If the Lal Masjid operation put some starch back into Pervez Musharraf’s khaki uniform, Friday’s Supreme Court decision to restore ‘suspended’ Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry comes as the biggest setback to his eight-year rule.
A judiciary, which happily legitimised the military rule of successive dictators, has finally shown some spunk — helped in no small measure by the massive lawyers’ agitation in support of Chaudhry — and finally given Pakistanis something to cheer about.
Musharraf has been checked and could well find himself at the receiving end of more judicial pronouncements on key issues like whether he can continue holding the posts of President and Army Chief, or whether the existing assemblies can re-elect him.
The Supreme Court’s decision, if taken in the right spirit by the General, also allows for an end to the protests and demonstrations that Pakistan has seen since March. In a sense, the verdict provides Pakistan and the General with an 'exit' from the acrimony and tensions of the past few months.
Equally, the Chief Justice, having taken to the streets and fought for his rights, must act as a judge and not as a political leader. Chaudhry will be under watch in his judicial approach to issues involving the Pakistani State. Given that Pakistan faces a ferocious backlash from a terrorist cabal after the Lal Masjid operation, the verdict actually frees the General and his military to take on the militants.
Nearly 300 people, many of them Pakistani soldiers, have been killed this month as suicide bombers attacked targets from Hub in southern Pakistan to the border areas in the north. Just as Musharraf was forced to order in his commandos to clear the Lal Masjid to enforce the army’s writ, the suicide attacks have left him with no choice but to mobilise the full might of the army to take on the jehadi terrorists.
The hits on army convoys and the spread of the attacks, which, incidentally, came after a call from al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri, show that the internal threat to Pakistan from Islamist terrorists is far greater than the challenge faced by the country after the September 11, 2001, scenario.
Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen factions and the Sunni sectarian groups appear to be operating like a seamless web. While individual identities remain, the concerted nature of attacks and the open support for the Lal Masjid clerics expressed by jehadi leaders like Hafiz Saeed, the Lashkar chief, point to a new unity of purpose.
After rearing the jehadis for decades to battle in Afghanistan and Kashmir, the permanent establishment of Pakistan now faces the wrath of the very same forces it helped build up. The December 2003 assassination attempts on Musharraf were a pointer to the capabilities and intent of these terrorists.
Post-9/11, Pakistan opted to cooperate with the United States in its “war against terrorism”. But, the strength of the jehadi forces in the country indicates that these groups have strengthened themselves in the last six years.
It’s not as if Musharraf is averse to taking on challenges, or making u-turns. Just before the October 1999 coup, the General allowed himself to be bailed out from a tricky situation in Kargil by going along with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s and US President Bill Clinton’s Blair House settlement to pull back troops from Indian territory.
Again, when confronted with the full might of the Americans after 9/11, he quickly allied himself with the ‘war on terror’ as a champion against the forces of extremism and a proponent of enlightened moderation.The General and his key advisors, pastmasters at making deals with political parties and factions, had been working over-time on ‘fixing’ the current judicial crisis, but were unable to come out with a solution.
In essence, Musharraf has upset the fine balance of his rule: the relative freedom enjoyed by the media, the judiciary and even Parliament. The balance of power, moderated by a military man, has been violently disturbed.
The fact of the matter is that behind the civilian veneer of governments in Pakistan, other than the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto phase in the 1970s (for which Zia-ul-Haq executed him), it is the army that has always called the shots in Pakistan. After the coup of October 1999, Musharraf realised that the world had changed and he could not assume the title of Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) — so he took on the more benign title of Chief Executive. Musharraf had to be different from the last CMLA — Zia-ul-Haq.
In recent weeks, the General has taken the unprecedented step of seeking a vote of confidence from his Army’s Corps commanders. What the corps commanders said was relatively unimportant — that they were made to utter words in support of their Chief of Army Staff was more significant.
S Akbar Zaidi, an independent Karachi-based commentator and author, however, believes that the General is ‘bruised’, but will manage to pull himself out of the current mess.
"A deal with Benazir Bhutto is on,” Zaidi said about ongoing efforts being made by Musharraf and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader, who lives in London, to arrive at a political agreement. “The General just might give up his uniform in the worst-case scenario,” Zaidi said. It would, of course, be instructive to recall that no military ruler in Pakistan has voluntarily opted out of office. Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1958-69), as Stanley Wolpert writes in his Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan, was at Bhutto’s mercy towards the end of his long military rule.
Wolpert revealed that the anger against Ayub was so intense he could not even address pro-government meetings. On March 25, 1969, Ayub stepped down, saying he did not want to preside over the destruction of Pakistan and handed over his powers to General Yahya Khan, who proclaimed himself the CMLA.
Yahya, on his part, lasted a little over two years in his job. Apart from the street protests that he faced for the December 1971 surrender to the Indians in Dhaka, Yahya’s top General Hamid Khan faced the choicest of abuse at a meeting of the National Defence College on December 20, 1971, from younger officers. Yahya went the same day and Bhutto became both: the President and CMLA.
Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88) was assassinated when his C-130 aircraft mysteriously crashed in Bahawalpur on August 17, 1988. Till date, there have been theories, but no conclusive evidence, about who was responsible for Zia’s death.
If Pakistan wasn’t facing the vengeance of the jehadis, Musharraf had the unique opportunity of plotting his own exit given the clear message from the Pakistani street in the Chaudhry affair. In the short-term, Pakistan and the General need to wage a battle for survival against the jehadis but, in the long-term, Musharraf and the military must withdraw from the political fray.
Finally, the battle against the forces wanting to build an Islamist Pakistan has to be a political one.
Amit Baruah is the author of Dateline Islamabad.