Without Musharraf

Can Pakistan’s tightrope-walking president outmaneuver the Mullahs?


Since September 11, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has been walking a delicate line between the demands of Washington and the increasingly influential fundamentalist powers at home.

With two sophisticated attacks on his life in the past two weeks– for a grand total of eight since his presidency began in 2001– the analysts fear that his time is running out. While Musharraf is no friend of western democracy, his decision to cease official support for Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, and his sporadic cooperation in the war on terror has made him an irreplaceable western ally. Unfortunately, it’s precisely this alliance that’s given him the colloquial name “Bush-arraf,” and has threatening to cost him his life.

On Monday, Pakistan’s parliament agreed to modify the constitution in a deal that greatly increases Musharraf’s powers in exchange for his promise to leave his position as head of the army by the end of 2004. Musharraf, whose presidential term lasts until 2007, now hold the authority to fire the prime minister and dismiss the parliament. While it might look like a good deal from the outside, it is rife with problems. The presidential seat is not small potatoes, the bulk of Musharraf’s powers come from his position as general of the military — he lead a successful coup in 1999. What worries Bush and his allies in the war on terror is post-Musharraf Pakistan. Whether its this week or a few months, analysts see the end in near. Just two months ago a recorded message from Ayman al-Zawahiri’s, Osama Bin Laden’s right-hand man, encouraged Pakistanis to oust their president.

With no pro-democracy runner-up poised to take his place, and the radical Islamic parties growing in stature, the situation does not bode well for the U.S., Israel and India — which are popularly seen as another “axis of evil.”

As the New York Times reports on Tuesday, the White House is more than a little worried about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda or radical elements in their military or intelligence if Musharraf falls out of the picture. While the tight-lipped administration wouldn’t share any contingency plans, officials told the Times that the White House is revisiting plans to help secure Pakistani weapons. Gaurav Kampani, of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, explained that there is good reason to be concerned.

“It’s very unsettling what these assassination attempts imply, that the inner security circle for Musharraf has been breached…If security for the president, for the head of the Pakistani Army, cannot be guaranteed, what guarantee is there that nuclear assets and missiles and so forth are safe?”

Peter Preston writes in London’s Guardian that the two recent assassination attempts were very close, so close in fact, that Musharraf’s inner circle must be leaking information to those who want him dead.

“Their intelligence was perfect. They have an inside track. If they keep to it, they’ll surely get him in the end. Which is when the core really starts to rock.

Without Pakistan on board, Afghanistan cannot hold. Without Afghanistan, the campaign against terrorism turns to humiliation. Where’s Osama? Somewhere in a cave near the border. Where are his men? Regrouping beyond the reach of the stretched forces George Bush has left behind. Musharraf, grimly pursuing his chosen course to the end, keeps Pakistan as the indispensable foundation of coalition activity. But what happens if he vanishes from the scene?”

The Sydney Morning Herald reports on Tuesday that the political situation in Pakistan is paralyzed. Last year’s elections — carried out under pressure from the U.S. — only served to democratically usher in the hardliners who fed on popular anger at the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Hardly a triumph for the administration’s attempt to democratize the Middle East into favoring the west. As the at-large editor of the Washington Times, Arnaud de Borchgrave, writes the fundamentalist’s vision of Pakistan is very, very bad for the west.

“By [Musharraf’s] own reckoning, an estimated 1 percent of Pakistan’s 150 million people are extremists, which is local patois for Islamist fanatics who would love to see Mr. Musharraf dead and the country in chaos. For this militant minority, Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, is the second most popular man after the Prophet himself. Out of the ashes, they believe a nuclear-tipped Islamist phantasmagoria would rise to merge with a postmonarchy Saudi Arabia. Oil plus nukes is the vision the crazies share to level the playing field with the world’s only superpower.”