The Pakistan Question

Joshua Hammer, author of "After Musharraf," talks with Atlantic senior editor Joy de Menil about Pakistan's future and its implications for the United States

When General Pervez Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, he gave himself the curious title “chief executive.” He disbanded parliament, retained his position as army chief of staff, and told the people of Pakistan he had stepped in only temporarily, to curtail the corruption and cronyism that had taken hold of the country under its democratically elected rulers. He promised to restore democracy and retreat to his old job as soon as he had cleaned up the system.  Many Pakistanis, tired of the flagrant corruption and self-serving policies of Nawaz Sharif, the ousted prime minister, and his on-again, off-again successor, Benazir Bhutto, welcomed him.

By February 2003, when I arrived in Pakistan, Musharraf had changed his tune. Four months earlier, succumbing to pressure from his cherry-picked supreme court and confident of his ability to secure a governing coalition, he had finally allowed long-deferred parliamentary elections. But it was clear that he had no intention of listening to parliament. As chief executive (he finally changed his title to president in June 2001), he had passed a number of unilateral amendments to the constitution, consolidating power in his hands, neutering the judicial system, establishing a new military panel of experts with far-reaching and ill-defined jurisdiction, creating new layers in the civil service to bypass existing power structures, and making it possible, contrary to his earlier assertions, for him to retain his position of army chief while also running the country. The new parliament refused to rubber-stamp his constitutional amendments, and was effectively deadlocked until December, when Musharraf reached an accommodation with the religious parties that gave him a governing majority. To secure their support, he promised to relinquish his position as head of the army by the end of the following year. Nearly four years later, he has yet to do so.

In my six months in Jhang, a dusty town of some 400,000 in the Punjab province, where I was busy fixing up a charity maternity hospital, I glimpsed Pakistani democracy in action. Few decisions that mattered were being made in Islamabad, where the parliament engaged in a televised spectacle, standing on seats and chanting “No LFO! Go Musharraf, Go!” (The sophisticated veneer of the capital masks a highly decentralized society, where loyalty to province and tribal kinship trumps any sense of national identity.) The issue then, as now, that so exercised the opposition was his refusal to step down as army chief of staff, in contravention of the constitution.

What is not always appreciated from the point of view of the West is the extent to which Pakistan’s much abused, but nonetheless quite enduring, political institutions hold the country together. Pakistan enjoys a rambunctious press, an engaged and disputatious parliament, and generally cultivates a healthy spirit of political dissent. In this regard, it resembles its neighbor to the south, India, far more than Iran, Afghanistan, or China, with which it also shares a border.

Josh Hammer began to report this month’s feature on Pakistan in November of last year. By then, Musharraf’s popularity was far greater in Washington than at home. The piece offers an astute anatomy of Pakistan under Musharraf, and the stealthy over-reach of the armed forces, and looks ahead to what will come next. Since March, when Musharraf fired his chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and carried out raids on independent media, triggering months of violent protests, the fissures have begun to show, and there is every sign that Musharraf will soon reluctantly be compelled to uphold his early vows. The weeks ahead promise to be full of news from Pakistan.  In this conversation with Josh Hammer, we tried to look behind some of the likely headlines.

—Joy de Menil

You’ve been working on this piece for some eight or nine months. There’s been a tidal shift in perceptions here toward Musharraf during that time. My impression is that when American policy-makers and politicians think of Musharraf, they imagine they’re dealing with Atatürk. They feel that in Musharraf they have someone who represents the secular impulse, and who therefore is a useful antidote to religious powers in the country. But the situation is actually considerably murkier. If you go back to the 2002 elections, Musharraf was so eager to neuter Pakistan’s existing political parties—the Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League—that he essentially bolstered the religious parties and helped to create a new coalition party, the MMA. Could you talk a little bit about Musharraf’s complicated relationship with the religious parties in Pakistan and also, separately, about the shift in American perceptions that you’ve seen over the course of time that you’ve been reporting this article?

