Whatever the fate of President Pervez Musharraf in the coming weeks, the Pakistani election results have made one thing clear: he’s no longer a factor in Pakistani politics, or in the war on terror. Indeed, whether Musharraf is impeached, or is forced to resign, or manages to hang on somehow, his ability to influence either the military he once dominated or the civilian politicians he once manipulated has all but vanished. The writing was on the wall months ago, when he was forced to resign as army chief of staff. Now that his party has been decimated in Parliament, Musharraf has no constituency— either military or civilian—to prop him up. He’s the ultimate lame duck.
That has the Bush administration worried—and understandably so. Since 9/11 U.S. officials have had the luxury of an all-powerful leader in Pakistan who could, for example, order a Pakistani division into the Northwest Frontier Province—historically a no-go area for the military—without having to ask for Parliamentary approval. As a top U.S. official with whom I spoke in Islamabad 13 months ago put it: “Ordering the regular army into the tribal areas, boy, no civilian prime minister would have done it. No chief of army staff would have done it either, because you knew you were going to take losses. But as both president and chief of staff, Musharraf could do it.” In fact, it’s debatable whether Musharraf’s prosecution of the war on terror achieved many quantifiable successes; Islamic militancy spread, the frontier areas became safe havens for al-Qaeda, and and security in many parts of the country deteriorated under his watch, culminating with the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last December 27. But U.S. officials continue to credit Musharraf with keeping the pressure on terror groups, providing a flow of intelligence, and scoring some high-profile arrests and killings—and they’re deeply nervous about losing a “reliable” partner.
So what comes next? Nobody knows what the new political dynamic in Pakistan is going to look like, but it surely won’t offer the one-stop shopping that the U.S. government has found so convenient. The relationship between an independent Parliament, led by the Pakistan People’s Party, and the military, commanded by Musharraf’s handpicked protégé, General Ashfaq Kayani, is likely to be messy and confrontational, with constant debates over military strategy in the tribal areas. Kayani, one of many Pakistani generals and brigadiers who studied in the United States, is said to be even more hawkish than Musharraf. By contrast, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, favors more negotiation, and, presumably, more cease-fire arrangements such as the controversial one that Musharraf approved in north Waziristan in late 2006. "We will have a dialogue with those who are up in the mountains and those who are not in Parliament," Zardari was quoted in The New York Times as saying. "We want to take all those along who are against Pakistan and working against Pakistan."
So there’s a good chance that Pakistan’s approach to the war on terror will remain as disjointed and ineffectual as it’s been for the last five years. Musharraf was forced to tack back and forth between the demands of his U.S. patrons and those of a restive populace that accused him of fighting “Washington’s war.” (And of course he may have been sabotaged by pro-extremist elements of the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence). With Musharraf out of the picture, there’s little indication that much is going to change. Several factors—pressure from the religious parties (a shrinking force, as last week’s election results starkly indicated), Pashtuns in the Northwest Frontier Province and autonomous tribal areas, and the many rank-and-file troops and lower-ranking officers who are demoralized by the rising casualty count—will point toward a cautious approach to the war. On the other hand, millions have turned sharply against the extremists, in the wake of repeated suicide attacks and Bhutto’s assassination. With the North Waziristan pact and other deals seen as failures that gave militants a free hand, the appetite among Pakistan’s secular majority for less talk and more action is growing.
Under Musharraf, of course, nobody cared what the civilians had to say: the army ran the show, and Parliament served as a rubber stamp. The new era in Pakistan promises to be dramatically different, with the military and civilian leaderships working together to form a consensus over an issue that has divided both institutions. The process may not change the facts on the ground—at least in the short term—but it is sure to invigorate Pakistani society and strengthen the country's stunted democratic institutions. In the end, that may be the best way to defuse the country's Islamic extremist threat.