Last November, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., brought together more than two dozen former high-level United States government officials to take part in a half-day exercise on the future of Pakistan. In the room were former assistant secretaries of state and career ambassadors, as well as former senior officials from the Pentagon, the CIA, the Treasury, and USAID; it was a veritable who’s who of Washington’s Pakistan experts. The sponsors presented an escalating series of fictional crises—growing violence along the Pakistani-Afghan border, mass protests against the government by radical Islamists, the arrest of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto shortly after her return from exile—and asked participants how they would respond to rising chaos in the nuclear-armed state.
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The exercise culminated with this scenario: In the aftermath of Pakistan’s national elections in late 2007, Taliban forces attempt to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai, then retreat to a hideout in western Pakistan. U.S. forces pursue them, and an American soldier is taken captive in South Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. As the kidnappers post video images of the hostage on the Internet, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf orders his army to attack the Taliban compound. The assault frees the American soldier, but leaves hundreds of militants, Pakistani troops, and civilians dead or wounded. Antigovernment riots spread across the country, peaking in a confrontation between civilians and Pakistani forces in Lahore that leaves a dozen people dead. That evening, in what looks like a coup attempt, troops surround the houses of both Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister. Hours later, the U.S. ambassador receives a call from a previously unknown Pakistani two-star general, “raising serious concerns,” according to the scenario playbook, “over whether the chain of command in Pakistan has remained intact.”
At this point, the policy makers broke into groups and tried to come up with a strategy to deal with the apparent change of leadership. But this proved difficult: The groups were unable to resolve critical questions with confidence. Though most agreed that the military would continue running the show, as it has for 33 of the last 60 years, there was widespread concern over whether the new army brass would likely be pro-American, anti-American, or something in between. There was also no consensus on whether the military—with Musharraf out of the picture—could hold the country.
With Pakistan reeling from the army’s bloody assault on radical Islamists inside Islamabad’s Red Mosque, and from a series of retaliatory attacks on Pakistani security forces, this scenario, conceived 11 months ago, seems more realistic every day. The military is demoralized by the bloody guerrilla war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda along the border. Islamist political parties, who hold power in one of the country’s four provinces and share control in another, have become a disruptive and sometimes violent force. And Musharraf’s life remains under constant threat.
Even some members of Musharraf’s inner circle have warned him that he risks losing power unless he radically changes course. (It is conceivable that by the time you read this, he will already have fallen.) The beginning of the end may have come this past March, when the president, in what has come to be seen as a major blunder, fired and placed under house arrest the supreme court’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, an independent-minded jurist who had challenged the military regime on sensitive cases. Demonstrations in support of the judge swelled through the spring, soon morphing into a broad-based pro-democracy movement. Since then, Musharraf has seemed unsteady in public, alternating shrill accusations against his opponents with apologetic pleas for support and understanding.
The longest-serving military ruler in Pakistan’s history, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, lasted 11 years, before he was killed in a plane crash, in August 1988. Musharraf might last longer (he has so far served eight years), but the rising unpredictability of when and how he might leave power has caused deep uncertainty—and anxiety—about what might follow him. One Western military liaison officer recounted a conversation he had with a general at staff headquarters in Rawalpindi the morning after last year’s U.S. midterm elections. Coincidentally, the conversation took place just a day before the think-tank exercise on Pakistan’s future, more than 7,000 miles away, and it puts the confusion of the exercise’s participants in a better light. The general expressed his admiration for the constitutional process in the United States, and marveled at how, even after a sudden removal of a president—Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation—the system continued to function. “If our president were to disappear tomorrow,” the general admitted, “I have no idea in which direction our country would go.”
The nightmare scenario for U.S. policy makers—and one reason they remain heavily invested in Musharraf—is an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. A tide of anti-American sentiment, some analysts fear, could bring to power Islamists, who would give free rein to the Taliban, spread nuclear technology to rogue states and terrorist groups, and support the mujahideen in Kashmir.