The question of Musharraf’s relationship with the religious parties perplexed me, and I was constantly trying to get at what this relationship was all about. I would talk to MMA guys who would treat Musharraf as a whipping boy and lambaste him and harshly criticize him as if there were a real enmity between them. And yet, if you looked behind the scenes, it became clear that this was largely show and that there was considerable cooperation going on. The MMA supported Musharraf in Parliament in his bid to pass an amendment to the constitution that would allow him to serve as both president and army chief of staff—to serve as president “in uniform,” so to speak. So there is this dynamic there that most of the experts I’ve talked to have a hard time articulating.

Musharraf is very conscious of the need to empower the Muslim parties, both for his own political benefit within the country and as a means of alarming his allies in the West. It works both ways for him; he has them as allies, he empowers them a bit, and he can also then turn to the West and say, “Look, we’ve got this radical element that I’m holding in check–and only I can hold it in check.” To a certain extent, that worked for him for a long time. He was able to manipulate Western opinion abroad and to manipulate the religious parties on a domestic level.

But perhaps it worked better abroad than at home.

Yes, I think so. These religious parties did not, of their own momentum, follow the general Islamic radicalization going on throughout that part of the world. Musharraf definitely helped it along. And his approach seems to have backfired on him to some extent.

As far as Western attitudes towards Musharraf, when I was in Islamabad a top American official went on for probably forty-five minutes singing Musharraf’s praises, saying that this guy was absolutely the best thing to happen to Pakistan. He was on the way out, but he was clearly enamored, starry-eyed, when it came to Musharraf. He praised Musharraf for his policy of “enlightened moderation.” I agree with you that the Atatürk analogy was probably very much on his mind. He said that basically no secular, democratically elected government could have achieved what Musharraf did in his time in office. He said Musharraf has been a great ally for us; he’s brought along the country, moved it away from radicalism, and was absolutely the best thing for Pakistan. I don’t think he had any idea of the sort of earth-shattering changes that were going to happen over the next few months. I think the U.S. was completely, if his views are any indication, completely blindsided by what happened two months later.

Let’s go back to that statement that no democratically elected government could have achieved what Musharraf did. What did this American official have in mind when he said this?

I think he was specifically talking about ordering the army into the frontier provinces and getting them to carry out this war—this very reluctant war—against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The mere fact that Musharraf was able to mobilize the army and get Pakistani soldiers into the tribal areas for the first time was something, he said, that Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif would never have been able to accomplish. You had a military chief and a chief executive combined in one person. And those twin hats that Musharraf wore, and continues to wear, really served America’s purposes quite well. As far as I could tell, right up until everything started to go hell in March and people started to realize how precarious Musharraf’s hold on power was, and all of the forces arrayed against him, the U.S. continued to say this guy was the best, and that civilian government wasn’t going to work. They clearly were backing this military regime.

On July 29th Musharraf met with Benazir Bhutto, the head of the main opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party, in Abu Dhabi. There’s been a certain flirtation between them over the last year. One of the principal sticking points has been whether Musharraf will step down as army chief. Bhutto announced last week that he had agreed to do so, and said that this would pave the way for her return from exile, but so far Musharraf’s spokesmen in Islamabad have denied that this is the case. Can you talk a bit about the challenge of Benazir Bhutto? She’s not, in fact, legally able, at the moment, to be prime minister. There are term limits, and she’s served for two terms. So there would have to be some form of constitutional amendment.

Tinkering with the Constitution has been known to happen in the past in Pakistan. There aren’t any other real options right now. Unless Musharraf is somehow toppled, some kind of accommodation will have to be reached between these two as a transitional step towards whatever government Pakistan has next. As for why Musharraf is clinging so tenaciously to the army chief of staff position, it seems pretty evident to me that it’s because, according to the Constitution, the presidency is basically a ceremonial, powerless post. It’s really only through his position as head of the army that Musharraf was able to turn the presidency into a position of power. He essentially relegated his prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, to a puppet position. So surrendering his uniform is an option that he cannot agree to unless there’s no other choice.

