11 April 2014

Musharraf’s calculated return has achieved its objectives

April 8, 2014 Updated: April 8, 2014

These are historic days for Pakistan. For half of its 66-year history, Pakistan has been ruled by four military dictators, each of them convinced of his own moral and professional superiority over civilian politicians, particularly in the context of a country that’s been a geostrategic buffer state since the advent of the Cold War. During the several short bursts of democratic rule punctuating Pakistan’s political timeline, civilian attempts at reining in the military and its intelligence organisations had either been clumsy or inept, and ended in abject failure, leading to an administration’s downfall and, in due course, a resumption of direct military rule.

Thus the March 31 indictment of a former military president, retired general Pervez Musharraf, on charges of treason holds special significance, six years into a democratic dispensation under which the two top political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan People’s Party, have adhered to a charter under which each promised to watch the other’s back to avert the perpetual conspiracies of the military’s spy arms. 

With Gen Musharraf indicted, it might be easy to conclude that Pakistan has attained “Arab Spring-plus” status.

Not exactly. Indicted or not, Gen Musharraf has succeeded in achieving many of his reasons for deciding to return to Pakistan in March last year. Sure, his attempt at contesting the May general election was shot down by the election commission, and he has since lived in confinement, whether at his plush farmhouse residence on the outskirts of Islamabad, or at the army-run cardiac hospital in neighbouring Rawalpindi. And now he faces trial for treason. 

However, by appearing in courts to answer four separate murder charges, including the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he has succeeded both in obtaining bail and regaining his considerable wealth frozen by the courts during his absence overseas. Because of this, he has the money required to fight back against his many detractors.

Similarly, he has exposed the reality of relations between the military and the government. His successor as army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, had pleaded with him not to return, because it would establish a precedent of accountability of the hitherto unaccountable. It would also serve as a reminder to the Pakistani public that, however poor the performance of democratic governments, at least they were accountable for their failures. 

However, the wily Gen Musharraf defied his erstwhile subordinates by accusing them of abandonment, a theme that played well to the internal audience of midcareer army officers who had been commissioned under his seven-year leadership. That translated into pressure on Gen Kayani and, in turn, the government’s decision not to proceed against Musharraf until Gen Kayani’s retirement last November, by which time the lack of substantial evidence against him in four murder cases had left the trial courts with no option but to grant him bail. 

As such, he was on the verge of becoming a free man, and well-placed to thumb his nose at prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom he’d overthrown in October 1999, as well as at the judges he’d sacked in November 2007, who had since been reinstated and had established the judiciary as a powerful new lobby within Pakistan’s body politic. 

The Supreme Court, headed by Gen Musharraf’s other nemesis, chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, obviously had an axe of its own to grind, and last July ordered the government to prosecute the former military ruler. As was the case with Gen Kayani, Mr Sharif waited until the chief justice was within days of retirement before pressing the treason charges against Gen Musharraf. 

A compromise was forthcoming, and thus Mr Sharif, claiming he’d personally forgiven Gen Musharraf, moved charges that excluded the October 1999 coup and, instead, were founded in a November 2007 state of emergency used to sideline the judges, who had sought to block the deal he’d cut with Ms Bhutto to pave the way for the February 2008 election.

Gen Musharraf’s lawyers have since argued themselves hoarse about the selective nature of the charges brought against their ­client and their exclusive application against him. 

Gen Musharraf has made a mockery of the whole episode, demonstrating his ability to play the security-threat card to avoid appearing in court when it has suited him, and seeking asylum at the cardiac hospital to delay the indictment process by three months.

His theatrics have pre-emptively poisoned a promising relationship between Mr Sharif and the new army chief he appointed in November. Both would love Gen Musharraf to leave the country, except that the government cannot afford to be seen to backtrack. The same is applicable to the army chief and the judiciary. 

Having manoeuvred Pakistan’s power lobbies against each other, and ensured the court’s eventual ruling would be tainted, Gen Musharraf mocked them further by applying last week to the military’s medical specialists to allow him to move back to his farmhouse.

It was always a bad idea to proceed against Gen Musharraf at a definitive moment in the two insurgencies mounted in Pakistan, one with the Taliban and the other with separatists in western Baluchistan province. 

Gen Musharraf’s masterful manoeuvring, while contained, has exposed the great political divide within. When it should be closing ranks to conclusively deal with the clear and present dangers to the state, Pakistan remains distracted, divided and, most dangerously, directionless – which is why some people in Pakistan are beginning, with rose-coloured hindsight, to conclude that life under the general wasn’t so bad after all. 

Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad 

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