There’s no doubt that Islamists have grown in numbers and prominence in Pakistan since 9/11. In 2002, six fundamentalist parties formed an alliance called Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, and rode a wave of anger at the American-led war in Afghanistan, taking 53 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly and forming the third-largest bloc in the parliament. The alliance won outright control of the provincial assembly in the North-West Frontier Province, and it now governs Balochistan in a coalition with Musharraf’s ruling party. During the weeks that I spent in Islamabad earlier this year, the MMA repeatedly flexed its muscles in noisy protests—weekly demonstrations against legislation offering further legal protections to women, rallies against the government’s razing of illegal makeshift mosques that have sprung up throughout the city. The demonstrations brought out hundreds of police officers and paralyzed traffic in the city for hours.
Moderate Muslims in Pakistan are worried about the Islamists’ rising profile: Pervez Hoodbhoy, chairman of the Quaid-e-Azam University physics department, told me that the university has been “taken over” by Islamist fervor—more hijabs in the classrooms, more prayer, and “no bookstores, but three mosques with a fourth under construction” on campus. Hoodbhoy, a highly regarded nuclear physicist and a critic of military rule, told me that an Islamist takeover of the country, either by outright domination of the electoral process or in conjunction with a radical Islamist general, “is a real possibility.”
Yet despite their clout in parliament and their seeming strength on the street, the Islamists are not widely popular: Their parties won only 11 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections (gerrymandering gave them a share of seats far greater than their numbers). Even in their stronghold, the North-West Frontier Province, they polled only 26 percent. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the MMA’s growth is its abysmal record of governance: In the North-West Frontier Province, which the alliance controls, social services are disintegrating. Unless anti-Western sentiment reaches sustained and unprecedented levels, the Islamists seem highly unlikely to muster enough votes to gain control of parliament in the next decade.
If this catastrophic scenario looks unlikely, so too does the potential for genuine democracy. Pakistan’s largest opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, is run by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto fled to London in 1996 to escape corruption charges; her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, earned the nickname “Mr. 10 Percent” for allegedly taking kickbacks from foreign corporations. Though she remains by far the best-known civilian politician in Pakistan, her popularity is questionable. Many members of her party say she has stifled the emergence of fresh faces by clinging to leadership in exile, and a gulf is widening between the landowning elite that sets her party’s agenda and the working class that constitutes the bulk of its support.
Bhutto’s main civilian challenger, Nawaz Sharif, the chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League and another former prime minister, was deposed by Musharraf in 1999 (he had tried to fire Musharraf after the general orchestrated an ill-fated foray into Indian-controlled Kashmir); he now lives in Saudi Arabia, and had, before Musharraf’s crisis, reportedly promised to remain outside Pakistan for 10 years in return for the commutation of a lifetime prison sentence he had been given for attempting to stop Musharraf’s plane from landing in Islamabad during the coup. (The plane was low on fuel, and Sharif was convicted of terrorism and hijacking.) Beyond Bhutto and Sharif, there are virtually no national politicians of substance. “The sad thing is that we can’t create a new civilian leadership in the country,” one parliamentarian told me. “With 342 seats in the National Assembly, and 100 in the Senate, and the same in the provincial parliaments, we can’t find one person, besides Benazir and Sharif, who can be a prime minister or a president. It is a shame for this country.”
In late July, with his hold on power growing more tenuous, Musharraf met with Bhutto in Abu Dhabi to discuss her possible role in the next government (parliamentary elections are likely to be held this fall). A power-sharing arrangement, with Bhutto returning to become prime minister to offset Musharraf’s presidency, might reduce political tensions, at least temporarily, and give civilians more say in governance. As this magazine went to press, no such deal had been struck. Even if one were achieved, it would be unlikely to greatly affect the underlying balance of power. As of this writing, Musharraf appeared likely to retain the presidency in the short run—either by reelection or by declaration of emergency rule. And although the presidency is nominally Pakistan’s highest post, Musharraf derives greater power still from another position: chief of the army. His refusal to relinquish this second role has been a significant source of popular discontent. It is widely believed that he won’t give it up because he realizes that without it, he could quickly be reduced to a figurehead by a rival general. And indeed, if he did give up his title, the real center of power would shift not to any civilian politician or political party, but to the new army chief.