There are so many variables at play here. There’s the matter of how the Supreme Court will interpret the various constitutional sticking points to his re-election; there’s the question of whether Benazir can serve as prime minister again, and the question of whether Musharraf can get himself re-elected president by the rubber-stamp Parliament that’s in place at the moment, or whether he will have to wait until a new Parliament is elected later in the fall. Then there is the Nawaz Sharif factor. If Sharif arrives in the country in mid-September, as he has vowed to do, it could throw the entire election process into disarray. Sharif could conceivably draw off some of Musharraf’s support in the existing parliament, and put Musharraf’s carefully arranged plan to have himself re-elected president in doubt. All of that still has to be hashed out.

What Pakistani officials are saying is that Musharraf’s election for a third term will take place between September 15th and October 15th.

Okay, so then play it forward. You have a Parliamentary election. Benazir is allowed to run, with some sort of coalition. She becomes prime minister, and then… By that point,  assuming Nawaz Sharif does not manage to disrupt the process, Musharraf will be the sitting president, so what happens then? I guess the question is: does he take off his uniform or not? I’m not sure what the chronology is going to be at all.

Some people are speculating that he will hold the election very early—on September 15th or 16th, and then go to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly where he is scheduled to give a speech on the 18th or the 19th.  So by the time of the UN General Assembly, it’s very possible that something will have happened.

One of the things that comes through clearly in your piece is that the power in Pakistan lies perhaps not so much with Musharraf as with the institution of the army. The army has a great deal of ability to affect the political process. It’s involved in election tampering. It anoints certain candidates and it can also scupper certain candidates. And it has—as you describe in vivid terms—a pretty extraordinary hold over the private sector, over real estate, over almost every conceivable area of the economy.

And yet, what’s so interesting about this phenomenon in Pakistan is that it’s subtle. I spent a lot of time in Nigeria during the height of the Abacha dictatorship. And there was a very, very oppressive uniformed military presence in the streets. It was in your face—you know, military governors in uniforms sitting in state houses, army personnel everywhere… It’s a lot more subtle in Pakistan.

I think the best example of this—a metaphor for the role that the army plays—is, as I describe in the piece, a wedding I attended for the Minister of the Interior’s daughter. You wandered into this tent and there were all the heavyweights of the Pakistani government. Everybody was in civilian wear, mingling together. But more than half of the people in that room were current or retired military officials. It was the party of a civilian minister, dominated by military men in civilian clothes. So they were a powerful and yet almost invisible presence, as they are in the society. And it was clear from this glimpse of Pakistani society who was running the show here. Under Musharraf, over the last years, the military has become more and more and more entrenched, so it’s hard to believe that even if Benazir Bhutto becomes the prime minister, the military is going to somehow recede. There is a perception, in the West and elsewhere, that Prime Minister Bhutto will radically change the essential power structure of Pakistan. I don’t think that’s quite going to be the case.

Chaudhry, the chief justice who was fired and then recently reinstated after months of protest, gave a speech at a University just a couple weeks ago, and he was asked by one of the members of the audience whether, constitutionally, the President could hold the position of army chief of staff. His answer was no. So it’s possible that there will be a judicial showdown. In Pakistan, though, people often posture; they’ll take very strong positions in public, and then retreat towards accommodation. So it’s hard to know what will happen.

Pakistan feels fairly volatile to me now. The dynamic has definitely changed, and power has ebbed away from Musharraf quite significantly, I think. Wouldn’t you agree?

I think it definitely has. I was stunned by the discussion of his possibly declaring a state of emergency, which seems like a sign of fairly acute desperation. It may be an attempt to bypass the chief justice.

What struck me when I was in Pakistan was the way that the country resembled other quasi-dictatorships. You had all of these governmental structures—the Parliament, the Supreme Court, and elected state assemblies. And yet Musharraf was so obviously in control, at least at the time, that those institutions were seen as weak and accommodating. And yet somehow it’s now clear that this quasi-dictatorship was indeed just that: Musharraf really did not control the process as tightly, as authoritatively, as he – or we—thought he did.

