gen Tariq Majeed, who is another familiar figure in the corridors of power. Majeed was the military secretary to Musharraf when the coup against Nawaz Sharif happened. He was by the side of Musharraf during Kargil and during the historic Agra Summit. Besides these big guns, other corps commanders and people on key positions are those that have been promoted by Musharraf in recent years. Whether they choose to pay back in kind is anybody’s guess.

In effect, all the major players, including the US, are expecting the same from Kiani as they did from Musharraf. But irrespective of who comes out on top after the ongoing tussle, the US backing for an arrangement of the so-called ‘moderate forces’ will go down as another of Bush-Cheney’s many foreign policy disasters. That is simply because, despite manoeuvring his way to the top, Musharraf’s weakest link continues to be the political front and his continuation in power is against the essence of both freedom of choice and democracy. Musharraf, on his part, is going to be pitted against Benazir Bhutto who has already dealt with five different presidents in her political career – General Zia-ul-Haq, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Farooq Leghari, Rafiq Tarar and Pervez Musharraf himself. On the other hand, Musharraf has worked with four prime ministers – Nawaz Sharif, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain and Shaukat Aziz. That rather even equation is likely to lead to guessing games, especially in the early stages following new government formation.

What is making things even more interesting is that there are other players in the arena with significant influence and none is more critical than Nawaz Sharif. A strong part of the present establishment wants Sharif back in Pakistan and that is certainly not going to make life easy for Musharraf also because right wing forces have traditionally backed Sharif. Looking at how things stand now, it is difficult to imagine who will get Sharif’s backing and whether he will raise slogan against Musharraf, siding with Benazir or vice-versa? Either way, it is going to become a triangular fight to the finish in which the army, as always, will play a crucial role. Only time will tell whether Musharraf will curb his natural instincts, detach himself from the army and accept the role of a lame duck president sporting just his array of designer suits.

Dr Shahid Masood is the group director of GEO TV network and a prominent political analyst. He can be reached at drshahid@geo.tv

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