General Musharraf's surprise imposition of an Emergency martial law over the weekend has received a surprisingly guarded international response. Caution may be wise as far as Pakistan's neighbours are concerned, especially those most affected, like India and Afghanistan. But there is no such constraint on Pakistan's influential allies — the US, Britain, China and Saudi Arabia. Of the four, the Bush administration has been the strongest, demanding that Musharraf adhere to his pre-Emergency commitments to step down as army chief and hold elections, warning of an aid review and postponing military cooperation talks. Britain has echoed the US's demands, but taken no other steps; and China and Saudi Arabia have expressed little more than grave concern.
By contrast, the European Parliament was prompt in condemnation and the Netherlands suspended aid. But neither has the influence that the US and China have; and the US has limited leverage because the Pakistani army knows that without it, the US will lose the 'war against terrorism' in South Asia.
This second coup is very different from Musharraf’s first one. The first coup closed off the civilian political space and brought the religious parties in. It plunged Pakistan into rapid economic downturn and a steep rise in conflict with India.
The 'war on terrorism' allowed the military regime to stabilise itself temporarily with a great deal of international aid and diplomatic support, and Pakistan moved to a military-civil administration in which the military was dominant.
But the Musharraf administration failed to develop policies to prevent the spread of al-Qaeda and Taliban offshoots.
From 2006, Pakistan slipped into a spiral of internal and external violence, culminating in 2007 with a series of military-militant battles in the capital itself. The attacks on Benazir Bhutto's rally two weeks ago were followed by attacks on Pakistani police posts and an air force base. The government is losing control over both uncivil society and a divided administration. And while the army is still under control, it is increasingly demoralised.
It is in this context that the second coup took place, though its immediate cause was Musharraf's fear of losing the presidency. Given how dangerous the context is, is the international community justified in caution? The first acts of the Emergency suggest otherwise. The staggering scenes of Supreme Court judges being forcefully escorted out of the courts by armed guards, and of lawyers and human rights activists being arrested, demanded an immediate and unequivocal international response.
On second look, contradictions abound. Most of the activists have been released, but more lawyers and religious-political leaders are being arrested. Sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry remains under house arrest, but has addressed lawyers via the phone. Though private TV channels are off the air, the print media is unhindered. And Bhutto plans to lead a rally against the Emergency on Friday.
In the meantime, the army has intensified operations against militants in Swat, and struck another deal with militants in Waziristan under which 25 hardcore militants have been released in exchange for 200 soldiers taken hostage many weeks ago.
So what's going on? Pre-Emergency, the US-British-Pakistan army-Benazir gameplan was to usher in the limited reform ("phase 3 of my democracy", as Musharraf said in his embarrassing address of November 3) of a troika, in which the military would make up two members, and the civil party, the PPP, would be more than a ragtag bundle (the PML-Q).
The idea is persuasive — the army might do a lot better at stemming the radical tide if it is in government with a political party that opposes the religious right.
But the public mood appears to be against a new military-civil partnership. Had Musharraf not imposed his Emergency, the trend favoured elections for democracy — however unstable that might be — and not polls in which the military ensured its place.
Unfortunately, as long as Pakistan is involved in counter-insurgency, the military will remain dominant. And as long as the public mood is against the military, the present collision course will continue. What options does that leave? The Emergency has to be rolled back and the subversion of the courts has to end. But why does Musharraf have to shed his uniform? If he cannot be assured the presidency as a civilian, his risk of assassination shoots up, and that would be a blot on both Pakistan and the international community.
In the meantime, political parties need to debate what kind of military-civil partnership would best stabilise the country without souring the public mood still further. The coup has pushed Pakistan quite far down the abyss, and the 'guided' and extremely limited democracy of the past few years cannot be revived. But the parties also need to take that lesson to heart — if they don't prepare a serious programme to reform the polity (and themselves), then elections will be another very small band-aid.
It is time to talk substantive civil-military power-sharing in Pakistan, and I say that with a small pang — we had gone quite far in back-channel discussions with the Musharraf government on Kashmir.
Radha Kumar is Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia, and Trustee, Delhi Policy Group.