It seems to me that the U.S. has essentially swung from one extreme to the other. It’s done an about face. Until April of this year, it was perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to Musharraf’s abrogation of the constitution, to the fact that he was steamrolling the opposition, that people were disappearing, and that there were great abuses in civil liberties. Interestingly, this was all happening in tandem with a tremendous opening of the press and a great boom in the economy. So Pakistan under Musharraf has seen a certain amount of liberalization, but also some heavy-handed tampering in the political process. Political intimidation and thugery has been very real.  There were a number of members of the opposition, when I was living in Pakistan, who were arrested–kidnapped, essentially–by security services, and then beaten up. The leader of the opposition in Baloochistan was killed by government forces last year, sparking violent protests, and receiving almost no international coverage.

Yes, I guess there have been some disappearances, but I didn’t get the sense it was anything quite so extreme as the Nigerian military dictatorship, which I keep using as an example.

True—it’s not nearly so brutal.

But if you look closely at the whole political process, it was rigged, there’s no question. It was rigged in a lot of different ways; and, as you say, intimidation was one of the main methods.

Towards the end of your piece, you have a poignant interview with one of the foot soldiers in the Pakistan army, who was involved in skirmishes in the Tribal Area. The perspective he brings is illuminating, in that it demonstrates the constraints within which any leader of Pakistan will be operating. This man spoke quite passionately about how unwilling the Pakistan army was to turn its guns against other Pakistanis. And so, when the U.S. says to Musharraf, “You have to go in; you have to go after these people,” it’s quite complicated. It’s easy to make this demand from the vantage point of Washington. But what happens when your own military refuses to actually do it? When you’re asking your military to fight its own countrymen? Musharraf’s willingness to send the army into the tribal areas – which has endeared him to us—is one of the reasons for his tremendous unpopularity at home.  The Bush administration claims that it wants to see more democracy in the Muslim world. But a democratically elected leader will be far less likely to do our bidding.

My sense is that Musharraf views al-Qaeda as the enemy. He views the Taliban as the enemy. He does not want to see the Talibanization of Afghanistan or of Pakistan. He would like to eliminate that threat, but simply can’t. But he does not have the will of the army behind him. I don’t think there’s any question.

This raises a larger question about the extent to which the right approach to tamping down extremism in the Tribal Areas is to send in the military. We have to ask ourselves more rigorously about the effectiveness and the limitations of our War on Terror. We started with a range of different approaches, including many incentives and infrastructure development. But we’re left now, six years down the line, with a largely military, one-note solution. And it’s not clear at all that it’s working.

One of the things I found very refreshing in your piece is that it punctures a widespread myth that it’s either Musharraf or the extremists. You make it quite clear that there is an eccentric but healthy political party base in Pakistan, and that when you have elections, what is interesting is how poorly, in point of fact, the religious parties have done at the polls. The MMA did better than expected in 2002, when the war in Afghanistan inflamed anti-American sentiment. But its record in office has been poor. It will be very interesting to see how it does in the upcoming election this November or December.

Pakistan is a land of extremes. There’s no question about it. It’s a nuclear-armed country with a significant radical Islamic element. On paper, it looks like a pretty frightening entity. It’s been called one of the world’s most unstable and dangerous states, yet everyone I talked to  – and I talked to a vast array of people – gave me the sense that this place, should Musharraf go tomorrow, wasn’t going to be taken over by radical Islamists or crazy Strangeloveian nukers, but that there would be a kind of grim continuity about the place in terms of policies, in terms of the pursuit of al-Qaeda, more or less along the lines of Musharraf. That’s what struck me most about my time there. To a certain extent, I came away feeling reassured. I could be completely wrong; it could fall into total anarchy and collapse, or become an Islamic state tomorrow, but I just don’t get the feeling that it’s heading that way at all.