January 21, 2006Foreign Affairs

Troubled, but in control

Gen Musharraf can deal with his problems (with a little help from India and the United States)

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The Cynical Nerd points to two apparently contradictory reports on Gen Musharraf: from the field, Amit Varma contends that Musharraf is in a strong position; The Economist reports that troubles are piling up for Pakistan’s president. Surely, both cannot be true at the same time?

Yet they are. The Acorn has long argued that Gen Musharraf has used the Islamists’ sound and fury to project a degree of his own vulnerability and employed this as a device to resist American pressure. Indeed, on several occasions, the ISIs role in orchestrating anti-American protests has been palpable. Uppity leaders of the Islamist political combine have found themselves unceremoniously put in their places whenever they made too bold to challenge Musharraf’s will. That the MMA leaders may dislike Musharraf or his foreign policy does not in anyway make them less dependent on his dispensation to retain power and influence. Their relationship is at best a pragmatic co-habitation. More likely, it is one that Musharraf is firmly in control of.

But what about the civil war in Balochistan? The pressure building up in Gilgit and Baltistan? Or the growing alienation of the tribal areas on the Afghan frontier? The Economist is correct in pointing out that these should worry Musharraf. What it did not say is that he also has methods of dealing with them. These methods are most effective when newspapers like The Economist are not looking. The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t bother to look anyway. As long as Musharraf enjoys the support of the United States, the institutional interests of the Pakistani army will remain vested in keeping him in power. Unless Washington too decides that the brutal military campaign in Balochistan should tickle the international community’s conscience, it is unlikely that Musharraf will fail to crush the rebellion. Given its remoteness and importance to China (the Karakoram Highway connects the Chinese mainland to the Arabian sea), bringing Gilgit to heel will be even easier. The tribesmen of the Afghan frontier may chafe as they have been chafing for decades, but are unlikely to disturb the power equations in Islamabad.

And the conventional opposition? Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have already been reduced to bit players in the political setup. The only real other centre of power is the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). From his seat in faraway London, Altaf Hussain controls some important political cards in Sindh. It was he who forced Musharraf to beat a humble retreat on the controversial Kalabagh dam project. It took the MQMs street-level political power in Karachi combined with the deepest Sindhi suspicions of Punjabi intentions to do the trick. There are few other issues that can bring about such an alignment. The MQM will be content to let Musharraf be.

Like the Cynical Nerd, The Acorn believes that Musharraf is still a part of India’s problem with Pakistan. There can be no hope for peace until Pakistan becomes an institutional democracy — an Islamic nation perhaps, but one that is internally reconciled and focussed on its own development. The United States, given its support for the Musharraf dictatorship, has a large part to play if this is to be fashioned. But India can hardly ask the United States to do differently when, for its part, it goes about accomodating the General in the naive belief that this will somehow solve its problems.

This post also appears on Winds of Change

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